FAMOUS FATHER GIRL
A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein
By Jamie Bernstein
385 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $28.99.
I doubt Jamie Bernstein, elder daughter of the musical eminence Leonard, is terribly broken up about the author Tom Wolfe’s recent death. She might even be dancing a little jig. “Like a python gradually swallowing a rabbit whole” is how she imagines Wolfe lurking in a corner of her parents’ Park Avenue duplex on the evening of Jan. 14, 1970, as Black Panther activists mixed with the crème de la crème of Manhattan society — a scene he would colorfully if astringently disgorge some months later in a 25,000-word essay, “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.”
According to Jamie, this brutal lampoon proved a ruinous turning point for her elegant mother, Felicia Montealegre, a Chilean actress and social activist who succumbed to breast cancer before the Me Decade was over. “Even now, my rage and disgust can rise up in me like an old fever — and in those nearly deranged moments, it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to lay Mummy’s precipitous decline, and even demise, at the feet of Mr. Wolfe,” she writes in her wry and wonderful memoir, “Famous Father Girl.” And by the way, that much-parsed party was actually a “very serious fund-raiser” (with refreshments).
At least Wolfe got the “Lenny” right. Can you believe that a composer and conductor of symphonies, operas and sonatas was once known as colloquially to Americans as RiRi is today? But then Leonard Bernstein was a charisma bomb from the moment he first seized the podium of the New York Philharmonic in 1943, subsequently diffusing his radioactive talent through the theaters of Broadway, the concert halls of Europe, the state occasions of Kennedys, the walls of the Ivy League, the treetops of Tanglewood and now, in what would be his centennial year, the endless purgatory of YouTube.
Though devoted to his legacy, his family felt the fallout of this celebrity. Having settled on oration and documentary filmmaking after an abortive musical career of her own, Jamie is in print a warm but unsparing eyewitness: peeking poignantly from the wings as her progenitor glories, sifting through the jumbo pillbox when he starts to fall apart. She grew up swaddled in cultural luxury, knowing Lenny, born Louis, variously as “Lennuhtt” (from a private childhood language), Maestro, El Caballero and — when he grew older and more exasperating — simply LB. The many nicknames bespoke a fundamental restlessness both professional and personal; Bernstein père was ceaselessly teaching and talking, frugging and fretting. His marriage, which produced two more children, Alexander and Nina, permitted increasingly indiscreet affairs with men. That he employed a hair puller to keep the blood flowing to his signature pompadour seems not only proof of vanity but a physical manifestation of his insatiable craving for highbrow status; the same guy behind the hummable melodies of “West Side Story” also deployed Aramaic text and the 12-tone scale.
“I want to see the can-deee!” 4-year-old Jamie wailed in 1956 as Leonard and Felicia prepared to depart for the premiere of his erudite “Candide,” and indeed she would: pulled from summer camp to meet the Beatles, passed the salt by Bernstein friends like Mike Nichols and living in the same dorm as Benazir Bhutto at Harvard. But the glamour could be suffocating — literally, considering the constant cloud of cigarette smoke, as deleterious to health as any satirist.
How to forge an identity when the home fires burn so hot? Her father didn’t just cross boundaries, he barged through them, naked under his cornflower blue djellaba, forcing tongue kisses with everyone, including his daughter, inviting her into the bathroom while he finished (blech) his latest “movement.” When he wasn’t drawing his children too close, he was far away, missing many of their important milestones, obfuscating his extramarital selves, containing and entertaining multitudes.
“The hardest feat in the world to pull off was to have a little one-on-one time with Daddy,” Jamie recalls with rue. How generous of her to share him with us yet again, this man who was not a rabbit-prey for a python after all, but a lion.