Jamie Bernstein best remembers her father’s scratchy, brown bathrobe, nicotine-stained fingers and relentless humor.
Bernstein, 66, is the eldest daughter of virtuosic composer, conductor, pianist and humanitarian Leonard Bernstein and Chilean actress Felicia Montealegre. Jamie Bernstein’s own successful career has spanned concert narration, filmmaking, writing and broadcast. In June, she celebrated her literary debut with “Famous Father Daughter: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.”
The memoir was published by Harper Collins just months before the late composer’s centennial birthday.
“Nobody really knew what my dad was like as a dad,” Bernstein said. “I think they were really surprised to find out he was so funny and so goofy.”
The freshly minted author will appear at the JCC of Mid-Westchester on Dec. 1, 8 p.m. in “Leonard Bernstein in Words & Music,” a program combining discussion with live music from the St. Thomas Orchestra, including selections from “West Side Story.” Books will be available for purchase and Bernstein will stick around to sign copies.
The memoir has earned praise, including from Kirkus Reviews, which called it “an intimate, gossipy and candid memoir… A clear-eyed portrait of a spirited, and troubled, family.” In an editorial review, playwright John Guare said, “Bernstein’s jaw-dropping honesty and humor gives us the best example of the ‘growing up famous’ genre since Brooke Hayward’s classic ‘Haywire.’”
Reared as the “Famous Father Girl,” a nickname Bernstein’s second-grade classmate tauntingly bestowed on her — the two are now good friends — her childhood was nothing if not complex.
Before her sister was born, Bernstein and her brother spent their early years in a New York City apartment duplex on West 57th, in “the epicenter of mid-century culture,” she said. The pair shared an upstairs bedroom, and often dozed off to the raucous sounds of the Bernsteins and their famous friends “roaring with laughter, playing word games or singing around the piano.”
These were houseguests Bernstein was too young to appreciate.
“I didn’t know Steve Sondheim and Lauren Bacall and Mike Nichols and Richard Avedon were very important people,” she said. “They were just my parents’ friends.”
What she did glean from those parties was the sheer fun of being an adult. “I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up,” she said.
That perception changed on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
“That was the first time I ever saw my parents cry and all their friends crying,” Bernstein said. “It was when I realized maybe it was a little more complicated than I realized to be a grown-up.”
The tragedy was one of many national events that shaped Bernstein’s childhood and early adult life. Her memoir, she explained, became as much a portrait of her father as an exploration of the fraught climate in the 1960s and ’70s.
“That was a really intense time to be a kid and a teenager and a young adult,” she said, citing the Vietnam War, evolving gender norms and Watergate. “The world was really changing fast.”
Meanwhile, Bernstein was trying to forge a career in music.
As a child, all three Bernsteins took piano lessons, though quite reluctantly. “We had bad attitudes and we never practiced and we all quit as quickly as we could,” she said.
Eventually, Bernstein returned to the piano and taught herself to play guitar. With dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter, she moved out to L.A. and shopped around her demo tape. Her talents earned her a record deal, but the label ultimately decided not to release her music, “which was a blow,” Bernstein said.
By then, she’d gotten married and started a family. It wasn’t until years later that she “made my peace with music” by starting a new career, narrating concerts inspired by her father’s long-celebrated CBS educational programs.
“I was always making those odious comparisons and thinking, ‘Who the hell do I think I am? I can’t do this; I’ll never be any good,’” Bernstein said. “[But] talking about music instead of making it with my own body, that turned out to be a very satisfying and workable compromise.”
In penning her memoir, Bernstein said she tried to be entirely honest, though she did run all drafts by her siblings for final approval.
“My rule of thumb is… anything you try to hide or obfuscate is going to come back around and bite you in the butt,” she said. “I didn’t shy away from any topics… [and] in the end, they said, ‘It’s okay,’ They didn’t object to any of it.”
The Bernstein kids have spent the last year traveling around the world celebrating their father’s centennial. Last month, the tally reached 4,500 events held worldwide, from Detroit to Vienna to Berlin.
“It’s like mega,” Bernstein said, “and it’s thrilling of course.”
Having an event at the JCC is particularly special for Bernstein, who was raised observing both Catholic and Jewish traditions. “I feel more culturally Jewish than I do as a religion,” she said. “It’s the sensibility you derive from literature and from jokes and from that whole world we all grew up in culturally. That’s still a very powerful force in my life.”
Another powerful force is her father’s music, which she said would always resonate.
“It’s the next best thing to getting a hug from him,” she said, “because it’s so him. His music has his imprint on every bar.”