I just read a memoir by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest child and I absolutely loved the book!
The central characters are fascinating and complex as well as endlessly entertaining and the circle of friends is mostly famous people who are colorful and fun to read about.
Friends of my mother’s, the Coopers, lived in the same Park Avenue building in New York City as the Bernsteins for over a decade and became friends with the Bernstein family.
The oldest Cooper child, still a friend of mine today, was Jamie’s age and played with her for many years. I grew up hearing stories about the Bernstein family through the Coopers, so I feel a connection to them, however tenuous.
One of the stories I heard had to do with an incident at the Bernstein pool in Fairfield, CT. The middle Cooper child heard the word ‘gay’ from one of the adults and went up to another adult and asked him what gay meant. Leonard Bernstein was gay but lived a straight, family life for decades before coming out of the closet. That was necessary during the forties and fifties, and even the sixties, if you wanted to have a significant career. This story takes place during the closeted years.
The adult who the child approached thought it would be funny to tell the curious little girl to go ask Leonard what ‘gay’ was, so she did. Apparently, she got a paean about what wonderful, creative people gay men were and how glorious it was to be gay.
I’m sure this elicited lots of laughter around the pool that day.
Getting back to the book, the main reason it resonated so much with me is that Jamie and my childhoods had a lot in common. I’m only three years older than Jamie and we both grew up Jewish in New York City at the same time. Jamie was only half Jewish, but the Jewish half, Leonard, was strongly Jewish, at least culturally.
We both lived on Park Avenue in the same Upper East Side neighborhood and went to prominent private schools in the city. We both spent summers and some weekends at our second home in Fairfield County, Connecticut – Jamie in the town of Fairfield and me in nearby Easton. Our mothers were both beautiful and fashionable former actresses who entertained often and impeccably.
However, the major experience that I shared with Jamie, was living in the shadow of a famous father. The title of Jamie’s memoir is “Famous Father Girl,” a nickname given to her by someone in her grade school class.
My father was not as universally well-known, but in our social circles and in the social science fields, he was a celebrity. Kids at my school knew that my father was an intellectual giant and he was spoken of with respect and awe by their parents, many of whom were psychiatrists, like my father.
Jamie’s mother used to excuse Leonard’s excesses and eccentricities by telling her kids that this is what comes with ‘genius’, and my mother did the same thing. We had to forgive a lot of character flaws and social missteps because my father was a genius.
I can understand why superstars are surrounded by apologists and enablers because I grew up with that dynamic. In fact, my father was absolved of almost all paternal obligations and responsibilities, including talking to his child on a regular basis. At least Leonard Bernstein interacted with his kids, played with them and talked to them all the time when he was around.
Both of our fathers spent a lot of time teaching their children about their fields of expertise. Jamie learned about all styles of music at an early age and I knew about psychology, sociology, anthropology, as well as history and archeology (a favorite topic of my father’s) while still in elementary school. Both of our fathers were also hard acts to follow and we spent our young lives trying not to disappoint our larger than life parents.
Jamie tried to write and sing music for many years and I felt the need to excel academically, at least through college. I got a life, finally, in law school and stopped trying to be at the top of the class, which was a great relief. I’m sure Jamie shared my lifelong feeling of not measuring up in some significant way.
Ironically, both Jamie and I found our voice and our passion in our thirties by becoming mothers. Years later Jamie found a true career running educational music programs based on her father’s Young People’s Concerts. I found myself in my father’s adjunct career – writer.
He published seven books over the years and numerous professional articles, which I helped my mother edit from the time I was fifteen. I publish blog posts and have the scripts I write with my husband performed by our audio theater group.
So Jamie and I each took something from our mothers and something from our fathers and later in life, came up with our own mix, creating satisfying lives for ourselves.