In 1970, before entering Harvard, Jamie Bernstein spent the summer at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where her father had flourished as a young man. After a while, she heard tales of his earlier days (“moonlit naked swims in the lake, scurrying between practice cabins . . . you weren’t supposed to hear such things about your own father”). His other life became inescapable, and she wrote him a long letter, demanding answers. He denied everything, at Felicia’s insistence, as Jamie now believes—an assertion that (perhaps unfairly) places the blame for lying on her mother. In any case, Jamie’s sense of her father as a sexual being, and his superabundant warmth with his children, added to her own romantic difficulties. There were many boyfriends, some good, some not, but all, apparently, lacking the divine spark. The phrase for this, I suppose, is emotional incest; Lenny was all over her life, tying her up without meaning to. He enjoyed rock music in the sixties, especially the Beatles, and would accompany her to concerts and clubs. But sometimes his enjoyment spilled over:

One night we all went to Casino Vail, a disco. They began playing the theme from “Zorba the Greek,” of all things, and Daddy grabbed me. The next thing I knew we were dancing full tilt to the bouzouki music, just the two of us, while the crowd made a ring around us, clapping in rhythm and egging us on. Daddy pulled out a handkerchief and was waving it around above his head—then he was down on his knees! I danced in a circle around him; what else could I do? I was trapped: a mortified moon, doomed to eternal orbit around an ecstatic, sweaty, handkerchief-swirling sun.

She was dazzled, embarrassed, vaguely disgusted. In 1972, when she was a junior at Harvard, her father appeared with a young lover, Tom Cothran, and took up residence in Eliot House, his old dorm. For an academic year, he prepared the Norton Lectures. Professor Daddy, the campus hero! He stayed up half the night with undergraduates, talking and playing music, stealing her college social life.

After the early reveries of family happiness, frustration runs through the narrative; the story grows increasingly shadowed and anxious. Jamie had wanted to be a musician, but as a child she hated piano lessons. “Well, you’ll never be a great pianist,” Lenny told her, holding her in his lap, a remark that could be seen as hostile—or, possibly, as a benevolent warning against heartbreak. In any case, she was more of a rock fan than a classical kid, and for years wrote and performed songs herself, without much success. In the end, she wrote songs for her father on special occasions.

“I see your thirty. I hear your thirty. I validate your thirty.”

She looks back on her family life with an understanding of the distance between desire and happiness. Even Leonard Bernstein felt that distance. Fifty years ago, he could not live openly as a gay man, but he couldn’t stop loving his wife, either, and he felt terribly guilty about what he put Felicia through. After twenty years of marriage, she was not doing well. Willing to serve as “Mrs. Maestro,” she had given up most of her career. She developed eccentricities and odd illnesses, engaged in passionate busywork (collecting, decorating, gardening); she made paintings and threw them away. And then, in 1970, meaning well, she stepped into the social disaster of the century—a fund-raising party for the Black Panthers held in the Park Avenue family apartment, an event attended by Tom Wolfe, of New York, who published a poisonous (and funny) lampoon. Lenny, who was accustomed to brickbats, picked himself up and kept his conducting dates, but Jamie believes that Felicia, suffering from public humiliation, was never the same. At dinner one night, she pronounced a curse upon her husband: “You’re going to die a lonely, bitter old queen! ” Jamie says she uttered it as a joke, in the self-parodying tones of theatrical high camp. Maybe so, but it still sounds like the maledizione from “Rigoletto.” Felicia turns out to be a victim of the family romance; perhaps next time the story needs to be told from her point of view.

By the mid-seventies, she was ill with cancer, and Lenny, having broken up with Cothran, returned to their apartment and nursed her until her death, at fifty-six, in 1978. And then, guilty and lost, he fell apart. The body electric no longer charmed everyone in sight. Adonis had become Silenus, sometimes drunk and mean, talking of sex too much, his hands too active, his tongue placed down unwilling throats. The extraordinary craving for sensation, for love, for contact, which he converted, refined, and fed back to his audience in lavishly expended musical effort—a gift to everyone—was wearing him out. Despite every medical warning, he smoked incessantly, even in doctors’ offices. When he could sleep at all, he slept an entire day. Mortified by his increasing physical squalor, Jamie was also dismayed by the entourage that surrounded him away from home. At the 1983 Houston première of his late opera “A Quiet Place,” or in some distant foreign city, the after-concert party would include his manager, his publicist, various musical assistants, his audio engineer, his video director, local notables and social lions, handsome young men, and assorted hangers-on. The reception had become a champagne-and-caviar version of a Rolling Stones tour stop.

As he turned seventy, in 1988, there were worldwide celebrations and a huge event at Tanglewood with the Boston Symphony, at the conclusion of which, Jamie writes, “everyone was awash in emotion,” but Bernstein, incontinent, “was awash from the waist down. And of course he had to go on stage and hug everyone. On camera.” For Jamie, the difficulties in his last decade figured as both the ordinary disasters of old age and the awe-inspiring decay of a national monument. “Everything had become such an effort for him: his breathing, his insomnia, and all the additional threescore-and-ten indignities. His belly was terribly distended; while the rest of him seemed to be collapsing in on itself.” Yet, in thinking of Bernstein’s later years, one has to invoke the mysteries of artistic will, its capacity to redeem and transcend many kinds of failure. Perhaps only Thomas Mann could have mastered the ironies of Bernstein’s story. As he fell apart physically and morally, he wrote some demanding and beautiful music (including the song cycle “Arias and Barcarolles”), and his work on the podium became ever more disciplined, often profound, even visionary.

Not all the performances from the nineteen-eighties are at the same level, but the best ones, recorded live at concerts, put him among the immortals. There was a series of Mozart symphonies with the Vienna Philharmonic; a fresh Mahler cycle recorded in Vienna, Amsterdam, and New York; a majestic Sibelius Fifth; Haydn, Schumann, Copland, Shostakovich; his own much abandoned, much revived 1956 show “Candide.” The public acclaim and the music itself kept him going, and, again and again, he pulled himself together for a performance. Right at the end, in 1989, as the Wall was coming down, he led a powerful Beethoven’s Ninth in Berlin, which was broadcast all over the world. The orchestral players were drawn from London, New York, Munich, Dresden, Paris, and St. Petersburg, in a kind of universal shout of happiness that Soviet Communism was finished. On the podium, the superb bone structure of his handsome brow was intact; a tuxedo pulled in the belly; his movements were not as fluent as earlier—he used his fists more—but he was completely in command. It was his last great public event. (All this late work—videotaped concerts and recordings—has been rereleased by Deutsche Grammophon as a gigantic box set. The recordings are individually available as well.)

He died in 1990, at seventy-two (young for a conductor), not alone, as Felicia had predicted, but attended by family and friends and saluted, as the cortège passed through the city streets, by New York hardhats (“Goodbye, Lenny!”). Charles Ives and Aaron Copland were great composers, but Bernstein was by far the greatest American musician. Occasionally, one is startled by a reminder. On YouTube, there is a filmed performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4, from 1972, with the Vienna Philharmonic (the sound with good headphones is fine) that is astonishing for its transparent textures, its bold transitions from one mood to another. That symphony, with its musical sleigh bells, so reminiscent of childhood bliss, is a recurring motif in Jamie Bernstein’s book. It’s her Rosebud.

After L.B.’s death, chagrin gives way to relief; life resumes its usual shapes of success and failure. The overwhelmed children try to pull themselves together, and Jamie Bernstein finds a way—many ways, actually—of making a life out of music without being a musician, narrating concert works, creating an equivalent of the Young People’s Concerts (the Bernstein Beat, devoted to his music), making a film about the training of young American instrumentalists. She and her brother and sister have devoted themselves to their father’s name, his work, and his recordings, and have helped along restorative efforts on his compositions and much else. As the daughters of great men go, Jamie Bernstein has had a happy fate: the existence of this well-written book, with its poignancy and its shuddery detail—her father’s fragrance in the morning—is a mark of sanity and survival. In telling his story, she got to write her own. ♦