Commentary Magazine


My Uncle, Oscar Hammerstein

Seeing him, or observing how he lived his life, you might have thought him the head of a major Wall Street bank or law firm. He was clearly a man of great importance, one used to calling the shots and being deferred to, but he wore his authority lightly. He dressed conservatively (except for an occasional weakness for the boldly patterned bow ties then in fashion) but always with unconscious elegance, his only jewelry a discreet gold signet ring on his left little finger.

He didn’t smoke, drank little, rose early, and went to bed equally early. His favorite exercise was tennis, which he played aggressively, determined to win. He was devoted to his wife, who was equally devoted to him—indeed they were rarely apart. Most of all, he was completely comfortable in his own skin, sure of who and what he was and what he had accomplished. He had no need to prove anything; he joked easily about himself.

But he was not a banker or lawyer (although he had studied law briefly in college). Instead he was, remarkably, a man of the theater. I first met Oscar Hammerstein II when I was five, the day my mother married his younger brother, Reggie. I last saw him when I was 16, two months before he died, in August 1960.

Besides being Oscar’s sister-in-law, my mother was also his secretary and personal assistant for the last 10 years of his life, intimately involved in the creation of landmark shows, from South Pacific to The Sound of Music, on which he famously collaborated with the composer Richard Rodgers. So I also got to see him at work, usually at second hand, through my mother’s eyes and anecdotes.

For four years, in fact, we lived in a house on The Farm in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. (Sitting on a ridge overlooking the rolling countryside, it was officially called Highland Farm, but the family always just called it The Farm.) So I got to know him well, calling him unselfconsciously “Uncle Oc” (but I’ll refer to him as Oscar here). I saw him often, listened to him tell jokes (he was good at doing so, not surprisingly), play tennis, eat Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. I performed card tricks for him, played chess with him.

He was an aggressive and skillful game player, and he cut children no slack whatsoever. Although his son Jamie would be a nationally ranked tennis player in his prime, he didn’t beat his father in a match until he was 15, by which time Oscar was 50.

I never came close to beating him in chess. Partly that was because he was a pretty good chess player and partly because he was not above such gamesmanship as drumming his fingers while his opponent pondered a move, and even whistling. In Scrabble, he would make up words and dare opponents to challenge him, producing imaginative definitions and even etymologies on the fly.

There’s a family story about his game-playing. I can’t vouch for its authenticity, but it rings true. He was playing a very informal game of bridge with two of his collaborators, the composers Jerome Kern and Sigmund Romberg, and someone else one afternoon. During one hand, Oscar was dummy and he got up to look into the other hands. He saw immediately that the only way his partner, Romberg, would be able to make the hand was if he knew that Kern held a singleton spade. He began to whistle the song “One Alone,” from the Romberg/Hammerstein 1920s hit The Desert Song. Romberg paid no attention and went down.

“Goddamn it!” Oscar said. “Didn’t you hear me whistling ‘One Alone’?”

“I recognized the music,” Romberg deadpanned, “but who remembers the words?”

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Broadway in the 1940s and 50s loomed far larger in the American cultural landscape than it does today. Television was in its infancy, while hit Broadway plays and musicals were often translated into movies, not the other way around. And musicals were still a major source of popular music. Original cast albums could spend months on the charts while individual songs dominated radio and the hit parade. It was the golden age of the Broadway musical, with Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Lerner and Lowe, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Jule Styne at their artistic peaks.

Bestride it all stood two colossi: Rodgers and Hammerstein. They were household names throughout the Western world; the opening of a new R&H show was a major cultural event. So central were they to the American consciousness that when their original musical for television, Cinderella, was broadcast on March 31, 1957, the audience comprised 107 million—almost two-thirds of the entire U.S. population.

The financial success of Rodgers & Hammerstein was legendary. Their first show together, 1943’s Oklahoma!, ran three times as long as any previous book musical; their nine Broadway musicals averaged more than a thousand performances each at a time when 500 performances marked a major success. In the late winter of 1951, as The King and I was trying out in Boston, the actress and comedienne Bea Lillie gave a lunch party in her East End Avenue apartment overlooking the East River. As the theater-folk guests were drinking cocktails, a barge, pushed by a tug, went down the river, carrying a large mound of something covered with tarpaulins.

“I wonder what’s in it,” one of the guests said.

Moss Hart looked out the window at the barge for a second and answered, “It’s Rodgers & Hammerstein sending their money down from Boston.”

But even more important than the financial success of the pair was their artistic success. It is not an exaggeration to say that Oklahoma! is the most significant musical in Broadway history. No musical written since, from frothy comedy to darkest tragedy, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Sweeney Todd, has been unaffected by it. Oklahoma! freed the Broadway musical from the old conventions, such as an opening chorus number of no importance as the audience settled down. It profoundly altered other forms of theater, and the movies as well.

Hammerstein had begun his career writing conventional musicals. His first big hit, Wildflower (1923), was a comedy built around a major star, Edith Day, with a plot that required an irascible woman to keep her temper for six months in order to gain an inheritance. Rose-Marie (1924), which ran even longer, was an operetta about the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Oscar once said he started writing musicals in order to make money and that, once he had made enough, he planned to devote himself to straight plays in order to say what he thought important. As he began to experiment with the form, however, he found that he could say what he wanted to say in a musical by moving the center of gravity away from the stars and the songs and toward the characters and the plot. (He did write one straight play, called The Light, in 1919, which was produced by his uncle, Arthur Hammerstein. As Oscar joked, “The Light went out in New Haven.”)

No precursor to Oklahoma! was as significant as Hammerstein’s 1927 Show Boat, based on Edna Ferber’s novel, with music by Jerome Kern. At the age of 83, Show Boat is today the oldest Broadway musical that can hold the boards in its own right, not just as a charming antique with great songs. Its extraordinary score—Kern’s greatest, which is saying something—both adorns and illuminates the characters and plot, which is set in a genuine American past.

In the famous “miscegenation scene,” Julie, the secondary female character, who had been passing for white and was married to a white man, is revealed to be mulatto. It is one of the most dramatically powerful moments in the canon of the musical and was extraordinarily daring for the time. But, despite the foolish common opinion that he coated the stage with treacle, theatrical daring as well as tough-minded honesty were always Hammerstein characteristics.

It also reveals what makes Hammerstein so seminal a figure in the history of the musical. In the popular imagination, Hammerstein is most famous as a lyricist, and his lyrics, at their best, are second to none. But his greatest contribution was as a librettist, the best that Broadway has ever known.

The librettist, the man who writes the spoken dialogue and structures the action, is the Rodney Dangerfield of musicals. If the show is a hit, no one talks about the book. If it’s a flop, however, the book writer always gets blamed. But it is the dramatically strong book that is one of the essential differences between the post-Oklahoma! musical and most of those that came before.

Oscar had more than his share of flops. After Music in the Air (1932) with Jerome Kern, he would endure 11 long years without a success. Much as he loved to win, he bore failure with equanimity. Then, finally, came Oklahoma!, followed eight months later by Carmen Jones, a daring adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera set in the American South and Chicago with an all-black cast that some regard as a singular masterpiece. As he wrote his son Billy, then in the Navy, “I am suddenly a much cleverer fellow than the dope who wrote Sunny River and Very Warm for May.”

It didn’t go to his head. Few things did. In December 1943, he put an ad in Variety, as many show people did at Christmas time. But instead of noting his recent triumphs, he listed his five previous flops, with their runs, and added, “I’ve Done It Before and I Can Do It Again!”

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When Oscar set out to write the book of a new show, he did so by dictating, both the lines and the stage directions, into a Dictaphone machine, a now-antediluvian technology that recorded on plastic belts (colored pink for some mysterious reason) that my mother would then transcribe onto paper. There would often be several revisions before he was satisfied, at least until rehearsals revealed where still more work was needed.

The lyrics he wrote by hand, on yellow legal pads, often while standing at a captain’s desk. (I have a picture of Oscar that hangs over my own desk, autographed to my mother, “For Mary (the yellow-pad hoarder) with love,” a reference to a running joke between the two of them.)

It could take him a week to write a single lyric—a couple of hundred words at most—as he carefully considered each word and image. In “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’!” for instance, he originally wrote “The corn is as high as a cow pony’s eye,” a simile that fitted easily into the Oklahoma landscape. But he then walked over to his Doylestown neighbor’s cornfield and saw that the corn was much taller than that. To be sure, he wasn’t overly fastidious on getting such details right. In “June Is Busting Out All Over,” from Carousel, he had no trouble writing that “The rams that chase the ewe sheep / Are determined there’ll be new sheep, / And the ewe sheep aren’t even keeping score!” He knew that sheep breed in the fall, not the spring, but the line was far too good to sacrifice on the altar of biological accuracy. Asked about it once, he joked that 1873 had been an unusual year for sheep-breeding.

More important, he didn’t like how “cow pony” sounded to the ear, thinking it would be difficult for the first-time listener to grasp when sung, one of the many constraints on lyric-writing—perhaps the most difficult or at least confining of all literary forms. So he changed it to “elephant’s eye.”

When he was finished with a lyric, he would turn the yellow-pad pages over to my mother to be typed. But before he decided he was finished, Oscar would read the lyric out loud to his wife Dorothy, a practice she called “trying it out on the dog.” Then a copy was sent by messenger to Rodgers so he could set it to music, which Rodgers usually did in minutes, not days, much to Oscar’s feigned annoyance.

R&H had revived the tradition of the libretto and lyrics being written first, which had been the invariable practice of Gilbert and Sullivan, European operetta, and grand opera, but not Broadway. Oscar thought there were two reasons for Broadway’s having reversed the process. First, he said that since many early Broadway composers had been European by birth, they were sometimes flummoxed by English stress patterns. Second, the “dance craze” of the 1910s had put a big commercial premium on danceable tunes. It was simply easier to let the composer go first in those circumstances.

When the story and the characters became central to the musical, however, thanks in large part to Hammerstein, it made sense to revert to the traditional order. That’s not to say that with R&H the words always came first. Indeed, with many of their most famous songs—“People Will Say We’re in Love,” “If I Loved You,” “Younger than Springtime,” and “Getting to Know You,” for instance—Rodgers went first.

Oscar loved practical jokes, and he once called Rodgers to tell him that he had finished a lyric for a particular scene. I believe it was “Getting to Know You.” Rodgers said to send it on up and he’d get to work on the music. “Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Oscar told him. “It’s already been written.” Rodgers said, more or less, “Hey, I thought we had a deal. You write the words, I write the music.” Oscar then explained that he had used the tune of a song that had been dropped early from South Pacific and he thought it would do very well. Once he had read the lyric, Rodgers—no fool—quickly agreed.

Oscar has often been accused of being sentimental. But while he certainly celebrated love and said that “I could never write anything without hope in it,” he knew that love didn’t always work out. It hadn’t for him with his first marriage. Indeed, Show Boat and Carousel involve marriages that turn out disastrously. Rather, Oscar believed that when you fell in love, there were two options. You could accept it and take your chances:

Commonsense may tell you
That the endin’ will be sad
And now’s the time to break and run away.
But what’s the use of won’drin’
If the endin’ will be sad?
He’s your feller and you love him—
There’s nothin’ more to say.

You can also reject it (“I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”) and never know love at all:

Some enchanted evening,
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room—
Then fly to her side
And make her your own,
Or all through your life you may dream all alone.

Oscar wrote often about sudden love, for he had experienced it himself. His most famous song on the subject, the one I just quoted, is pure autobiography. In early 1927, he sailed for England on board the liner Berengaria. The first night out, he went to the captain’s cocktail party and there, across a crowded room, was Dorothy. Twenty years later, when a collection of his lyrics was first published, he dedicated it “To Dorothy, ‘The Song Is You.’ ” Theirs was an unusually intense relationship, even for a happy marriage. They often walked arm-in-arm around The Farm and, unless one of them was in the hospital, rarely if ever spent a night apart.

He also wrote often about food (“This Was a Real Nice Clambake” and “Schnitzels with noodles / And crisp apple strudels” were among his favorite things). Oscar loved to eat and took food very seriously. It was a running family joke, invariably alluded to at holiday dinners, that Oscar, who weighed about 220 in his prime (he was almost 6’2″ in height), had been turned down by the Army in World War I because he had then been underweight. In 1954, he and I, as well as my mother and Dorothy, ate our first pizzas together at an Italian restaurant in Trenton, New Jersey, not far from Doylestown. He emphatically approved.

The Hammersteins kept two cooks, a Jamaican named Gertie Jones in New York, and Josephine (or her sister Mary—I can’t remember which was the cook and which the waitress) at The Farm. Gertie was endless trouble, as she had a weakness for both liquor and the horses. If liquor was needed for what was being cooked, it would be doled out to her, but she would now and then fall spectacularly off the wagon. Every now and then as well, one of her bookies would send an ominous-looking man around to the house at 10 East 63rd Street to collect from her. But while she was threatened with dismissal frequently, she was always forgiven because she was a sublimely good cook and Oscar just couldn’t bear the thought of letting her go.

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Hammerstein’s work habits were methodical to a fault, a fact that was a great relief to Richard Rodgers, who, aside from being a musical genius, had the precise and orderly mind of an accountant. Rodgers had gone through hell with his first collaborator, the ineffably urbane Lorenz Hart, whose always erratic ways deepened into self-loathing and alcoholism before Rodgers ended the partnership and Hart drank himself to death at the age of 47.

Very much a morning person, Oscar would get to work at 8:30 in his study and work uninterrupted until lunch. Well, usually uninterrupted. A friend in Doylestown once asked me to get his autograph, so I knocked on his study door one morning when I was about 12 and asked him for one. He obliged happily enough. But when I went home and mentioned to my mother what I had done, she questioned me sharply.

“Where was he?” she asked.

“In his study.”

“You interrupted him?” she said, her face assuming a dangerous aspect.

“I knocked,” I explained.

“You are never, ever, to bother him in his study. For all you know, he might have been in the middle of writing ‘Some Enchanted Evening.’”

I then made the serious mistake of saying, “He’s already written it,” and got one of those sit-down, 20-minute, now-you-see-here-young-man lectures.

Oscar was equally exact in the difficult business of turning a show from script to production. (The writer Larry Gelbart once joked that “if Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”) As rehearsals progressed, my mother would take his many notes to actors and others involved in the production, telling them what to change and how to change it. These changes could range from the major, such as dropping a song, to the very minor, such as telling an actor how to pronounce a particular word or noting a sticky doorknob on the set.

Both he and Rodgers were dedicated craftsmen devoted not to creating masterpieces but to creating hits. If a scene or a song didn’t work, they changed it, no matter how much they liked it. They knew that the masterpiece unappreciated in its own time was a myth of the second rate to explain their failure.

If the director was not up to the job, as was the case with the playwright John Van Druten, who was credited with the direction of The King and I, and Gene Kelly, hired to direct Flower Drum Song, Oscar would often just take over the direction himself. But he was always careful to politely phrase things as suggestions to the nominal director. That sort of thoughtfulness was typical of him. Despite his stature, he was always approachable and so ended up reading, or at least looking at, a lot of scripts written by chorus members and so forth.

Almost all of them, of course, were hopeless. But there was one legendary exception. Stephen Sondheim was a close friend of Oscar and Dorothy’s son, Jamie. Because of a difficult home situation, the young Sondheim was a frequent guest at The Farm, where Oscar became a father figure for him. One day, when Sondheim was about 15, he brought Oscar the script of a musical that he had written to be performed at the George School, which he and Jamie attended. The show, inevitably, was entitled By George. He asked Oscar to read it and tell him what he thought of it.

A few days later, Oscar asked him if he really meant it when he said he wanted the script to be treated as though they were strangers.

“Yes,” said Sondheim.

“In that case,” Oscar said, “it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read.”

Sondheim’s lower lip began to quiver and Oscar quickly added, “I didn’t say it doesn’t show talent. But it’s just terrible. If you want to know why it’s terrible, I’ll tell you.”

For the next several hours, Oscar went over every line, every lyric, every stage direction. Sondheim said that at the end of this crash course in musical theater by one of its masters, he knew how to write for himself. Oscar continued to mentor, advise, encourage, and caution Sondheim until his death 15 years later. By that time, Sondheim had written the lyrics to West Side Story and Gypsy and was on the cusp of one of the most extraordinary careers in musical-theater history, one that would be as theatrically daring as Oscar’s own, and perhaps as significant.

Shortly before Oscar died, Sondheim, at a lunch at The Farm, asked Oscar to autograph a photograph for him. At first, Oscar looked at him as though he were crazy, but then his blue eyes suddenly twinkled with inspiration and he took out a pen and wrote on the photograph, “To Steve, my friend and teacher.” Sondheim, of course, immediately recognized the reference: “It’s a very ancient saying, / But a true and honest thought, / That if you become a teacher / By your pupils you’ll be taught” from “Getting to Know You.” Like Oscar himself, the inscription was simple, elegant, and profound all at once.

The way Oscar responded to autograph seekers offers a powerful glimpse into his essential character. My mother could imitate his signature perfectly and did so on most letters and even on his checks. But when he responded to fan letters or to people who wanted an autographed photograph or asked him to autograph a book or record album—a not infrequent occurrence—he always signed them himself. He simply felt that if a person wanted his autograph, that person was entitled to a real one, not an expert forgery. So, ironically, while letters to strangers bear authentic autographs, many typewritten letters to friends and business associates do not. I was impressed by that fastidiousness then and frankly still am.

Oscar’s letters to his friends were often charming and good-humored as well as witty. He ended one letter to his daughter, Alice, then about age 10: “But luncheon is served, it’s creamed finnan haddie. So I’ll end this letter with love from your daddy.” (Great-lyricists-think-alike department: Cole Porter would later use the same rhyme in “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” the song that made Mary Martin a star.)

In a note to Teresa Helburn, who had co-produced Oklahoma!, thanking her for a Christmas gift that had come accompanied by a couplet she had written, he wrote, “Thank you for your verses, Terry. / Now in answer may I say, / Two can write in rhythm merry. / Every doggerel has its day.”

Like many wordsmiths, Oscar loved puns and was good at making them. When he unexpectedly encountered Richard Rodgers one evening at a party, he said to him, “Fancy meeting you here. Who’s minding the score?”

And like all writers, Oscar was content to be by himself for long hours at a stretch. I would often see him on the second-floor balcony when I came home from school walking back and forth or just staring out at the Pennsylvania countryside as he wrestled with something. (Although he was not oblivious at these times. He once caught me smoking—I was perhaps 11 at the time—and asked if I had permission. Absurdly, I told him I did, and he called my mother to confirm that. She was more amused than angry.)

But he was also social—indeed, a “clubbable fellow.” He enjoyed parties. But he didn’t stay late, and Hammerstein parties always broke up at a decent hour. At other people’s parties, he early perfected the technique of slowly and unobtrusively making his way to the front door and then just quietly slipping away. Jerome Kern—a notorious night owl—dubbed this habit “the Hammerstein glide.”

_____________

Even after a show opened, Oscar kept track of what was going on, frequently dropping in on matinees to make sure the show wasn’t beginning to run long and that the actors were not inventing new business. One time he returned from a look at Me and Juliet, a backstage musical comedy that Rodgers had persuaded him to do against his better judgment. A flop and almost totally forgotten today (although it produced one big hit song at the time, “No Other Love”), it is the least interesting, musically and dramatically, of all the R&H shows. The story just never fully engaged Oscar’s imagination.

Returning to the Hammerstein house on 63rd Street, he stuck his head in the door of my mother’s office to see if there were any messages. My mother asked, “How was the show?”

Oscar just looked at her for a minute and then, with surprising vehemence, said, “I hate that show!” and turned and walked into the house. Like all male members of the Hammerstein family, Oscar had a considerable and sometimes volcanic temper, although the mood would pass quickly.

In 1956, Guy Lombardo produced a revival of Show Boat at the Jones Beach Marine Theater. Reggie, my stepfather, was the director, and my mother, brother, and I went to see the first dress rehearsal, along with Oscar and Dorothy. We sat alone in the middle of the open-air theater, the seats steeply pitched like those in a Greek theater, looking down on the performance in solitary splendor. At the end of the show, a young man walked up the aisle toward us. I remember him rubbing his hands together, like Uriah Heep, for he was very Heepish-acting, but I imagine that that is a false memory.

When he reached us, halfway up the aisle, he said to Oscar, as best I remember the conversation, “I hope you enjoyed the show, Mr. Hammerstein. If you have any comments, we would be most grateful to hear them.”

Oscar, who undoubtedly would be making his comments to the director—who was, after all, his much loved brother—was clearly irritated by the presumption. He turned to him and said loudly, “Yes, I have a comment. The whole goddamned second act stinks!”

The man blushed deeply and said, “Thank you, Mr. Hammerstein. That will be very helpful I’m sure.” He retreated hastily back down the aisle. Again, I remember him rubbing his hands as he went, even walking backward, as though withdrawing from royalty, but that is surely a false memory. My brother and I collapsed in laughter. Dorothy said, “Really, Ockie,” and even Oscar began to chuckle.

The Hammerstein temper could be awesome to see. At one holiday dinner, Oscar and Reggie, seated at opposite ends of the table, got into a literally roaring argument (what it was about I can’t remember). Both were beet-red in the face while the rest of us, like mice locked in a room with warring elephants, tried to be invisible so as not to end up collateral damage. But, suddenly, it was over. Dorothy rolled her eyes at my mother and rang for the maid to clear the table. After lunch, Oscar and Reggie, close all their lives, behaved as though nothing had happened.

In the fall of 1959, as The Sound of Music was going into rehearsal, Oscar was operated on for stomach cancer. The doctors told him that they had gotten it all, but they had not. He returned to the show in Boston and wrote the lyric to “Edelweiss,” his last song, written to a tune already composed by Rodgers. It is often thought an Austrian folk song, which would have pleased Oscar. Indeed, the Marine Corps Band once played it at the White House for the president of Austria, thinking it the national anthem, which would certainly have amused him.

By the next spring, he knew he was dying. I last saw him in June 1960, shortly before he went to Doylestown, where he died in August. I had dropped by the house on 63rd Street to leave a copy of Mad magazine, which had a spoof about Broadway musicals I thought he would be amused by. As luck would have it, he came in just as I arrived. He was thinner but cheerful, his blue eyes still bright. He asked to keep the magazine, a typically thoughtful gesture, and asked what I was up to that summer. I told him that my mother, who was increasingly ill herself, and I were spending the summer at my grandmother’s summer house in North Hatley, Quebec. We shook hands and parted. I knew I would never see him again.

_____________

After Oscar’s death, Richard Rodgers never again had a big hit, although he wrote some wonderful songs (“I Do Not Know a Day I Did Not Love You,” for instance, from Two by Two in 1970). And while his shows with Hammerstein remained enduringly popular with the public (Oklahoma! averages more than a thousand productions a year around the world), the pair’s reputation among the cultural elite declined. As memories of the original productions faded and the revolution they had wrought marched on thanks to Stephen Sondheim, among others, Rodgers & Hammerstein came to be regarded as goody-two-shoes, family-fare sort of stuff.

Partly that was the fault of the movie versions of their plays. While often financially very successful (adjusted for inflation, The Sound of Music remains the highest-grossing movie musical in Hollywood history), they were often bowdlerized. Partly it was the fault of revivals that were slavish copies of the original productions, freezing them in time. Gilbert and Sullivan had suffered the same fate as long as the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company controlled the rights.

But beginning in the 1990s, new productions in New York and London of the major Rodgers & Hammerstein plays (as well as Show Boat) by innovative directors looked at these works afresh. The results were dramatic, as they were revealed to be what they had always been: complex, often surprisingly dark explorations of the human condition. When Nicholas Hytner’s production of Carousel opened in London in 1992, its naked emotional honesty knocked out nearly everyone who saw it. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote: “It was with skepticism that I approached the new production of the 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein Carousel. . . . This is without question the most revelatory, not to mention the most moving, revival I’ve seen of any Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.” The irascible John Simon, then of New York magazine, wrote of another R&H revival in 1995, that “I never thought I would say this about a musical, but in a production such as this, The King and I is the equal of all but the supreme operatic masterpieces.”

When Oscar began to write musicals in the early 1920s, the genre was intellectually and dramatically trivial, redeemed only by often wonderful music and witty lyrics. By the time he died 40 years later, however, the American musical had become one of the major art forms created in the 20th century, with works that will be produced and loved for as long as people come together to share in the magic that is live theater. No few of those works were created by Oscar and his vastly talented collaborators. Almost all of them were deeply influenced by him.

Like all artists whose work endures, Oscar Hammerstein used aspects of his own life to provide a window through which less-gifted people might see more deeply into the human soul and learn better what it is that makes us human. To have been a small part of that life, to have seen him up close as he went about his quotidian routine, heard his jokes, watched him enjoy his first pizza, swat tennis balls, and observed us doing the same, was one of the great privileges of my life.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon, who writes regularly for COMMENTARY, is the author of several works of American economic history, among them Hamilton’s Blessing and An Empire of Wealth.




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