Born Aug. 25, 1918, in Lawrence, Mass., to Ukrainian Jewish parents, Leonard Bernstein would grow up to be one of the most successful and influential composer-conductor-pianists of the 21st century. He set new high-water marks in musical theater with On the Town and West Side Story, composed operas, ballets and symphonies, and became one of the New York Philharmonic’s most celebrated music directors. But unlike most of his peers, Bernstein was as recognizable in popular culture as he was critically renowned. His series of Young People’s Concerts on CBS (airing from 1958-1972) brought music education into living rooms around America, and following the assassination of President Kennedy (with whom he was real-life friends), he conducted Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 as part of a national televised memorial, making the music of Mahler an indelible part of the American national mourning experience.
Bernstein passed away in 1990, but the public’s appreciation for his music and impact continues to grow. With 2018 seeing thousands of Leonard Bernstein centennial events taking place across the globe, Billboard spoke to one of his three children, Jamie Bernstein, about her father. A warm and lively interviewee who seems to have her childhood memories on instant recall, she spoke to Billboard about growing up in a “raucous” musical household, her father’s love of the Beatles, and why The Flintstones revealed to her just how famous her father was. She also opened up about her father’s sexuality — a topic that has become more public knowledge over the last few years and will be addressed in greater depth in her upcoming book Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein — and her own shelved album of singer-songwriter material from back in the day.
Growing up, did you understand what it was that your dad did, and beyond that, how important he was on a national scale?
We get that “what was it like?” question a lot which is one of the reasons I’ve written my book, which comes out in June. It’s called Famous Father Girl, which is what my second grade classmate used to call me. The longer, juicier answer will be in the book, but the shorter answer is we grew up in this incredible lively, affectionate, raucous household. It was always full of friends and relatives, extra chairs getting dragged up to the dining room table.
My sister was born later but my brother and I came up together and we shared a room. We would be in our beds at night and we could hear the grownups downstairs, carrying on on the piano and laughing. Board games, charades — we thought grownups had fun all the time. We couldn’t wait to be grownups. Of course we figured out eventually being a grownup was much more complicated.
The moment I understood that was November 22, 1963. Which was the day Kennedy was assassinated and I saw the grownups cry for the first time. I had never seen grownups cry. All of the sudden everyone was crying, sitting around together, watching TV and smoking and drinking and all the shades were pulled down.
Your father and JFK knew each other, so that must’ve been especially hard.
They were actually friends. They were both at Harvard at the same time, I believe the president was one year older, and once he became president my parents were invited to the White House numerous times. They had a real friendship. And it was devastating in every possible way you can imagine when Kennedy was assassinated. It was a calamity.
Were you old enough to understand the gravity of the situation?
I was only 11. It was hard to understand beyond the fact that the president was shot and now he’s dead. But you can’t process it in a more sophisticated way than that.
To answer your other question, when did we figure out how illustrious our dad was, the answer is, we were watching The Flintstones. And Betty and Wilma were going to the Hollyrock Bowl to hear Leonard Bernstone conduct. That’s when we thought, “Oh my god, he must’ve really hit the big time if he’s on The Flintstones.” It was a shocker. He was already on television, he was doing Young People’s Concerts from the time I was 5. And it was a very big deal to us that our dad was on television, because it was the biggest thing in our lives. We watched a ton of TV. So that was already an eyebrow-raiser, but The Flintstones thing cemented it.
Did you watch the Young People’s Concerts?
I went to almost all of them. They were such fun. When I got a little older, my brother and I, and eventually my sister, my dad would invite us along to spend the day with him as the show got put together. My brother and I would steal the donuts from the table for the musicians, we were allowed to run around the hall unsupervised, we’d watch it from the tippy-top of the hall, or go and sit in the mobile unite for a while where the director sat.
Did you ever get scolded for running around the set?
Nope, never. We were just completely on the loose; we could do whatever we wanted. Obviously we had to be quiet when they were working. It was really fun. At 2 p.m. they had the official concert, and by then we knew the script by heart and the music and we were completely engaged. Then afterward we would jump in the car and our dad would drive us to our house in Connecticut to join our mom and baby sister. And as soon as we got in the car he’d switch on the radio to the pop station. “Let’s catch up,” he’d say. And it was such a boon for me that he loved the Beatles. The Beatles were my everything. I was a total Beatlemaniac.
Did you see them?
We went for a dress rehearsal the second time they went to The Ed Sullivan Show. And I actually did see them at Shea Stadium but it doesn’t really count. I can’t even tell you how loud it was in there because of all the screaming from teenage girls. You couldn’t even hear anything, and they were five miles away in the middle of the field, so it doesn’t really count.
Anyway, he’d talk about the music on the radio and we learned a lot about music from him telling us about the music we were listening to. And a lot of times what we were talking about in the car would end up in the next Young People’s Concerts script. He would sit at the piano and play the pop songs and sing them to illustrate what we were talking about. We gradually perceived we were the guinea pigs for the Young People’s Concerts.
So he loved the Beatles, but was there anything on the radio he scoffed at?
There was plenty to scoff at, because pop music is a mixed bag – some of it is fantastic and some of it is lame. But I know he really loved the Beatles and the Stones. He liked the Rolling Stones before I did because he knew all about the blues. He understood their musical context and I didn’t, so for me, it bothered me that Mick Jagger sang out of tune and his voice was scratchy. I didn’t understand what that meant. It took me longer to warm up to the Stones, but I did, a lot, but my dad was ahead of me on that. He was very interested in (pop music) and eventually wrote a work called “The Masque” that had a lot of rock n’ roll and blues in it; he was listening to it with creative ears.
Did you have memories of watching him conduct the New York Philharmonic, doing Mahler’s symphony following JFK’s assassination?
I did not watch that. It was too serious.
What about West Side Story, or were you too young for that?
I was way too young, I was 5 years old. In 57-58, my dad took over the New York Philharmonic, he started the Young People’s Concerts, and he premiered West Side Story. All in the same year. So I was too young to go. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to see it – knife fights, stabbing, gun shot at the end. But I had the recording, the cast album, and I listened to it all the time. So I knew the music by heart, but didn’t see it on stage for a few years.
Once the movie came out in ’61, you probably did?
Yes, by then I was the right age, and fell in love with the movie and saw it a bunch of times.
What is it like to love music your dad made? Is that strange?
It’s very exciting to feel so tethered to it; it’s part of your own fabric. It was fun. But I will say in school I was a little self-conscious to have such an illustrious father. I just wanted to be normal and disappear into daily life, that’s why when my friends called me “famous father girl” I was so embarrassed. When you get old enough to perceive peer groups, it kicked in.
Did people ever tease you, or ask too many questions about him?
Interesting you ask that because the other day I was visiting with a friend of mine from earliest school days. And she told me she was always careful not to make me feel special or weird or anything, she just wanted me to feel regular. And I was so grateful, because that’s what I wanted more than anything – to just be one of the gang.
What about your music history: did you start lessons at a young age?
We all took piano lessons, and we all disliked our piano lessons and never practiced. We all had terrible attitudes and quit as soon as we could. In some families when the parents are professional musicians, kids take to it like ducks to water. And in others they don’t. And for whatever reason in ours, we’re in the latter category. However, in my case, when I quit my piano lessons around 16, I started to play the piano for fun, and I taught myself the guitar. That became my way of having music in my life. And I pursued a career for a few years as a singer-songwriter. I moved out to L.A., I made demo tapes and shopped them around, the whole deal. I even got a record deal eventually, but the record was not released, and that was just about the time I got married. And I thought “Oh the hell with this, I’m going to move on, start my family and be an actual grownup instead of pursuing this ridiculous goal of being some kind of rock star. What kind of real-life adult pursuit is that?” So I set it aside.
What was your music like?
People always ask you “what kind of music is it?” And some friend of mine told me, “just say it’s one of your favorite artists meets the other of your favorite artists.” So my answer was “it’s Laura Nyro meets Talking Heads.” Whatever that might mean.
That would be a very strange record.
Maybe it was very strange record! But the recording didn’t turn out the way I had it in my head. It wasn’t all the way to what I wanted. But I love my songs, and they’re still sitting on my hard drive, waiting for somebody else to play ’em one day.
Would you ever release them to the public?
The recordings I made? I don’t know. Somebody would have to talk me into it. Maybe.
What about your father’s unfinished work, such as Race to Urga, what did you know about that?
I know a lot about it. I watched it all come together, and it all come apart at the seams. This was the second show that fell apart, he was writing one in 1965 with Betty Comden and Adolph Green based on Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. They worked on it for half a year and for reasons that are not clear to me, it fell apart and they abandoned it. And then a few years later my dad was trying again this time with Jerry Robbins and various other collaborators, and they tried very hard, and that one too, for reasons that are unclear, didn’t take off, and they abandoned it. And that was just devastating for my dad. Because he had so little time to compose, he was so strapped for time because of his double career, and his composing time was very precious. When what he was working on didn’t pan out, he felt like he squandered his composing hours.
Did you watch the dry rehearsal for that?
Yeah but that came later. First they abandoned it in the late ’60s, I was in high school and our dad was in the habit of playing things for us as he was working, so we’d get sneak previews of stuff as he was working. And then many years later, in the ’80s, they tried one more time and put together a little workshop. And that was when they decided forever and for real and for sure, that it was not going to happen. Jerry Robbins was the one who said “this will never see the light of day.” They didn’t feel it was shaping up; it was too disjointed. Which is a pity because the songs were great, but it wasn’t pulling together as a dramatic entity, I guess.
Did you ever give him feedback?
We tried to keep it positive because that’s what he needed. When he played for us, that was not the moment to be critical.
In the last few years, his homosexuality has become more public knowledge. Is that something you were aware of growing up? Or was it just not your business?
The long answer to this question is in my book in June, you’ll find out more then. But our parents went into their marriage with eyes open – they knew what the situation was and decided to give it a go anyway, and they were really devoted to each other. And they had us three kids, so there you have it. To whatever degree my dad was still pursuing some kind of gay life, he was keeping it extremely separate from his family life. I didn’t bump up against it until I was in college. And that was the beginning of the dissolution of my parents’ marriage. They finally separated in 1976 because my dad decided to go off with this guy who had been his assistant. And that lasted one year. And he just couldn’t quite sustain it, and he wound up parting ways with the guy and eventually came back to be reunited with our mom and our family. And everybody was very relieved and happy they reunited, but my mother sure was coughing a lot. And then she went to the doctor, and they discovered she had a tumor in her lung, and one year later she was dead. So it was a very rough series of years. It was very difficult, especially for our sister who was only 15 when our mother died.
And he passed away in 1990. But that must be gratifying to see how well regarded he remains – some reputations fizzle, but his seems to expand.
It does seem that way. A lot of his music, particularly his symphonic music, was misunderstood in his lifetime for a number of reasons I won’t get into, but now that it’s his centennial year and his music is getting performed a lot, people are discovering it as if it were this brand new thing and going crazy for it. It’s incredible gratifying to see his music’s time has really come and audiences are relating to it.
Were you surprised at the number of centennial events?
We were hoping there would be a lot of attention, and at the Leonard Bernstein Office, our organization, we reminded everyone the centennial was coming and suggested things they might do for an opera, orchestra, film festival, or a university – our dad was so multifarious there was something for everybody to celebrate. We let them cook it up, and it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. On our database we’ve calculated there are over 2,700 Bernstein centennial events worldwide, so far, and still counting. And thank God there’s three of us siblings to divide and conquer and participate in as many as possible.
Is that pretty much your whole year?
That’s pretty much our year. I just got back from Memphis where I was narrating my father’s symphony No. 3, Kaddish, and I wrote my own narration which I do time to time. And I did it in Tucson five weeks ago, and in between I’ve been to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, Scottsdale, Boston… you get the idea. It’s very emotional. I’ve been doing concert narration and talking about music for over 15 years, but at this year I’m doing it at 10 times the intensity. It’s like I’ve been in training for this year for the last 15.
When did you make the decision to write your book?
About three years ago, and then I wrote my head off for two years. And it’s been a great experience – I’m sad it’s over, I liked having that gigantic task to think about. I’ll have to think of some other book to write. The whole time my father was alive, he worked so hard to make the world a better place and he did it through his music, though not exclusively. But his music is about speaking to the injustices of the world and advocating for tolerance and compassion and world peace. So much of his music has that quality, and one of the reasons people are relating so much now, is this sense of despair in our country that his music speaks to. From West Side Story to this Kaddish Symphony, which has so much despair in it, but it’s a catharsis for the audience. They all go through an emotional journey and it resolves and ends on an optimistic note. That’s very healing for people to experience right now.