Home November 2020 "Famous Father Girl- A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein"

“Famous Father Girl- A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein”

In her memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” filmmaker and broadcaster Jamie Bernstein offers a candid and intimate account of growing up the eldest child of renowned conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein. A larger than life celebrity during one of the most intoxicating periods of American cultural life, and possibly the most talented musician in American history, to Jamie he was simply “Daddy.”
    I had the privilege of speaking with Jamie Bernstein in preparation for her appearance at the Merage JCC on Sunday, October 25 at 4pm when she kicked off the first event of the annual OC Jewish Arts Festival.
    Jamie described growing up in a loving home that was always full of laughter and fun. Her childhood exploded with music, theater and powerful, famous personalities. Everyone wanted to be there singing around the piano or playing word games. Leonard was very attentive to his three children and was always teaching them something, and not just about music. He called himself a “compulsive Rabbi” and saw every opportunity as a teaching moment. This love of teaching was transmitted to his children who all became teachers in one capacity or another.
    Laughter and having a sense a humor was a huge part of who Leonard was, and he loved a good joke. Her elegant Chilean born mother Felicia, was the stabilizing influence in the Bernstein household. She taught them manners and etiquette and was the glue that held them all together.
    Her parents taught them the importance of family, and Leonard modeled this in his relationship with his own siblings. Jamie and her brother Alexander and sister Nina are incredibly close and call themselves “the three-headed monster.”
    I asked her when she first became aware that her father was a celebrity? She answers that a classmate in second grade called her “famous father girl” but at that point she did not feel the impact of her father’s fame or understand its ramifications. She  laughingly says that it wasn’t until she and her siblings were watching an episode of the TV show The Flintstones that featured a conductor named “Leonard Bernstone” that she realized he must be someone special if he made it into a popular TV show. She said that the people who visited her apartment were her parents’ friends, they just happened to be Stephen Sondheim, Mike Nichols, Lauren Bacall, Jerome Robbins and John Lennon.
    Raised in a conservative traditional Jewish home in Boston by a salesman father who was also a Talmudic scholar, Leonard’s connection to his Judaism and spirituality was expressed in his music and not necessarily in practice. Felicia was born Catholic and converted to Judaism when she married Leonard. They raised their children with an American hybrid of the holidays and celebrated everything, but Jamie and her siblings feel Jewish and identify with Judaism culturally.
    Her parents were very politically active and one of the most important lessons they taught was that if you saw an injustice “you had to make a noise.” Among the many causes they fought for were civil rights, no nukes, and AIDS research. Leonard was very proud of the fact that as early as 1940, the FBI began keeping a file about his activities and keeping track of him. Through the Freedom of Information Act he was able to see a copy of his file and found that it was 800 pages long.
    I asked Jamie how was she able to form her own identity when her father was larger than life? She moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in music as a singer and songwriter. She had music in her blood. She craved success but didn’t feel worthy of it, she could never live up to her father’s impossibly high standards. While he was very supportive and encouraging of her music career, he was also very competitive and made it clear that “there was only room for one top dog in this family.” These mixed messages were difficult to live with. Her one recorded album was never released and her career as a performer ended before it began.
    Just by accident, Jamie was asked to develop an educational concert for children, modeled after her father’s televised Young People’s Concerts, that was based on his music. It would be a great way to promote the Bernstein musical catalogue and introduce his music to a new generation of listeners. And so, The Bernstein Beat was created. Jamie began traveling the country narrating The Bernstein Beat and introducing her father’s music to kids who had never heard of him before. She said: “This was a job that needed doing, and I was, of all things, uniquely qualified to do it.”
    This project of becoming the caretaker of her father’s legacy and keeping it alive became Jamie’s career, and her way of synthesizing his two most heart-felt objectives: sharing the joy of music with young people, and trying to make the world a better place.
    For more information about “Famous Father Girl : A Memoir About Growing Up Bernstein” please contact Nicole Rosenson at: nicoler@jccoc.org or 949-435-3400, ext. 161.   

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