Born on August 25, 1918, Leonard Bernstein became one of the most iconic musicians of his time. The composer, conductor, educator, pianist, broadcaster, and cultural ambassador was a larger than life public figure, but also a devoted and charismatic father. In celebration of the centenary of her father’s birth, Jamie Bernstein shares some of her favorite family photos — including a couple shared exclusively with WFMT.
"My grandmother Jennie told me that when her first born son Lenny was a baby, she washed his diapers by boiling them in a big pot, which she stirred with a stick. Grandma outlived that son, and in her 94 years, met movie stars and presidents, and witnessed everything from Pampers to a moon landing. No matter where in the world my father was, he always called his mother on Fridays. One of his greatest tributes to her is his setting of the bedtime story she made up called "Little Smary," which Lenny demanded she tell him every single night."
"Here's a picture of my father in his early 20's, on a holiday in Key West, just starting his musical career, young and handsome, bursting with confidence and good humor. This was when he wrote "Conchtown," a piece he didn't finish but which he repeatedly mined for ingredients to put in future works. The melody of "America" from West Side Story is all in there!"
"My siblings and I eventually came to realize that we were the guinea pigs for our father's Young People's Concerts scripts. In the car, we all listened to the pop station; my father genuinely enjoyed the pop music we listened to. This led to his practice on the Young People's Concerts of using tunes by the Beatles, the Kinks, and others to illustrate his various points about orchestral music. The kids in the audience loved it."
"When I was little, my parents played two-piano music together, and it was beautiful. But my mother played the piano less and less. She said she was too shy, too intimidated. But we continued to have two pianos in the living room, which doubled the fun at many a party."
"When you're a kid, your family is just your family; you have no frame of reference for assessing your parents' friends who come and go. Only much later did I realize how extraordinary it was to be surrounded by the luminaries in the worlds of theatre, literature, and art."
"There was always a summer visit from Aaron Copland. Aaron was the closest thing to an official composing teacher that Daddy ever had- but their connection contained so much more. Aaron was mentor, friend, confidant, co-lefty, and devoted pen pal. (If they had ever been lovers, it was the least important aspect of their deep friendship.) I could sense their mutual affection when Aaron shambled in and Daddy enveloped him in a bear hug. Aaron was not the kid-friendliest guy in the world, but his buckteeth, goofy grin, and infectious giggle made him irresistible. His music was part of our family’s DNA. Aaron’s music had the power to move me as much as Daddy’s did; every one of Aaron’s notes always seemed to be in just the right place."
“We sensed that Mummy was taking her role of Mrs. Maestro much more seriously. Her new walk-in closet was a marvel of treasures: Chanel suits, Dior evening dresses, a parade of elegant shoes and purses – all that glittering armor for the myriad events she attended and hosted. Even her hairdo from the Kenneth salon seemed blonder, the swept-up French twist somehow more regal. When she sat at her desk, immaculately dressed, one hand holding a phone receiver to her ear, the fingers of the other hand extending her cigarette ceilingward [sic] as she intoned, 'Hello, this is Mrs. Leonard Bernstein calling…,' well, she was formidable. (Years later, I gasped in recognition to see Betty Draper on Mad Men assume the same exact posture.)”
"Bernstein in his natural habitat: at the piano, regaling a crowd of happy people. I would go to sleep at night listening to the sound of the grownups downstairs laughing, playing word games or charades, and roaring around the piano. When I was very young, I thought all grownups did was have fun. I couldn't wait to be a grownup. It took me quite a few years to comprehend that adulthood was a complicated matter."
"My father was a compulsively gregarious person. He loved to be surrounded by people: orchestra musicians, audience members, friends, family... always comfortable at the center of a crowd. But late at night, my father turned into his other self: a solitary composer, looking deep into himself to dream up new notes."
"In the centennial year, much is being made of Leonard Bernstein as a giant of his age. But he was just a dad, too. That's the side I saw."
Jamie Bernstein published a memoir, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing up Bernstein, and has also toured with her original stage production, Late Night with Leonard Bernstein, which both share more intimate stories and experiences.