“Life With Father”
Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein
By Jamie Bernstein (HarperCollins, 2018)
A Review by Pam Munter
One of the reasons for the popularity of the memoir genre is our perennial fascination with dysfunction. To a large extent, we are all the product of our family ecology, for better or worse. The writer who has managed to extricate herself from family pathology is both admirable and intriguing but we’re equally curious about those who didn’t. Jamie Bernstein’s book about her father, Leonard Bernstein, is a curious blend of her lifelong absorption into his narcissism and her frequent but futile efforts to separate herself from it. In Famous Father Girl, we get a delicious fly-on-the-wall look inside a creatively dysfunctional family and the story of one woman’s encapsulation inside the vibrant world of Bernstein. Readers who expect psychological insights, however, will be disappointed.
What we get instead is a well-written, picturesque view of what it’s like to grow up rich and famous as an appendage of a celebrity. It was a privileged life of household help, valets and chauffeurs. The eldest of three children, she paints vivid portraits of her various sumptuous living situations, from life at The Dakota to a two-story “country house” in Fairfield, Connecticut to the “cottage” on Martha’s Vineyard.
Admittedly, the dish on the famous guests is a major highlight. Her childhood view of Lillian Hellman: “scary: her craggy face with the big, irregular teeth; the way her mouth turned down at the corners when she let loose with her gravelly laugh…It was enough to make you jump out the window.” Her view of Betty (aka Lauren) Bacall: “Betty could seduce a stone but she was also notoriously imperious and cruel.” Famed photographer Richard Avedon was “sunny and goofy.” Summer sojourns on Martha’s Vineyard often featured home movies directed by Stephen Sondheim and visits by the Kennedys. In fact, dozens of luminaries graced their homes whenever LB, as she called him, was in residence. Along with her addiction to television, the celebrities supplied functional distractions to the sad reality that she was merely a peripheral petal on the Bernstein daisy. Life was fast, exciting and in breathtaking Technicolor, a real-life musical comedy. “He treasured jokes. Jewish jokes, vaudeville routines, all-time radio gags—Daddy knew them all, and told them with unalloyed gusto.” Though too young to see his plays (such as “Candide” and “West Side Story”), she played the records endlessly and knew the scores all by heart.
The father’s relationship to her was as a mentor. He was a compulsive teacher, she an eager-to-please student. “He was reciting Lewis Carroll and telling me the difference between nouns and verbs before I could write my name.” But the power to define could turn ugly. When she tried to put together her own career as a composer, he pointed to his forehead and told her, “You see this line that runs right down the middle? That is the Line of Genius. You don’t have one.” Her struggle to manage her fragile self-esteem is sandwiched between the lines, scarcely discussed. She became collateral damage to his dazzling dominance.
More discomfiting are the sexual overtones of her relationship with Daddy. She reports having had dreams of inappropriate sexual contact but weakly denies it occurred. “It was hard not to feel my father’s sexuality. I mean, there it was. Everybody felt it. Tricky stuff for a daughter.” He often pulled her close, gave her French kisses, sometimes when he was drunk or drugged. She saw no connection between these violations and her inability to sustain emotional intimacy with a man until she was past 30. Even her father’s music aroused her. “It was a lifelong challenge to figure out how to open ourselves to these immense musical experiences while maintaining some kind of inner equanimity—even chastity.”
Life revolved around the Maestro. Her mother had been a notable stage actress but now became “grand,” making phone calls announcing, “This is Mrs. Leonard Bernstein calling.” And all three of his children were immersed in (one might say ingested by) his career.
His profligate relationships with men have been well documented but it was a family secret for years—until his long-standing wife had had enough, sending him off to live with his young lover. When the author heard rumors of his gay adventures on the road, she confronted her mother—not her father–who denied it. It was never mentioned again, nor was her mother’s chronic anger and depression. The author tiptoes around these inconvenient truths, preferring to focus on LB’s talent to amuse and their relentlessly glamorous life. That dissonance seemed to distress her less than her father’s public failure with his splashy Broadway musical, “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” She had a hard time squaring any professional misstep with the idolatrous image she had of her father.
It’s not surprising that in search of her own identity she would opt for a career in music. She had learned early that the road to personhood was inevitably through fame. Though her father was quick to point out that the years of mandated piano lessons would never bear fruit, she naturally gravitated toward performance. She envisioned herself a rock star, put together musical groups and even landed a record contract but lacked sufficient talent to make good. Failure to develop a unique life in the shadow of greatness took its toll but it’s ignored or minimized here.
When Leonard Bernstein died of lung cancer at 72, it was as if the sun was in permanent eclipse. Her mother had died years before so now she and her siblings “felt like orphans.” “Alexander, Nina and I quickly grasped that we’d acquired a new job for the rest of our lives: to carry our illustrious father’s legacy forward.” Even her own family—the husband and two children—had orbited around her father. Now, with the nucleus gone, the marriage started to unravel, the organizing focus gone. The other two siblings did not marry until after LB’s death.
She began a newsletter, then a foundation to memorialize him. There were concerts for which she wrote and performed the narration, selecting all the musical material, and they continue all over the world. She has become the guardian of his persona and the “keeper of the flame.” She had worshipped at her father’s feet all her life. Now, in an ironic tip of the mortal scale, it’s as if she has almost become him.
The book is readable and entertaining if sometimes disturbing, offering up a colorful example of a dysfunctional family constellation. The dynamics of family life are invariably skewed when a narcissist lives at its center, no matter the degree of talent, charisma or fame. Sometimes, there’s just not enough air to go around.
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and has been a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her essays and short stories have appeared in over 70 publications. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be will be published by Adelaide in October.