This past Thursday, Nina Bernstein Simmons, Alexander Bernstein and Jamie Bernstein gathered at their family’s Connecticut home to talk about “Maestro,” the movie that Bradley Cooper has made about their late parents. Much of the movie was filmed in this house, where the children share cherished memories of their father, the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, and their mother, actress Felicia Montealegre.
Rocca asked, “How much time do you all spend in the house now?”
“Every chance we get,” said Jamie. “Weekends and lots of summer-time. It’s heaven here.”
Cooper not only co-stars, he also co-wrote the movie and directed it. It’s his second film as a director, the first being the hit “A Star Is Born” with Lady Gaga. Still, he needed the consent of the three living Bernsteins to make the movie.
He met with first-born Jamie in a New York restaurant. He recalled: “I eat with my hands all the time, and I’m eating the spinach with my hands. And I recognize it, and then I either apologize or something, and you said, ‘That’s what my dad used to do.’ And I remember in that moment I thought: Oh, this might happen.”
“Corn on the cob was his favorite thing!” Jamie said.
Cooper immersed himself in the life of Leonard Bernstein, who from the age of 25 was a bold-faced name in American culture: The longtime conductor of the New York Philharmonic – the man who made classical music approachable through his televised “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS – and the composer of symphonies and landmark musicals, including “West Side Story” and “Candide.
Becoming Bernstein meant looking like him at various stages, and the transformation is startling. “It took four years, four years of tests,” said Cooper.
You may have read that Cooper’s makeup includes a prosthetic nose that the non-Jewish actor used to portray the Jewish Bernstein. The Bernsteins themselves. “I just want to point out that Bradley has a very substantial nose,” said Jamie. “And I don’t think anybody noticed that before the fracas happened. It’s the absolute non-issue of all time.”
But “Maestro” is not a womb-to-tomb biopic. Instead, Cooper decided to explore the relationship between Bernstein and his lesser-known wife, portrayed by Carey Mulligan. “Our mom was the most elegant, delicious person,” said Nina Bernstein Simmons.
Theirs was a love story, but complicated by the fact that Bernstein also had affairs with men.
“She didn’t go into the marriage blindly?” asked Rocca.
“Not at all,” Nina replied.
Jamie added, “She knew exactly what the deal was.”
Alexander Bernstein said, “They obviously loved each other to death. They never fought in front of us. We never saw any darkness. We felt a lot. They kept everything very well tidied, and pretty well-hidden.”
But as a young woman, Jamie had questions about the rumors about her dad, as depicted in the film. Her father didn’t tell her the truth.
In her 2018 memoir, “Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein,” Jamie reported that shortly after their wedding, her mother wrote to her father: “I’m willing to accept you as you are without being a martyr and sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar.” But according to Jamie, she had done exactly that.
“Yeah, that’s how I feel,” she said. “I feel like it cost her everything to stick with it. It was really tough for her, and I think it contributed to her early death, in a way.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Alexander. “I think, you know, probably she regretted a lot of things looking back.”
Felicia Montealegre died of lung cancer in 1978 at the age of 56. “She had a wonderful, rich life, and mostly wonderful marriage, and a lot of love,” Alexander said.
As much as “Maestro” is a love story about a marriage, it is also a story about Leonard Bernstein’s love of music. Cooper was actually conducting the musicians during filming of Mahler’s Second Symphony: “It took me six-and-a-half years of working on it for six minutes and 25 seconds of music,” he said. “I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life, and I may never again.”
Bernstein died from a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 72. He and Bradley Cooper never met.
Nina asked Cooper if he missed Bernstein. “Oh yeah, man,” he replied. “It’s hard to talk about. I don’t know, we shared something very special, the four of us. It’s hard to even articulate. But he was with us, he was with me certainly, throughout the entire time. His energy has somehow found its way to me that I really do feel like I know him.”
To watch a trailer for “Maestro” click on the video player below:
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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Joseph Frandino.