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Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein

Harper; 385 pp. $28.99 

Books Famous Father Girl 918
Books On the Road 918

“WHY DID DADDY always have to make everything so squirm-worthy?” asks Jamie Bernstein in her riveting memoir of life with her celebrated father. It may be a universal truth that parents will embarrass their children, but as Famous Father Girl makes clear, Leonard Bernstein, in his perpetual self-aggrandizement, subjected Jamie and her siblings to all-but-unimaginable tribulations. 

Her evidence suggests that Bernstein’s need to gratify his voracious ego governed his every interaction. He lives as the star of “The Lenny Show,” with everyone around him as supporting players: the unquenchable “me” vanquishes all in its path.  He pounds his fist at the dinner table and commands, “Everybody shut up but me!” For all that he demands his daughter’s love, his need to assert his hegemony makes his form of parental support equivocal, at best. Listening to one of Jamie’s early piano lessons, he sits the girl on his lap and says, “Well, you’ll never be a great pianist.” Later, he points out a crease in his forehead, calling it the “Line of Genius,” and announces, “You don’t have one.

The notion of parental boundaries apparently never enters Bernstein’s head. He sits on the toilet with the door open: an apparent invitation for the family to examine the fruit of his labors there. He kisses his children full on the lips, sneaking in some tongue. (“It was a litmus test he liked to spring on people, to find out a few things at once…[like] how much impact he was making.”) Although Jamie is certain she was never a victim of childhood trauma, when she sees Gone With the Wind, she misinterprets Rhett Butler’s relationship to his daughter Bonnie as sexually abusive. “It was hard not to feel my father’s sexuality,” she writes.

Jamie’s portrait of her mother, the Chilean beauty Felicia Montealeagre, augments her narrative of family dysfunction. Decorous, impeccably dressed and chilly, Felicia is in many ways Bernstein’s polar opposite, but not, it would seem, an effective protector of her children in the face of her husband’s misbehavior. She falls increasingly into depression: you get the sense that Felicia has long regretted the bargain she struck when she elected to become Mrs. Leonard Bernstein. 

In 1970 the Bernsteins throw a notorious fund-raising party in their apartment for the Black Panthers. The subsequent reaction is calamitous, particularly in the wake of Tom Wolfe’s incendiary New York magazine essay “Radical Chic,” which paints the couple, not unjustly, as a pair of fools. Not long afterward, Felicia is diagnosed with cancer, and her final years are truly unhappy. “It doesn’t seem like such a stretch,” Jamie writes, “to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Tom Wolfe.”

Working as a guide at Tanglewood one summer during her college years, Jamie hears gossip about her father’s wildly promiscuous gay past. She writes him a letter, and is soon summoned to the family’s summer house in Fairfield, Connecticut, to receive a vehement denial—a flagrant bit of disinformation which she is convinced is her mother’s doing. Soon after, though, the cat is out of the bag. Bernstein leaves Felicia to live with a young man, Tommy Cothran. Felicia demands that her daughter not socialize with her father and his lover; when Jamie refuses, “the anguished look on her face made my insides crumple.” As Felicia’s condition worsens—and Bernstein’s relationship with Cochran deteriorates—the couple has a rapprochement, but an uneasy one: at one dinner party, Felicia points a finger at her husband and thunders, “You’re going to die a lonely, bitter old queen.” 

Felicia’s death in 1978 leaves Bernstein grief-stricken and horrifically remorseful. But if anything, his behavior in his own final years worsens. His addiction to Dexedrine, Seconal and scotch makes his impulse control vanish. He flings lit cigarettes across the dinner table and calls people “fuckface.” Giving a speech to Houston Grand Opera donors after the premiere of his opera A Quiet Place, Bernstein calls their city a “cow town.” When Jamie and her siblings write and record a “Maestro Suite” in honor of her father’s sixtieth birthday, she is glad to have the opportunity to express her love for the man who has become “so difficult to love so much of the time.”

CHARLIE HARMON, in On the Road and Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein, offers a perspective on Bernstein during this period that dovetails almost exactly with Jamie’s. Harmon was “LB”’s personal assistant between 1982 and 1986. He lasted in the near-impossible job for longer than any of his predecessors—Bernstein went through assistants like Kleenex––but at the end of the four years found himself in a state of nervous collapse and at the brink of suicide. 

He encounters Bernstein’s hateful side at their very first meeting. It is at a condo in Bloomington that Harmon has set up for the Great Man’s residency at Indiana University. When Bernstein arrives, his first act is to grab his assistant’s cocktail and drain it. Harmon protests, and Bernstein (“like a wild beast”) roars, “You don’t talk like that to the rebbe.” What the younger man sees, though is not a rabbi, but “a weary and drunk elderly man.” 

Many horror stories ensue. At an impromptu Beethoven recital at cellist János Starker’s Bloomington house, a dead-drunk Bernstein plays “as if he’d never touched a piano in his life.” Bidding Bernstein farewell after a concert, soloist Ransom Wilson attempts to deliver an air kiss, but the conductor leans forward and bites him squarely on the lower lip, with untold consequences for the flutist’s embouchure. Stuck in traffic in Milan, a stoned and enraged Bernstein lurches out of the car and kicks it so hard that the fender falls off. When he throws a birthday party for his son Alexander, Harmon orders a cake in the shape of a Big Mac—Alexander’s favorite food. Before it can be served, Bernstein smashes his hand through the middle, “then slowly suck[s] the goop off his fingers.” 

“Nobody wanted any after what LB had done to it,” Harmon writes.

For all the deterioration of Bernstein’s body and mind, one element of his nature survives undiminished:  his sexual appetite. Despite his substance-worn visage and pot-bellied physique, he seems to have no problem attracting comely young men—many of them set up by his manager, Harry Kraut—and they land in his bed by the score. At one point, he pats Harmon’s crotch: “a repulsive thing for him to do, breaking the bounds of decorum so casually.” Harmon gracefully removes LB’s hand, and order is restored, but he notes: “I never quite resolved the weirdness of being propositioned by my employer.” 

Kraut is most definitely the villain of On the Road and Off the Record. Harmon and Jamie Bernstein see eye-to-eye on the man: Jamie calls him a “dissipated Mephistopheles,” but Harmon is the one who must deal with him every day, and his book is partly an inside chronicle of the manager’s misdoings. In his need to assert himself as Bernstein’s sole loyalist, Kraut undercuts nearly everyone else in the musician’s circle. He gleefully announces his plans to give Dorothee Koehler, LB’s European press agent, a nervous breakdown; later, Harmon realizes that Kraut intends to make him a similar victim. Kraut is also the mastermind of the conductor’s grueling schedule, a whirlwind of concert tours and recording dates. It is possible that had he led a more settled existence, Bernstein would nonetheless have been prey to substance abuse and exhaustion, but there’s no doubt that the Kraut-organized maelstrom of his professional itinerary contributed to the febrile, nightmarish quality of his later existence. 

Harmon offers boldface names on nearly every page, ranging from old Bernstein friends like Isaac Stern, Lauren Bacall, Ethel Kennedy and Betty Comden and Adolph Green to new arrivals like John Travolta, Michael Jackson and an ambitious, teenaged George Steel, later general director of New York City Opera. When Kiri Te Kanawa visits Bernstein’s apartment to rehearse for their West Side Story recording, it is Harmon who must inform her that a malfunctioning toilet upstairs has soaked her fur coat in excrement. (He does not record her reaction.) 

“What kind of bond this was, I couldn’t figure out,” Harmon writes. “Not like any employer-employee association I’d ever heard of.” Bernstein may often behave execrably, but he is also capable of quasi-paternal acts of kindness: when Harmon runs into psychological problems, LB pays for his exorbitantly expensive meds. Moreover, he comes to trust his assistant, who has a composition degree from Carnegie-Mellon, on musical matters. He leads him through a late-night session analyzing the freshly minted score of A Quiet Place, and listens patiently when Harmon offers his own opinions. The parts for the West Side Story sessions arrive in horrible disarray; five years later, preparing to record Candide, Bernstein insists on entrusting his former assistant with preparing the music.  

The family chronicle Famous Father Girl is the richer of the two books: you root for Jamie Bernstein as she grapples with her ambivalence about her dynamic but impossible dad. But On the Road and Off the Record is itself a chronicle of a quasi-filial attachment, with its own fascinating insights. Interestingly, both authors have devoted much of the nearly three decades since Bernstein’s death to furthering the legacy of the charismatic figure who loomed so large in their lives. Harmon edited the full scores of Candide, West Side Story and other Bernstein projects for publication. Jamie and her siblings now run the Leonard Bernstein Office, which has done such an astonishingly successful job this Bernstein centenary year of promoting their father’s works. Their books offer microscopically detailed examinations of Leonard Bernstein’s galling imperfections, but also serve as testaments to his boundless charisma.  —Fred Cohn 

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