Remembering the life of composer Leonard Bernstein


Born 100 years ago this past August, Leonard Bernstein was a composer, conductor, author and pianist. Bernstein was the musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 1958 to 1969, but arguably, he became best known for his musical contributions to a number of Broadway productions –– most notably “West Side Story.”

He died on Oct. 14, 1990 of mesothelioma, a cancer of the thin layer of tissue that surrounds the lungs. He smoked constantly throughout his life, his daughter, Jamie Bernstein, said. She spoke to the Hewlett chapter of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization of America, at the Sephardic Temple in Cedarhurst on Dec. 4, on her memoir, “Famous Father Girl.”

Chapter president Georgene Winick said that the event came about through the Jewish Book Council, an organization that encourages Jewish literature. A Leonard Bernstein fan, Winick said that she read the book. “It’s fabulous, “ she said. “It’s a very personal account of what it’s like to grow up as his daughter.” When asked about what she looked forward to most about the event, a visibly eager Winick said, “I guess I’m just really excited to meet her.”

Bernstein spoke about the process of writing the book, from digging through her old journals that she said were filled with stories of old boyfriends for nuggets about the family to trying –– albeit unsuccessfully–– to milk any more details about growing up with such a famous father from her brother and sister.

Being the centennial of her father’s birth, both she and her literary agent thought the time was right to share her memories of growing up in The Dakota, the apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where over the years many luminaries have lived, including football coach and television analyst John Madden and Beatle John Lennon. “My sister called it our unrepeatable opportunity,” she said. “To not only remind the world of who Leonard Bernstein was, but to also introduce him to young people.”

She touched a wide variety of topics, including her own relationship with music; her father’s activism, including protesting the Vietnam War and advocating for nuclear disarmament; and what it was like having so many of her father’s famous friends around the house. “When you’re little your family is your family,” she said. “And your parents’ friends are your parents’ friends, you have no frame of reference for who they might be in the world.”

Bernstein also answered a few questions, and then a room of more than 60 people, which had previously been nearly silent, erupted in conversation and discussion. It was obvious that the room was fully populated with huge fans of her father. Many attendees gripped their own copies of “Famous Father Girl” as they shared stories about times they had seen his shows or listened to his compositions. “Having lived through the time that Leonard Bernstein was active on Broadway,” said Natalie Zeiger, a member of the Hewlett Hadassah chapter. “To hear his daughter talk about him really was a treat.”

Her father’s legacy is likely to keep Bernstein busy for a few years to come. A Broadway revival of “West Side Story” is in the works, as is a film remake directed by Steven Spielberg. Additionally, Academy Award-nominated actor Bradley Cooper will be staring and directing a biopic of her father’s life. “We can’t quite picture Bradley Cooper as our dad,” joked Bernstein. “He’s a chameleon so who knows, but he’ll never be able to make himself short enough.”