In the early 1960s, after a number of summers renting on Martha’s Vineyard, Jamie Bernstein’s family bought a vacation home on a wooded hill in West Redding, Conn. There, 9-year-old Jamie and her younger brother, Alexander, devised various games of make-believe, chief among them a fantasy that they lived the same sort of low-key, small-town existence as the characters on their favorite television shows.
It was a testament to the imaginative gifts of children whose actual home was a duplex apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall, and whose father was the celebrated, heat-seeking “West Side Story” composer and New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein.
“Once we had this little house, we weren’t going to Martha’s Vineyard and we were much closer to Manhattan, which was probably way more convenient for my parents,” said Ms. Bernstein, 70, the author of the 2018 memoir “Famous Father Girl” and the host of “The NY Phil Story: Made in New York,” a new podcast about the Philharmonic produced by the orchestra and the public radio station WQXR. “It meant that we could go there on the weekends during the regular part of the year.”
Then, when her sister Nina was born in 1962, “we were a family of five,” Ms. Bernstein continued. “Plus the nanny and the cook who sometimes came up with us on the weekends. And suddenly the house seemed too small.”
A few months later, her mother, Felicia Montealegre Bernstein, an actor and artist, announced that she had just bought a big, new country place. “And I guess I must have asked, ‘Well, how much did it cost?’” Ms. Bernstein recalled. “And my mother said, ‘Oh, I can’t talk about that. It was so expensive I can’t even say it out loud.’ And my brother and I were saying, ‘Oh, come on, how much was it? How much was it?’ We badgered her until finally she whispered, ‘80.’”
Her children gasped: “$80 — it cost $80?”
In that same whisper, Mrs. Bernstein corrected them: “$80,000.”
What in those days seemed a lordly sum bought a former horse farm with a pool, a tennis court and outbuildings on six and a half acres in Fairfield, Conn. Over the years, additional parcels of woodland — almost 12 acres’ worth — were acquired to give the family more privacy and more of an escape from urban cares.
“It was marvelous,” Ms. Bernstein said. “We spent many summers here, and almost every weekend during the rest of the year. We all loved it.”
Jamie Bernstein, 70
Occupation: Author, filmmaker, podcast host
Taking the cure: “We go to the house to be completely relaxed. It’s like the antidote to New York life.”
After Mr. Bernstein’s death in 1990 (Mrs. Bernstein died in 1978), the three children inherited the property. But it is Jamie who is most frequently in residence — pretty much every weekend.
As when their parents were alive, the compound is a gathering spot for birthdays and holidays, and for fiercely contested rounds of Anagrams. Lately, it has also served as a set for the upcoming film “Maestro,” a portrait of the Bernsteins’ complicated marriage directed by and starring Bradley Cooper. (Carey Mulligan plays Felicia.)
“He wanted an authenticity about how he was evoking our dad and his world,” Ms. Bernstein said of Mr. Cooper. “He was very curious to come up here and visit, and that’s when he decided he wanted to come back and shoot in and around the house. Bradley totally got why this place was so great and how it contains the family DNA.”
Indeed, the house, with its graciously proportioned rooms, has barely been altered since the days when it was populated by the senior Bernsteins and their great and good friends — among them, Stephen Sondheim (who did not quite take it in stride when Jamie beat him at Anagrams), Jerome Robbins, Mike Nichols and Richard Avedon (who took the picture of Jamie that sits among a clutch of family photos in the living room).
“When we got older, we realized, ‘Boy, we had a lot of cool people at our house,’” Ms. Bernstein said. “But when we were little, they were just our parents’ friends. To us, they were just Steve and Jerry and Mike and Dick.”
It may have been Mr. Sondheim who bought his “West Side Story” collaborator the abacus that sits on a shelf in the dining room — “I can’t guarantee that’s the case,” she said — and it was Mr. Sondheim or maybe Mr. Nichols who bought the fine telescope on the floor nearby.
“There was a while there when our parents would have these Christmas parties for all their pals,” Ms. Bernstein said. “And there was a competitiveness about the present-giving that became so oppressive that my mother said, ‘We’re not having these parties anymore.’”
The furniture — heavy on rattan, wicker and bamboo — conjures a summer pavilion. So does the dining room, which is anchored by a white-painted table and chairs, and filled with plants. Its entryway, framed by a trellis, adds to the illusion.
“Our mother was a kind of brilliant, instinctive decorator,” Ms. Bernstein said. “Everyplace we lived was elegant but comfortable.”
She recalled dinners with her father or mother at the head of the table. Under the carpet was a plug for a bell to summon the help, “and my parents would start disappearing,” Ms. Bernstein said. “They would go lower and lower down in their chair, as their foot groped for the buzzer.”
The Steinway baby grand in the living room was a gift to Mr. Bernstein from a childhood piano teacher, Helen Coates, who later became his secretary. It was Ms. Coates who determinedly made the winning bid when, in 1949, there was an auction to raise money for the library in Lenox, Mass., and Mr. Bernstein made a painting, supposedly of Salome doing her Dance of the Seven Veils, to aid the cause.
“Helen acquired it, so that for the rest of time nobody would see it,” Ms. Bernstein said, pointing to her father’s well-meaning work hanging in a corner not far from the piano.
“My father,” she added, quite unnecessarily, “was not visually talented.”
The recollections that Ms. Bernstein and her siblings have of their childhood at the Fairfield house — family swims; their father carrying a saltshaker to the vegetable garden in the morning to properly season his chosen breakfast; elegant lunches of stuffed tomatoes with homemade mayonnaise on the terrace — have been overlaid by more recent memories. And the next generation, the children of the Bernstein children, now have their own history here and, of course, their own memories.
“That,” Ms. Bernstein said, “is the beauty of having a house that stays in the family.”
“If some wallpaper is coming unglued, if some fabrics are fading, if some drawer fronts are hanging by a thread and cabinets are stuffed with baffling detritus — well, it’s all part of the family DNA.
“We don’t fix things,” Ms. Bernstein conceded. “There is a distinct element of funk in this house now. It’s kind of funky. But we’re kind of funky, too.”
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(With Inputs from nytimes)
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