Bradley Cooper texts her. Steven Spielberg signs notes to her “Love, Uncle Steve.” And Netflix has flown her around the world first-class. Jamie Bernstein, the eldest daughter of the world-famous composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, still seems a little shocked and amused by it all.
Bernstein was at Crawford Mansion in Rye Brook on Feb. 6 to talk about her life as the child of the late, beloved Bernstein at the invitation of SPRYE, the organization devoted to helping area seniors age in place. More than 100 people turned out to hear Bernstein share stories of life with her dad. She didn’t disappoint. She is the author of a best-selling 2018 memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” which was published to mark her father’s 100th birthday, but which has garnered renewed attention with the release this past fall of the movie “Maestro,” a study of the famous conductor’s life.
“I wrote the book because people always asked me, ‘What was it like growing up in a family with that larger-than-life guy for a father?’” Bernstein said. “It was damn interesting for so many reasons. Lauren Bacall, Isaac Stern, Aaron Copeland, Stephen Sondheim — all of these amazing people were just a part of our lives. When you’re a kid, you don’t know who your parents’ friends are. They’re just the people who come over for dinner. It took my brother, sister, and me a while to realize that Mike Nichols was an important guy. He was just our family’s funny friend. It took us a while to realize that we were living at the epicenter of mid-20th century culture in New York City. My brother Alex and sister Nina and I eventually became aware of what an extraordinary environment we were growing up in.”
Leonard Bernstein was a renowned conductor of symphony orchestras, but also widely known as the composer (with Sondheim) of “West Side Story” (and other works) and as the host of the Young People’s Concerts, a series that was televised and exposed millions of Americans to the intricacies of classical music in an approachable and understandable way. And, as Jamie Bernstein pointed out, he was an activist and humanitarian. Those things made him a revered celebrity.
But he was a dad, too, Bernstein said, the kind who played anagrams and tennis, ate corn on the cob, and swam in the pool at their country house in Fairfield, Conn. He also shared with Jamie a love of Beatles music. Describing herself as “the biggest Beatles maniac,” Bernstein said the Beatles changed her life by creating a connection between her and her father.
“He thought Lennon and McCartney were genius song writers,” she said, and described bursting into his practice room with the Rubber Soul album, which he immediately listened to with her. “I learned so much about music by listening to the Beatles with him.” In Beatles songs, the elder Bernstein would find chord progressions and musical allusions that he’d point out to his daughter. And as her love of pop music expanded, so did her musical lexicon. “You Really Got Me,” a 1960s hit by the Kinks, led Leonard Bernstein to teach his daughter about Mixolydian mode, for example, scales that originated in medieval church music.
Bernstein also told the story of how “Maestro,” the film that is now nominated for several Academy Awards, came to be. When their father died in 1990, the Bernstein children became the caretakers of the Leonard Bernstein publishing offices. When, 16 years ago, a producer approached them about doing a film about him, the siblings agreed to the idea. After the rights were purchased by director Martin Scorsese, the project languished for years. Finally, Spielberg became interested, but he was working on the remake of the musical “West Side Story.” According to Bernstein, Spielberg said he didn’t know when he could make the movie, but he’d want Bradley Cooper to play the conductor. They discussed the matter, and Cooper expressed interest in directing the movie.
Cooper had just finished his remake of “A Star is Born,” which he starred in and directed. It hadn’t been released yet, but he showed an advance of the film to Spielberg, who Bernstein said, watched 20 minutes of it before jumping out of his chair and hugging Cooper and telling him, “You’re a director and you’re going to direct this film.”
Cooper did “the deepest dive ever” into her father’s life, Bernstein said, reading, watching, and listening to everything he could get his hands on, including her memoir. He concluded that the movie should not be a “biopic,” but “a portrait of a marriage between Lenny and Felicia Montealegre Bernstein. It was to be an intimate portrait.” Though Cooper had no obligation to keep the Bernstein children in the loop during the making of the movie, he did, consulting Jamie and her siblings and showing then pieces of the movie as it was made.
“We’re really glad he did that,” she said, “because if we’d seen it all at one time after it was made, we would have had nervous breakdowns. It was so intense.”
The movie plainly depicts the conductor as a bisexual who had homosexual dalliances throughout his marriage. Certain scenes in the movie were taken from Jamie Bernstein’s book, including one where her father tells her that rumors she’s heard about his sexuality were false.
“I will spend the rest of my life processing it,” Bernstein said of the emotions evoked by the film’s candor. “You can imagine how surreal this whole experience has been. It’s just been crazy to see my parents portrayed by actors and then see yourself portrayed by actors on the screen. It was crazy.”
But she’s very glad it’s happened, not only because it gave a sympathetic portrayal of her father, but because it shone a light on her mother, whom she described as the “absolute glue that kept us all together.” And it opened up opportunities for her and her siblings.
“We’ve been very involved in the movie — more than we expected to be, and we are all going to the Oscars. I don’t want to care about it as much as I do,” she said with a laugh, “but I got a text from Bradley Cooper that said, ‘To hell with it! Let’s just go to the Oscars and have a good time.’” Cooper isn’t expecting the film to garner too many awards, Bernstein said, but she added with a shrug, “But we’re going to the Oscars!”
The assembled crowd burst into applause.
Jamie Bernstein, left, talking with SPRYE president Dolores Eyler at Crawford Mansion last week..