Grabbing the Narrative for Yourself: An Interview with Jamie Bernstein

I still had to sit down, put my butt in the chair for hours at a time, no matter what. Both of those marriages ended. Looking back, what was the most difficult part of writing the book for you? They’re basically squeamish and don’t want to hear about bodily functions. I can’t remember any more what part was harder than another. For the later chapters, I had my journals to refer to. That’s right. The center of our lives was each other and, to a somewhat lesser degree, our spouses. It was going to be too weird, because she was from the Old Country and the old culture, and it was unthinkable in that culture to be overtly gay. Too close. And he wanted a through-line. But back then, when the Beatles and Motown and the Stones were in their glory, he was so into it. altar. As a result, she’s been especially peripatetic this year, crisscrossing the globe to honor her father’s centenary. You guys are really close. God, he was so pretty. Yeah. To me, that’s the real undercurrent of your book — how to figure out your place in the world apart from him, while at the same time taking from him all this phenomenal energy and creativity. That letter was, with a whole bunch of other stuff, in a sealed envelope in the possession of my father’s manager, the notorious Harry Kraut. It said on the front not to open until 25 years after my father’s death. Your writing about the impact of Tom Wolfe’s famous article “Radical Chic,” in which he spoofed your parents’ fundraiser for the Black Panthers and broke your mother’s heart, was so powerful to me. You don’t have analytical faculties yet, so you’re not thinking about what things mean. He was really struggling with his sexual identity. Together, together, together, together. That happened in the middle of it, too. So I’m having it. I suffer from it, because being married to one of the heads of the three-headed monster means you wind up being married to the whole creature. In looking back on it, you wrote about his “slow creep toward overt gayness.” Wouldn’t it have been possible at that moment for him to say, “Yes, darling, it’s true”? I’m sure it’s true, but the evidence was not a slam dunk. He was from Mississippi and had pink plastic glasses, like a lot of cute guys did back then. It reminded me a lot of being pregnant, actually. You write about your ambivalence toward “riding the LB train,” how your shrink advised you not to be another Anna Freud, needing to extol your father’s glory. That’s a fact. She was the recipient of a 2018 T. Plus, as I said in the book, let us never forget: his mother was still alive. I was so glad I had this big thing to do, because it didn’t matter what I was going through or how I felt that day. That’s why trying to pursue music, as I did, was discouraging and frustrating, because we were all taking piano lessons. I’m just a little weary is all. ¤
JAMIE BERNSTEIN: Joyala! Your closeness, particularly with your brother, is quite remarkable. And that was so impressive and fascinating to discover. I was grateful, very grateful. It would be exhausting if you were married to one of the three of us. I had two back-to-back events when the book was published. There was this implicit understanding that there could only be one superstar in the family. Well, my rule of thumb is that everything you try to hide is going to come around and bite you in the ass. They were a real eye-opener that gave me a lot more information and illumination. It really is. About everything. How are your many travels? I can’t remember what it felt like to be writing the book except that it was a gigantic task that was always pressing on me. Let’s just open it!” So we did. Other than that, I cannot complain. You don’t have one.” Fueled by Scotch and an array of prescription pills, flicking lit cigarettes at his children and ramming his tongue down their throats, he was monstrous but also irresistible — a big lover of life and family who nonetheless left his daughter repeatedly wondering: “Why did Daddy have to make everything so squirm-worthy?” 
Now 66, writer, filmmaker, and concert narrator Jamie Bernstein remains the keeper — along with her brother, Alexander, and sister, Nina — of her father’s legacy. Can I say one more thing about my siblings? How and when did you discover that letter? I can’t say I figured it out. Oh right. What I was trying to do in the book, especially in the early chapters, was to present an experience of the world as a child, when so much that happens to you is sensory. It was like a subculture. You’re just experiencing them. No matter where I was, I was doing it. “That’s the Line of Genius. But it wasn’t overt. It’s easy to say that now, but back then it would have been sort of calamitous for his career — the orchestras were still really old-fashioned. You couldn’t just put it out there. There it is: they went into it with their eyes wide open. That was when I found out about all the hate mail my father received after Wolfe’s article was published and about the Jewish Defense League picketers probably being infiltrated by the FBI. I didn’t dare fantasize because I wanted it so badly. He just loved that music. It’s a silly example. Don’t be subsumed by your father. Does anybody know what it is?” We didn’t know, so we looked at each other and said: “We’re not going to wait another 25 years or whatever it was. He would not have been thrilled to be overshadowed by somebody else. It was really like he was making a statement, saying rock music has more energy than anything coming out of the conservatories. Going to the Connecticut house on the weekends. You write in the book about how there really wasn’t room in your family for anyone to be ambitious and successful except for your dad. I had no real understanding of what your plight was when your dad came to Harvard while we were there. But there was also this unspoken understanding: you’ll certainly not be excelling at any comparable level. What emerges is a portrait of an impossibly brilliant father, at once fun-loving and cruel — a man who was “almost psychic at locating a young person’s most vulnerable inner bruise.” “You see this line here that runs down the middle?” he asked at her 28th birthday party, pointing to the crease in his forehead. It was a year ago that I was done with all the radiation and by then the book was already in production. And, yes, truth is relative, so the most we can hope to do is tell it like we saw it. Somebody in the Bernstein office called my brother and sister and me and said, “There’s this sealed envelope in a file cabinet in the back room. As you can see, it’s all just a big blur. I was working by then on a second draft, then on a third. It was all a continuous breathing exercise. Some readers thought there was an ick factor. Yeah! The other thing that works out, as you describe in the book, is your relationship with your siblings. The Christmas Eves and the Thanksgivings and the Seders. Remember that feeling? I knew about none of this until I read Jamie’s book. You’re on the same couch together intertwining your legs.” And it’s kind of true. I meet a lot of people who don’t get along with their siblings, and I just think: Man, I really got lucky. What it was like to grow up in our country in our world in those years. Yes, it was such a bonding experience for us. I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. That’s why he put so much rock music into his Mass. They’re sitting dutifully in their seats, applauding for their family member. They had to attend. On the other hand, we learn painful things about your dad’s betrayal of your mother, his apparent drug addiction. I guess it was a thing I liked. That letter. It was a good piece of advice, actually. There is a breathtaking kind of honesty in your writing. I said something about that to my brother, and he said, “Ya think?” I feel a little bad. I wrote it on trains. I’m like, “Sorry, guys.”
You’re allowed to have your moment of glory. I was hoping for overlaps, generally, because I was telling a story about our generation, too. I was always working on it. I wrote it on planes. I was struck in reading your book that both our moms died of breast cancer while both our dads died of mesothelioma and felt the need to hide the truth of their lives from their Old Country Jewish mothers. JOY HOROWITZ: Jamela! It was really an accident. My ex-husband used to say, “God, you guys are like hamsters. It also gave him direct entry to pop music, which he was interested in. What do we have except the truth as best we can tell it? It was two or three months after handing in the first draft that I got the bad biopsy. I’m actually feeling a little bad right now, because it only occurred to me a few weeks ago that all the attention and hoopla from the book is making my siblings go through it all again. On the one hand, it’s infused with your love for everybody. That was around 1976, 1977. I’m getting some very strange responses. But he was just shattered to lose. It was not even discussed. But there is one clear-eyed insider’s view that should not be missed: a new memoir from the maestro’s first-born daughter, Jamie Bernstein. By the end of the book, you had sorted out a way to do both. Are they really suffering? That was a whole part of it. It makes me feel ambivalent. Well, you know, it was a mixed message. I don’t know. And as long as she was alive, he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It’s a dream come true. Eliot Foundation residency in Gloucester, Massachussetts. When you confronted your dad about the rumors you had heard that he was gay, he lied to you. Yes. It was all just starting back then. It wasn’t worth it because he’d put a pall of gloom over the house. It took about two years to produce the manuscript, and then it took another year for the publisher to generate the actual book. Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein is a remarkable tribute, not simply because the author reveals deeply intimate aspects of her family history but because she does so with an abiding love and honesty. S. Because he was so fed up with 12-tone music. It was too much for my husband and it was too much for Alexander’s wife. That is the luckiest break of all, I think. Crazed but good. That’s kind of what the book felt like. I just put my head down and pushed my way through. Like so many others who had grown up watching him on TV, I was a star-struck fangirl who had no idea what was really going on in his secret life, at a time when he was struggling to come out as gay while living with his lover in his old dorm. It was supposed to be part of our lives. About 10 years ago, there was an amazing series of articles about my father in The New Yorker by the music critic Alex Ross. Yes, of course. I wrote about when he lost at Anagrams. That feeling that, no matter what you’re doing, you’re always cooking this gigantic thing. It’s just amazing. They were the ones who read the FBI files and said, “It’s not verifiable from the files that the JDL picketers were infiltrated.” I had been going around claiming this, including in the book, and it turns out it is not 100 percent certain. My father was very competitive. It’s pretty sweet. That’s a good question. That’s the best you can do in this life regarding anything — especially in this day and age. I really wrestled with those first sections, because I was writing them totally from memory. I wrote an article for The Nation, and those fact-checkers really kicked my ass. Thinking back on it, it was such a bizarre, closeted time. I mean, I’m thrilled the book is getting all this attention. So I feel ecstatic about that but also sad that my siblings are suffering because of it. I wrote it in hotel rooms. And then there was the beautiful realization of your mutual love for John Lennon and the Beatles. Disco culture came in, gay culture started appearing on everyone’s radar. We felt it. I wrote it anywhere I was. How long did it take to write? We have been friends since our undergraduate days at Harvard, when her father arrived on campus to deliver the prestigious Norton Lectures. To me, your book hinges on the letter your mother wrote to your father before they were married. OCTOBER 18, 2018

THE CENTENNIAL OF Leonard Bernstein’s birth has inspired lavish, seemingly unending celebrations around the world — concerts, museum exhibits, and competing biopics starring Bradley Cooper and Jake Gyllenhaal extolling the musical genius of the great conductor, composer, and showman. Then I had to start going through all the treatment mishegoss. So, he could learn about it from his kids. I caught up with her by phone to talk about all things Bernstein. ¤
Joy Horowitz, the author of two books, teaches at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. I’ve created the sibling dynamic all over again. He announced one day that he could not pursue our relationship any further because he was gay. You mean you feel guilty you’re getting the attention? No one had ever seen this letter before. As old Jewish pals are wont to do, we began the interview by greeting each other with the Yiddishized versions of our first names, like our bubbes. And then present it in a context of love and caring and connection. He was my freshman year boyfriend when I lived up at Radcliffe. Your mother wrote:  
[Y]ou are a homosexual and may never change — you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depends on a certain sexual pattern, what can you do? How did you summon the courage to write this story the way you did? It was only after we graduated that things started to open up a little. Yeah. Not that I knew how to go about it or anything. Everyone else was at a lower level. Actually, the first draft was even more that way, and my editor made me go back and back and back over those opening chapters because he felt they were so different from the later ones. That helped me so much, because I just had to think about the writing and nothing else. It was kind of revelatory, because we did not have this evidence that our mother knew exactly what she was getting into, but obviously she did. So you’re much better off grabbing the narrative for yourself and presenting it in the best way you can. My first college boyfriend came out of the closet in the middle of our romance. We were all certainly encouraged to be successful in the world. What was the timing of your getting breast cancer? Something like that.