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The sophisticate is a man who thinks he can swim better than he can and sometimes drowns himself. He thinks he can drive better than he really can and sometimes causes great smashups. So, in my book, there’s nothing wrong with sentiment because the things we’re sentimental about are the fundamental things in life, the birth of a child, the death of a child or of anybody, falling in love. I couldn’t be anything but sentimental about these basic things. I think to be anything but sentimental is being a “poseur.”
Oscar Hammerstein II
There is some dispute about whether he saw his first play at the age of three or four or five—or even eight—but there is no dispute that Oscar Hammerstein II was born into the theater. He never had a chance to escape it—and he tried. His paternal grandfather and namesake, the first Oscar Hammerstein, was the most famous theatrical producer in America, if not the world, when his grandson was born in Harlem on July 12, 1895. The elder Hammerstein was the son of German Jewish parents from Stettin, Prussia, and he showed an early talent on the flute, piano, and violin. But his father wanted him to pursue more practical subjects. Hammerstein resisted, and one day after his father beat him for going skating in a park, the son sold his violin and lit out first for Liverpool and then New York, arriving in America at the age of eighteen.
He found work in a cigar factory on Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, and eventually became a cigar manufacturer himself, ultimately owning patents for some eighty devices used in production. He used the proceeds to pursue his passion: the theater, where he made his money in vaudeville and lost several fortunes in pursuit of opera, his first love. At one point, his Manhattan Opera House rivaled the mighty Metropolitan Opera itself, which bought him out on the proviso that he not produce any opera in America for ten years. He fled to Europe, went broke, came home, and went broke again, saved only by his son Willie, the younger Oscar’s father, who managed the family’s legitimate theaters and, later, its variety houses. The old man was a romantic, but also a realist. One of his favorite maxims: “There is no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad show.”
Oscar II had hardly any contact with his famous forebear while growing up (his own father wanted his offspring to avoid a theatrical career at all costs), but he would inherit his namesake’s pragmatism: The composer Johnny Green called Oscar II “a businessman-poet,” and his future partner Richard Rodgers would describe him as “a dreamer, but a very careful dreamer.” The younger Oscar first met his grandfather, a gruff and forbidding figure in a black silk top hat, in the lobby of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, a vaudeville house at 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square. Later, alone in the darkened theater, young Oscar watched transfixed as a bevy of women, costumed as water maidens, sought to untangle a large fishing net and sang a beguiling siren song. At intermission, his father took him backstage, where he promptly came face-to-face with a large lion in a cage. Suddenly, the cage started to roll toward him, and he feared he might be sick to his stomach. By one later account, he went home, slept fourteen hours, and “when he awoke, he announced that the theater would be his life work.”
At the age of four, for reasons he himself would later be unable to explain, Oscar was sent to an apartment one flight below his own family’s to live with his maternal grandparents, who were of Scots-Presbyterian stock, while his younger brother, Reginald, remained upstairs with their parents, Willie and Allie. Young Oscar started each day sharing a milk punch spiked with scotch with his grandfather, James Nimmo, and at bedtime they would split a bottle of Guinness stout. Every morning, the pair would troop to nearby Mount Morris Park shortly before seven, in time to see an attendant climb the winding staircase to a bell tower and sound the hour. His grandfather told him that it was the devil who rang the bell, a little old man whose heart was filled with kindness and his pockets with sourballs of the kind that Grandfather Nimmo himself dispensed. Oscar would later attribute his love of the theater to his Grandfather Hammerstein and his sunny, upbeat view of life to Grandfather Nimmo.
If Oscar and Reggie thrilled to all aspects of the theater (a special favorite was the Wild West show of “Buffalo Bill” Cody, which they managed to see over and over for free by volunteering to be two of the children in a stage coach chased by a tribe of wild Indians), Oscar’s father fulfilled his role as the theatrical businessman of the family with more duty than joy. He didn’t like the theater, didn’t see plays except his own, and didn’t even audition promising acts he’d heard about, on the theory that if they were good enough, they’d come to him. He trudged to the theater each morning, returning home for an early dinner before trooping back downtown again to count the nightly box-office receipts. Oscar would later recall, “Kissing him goodbye in the morning and hello in the evening was nearly the whole story of my experience with my father during my early youth. I didn’t really get to know him. He didn’t really become a force of any kind in my life until my mother died. I was fifteen then. Up until that time I had respect and affection for him merely because he was my father. He seldom scolded me and never punished me, I think the extent of his rebukes would be asking: ‘Is that nice?’ if he disapproved of something I had done or said.”
By his own reckoning, “Ockie,” as he would be known to his family and intimates for the rest of his life, was a cossetted mother’s boy. “She was my friend, my confidante, obviously my worshipful admirer and also the firmest and strongest person I knew,” he would remember late in life. “Without ever punishing me, and without ever seeming stern, she had a way of letting me know when she meant a thing to be done or not to be done.” Allie’s death from a botched abortion and the resulting peritonitis (she was an early advocate of birth control, but methods were unreliable then) affected him deeply. During her illness, he would recall, “I didn’t believe she was going to die for the simple reason that I couldn’t visualize a world without her, couldn’t imagine living without her.” After she died, he found he was able to carry on with his life, and noted that this early trauma “crystallized an attitude” he had had toward death ever since. “I never feel shaken by death, as I would have been if this had not happened to me when I was fifteen. I received the shock and took it, and sort of resisted as an enemy the grief that comes after death rather than giving way to it. I get stubborn about it and say it is not going to lick me, because it didn’t then.”
More than forty years after his mother’s death, Oscar would write to his own eldest son, Bill, that “whatever order or form I have got out of life has been extracted from chaos,” adding, “my strange disorderly unsystematic family may have developed in me a tolerance for disorder which makes it possible for me to live in a disorderly world, even though I crave another kind.” Indeed, Stephen Sondheim, his protégé and surrogate son, would judge that “Oscar’s point of view … was both more hard-headed and more quirky than people who think of him as a naïve and dreamy idealist might expect.”
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AFTER ALLIE’S DEATH, Willie Hammerstein remarried—to his wife’s maiden sister, Anna, who was known as Mousie. She was a buxom, tattooed, somewhat blowsy woman, whose favorite greeting was “Hiya, Tootsie,” but she became a loving stepmother, encouraging a warmer relationship between Willie and his sons. By their teenage years, both Oscar and Reggie were spending their summers at the Weingart Institute, a pioneering and renowned summer camp in Highmount, New York, where Oscar made enduring friendships with his fellow campers, including Harold Hyman, who became his longtime physician, Leighton Brill, who would work as his assistant for two decades (and would for a time run the Hollywood office of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with mixed results), and Myron and David O. Selznick, the brothers who would win fame as Hollywood’s first talent agent and one of its legendary producers.
Copyright © 2018 by Todd S. Purdum