A Month of Reflection | 1 | Growing Up Bernstein

by Glenn on November 1, 2018

It’s been a good year for reading. I heard someone (Neil Postman?) say that there isn’t much of a difference between someone who can’t read and someone who doesn’t read. I agree at least in terms of the effect. Perhaps the person who can’t read would like to and would actually read if they had the ability, whereas the person who doesn’t read has chosen to make other things a priority. I think the term for the latter person is “functionally illiterate.” That’s no good.

I know people who take great pleasure in reading. I am not one of them. For me, reading is work. It’s not miserable work, but like some work, though it’s not to be shirked, it takes some effort and self-discipline to get it done. Television and movies are easy. They are like going to the dentist. Just get there and the work is done for and to you. Reading asks something of you. I do like having read. And while I say that movies and television are easier than reading, I have yet to find a movie that is as good as its book.

Due to a significant change in work responsibilities (to wit, earlier this year we sold the business that preoccupied more of my time than I wished it to), I have made more time for reading this year than I think at any other time in my life. This has felt really good.

My reading is now divided into two types. The first is traditional books, including digital versions on the Kindle app. The other type of reading is “ristening” (reading + listening), a term coined by Steve Leveen, the founder and owner of the company, Levenger. In his book, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life: How to get more books in your life and more life from your books, he shared the story of his frustration of being so busy with work and having so little time to read. His solution was to take advantage of times in his day when he was alone and could read if he were not otherwise occupied (driving and doing dishes, obvious examples). He began to listen to audio books. Since I currently spend twenty or more hours a week driving, I have, since summer, for the most part turned off talk/news radio and music and started “ristening” to books.

My 2018 reading list needs some updating, but I count at least 49 at this point, 27 physical/digital books and 22 audio books. Some of this reading is what might be called escapist (or worse—perhaps “trash” in some minds—though I maintain there is value in reading them), Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of Erle Stanly Gardner Perry Mason mysteries for example. But I’ve read some demanding things, too. On the fiction side I think this was my third (at least) journey through J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As far as non-fiction, I really enjoyed Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, which I both read and listened to.

I thought I would take the month of November to reflect on some of the things I’ve been reading this year in a spirit of gratitude that I can read and I have had the wherewithal to do so.

My starting place: Jamie Bernstein’s Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2018).

This was, perhaps the most enjoyable book I read this year. It was an absolute page-turner. I turned to it hoping there was some Mahler content (there was) but got sucked into this beautiful and heart-breaking story.

After I started it, I found myself enjoying it so much that I made a recommendation to the Mahler ListServ. Some time later, someone responded:

“Following up (happily) on Glenn Austin’s M-List recommendation, I recently read and greatly enjoyed Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard’s oldest child, who is an excellent writer. It’s an interesting story of a loving but highly dysfunctional family, led by a complex and creative genius with a dominating personality that overwhelmed those closest to him.

“The book also presents a wealth of information about cultural life in the U.S. and Europe during almost five decades. And, to stay on topic, there are, as one would expect, many great stories about Lenny’s Mahler performances and recordings.”

This about captures it. The book is often laugh-out-loud funny, especially reading about Leonard behind the wheel of a car. Jamie writes he “drove with the attention span of a puppy, paid minimal attention to lane dividers, and turned around to face anyone he was addressing in the back seat—somehow he never got a ticket. His automotive invulnerability was all part of the Lenny magic.”

In addition to being a bad driver, he was a bad dresser and we learn that his wife, Felicia, took and hid “things like flocked orange sweaters and black leather bathing trunks.”

Leonard became famous when “at age twenty-five, he’d stepped in for the flu-stricken maestro, Bruno Walter, in Carnegie Hall—an event that made the front page of the New York Times.” As far as content about Gustav Mahler, early on there was this delightful paragraph:

“One afternoon, Daddy hauled his portable record player down the rocky path to the swimming pool so he could listen to a recording of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony while he studied the score. He was planning to reintroduce the long-neglected music of Gustav Mahler to his New York Philharmonic audiences in the fall. The conductor on the recording was Bruno Walter—the very maestro who had conveniently caught the flu and given Leonard Bernstein his big conducting break back in 1943. Now, nearly two decades later, Daddy sat in the sun in his bathing suit, with a fresh pack of L&M’s on the little table next to his lounge chair, following the recording with the score in his lap while his children splashed in the pool. As the record played, Daddy pointed out the kid-friendly features of the symphony to Alexander and me. ‘You hear that jingling? That’s sleigh bells! Listen—here they come again!’ In the last movement, he told us that the soprano was describing a child’s vision of heaven.”

Later on there was this on the Fifth:

“A few months later at the Philharmonic, Linn and I went to Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, which neither of us had heard before. In fact, few people in that audience had; this concert was part of Daddy’s ongoing education of his public about the neglected wonders of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies. During the Adagietto movement, the most achingly beautiful music we’d ever heard, Linn fell apart. Id’ never seen her cry over anything before; she was notoriously flinty. Now here she was, streaming with tears—and that made me break down, too. She never did explain why that music got to her the way it did—but that was how we discovered the point of music like the Adagietto: how it could express the deepest part of one’s inner universe, the part that could never be put into words. Especially when you’re fifteen.”

Jamie Bernstein is a terrific writer and I enjoyed this immensely even as it was not always a sunny book. Leonard Bernstein lived an outsized life, which included famous friends, like Mike Nichols. But this life took its toll on the people close to him. This comment about her mother, Felicia:

“I thought for the first time about how a successful performing artist is constantly replenished through performance and audience adulation, while the artist’s companion gets slowly but inexorably depleted.”

There is considerable darkness in this book, especially surrounding her father’s complicated marriage to Felicia and his homosexuality. Whatever we think it might be like growing up in a famous family, it doesn’t mean an exemption from challenges and difficulties. We also get a sense of what it was like growing up during the age of assassinations. Bernstein conducted Mahler’s Second Symphony in memory of President Kennedy. The 60’s—Vietnam and Civil Rights—are a stormy backdrop for this story.

Jamie had to come to terms with the fact that she was not the musician her father was. (Well, who is?) She wrote,

“One night . . . Alexander and I were watching TV in the library with some friends when we discovered that Leonard Bernstein was on PBS, conducting my old favorite, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. The sleigh bells! I danced around the library to the familiar music. Then, when the soft, aching third movement began, I slipped into the adjoining living room and settled cross-legged into the big upholstered rocking chair. The back of the chair was so tall that no one in the library could see me as I listened to the slow movement with my eyes close, tears streaming down my face.

“The next day I wrote in my journal:

“I was crying because I can’t be a musician. I was crying because I can’t be a musician. I was crying because I can’t be a musician.”

The most affecting part of the book was the death of Jamie’s mom, Felicia, and to see how it affected everyone, including Leonard, who had this impossibly complicated relationship with her. But then this wonderful moment:

“But for that first fragile Christmas without our mother, the plan was to go somewhere else entirely. The four of us and Shirley, plus Alexander’s best friend, Bart, our honorary fourth sibling, went to the splendid Jamaican resort Round Hill. The bright, lazy days seemed to bring my father around. On Christmas night, as we shared a nightcap at the Round Hill bar, Daddy wandered over to a small neglected piano, sat down, and played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue in its entirety—a brilliant, exuberant performance, just four us and a handful of astonished hotel guests. That was when we knew Daddy was going to be okay.”

It’s troubling to read about Leonard’s constant smoking. Obviously, this was a different time, but we know how the story is going to end and it’s sad to see how it affected Leonard who, at 72, died too young. Jamie writes,

“But his bronchitis seemed to have become a permanent physical state. The coughing was ghastly—and by now I had developed a Pavlovian aversion to the very sound of coughing. After a particularly awful bout, he would look very sad and say, ‘It just won’t go away.’ And then take a drag of his cigarette.”

*   *   *

I am grateful to Leonard Bernstein for his performances of Gustav Mahler’s music. Two of his recordings—the First Symphony with the Concertgebouw and the Fifth Symphony with the Vienna Phiharmonic—are among my favorites. A group of us went to the Hollywood Bowl to watch Bernstein conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahlers’ Fifth Symphony. I so clearly remember this write-up of the concert (and can’t believe it’s out there in internet land) even as I have limited memories of what we heard that night. My main memories are visual, not aural. I was so impressed with the way the string sections seemed to move together. They danced as they played. That was phenomenal. I think I knew it was a special night musically, but I don’t think I understood much back then. I guess I knew I should like it and perhaps that was enough. I do wish I could take my 55-year-old ears and experience back to that moment to hear it again.

I am grateful to Jamie Bernstein for bringing her father to life. Even as she makes him more human (and an extraordinarily complicated one), he becomes more impressive as an artist. It couldn’t have been easy always to share him. As a child she had no choice. But here, as an adult, her willingness to do so is a real gift.