Leonard Bernstein Through His Daughter's Eyes

 Photo by Bettmann / Getty

Photo by Bettmann / Getty

hat happens if you are Cinderella and the prince turns out to be your father? Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s firstborn daughter, has written a memoir of her family, a family that her overwhelming dad—loving, inspired, and sometimes insufferable—dominated for decades. The author grew up wriggling inside a paradox, struggling to become a self when so much of her was defined by her brilliant parent. “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” (HarperCollins) is unique among classical-music memoirs for its physical intimacy, its humor and tenderness, its ambivalence toward an irrepressible family genius. In the year of Leonard Bernstein’s centenary, with its worldwide celebrations, this book is a startling inside view—not a corrective, exactly (Jamie rarely thought her dad less than great), but a story of encompassing family love, Jewish-American style, with all its glories and corrosions. No one lives easily on the slopes of a volcano; Jamie Bernstein has been faithful to her unease. Truth-telling, rather than dignity, is her goal.

As a young man, Leonard Bernstein was prodigiously gifted and exceptionally handsome, and he slept with many men and with women, too. He seemed to be omnisexual, a man of unending appetite who worked and played all day and most of the night, with a motor that would not shut down until he was near collapse. Conducting, composing for the concert hall, composing for the theatre, playing the piano, teaching, writing about music, talking about it on television, suffering over everything he wasn’t doing—he burned the candle from the middle out. From the nineteen-forties into the eighties, he was everywhere, an intellectual American Adonis, our genius—erudite, popular, media-wise, and unstoppably fluent. Many people long to be at the center of attention; Leonard Bernstein was actually good at the center—he routinely gave more than he received.