Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein
Jamie Bernstein occupies a shadow “too large to escape,” said Bob Hoover in The Dallas Morning News. For decades, her father, the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, dominated American classical music and Broadway like no other figure before or since. And though Jamie portrays him with affection, being his oldest child was clearly “both a joy and a curse.” Leonard Bernstein was a fun-loving parent who provided his three children with enviable opportunities, including an audience with the Beatles. But he was also an exuberant serial adulterer who pulled all attention toward himself. For his daughter, who long aspired to be a pop musician, his was a nearly impossible act to follow.
It’s not clear even today that she’s fully reckoned with the effects of her father’s antics, said Sibbie O’Sullivan in The Washington Post. Thinking too hard, apparently, “might lead us to unpleasant conclusions.” But she is not afraid to tell stories about him. At parties, he drunkenly planted French kisses on everyone in sight—sometimes including Jamie. At a college graduation party, he impaled his son’s Harvard diploma on the front door with a knife. And “as tentative as Jamie is about her father’s excesses, she is fiercer still in defending him.” When she revisits the 1970 Black Panther fundraiser her parents hosted, she blasts Tom Wolfe for satirizing them in his article “Radical Chic,” which she claims hastened her mother’s subsequent decline.
Jamie’s desire to absolve her father is understandable, said David Denby in The New Yorker. His missteps were products of ebullience, not cruelty, and Jamie obviously sees him whole. “Famous Father Girl is unique among classical-music memoirs for its physical intimacy, its humor and tenderness.” Though it says little about Leonard Bernstein’s best work, it’s open about his bisexuality, his creative flops, his late physical decline—while also delivering touching moments of love and silliness. What’s more, Jamie, at 65, has at last made peace with her fate. “The existence of this well-written book, with its poignancy and its shuddery detail, is a mark of sanity and survival.” ■