Daughter’s loving but unsettling portrait of Leonard Bernstein

By Sibbie O'Sullivan - The Washington Post
June 29, 2018

Let us now praise ordinary fathers, ones who don’t constantly smoke and drink, or French-kiss their daughters, or pound the table while yelling, “Everyone shut up but me.” An ordinary father who watches his daughter receive her diploma from Harvard instead of hanging out with the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. One who doesn’t show off “his cute teenage daughter” at discos.

But ordinary fathers rarely become global cultural heroes or change how orchestral music is received by the masses. In “Famous Father Girl,” Jamie Bernstein’s memoir of her father, conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein, we learn that she “longed to be like the ‘normal’ people we saw on TV,” despite loving the “raucous, confusing world” of her parents. At the center of this world stands her father, a compelling mix of intellect, warmth, charm, sexiness and immense energy. Seduction might have been his greatest talent, one countered by his daughter’s aptitude for truth-telling. Her memoir portrays a man whose weaponized ego fits perfectly into American celebrity culture, but it’s also a story of how his daughter survived that ego to become her own woman, even as she remains intent on keeping her father’s legacy alive.

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Jamie Bernstein