Jamie Bernstein, her ‘Famous Father,’ and nothing to hide

Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre with children (from left) Alexander, Nina, and Jamie in an undated family photo.
Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Montealegre with children (from left) Alexander, Nina, and Jamie in an undated family photo.

This centennial year has been packed with commemorations of conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s yearlong celebration of his works. As part of that, Jamie Bernstein, his filmmaking, concert-narrating eldest daughter, is directing a semi-staged performance of her father’s one-act opera “Trouble in Tahiti” on July 12 at Tanglewood. But one of this year’s remembrances is also personal: In her new memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” Jamie dishes out the details and explores the complications of growing up with one of the most famous and charismatic musicians of his generation.

Q. You and your siblings Alexander and Nina have become, as you put it in your book, the “Three-Headed Monster,” but for much of the events detailed in your memoir, “Famous Father Girl,” Nina was too young to really participate. What helped you grow closer as you got older?

A. I think the death of both of our parents really drew us together. When our mother died, Nina was 16. We really huddled after that; she needed us, and we needed each other. Then after our father died, that just made the bond all the stronger. Maybe because our lives have been so unusual, the only two people who can understand what any one of the three is going through are the other two siblings. So for that reason too, we cling to each other. 


Q. “Famous Father Girl” contains some pretty intimate details about your personal life and your father’s personal life. I’m wondering how you navigated that, and deciding what to include and what not to.

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A. In terms of intimate details, when it comes to details that are controversial — things about my father’s bisexuality, stuff like that — my feeling always is that anything you try to hide or slip under the rug or obfuscate is inevitably going to come back around and bite you in the butt. And so I always feel like you’re in such a better position if you just put it out there unequivocally, and that disarms those who would try to make something negative out of it. I would say that’s my general rule of thumb.

Q. You’re directing “Trouble in Tahiti” at Tanglewood, and as I understand it, the names of the married couple were originally Sam and Jennie, after your father’s parents.

A. His parents were not a happily married couple. They didn’t get along, they fought over money, and I think that’s what my father was processing as he wrote “Trouble in Tahiti.” You may have heard that he wrote the opera on his honeymoon with my mother, which is hilarious becuase there they were starting out their marriage and he was writing about a failing marriage. Maybe it was a kind of superstitious thing. If I write about it then it won’t happen to me, or something. 

He originally named his characters after his parents, then he wound up changing the wife’s name to his grandmother’s name instead of his mother. I wish I knew what his parents made of “Trouble in Tahiti,” but I never heard any reports of what their reaction was. How can you not wonder? It’s not even as if he was disguising anything! 


Q. What was your relationship like with Sam and Jennie Bernstein?

A. My own was very close. As a little girl, I loved their little suburban house. It was so normal. It was like stepping into one of the sitcoms we watched all the time. They let us watch TV while we ate lunch. They may have been difficult as parents, but as grandparents they were tops. 

Q. What made you want to direct “Trouble in Tahiti,” originally?

A. Originally I was invited to direct it at Stony Brook University by a friend of mine, Tim Long. I was kind of intimidated. Because it was in a university atmosphere, it meant that we could work on it and rehearse it for a long time. That gave me the opportunity to think about the opera and how to express it in physical space. It was like taking a course in directing for myself. After that, I was invited to direct it in two other places, and by then I had sort of acquired my sea legs for the project. It’s the only staged work I’ve directed.

Q. Do you have any interests in directing other operas, or other staged works by your father?


A. I do have a secret dream of directing his piece “Mass.” It’s for singers, players, and dancers, and it consists of orchestra, several choruses, a kids’ chorus, a street chorus that sings in a Broadway idiom, a marching band, a rock band. . . . It has everything. I just saw this piece performed last week in Austin, and I was thinking “Boy, I wish I could get my hands on this one!” I have ideas about how to do it. But that’s a pipe dream. 

Q. If your father knew what had happened since his death, what cultural moment would he be most angry to have missed?

A. I think the election of Barack Obama. I think he would have been ecstatic, and to the degree that he would have been ecstatic, he would be apoplectic now about our political situation. I think about him all the time. Things are so dire, and he would just be beside himself. He would also have been excited to witness the legalization of gay marriage. That would have been astonishing to him.

Q. Are there any new works of music or theater that you think he would have fallen in love with?

A. The immediate answer is “Hamilton.” He wrote a Broadway musical called “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” that was a flop. I think that my father was trying a lot of things in that show that Lin-Manuel Miranda managed to pull off. I think my father would have been thrilled and maybe a little jealous to see “Hamilton.”


At Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox. Thursday.888-266-1200,

Zoë Madonna can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.