Jamie Bernstein On Growing Up in Her Father’s Shadow

by Linda Marianiello

On Sunday, August 4, at 11 a.m., Jamie Bernstein will read from her memoir, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, about her life as the daughter of the famous composer, conductor, and activist Leonard Bernstein. The event at Collected Works Bookstore is sponsored by Journey Santa Fe.

Jamie Bernstein spent most of her life waiting to write her memoir, which is about living in her father’s shadow. A book agent finally convinced her that the centennial of her father’s birth was the perfect time to publish her book, and she wrote the first draft that same day!

Another reason she wrote the memoir was to “control the narrative.” Leonard Bernstein’s children wanted to tell it “in the true way they saw it.” Jamie gave her brother, Alexander, and sister, Nina, veto power over everything she wrote in the book. They read every draft, and neither asked her to leave anything out.

It took ages for Jamie to figure out who she is, independently of her father. As early as second grade, a classmate identified her as “famous father girl.” She was fifty before she found “another way to be in the world of music.” And the right path turned out to be concert narration, which she came to quite by accident.

The catalyst was The Bernstein Beat, a program featuring Bernstein’s own music and based on his legendary Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Jamie’s artistic partner is the conductor Michael Barrett, a close associate of Leonard Bernstein. They did a test run with the Utah Symphony. Then, Carnegie Hall invited them to do the program. Other concerts about Mozart and Aaron Copland followed. They developed a large repertoire of programs, not all of them about her father. And she suddenly realized, “This is my career. Who knew?”

So why didn’t Jamie become a professional musician? When she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter, she noticed that her father’s renown closed more doors than it opened. Record executives said her music sounded “too Broadway.” She was writing eclectic music; her father’s own works were similarly wide-ranging. Record companies wanted a hit song, a template that would guarantee future sales. Ultimately, it didn’t work out.

And there was something else: Jamie’s mother, Felicia Cohn Montealegre, discouraged the siblings from drawing attention to themselves. This probably affected her decision to abandon a performing career and definitely caused her to avoid the limelight. She was “always in knots” about being the center of attention. The image she used to describe this in the book is “one foot on the gas pedal and one on the brake simultaneously.”

Today Jamie identifies as a “fan of music.” In fact, she’s been thinking about this a lot lately. She has many musician friends, whose work spans a wide range of genres from jazz and Latin to chamber music, as well as opera and orchestral works. “Musicians can’t get very far without an audience,” she points out. Audience members are not passive receptors. Musicians need them every bit as much as the other way round. Jamie is glad to embrace the role of audience member by “being there with open ears and heart.”

Leonard Bernstein’s legacy in the life of his children is complex, but his role as a teacher was pervasive. Their dad was the consummate teacher. He was always grabbing people’s attention and saying, “Listen to this!” Whether rehearsing an orchestra, telling a good Jewish joke, or engaging in some other activity, the same sensibility was at play. He used to say, “When I learn, I teach, and when I teach, I learn.” So, it is not surprising that all three children became teachers. They love nothing more than to share their passion for learning. The youngest, Nina, teaches about food. Alexander became an educator. And Jamie, the oldest of the three, teaches through concert narration.

The picture would not be complete without Leonard’s activism. In the 60s and 70s, people were afraid to talk about politics, especially when Richard Nixon was president. But Leonard and his wife, Felicia, were committed to making the world a better place and spoke out when they perceived an injustice. The children grew up with that whole sensibility, which is part of who they are today.

The siblings are devoted to keeping their dad’s legacy alive. The centennial provided an unrepeatable opportunity to introduce young people to his life and music. While many young people have not heard of Leonard Bernstein, they are usually familiar with West Side Story. And now a movie remake of West Side Story, directed by Steven Spielberg, is in production. It features a young cast, the Sharks are Latinos, and the script has been revised by Tony Kushner.

In her memoir, Jamie Bernstein speaks openly about her dad’s identity as a gay man. After Leonard Bernstein separated from his wife, he had a very hard time being an openly gay man. This was also due to the fact that Leonard’s mother was still alive, and he was concerned about how this would affect her. So another important reason for writing the memoir was to finally talk about the things that no one could talk about then, her dad’s sexual identity being one of them. Her mother’s breast cancer was another. There was a “paralysis around calling things what they were,” Jamie said.

Jamie feels that we’d made enormous progress around the issue of homosexuality in recent decades. Once gay marriage passed, she thought that most Americans viewed gay people as normal. She believes we’re in the midst of a backlash against gay rights, and it’s as hard to talk about difficult topics today as it was in the 60s and 70s.

When asked about the future of classical music, Jamie referenced her father’s passion for teaching and social justice. Her optimism is fueled by personal experience with El Sistema. Founded in 1975 in Venezuela, El Sistema is a national system of youth orchestras and choirs that lifts children out of poverty and gives them tools for life. The concerts she heard in Venezuela were some of the best she has ever attended. “It was like going to a ball game,” she said.

El Sistema has inspired hundreds of similar programs worldwide. Jamie believes it may take 15 or 20 years to see the change here in the US. If even 1% of the children currently in an El Sistema program pursue a professional career, they will bring their entire community with them. And these communities are a brand new demographic for classical music.

Jamie Bernstein is also a featured author for the 2019 JCC Book Fest at the Jewish Community Center in Albuquerque at 3 pm on Sunday, October 20, 2019. Tickets ($10 in advance, $12 at the door) for the event are available through Hold My Ticket: www.holdmyticket.com.

Event Details:

Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein with Jamie Bernstein

11 a.m. Sunday, August 4

Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St

Free and open to the public, https://www.journeysantafe.com