The title of Jamie Bernstein’s 2018 memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” is not an inaccurate way for her to identify herself. If anything, it is an understatement.
In addition to famous, Bernstein’s father, the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, could be called revered, renowned, idolized, beloved and almost any admiring adjective short of “apotheosized”.
His daughter, Jamie Bernstein, has spent the better part of the past two years on the road making appearances at “ballets and chamber groups and orchestras and theatre companies and film festivals and exhibits and panels,” she said, commemorating the centennial of his birth, which was last year on Aug. 25.
Bernstein will appear at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of the Rosenbloom Owings Mills JCC on May 21, with special guest Darin Atwater of Soulful Symphony. The event is presented by The Sinai Mitzvah Foundation, a project of LifeBridge Health’s Sinai Hospital.
“It’s a good thing I have a brother and a sister,” Bernstein said. “We had to do a lot of trifurcating to try to attend as many of these events as we could, and participate in many of them as well.”
Bernstein says her memoir is “the long answer” to the question she is most frequently asked: what was it like growing up with Leonard Bernstein as your father?
“The short answer is that it was not boring,” she said.
In his long career, Leonard Bernstein composed the music for “West Side Story,” conducted the New York Philharmonic for more than two decades and hosted a television series called Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, just to scratch the surface. He was frequently on the road with the NYP, and Jamie Bernstein credits her mother, the Costa Rican-born actress, Felicia Montealegre, as being a nurturing force for the family during those times.
“We had a very tight knit family life. I give my mother a lot of credit for that,” Bernstein said. “She was the one that really provided the stabilizing glue for our family.”
Bernstein said her parents’ wedding was a Jewish one, although her mother was raised Catholic. The Bernstein children’s upbringing, she said, had “a little of this a little of that.”
“We lit Chanukah candles, but also had a Christmas tree,” she said. “We have fantastic rip-roaring seders, but on Easter we might have an egg hunt for the little kids.”
When she was a child, Bernstein and her siblings all took piano lessons, though none of them enjoyed it. Bernstein, who pursued a career as a singer songwriter in the 1990s, has always had a complicated relationship with music.
“I was musical, but I describe it as having one foot on the gas and the other foot on the break,” she said. “I eventually made my peace with music, which happened by accident.”
Her father’s music licensor pitched an idea to the family. He asked, what if someone developed narrated concerts, similar to the Young People’s Concerts series, except making the music of Leonard Bernstein the focus?
“For some reason, my hand went up, and I volunteered to develop that concert,” Bernstein said. “The years started going by and I realized I’m doing this all the time. I guess this is even my career.”
Bernstein will never run out of opportunities to talk about her father’s music and legacy, but also loves to discuss his lifelong work as an activist and a humanitarian.
“He really worked as hard as he could for his entire life to make the world a better place,” Bernstein said. “He took the Tikkun Olam approach to life very seriously.”
Whether it was showing support for the civil rights movement, protesting the Vietnam War or advocating for denuclearization, Leonard Bernstein was always pulling for humanitarian causes. Jamie Bernstein said he was such a vocal advocate, the FBI kept tabs on him for years.
“He knew they were keeping tabs on him, and that his phones were probably tapped, but he didn’t care. Neither did my mother,” Bernstein said. “They both spent all their lives speaking out any time there was an injustice. That’s the message we grew up with. When you saw something wasn’t right you spoke up.”
After the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the 1980s, Leonard Bernstein had the opportunity to view his own FBI file.
“That’s when he found out it was 800 pages long,” Bernstein said. “It’s sort of a badge of honor.”