Applause / The Bernsteins of Fairfield
“When I turned ten, we said good-bye to the poky little Redding (Ct.) house and got a bigger country house in Fairfield, Connecticut,” writes Jamie Bernstein in her frank, funny/tragic, touching, chatty and worshipful yet clear-eyed new book, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.” (The title comes from the teasing name given Jamie by a second-grade classmate.)
The eldest child in the family whose paterfamilias was the lauded, eclectic, peripatetic, conflicted, animated conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, Jamie grew up in an atmosphere where their private lives were often public fodder. Fairfield was a respite, a place to “surround ourselves with Mummy’s handiwork,” Jamie writes, “her paintings and needlepoint pillows, her hand-restored lamps, her wicker chairs picked clean with dental instruments.” (Mummy was actress Felicia Montealegre.)
The Bernsteins bought the 100-year-old Greenfield Hill house in 1962 for the then extravagant sum of $80,000, which today, Jamie writes in her book, “would not buy you a pup tent in Fairfield.” Once a horse farm with “barns and stables, meadows and woods,” the property also boasts a tennis court and a pool with a logo at one end branding it as “An Esther Williams Swimming Pool.”
“It’s an eccentric house that started out as a New England saltbox,” Jamie said in a phone interview. “It rambles around in funny ways. We still have it.”
Nowadays, the compound is in especial use during Christmas, Thanksgiving, Passover, family holidays. Jamie occupies the main dwelling. When brother Alexander and his family come, they stay in the little house that was converted from their father’s studio. Sister Nina visits, too, although she has her own country house elsewhere.
Echoes remain of the insomniac composer who would write in his studio far into the night. “It was amazing how much he got done without sleep,” said Jamie. “He burned his candle at both ends living about three lives in one. I remember when he finished one work because he came out waving the manuscript over his head and yelling ‘I did it, I did it.’ It was about six o’clock and we were all sitting by the pool and my mother yelled ‘Hooray’ and jumped into the pool with all her clothes on.”
Although Fairfield was a welcome weekend retreat, a place of “jollity ... untainted by sadness,” in Jamie’s words, the family’s roots were in Manhattan. “We didn’t really interact very much with the year-round residents in Fairfield,” writes Jamie. Except for a jaunt to Zera Musicland or trolling “the antique shops and junk shops along Route 7,” why would they? After all, they numbered among their friends and guests Jackie Kennedy, Isaac Stern, Aaron Copland, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Avedon, Mike Nichols, Lauren Bacall and so many others.
There was one attempt at fitting in, although not initiated by the Bernsteins. “In the beginning I seem to recall the Hunt Club was no Jews allowed,” said Jamie. “Then some people there wanted to make an exception for our family and invited our father to join, which in a way was even worse. And so my father politely declined.”
Sought after around the world, lionized, feted, honored, recognized everywhere he went, the Maestro is the centerpiece of this season’s Tanglewood Festival, celebrating the centennial of his birth. Come this Aug. 25, the anniversary of the very date he was born in 1918, the festival presents a gala concert, hosted by Broadway star Audra McDonald. It features Yo-Yo Ma and Midori, with the participation of a full chorus and not just the resident Boston Symphony Orchestra, but musicians from New York, Vienna, Israel and Germany.
Other concerts in the Tanglewood season offer many Bernstein compositions — ranging from classical symphonies to musical theater (“West Side Story,” “On the Town”), ballets (“Fancy Free,” “Facsimile”) a film score (“On the Waterfront”) and art songs. Also on the roster are composers he championed: Mahler, Copland, Tchaikovsky.
Tanglewood’s own description posits Bernstein as “a dominant cultural figure of his time.” Writes Jamie, “The summer I worked there, I observed how Daddy’s arrival turned the place into an adulation machine. Oh, how they carried on over him!” Jamie herself is host and presenter for a singular Tanglewood event Aug. 10, a Young People’s Concert titled
Public adulation took its private toll on health and relationships, but didn’t stop Lenny from whirlwinding through life. A chimney of a smoker (dying at age 72), he was conflicted as a husband (he was admittedly bisexual) and as a father who always had to be the center of attention, but whose children eagerly pounced upon him when he returned from Europe or Japan or Wherever.
“There was nothing pretentious about him,” said Jamie. “I travel all around narrating concerts and everywhere I go people have stories about their own encounters with my dad. They all
Indeed, he was a dominant Tanglewood presence for 50 years. “The centennial is exciting for us because it gives us this gigantic and unrepeatable opportunity to remind the world who he was and what he left us and to introduce him to young people who might not know who he is,” said Jamie.
“We’ve been thinking about his legacy as a conductor with his fantastic recordings and videos which are a resource for knowing everything about classical music. Also as a multifaceted composer and as a teacher, starting the Omnibus programs, his amazing Norton lectures at Harvard and his books. His whole aspect of being was about being a teacher.”
At the end of his life, recalled Jamie, he said he was proudest of his work as an educator, “whether leading the orchestra or doing the Young People’s Concerts on TV or telling a Jewish joke or reciting Lewis Carroll. It was all the same essential act of sharing something he cared about.”
It is fitting, then, that his legacy for his children devolved as teachers. Jamie lectures on music; Alexander started a business which uses the arts and the artistic process to infuse entire school curricula, while Nina, a chef, goes to high schools in very difficult communities and neighborhoods to demonstrate how to use fresh ingredients.
The work goes on. Jamie helped make a documentary, “Crescendo: The Power of Music,” about El Sistema, the Venezuelan youth orchestra. Upcoming are several Hollywood films: a remake of “West Side Story,” plus two Lenny biographies, Jake Gyllenhaal in “The American” and Bradley Cooper in “Bernstein.”
Whatever biographical information informs the films, music is bound to be central. “We all love music,” said Jamie, talking about herself and her siblings. “We all had to take piano lessons. And we didn’t like them. And we didn’t practice and we had bad attitudes. Yet music filled our lives.” In her book she writes, “When we listen to (his) music, it’s the next best thing to getting a hug from Daddy himself.”
To the world, the outspoken liberal that was Leonard Bernstein of Fairfield and New York left as much nonmusical as musical hugs. “His lifelong work as a humanitarian is something that’s really extraordinary and means a lot to young artists today,” Jamie said. “The whole idea of being in an ivory tower is really being set aside and today’s artists use the wonderful term ‘citizen artist,’ using their art to actively engage with their communities and actively try to make the world a better place. And that was everything my father meant and did in his life. So he was really the granddaddy of citizen artists.”