“Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein” indeed has her fascinating subject outlined in intimate terms growing up as the eldest daughter of composer Leonard Bernstein. But it is hardly a new topic.
I was intrigued by an interview with Mary Rodgers and Alice Hammerstein about growing up amid the creative processes of their famous dads. Better yet, imagine young life growing up with larger-than-life Jewish fathers, sitting on Henry Kissinger’s or Moishe Dayan’s lap.
At the centennial of his birth, Jamie Bernstein is not shy about sharing a complicated look at a charming genius who comes and goes in a quasi-normal way, but not so fast. There was Mike Nichols, Jerome Robbins, Lauren Bacall, and Stephen Sondheim hanging about the house.
Some may not know that Jamie’s famous mother/Bernstein’s forgiving wife was accomplished Catholic Chilean actress Felicia Cohn. Or that Bernstein went to Harvard University and palled around with Jack Kennedy. Most do know that his musical, composing and philharmonic talent resulted in treasured American musical scores such as “West Side Story” in 1957.
The ultimate topic of curiosity is Jamie’s treatment of how the family handled his bisexuality. Jamie does not hold back. “My father was so on, and very much aware of the surrounding admirers, the men who breathed in his eroticism like a scent. It was impossible to have a real conversation with him.”
Businessman friend Harry Kraut, Jamie recalled, started the encouragement by exposing LB (her moniker for Dad Lenny) to attractive young men. And then there was the ADHD, bisexual, pot smoking neighbor Mendy Wager, whose father Mayer Wolf Weisgal was national secretary of the Zionist Organization of America, Chaim Weitzmann’s personal political representative in the U.S., and the founder of the Weitzmann Institute of Science.
On the subject of valuing Judaism, Jamie said, “My father’s way of being religious was quite personal. He seemed mainly to explore it through his reading and music. So maybe his own kids’ indifference didn’t bother him too much (we hoped.)”
Dad LB was raunchy, amusing, critical, chain-smoking, at times drug addicted, and always teaching a lesson. He loved old-fashioned corny Jewish jokes that the family termed “treasured heirlooms that together comprise a collection of human wisdom more precious than gold.” Talk about complicated.
“Famous Father Girl” is a gossipy kaleidoscope that makes one ponder if growing up in a famous family is neither easy nor charmed. But yes, it’s a helluva good read.
The book will be featured at the Prologue to the Book Festival of the MJCCA 8 p.m. Oct. 26.