Grabbing the Narrative for Yourself: An Interview with Jamie Bernstein

By Joy Horowitz - Los Angeles Review of Books
October 18, 2018

THE CENTENNIAL OF Leonard Bernstein’s birth has inspired lavish, seemingly unending celebrations around the world — concerts, museum exhibits, and competing biopics starring Bradley Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal extolling the musical genius of the great conductor, composer, and showman. But there is one clear-eyed insider’s view that should not be missed: a new memoir from the maestro’s first-born daughter, Jamie Bernstein. Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein is a remarkable tribute, not simply because the author reveals deeply intimate aspects of her family history but because she does so with an abiding love and honesty.

What emerges is a portrait of an impossibly brilliant father, at once fun-loving and cruel — a man who was “almost psychic at locating a young person’s most vulnerable inner bruise.”“You see this line here that runs down the middle?” he asked at her 28th birthday party, pointing to the crease in his forehead. “That’s the Line of Genius. You don’t have one.”Fueled by Scotch and an array of prescription pills, flicking lit cigarettes at his children and ramming his tongue down their throats, he was monstrous but also irresistible — a big lover of life and family who nonetheless left his daughter repeatedly wondering: “Why did Daddy have to make everything so squirm-worthy?” 

Now 66, writer, filmmaker, and concert narrator Jamie Bernstein remains the keeper — along with her brother, Alexander, and sister, Nina — of her father’s legacy. As a result, she’s been especially peripatetic this year, crisscrossing the globe to honor her father’s centenary. I caught up with her by phone to talk about all things Bernstein. We have been friends since our undergraduate days at Harvard, when her father arrived on campus to deliver the prestigious Norton Lectures. Like so many others who had grown up watching him on TV, I was a star-struck fangirl who had no idea what was really going on in his secret life, at a time when he was struggling to come out as gay while living with his lover in his old dorm. I knew about none of this until I read Jamie’s book. As old Jewish pals are wont to do, we began the interview by greeting each other with the Yiddishized versions of our first names, like our bubbes.

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Jamie Bernstein