There’s an amusing family story that Leonard Bernstein’s oldest daughter shares with innumerable audiences during her book tours, and it tumbles out with perfect timing, like a fresh and spontaneous wave of a baton. (Why not? She was exposed to decades of baton plastique, a seamless legato flow of singing pulses that carried Mahler Symphonies to new heights.) Just take a listen to “LB’s” conducting archive on You Tube!
Jamie’s opener unwinds to a bustling crowd of attentive post-war baby boomers at the Jewish Community Library of San Francisco. (May 5, 2019) They know by the inflection of her voice that “something’s coming” and it might be plucked right from West Side Story.
But not yet. Maybe later.
The humor of the moment encompasses LB’s Eastern European immigrant father, Sam who refused to underwrite his son’s plea for piano lessons, expecting his first born (without skipping a beat), to take over the family beauty supply business. But being submerged in an all-embracing Old World culture that regarded musicians as wandering gypsies subsisting as paupers from shtetl to shtetl, the family patriarch was intransigent.
Jamie carefully tenders this family framed anecdote, building it by layers, in a crescendo to comic relief climax!
Decades later Sam is asked why he mercilessly denied his son piano lessons.
His reply is delivered without a second thought,
“Well how would I know that he would grow up to be Leonard Bernstein?”
The crowd roars!
Jamie’s book is much more than an outpouring of nostalgic family tales that were part of Leonard Bernstein’s cultural heritage. Famous Father Daughter is deeply gripping, and nakedly honest, detailing Lenny’s prolific life as conductor, composer, mentor, lecturer, Young People’s Concerts creator/narrator, raconteur, civil and human rights activist, with a built-in passionately mirrored memoir of his daughter. It’s her story as much as his and it embraces family conflicts, journeys to European culture capitals, inter-relationships with celebrities such as Steven Sondheim, “Betty Bacall” (aka Lauren Bacall), Mike Nichols, Richard Avedon, and a triangulation of LB’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre, to his art, to his family –with the complicating infusion of homosexual liaisons kept secret for a time, but gradually leaked through gossip channels to full blown exposure. (The psycho-dynamic dimension of ensuing family fracture, reconciliation, a mother’s illness causing regression, and Jamie’s own musings about psychotherapy make this tome an atypical memoir, one that Kitty Kelley would never churn out as authorized or unauthorized.)
It encompasses the various residences that the family inhabited-at the Osborne opposite Carnegie Hall, on Park Avenue, in Fairfield Connecticut, Redding Connecticut, and at the famous Dakota in the W. 70’s off Central Park–and details the trauma of John Lennon’s assassination in the courtyard of a noble looking apartment complex with gabled roofs and balustrades. (Jamie had been madly in love with the Beatles and experienced up close the emotional aftermath of the tragedy)
In the course of her page turner, she gives frequent glimpses of her struggles to find her bearings, to garner the attention of her father amidst the excesses of his composing, studying scores, meeting deadlines in the recording studio, etc., all while he takes pills to sleep, to keep him awake, and peppers the menu with doses of Ballantine’s Scotch.
The author is unreservedly open about every facet of her life as the growing up daughter of a cultural icon, and as the oldest sibling of Alexander and Nina. She relives their bonding trio of response to the turbulence of family life and events, (within a household of adoring South American domestic help) alternating with the joys of an intellectually rich and musically abundant environment.
In the rhythm of daily living, Jamie fleshes out her father’s automatic pilot mentoring at the drop of a word, syllable, or impromptu gesture that engenders a lecture of epistemological proportion. It can be taxing at times.
The writer vividly shares her own vulnerability in the shadow of her father’s greatness when she unsuccessfully pursues a career as a pop music guitarist, lyricist, and vocalist, finally shedding a burdensome performance anxiety after her father’s death.
Ultimately, she comes to terms with an identity she’s comfortable with that ironically blends with the Centennial of her father’s birth in 1918. It’s through this devotion to re-igniting the substance and spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts that she’s found her niche.
As LB archivist, creator, narrator, producer, director, script writer, public speaker, all in one, she’s determined to build concert audiences of the future that will revere and appreciate the Masterworks while remaining open to newly composed, adventurous music in diverse genres. Certainly, if LB were still with us, he’d be proud of his Famous Father Girl.
My feeling about Leonard Bernstein: The raw emotional connection to music, the choreography as conductor, the singular dedication to the composer and his intent, the intense deep-layered analysis of the score, the visceral connection to the orchestra in every performance, the diversity of his creative expression in Classical, Contemporary and theatrical realms, the heat of his total immersion and composing genius, and his limitless hunger for learning, growing and teaching made him uniquely special–A treasured gift to the world.
LINK TO A MEMORABLE VIDEO ON TEACHERS and TEACHING (Leonard Bernstein)
I can’t resist name-dropping here and there when it comes to “Lenny” and my years at the NYC High School of Performing Arts. (aka “P.A.” or the FAME school) To begin with, Bernstein’s name listed on our Board of Trustees, seduced me into accepting admission to Performing Arts instead of enrolling at the H.S. of Music & Art. (Eventually decades later, the two schools merged to become LaGuardia H.S.)
P.A. grad, Sanford Allen, violinist, was the first African American to become a member of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic in 1962.
Alum Gerard Schwarz, who became co-principal trumpet at the NYC Phil. under Bernstein (1972) eventually ascended to conductor at the Mostly Mozart Festival, and took the helm of the Seattle Symphony for many years.
Korean pianist, Jung Ja Kim, two years my senior at P.A., was 16 when she played on one of the Young Performer segments of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. It was a beautiful rendering of the Chopin Piano Concerto no. 1 in E minor (middle movement)
Murray Perahia, one year ahead of me at school, won the Leeds Competition in 1972, and was booked by Bernstein to play the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto with the NY Philharmonic. I attended Perahia’s June 1976 performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor at Avery Fisher Hall. (Bernstein conducting)
Finally, I note that L.B. engaged 80 year old Madame Rosina Lhevinne (in her orchestral debut) to perform the Chopin E minor Piano Concerto no. 1. A stunning performance!
(By a quirk of fate I had been bestowed a ticket to Lhevinne’s 80th Birthday celebration-1960- at the OLD Juilliard School well before it moved to the Lincoln Center area. With impeccable sensitivity, under Jean Morel, the pianist played the Mozart Concerto No. 21 in C. Years later, as I sat in he listening library at the Oberlin Conservatory, I discovered the very recording of this historic birthday concert!) Bravo to Maestro Bernstein for sharing the superb pianism of Madame Lhevinne as follow up to the Juilliard fete.