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Daddy issues

by Tim Pfaff

Daddy issues

The opening pages of Jamie Bernstein's "Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein" (Harper) foretell the chaos and have the flavor of the beginning of Proust's sprawling novel in a mixer of "Hansel and Gretel" with a chaser of Trump-Russia pee-pee tape (except it's a dog). But this deeply felt, finely balanced account of being Leonard Bernstein's oldest daughter captures the madness of life in the orbit of one of the last century's most influential, larger-than-life musicians with equal parts candor and compassion.

Smells are another leitmotif. Early on we're informed that LB (as she typically refers to him) loved "jokes about bodily functions." Chapter and verse come by way of ripe descriptions of his morning breath, his chain-smoking L&Ms breath, the fragrance of lowly Ballantine's scotch aging in his mouth and routine accounts of his "stinky" trips to the toilet, where he was known to linger, studying scores ("just let me finish this movement" perhaps his greatest-ever uncalculated joke) and orating at others through open doors.

Complaints notwithstanding, the author does nothing to deface LB's reputation as a devoted family man. What gives this book its essential ballast are the accounts of his children painstakingly making lives for themselves - and families and children of their own - ultimately returning rather than spurning "Daddy's" indisputable love.

Temperamentally, LB did not age any better than the cheap scotch, and the literal, automotive reckless driving his daughter recounts becomes a metaphor for the his ever-increasing capacity to hurt, embarrass and exasperate the family he hugged to death and kissed full on the mouth. ("Daddy kissed everybody.")

This is not a revenge memoir. And while it's hardly the first time LB's homosexuality is acknowledged in print, it's the least contentious and most personal. JB recounts the three Bernstein children's being invited to the home of Joan Peyser for a collective interview for Peyser's unauthorized biography of their father. Having plied the trio with exotic food and drink, Peyser plunges into the interview, "Now about your father's homosexuality -" His children are long over it.

Still, as recently as his late-career tour with the Vienna Philharmonic in the 1980s - during which I heard a revelatory Mahler Fifth in Davies Hall - it was still not cricket to speak, if at all, of anything but LB's bisexuality, or his "omnivorous" erotic appetites. Subtly, the author gives the issue a new frame with an overdue, loving, three-dimensional portrait of her mother, Felicia Montealegre, whom most people know only as the impassioned narrator of LB's overwrought text of the first performances and recording of his often maligned "Kaddish" Symphony.

Early on, we're entertained with the story of their nervous honeymoon road trip to Mexico. Later it is spelled out that Montealegre balanced her husband's erratic driving with a grounded, explicit acknowledgement of his sexuality. In her 1951 letter to Bernstein, first published in 2013, she wrote, "You are a homosexual and may never change. I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar." She answered Jamie's questions about the rumors with a crisp, "He's queer as a coot."

A turning point came when Harry Kraut, openly gay even then, became Bernstein's personal manager, effectively for the duration of his career. It was, the author writes, "equally tough to process the way Harry seemed to be enabling Daddy's slow creep to overt gayness."

But it was a creep at an LB tempo, and the book's second half names many of LB's flames, crushes, boyfriends and lovers, all more documentarily than scoldingly. There's unmistakable affection in the tales of who came to dinner, and who was still there for breakfast.

Late in the marriage, the fatally ill Montealegre snapped, not in public but at one of the never-private dinners at the family apartment in the Dakota. "At one point, the conversation turned dark over something," the author writes. "Mummy pointed her finger across the table at her estranged husband and, with her biggest, scariest actress voice, laid her curse on him: 'You're going to die a lonely, bitter old queen.'"

In fact, like his wife, LB died of lung cancer, but not without one last, late-blooming romance with a much younger male colleague. What disturbs his daughter is the likelihood that his death was at least accelerated by the drug abuse common among star performers then, with LB's fueling himself from color-coded canisters of amphetamines and barbiturates.

Composer centenaries come from the Marketing Department in the Sky. Bernstein's has been little short of adoring, career-confirming and reputation-elevating. His daughter's memoir is in the same key.

If you're overwhelmed with the choice of centenary Bernstein box sets, go for Sony's "Leonard Bernstein - The Composer." It's the fun stuff, the serious stuff - and the music his daughter writes eloquently about.


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