The reputation of Leonard Bernstein — the starry composer, conductor, pianist, and educator — continues to be made and remade more than two and a half decades after his death. Right now, as the world celebrates the 100th year since his birth, aspects of the Bernstein story are found in more than two dozen biographies, photo books, collections of essays, and memoirs of and by him.
Among the books, you can pick from a generous variety of angles. Bernstein assistant Charlie Harmon recently came out with On the Road & Off the Record with Leonard Bernstein: My Years with the Exasperating Genius. Jonathan Cott’s Dinner with Lenny bills itself as the “last long interview” given by the charismatic music man.
It’s safe to say, though, that no one had quite the same access to the subject as the author of Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein. Jamie Bernstein was the oldest of his three children, and she has become his chief interpreter. But if she had an easy way in, she doesn’t take the easy way out.
A filmmaker, writer, and narrator, she has produced a book that manages the most difficult of tightrope walks. She speaks about her father with great love while cataloging his considerable flaws — namely, his narcissism and drug abuse.
She dishes quite a bit of gossip about his circle of artists and music-industry types and renders judgment where judgment is due, but she does so without turning mean.
She didn’t settle on her current role as Leonard Bernstein flame-keeper early or easily and couldn’t have smoothed the path any by becoming a musician herself (a onetime aspiring singer-songwriter). She told me in a recent interview for the Free Library of Philadelphia’s author series that she found herself “making those odious comparisons, and always feeling like I couldn’t measure up — which I couldn’t, let’s face it. It drove me crazy to even be trying.”
“How I made my peace with music over the years is another way of saying how I managed to figure out how to coexist with this very bright light,” she said. “And it was very hard for a large part of my life.”
Bernstein’s bright light threatened to blot out others who orbited around him — not least his wife, Felicia, who put up with her husband’s lengthy and erratic coming-out process.
But the most valuable part of Jamie Bernstein’s contribution is a certain perspective-taking that goes through the main events of her father’s career, puts them in cultural and historical context, and fills in some important personal backstory. She was there for a lot of it, and other details came down to her through family lore.
“There was no such thing as an American conductor on Nov. 14, 1943, when my dad had to step up on the podium at Carnegie Hall and conduct the New York Philharmonic because Bruno Walter got sick,” she said. (The entire Free Library conversation can be heard via podcast at libwww.freelibrary.org/podcast.)
She exaggerates, but only slightly.
There were American conductors, but they didn’t get jobs at the big American orchestras. And they didn’t carry on the way Leonard Bernstein did. There was no one like him.
I don’t think Jamie Bernstein comes out and says it as plainly as this, but Leonard Bernstein was, six decades ago, the kind of embodiment of a modern symphony orchestra only being fully realized today.
He had taste in repertoire so catholic there were no hard lines between classical and pop. He granted full rights to movie scores as a legitimate art form. For him, education outreach was as important as the music-making. And he exhibited a certain responsibility to larger societal issues like social justice.
If there is an orchestra conductor today who shows the kind of moral authority and conscience Bernstein did in his day, it’s not clear who it might be.
It’s poignant that his most ardent effort toward social justice was a commercial flop. His 1976 musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, written with lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, explored race relations through the voices of occupants of the White House — presidents, first ladies, as well as servants. It tried out in Philadelphia, and then moved to New York, where it closed after less than a week.
“I think that he had this impulse to heal the world through his music, and he wasn’t a crazy person, he didn’t actually think he could save the world with a tune. So many of his pieces have this impulse to ask the tough questions, to shake his fist at the heavens,” said Jamie Bernstein.
“And with 1600, he wrote this show with Allen Jay Lerner, and the two of them were in such a state of distress after having gone through Watergate. And there is such resonance now with what we all went through back then, this sense of despair over a government that was not governing properly, not governing honestly.
“My father and Alan Jay Lerner had to say something about what you have to go through to preserve democracy and what a fight it is and what a struggle it is and how you have to scrape and fight for every inch of progress.”
And yet, “I think they really bit off more than they could chew,” she said. The score and lyrics are “fantastic. But the storytelling that they used was so tragically flawed that it just couldn’t hold up the score.”
Social justice gone awry
Another Bernstein effort at social justice also went awry. When the Bernsteins held a gathering in their apartment in 1970 to raise money for legal expenses of more than a dozen Black Panthers being held in jail awaiting trial, Tom Wolfe showed up and produced a sprawling, sarcastic account of the event in New York magazine (later published in book form in Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.)
In Wolfe’s piece, the Bernsteins were made to look ridiculous — Park Avenue penthouse activists taking up a cause for fashion rather than sincerely held beliefs.
The piece was entertaining, and “that’s what so insidious about it,” said Jamie Bernstein. “He blithely put this thing out there, A, with no thought to how it might affect the people he was making fun of and, B, I wonder whether he had any clue that he was acting as a complete stooge for the F.B.I., who were all so busy setting Jews one against the other and Jews as a group against blacks by fomenting the discourse.
“Tom Wolfe played into that game of the F.B.I. whether he knew it or not.”
In fact, acts of conscience were no passing fancy for Bernstein. His F.B.I. file grew to 800 pages. “He spent his whole life always speaking out and standing out whenever he perceived an injustice or saw someone in need or any issue that needed to be spoken about. That’s just the way he was from his earliest adulthood,” says Jamie Bernstein.
And if he were alive today, what would Leonard Bernstein be paying attention to?
For one thing, says his daughter, he would have loved Hamilton, because, with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, “that’s where he was going, and he would have been so thrilled and a little jealous to see how Hamilton threaded that needle.”
And how would he be reacting to the current political direction of the country?
“He would be apoplectic,” she said. “He would be right out there on the front lines, making a big noise, marching in the streets and probably writing music to express his outrage and frustration. Part of me really wishes he were here right now, and part of me is relieved that he isn’t here to see this, because he would be so appalled.”
Bernstein in Philly
Bernstein: Broadway & Beyond
The Philadelphia Orchestra performs a July 18 program at the Mann Center that includes Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, as well as excerpts from On the Town, Peter Pan, Candide and his Mass. Kensho Watanabe conducts the concert, which also features the world premiere of a new Bernstein-inspired work, South Side, Symphonic Dances by Darin Atwater. Information: manncenter.org, 800-745-3000.
Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music continues at the National Museum of American Jewish History through Sept. 2. Information: nmajh.org, 215-923-3811.