On the centennial of legendary composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein’s birth, Jamie Bernstein discusses life as his daughter in her memoir, Famous Father Girl (Harper, June).
What do you imagine your father would think of the book?
I wonder about what both my parents would think. I like to believe they’d appreciate that I told things as they happened and as they seemed true to me, and also true to my brother and sister, who had veto power over everything I wrote.
You write about your father’s use of pills and his sexual proclivities. Were you worried about including those details?
Actually, I’m hoping that my story will help lift the veil on other people’s memories of their own families. You know it wasn’t just my dad, it was really a thing back then: all the grown-ups relied on substances—uppers and downers. We lost a lot of valuable people as a result; think of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe. People really believed that a pill was supposed to fix everything. I think that informed many people’s behavior back in the day, including my father’s, particularly in his later years.
What was the most difficult part of writing this?
Writing about my parents’ deaths was pretty shattering, to put myself through that again.
You talk in the book about how it was simultaneously exhausting and energizing to be around your father. Was writing a book about him like that as well?
It was hard and it took a long time. It was exhausting, but I have to say I never flagged—I really relished the process, and I loved having a big project. It reminded me a lot of being pregnant, actually. It was that same feeling of having this gigantic project in the oven, and I’m just cooking and cooking, all the time.
Did you do a lot of research?
Mostly I depended on my own journals; I really wanted to tell the story as I saw it. I did spend a lot of time in my father’s archives at the Library of Congress. My chronological bible was Humphrey Burton’s excellent biography of my dad.
You said the title came from a second-grade friend?
Yes, and she’s still my friend. She called me “famous father girl” to tease me. I like it as the title because it’s a little bit of a poke in the eye, it’s just a little rude and amusing. My publisher wasn’t sure about it at first, but they let me go with it.
If there was a theme to your father’s life, what would it be?
Love. He was pretty much made of love. He talked about music as a total embrace, but really, he was a total embrace. People made fun of him because he hugged everybody and kissed everybody, and sometimes it was a little too much. But if he could have reached out to hug every person in the world, he would have done that. His music was the way he really came pretty close to achieving that.