Oscar Hammerstein II in 1920. Photo Credit: Mark Harowitz
Transcribing Hammerstein - An Intimate Look at Oscar Hammerstein with Author & Researcher Mark Eden Horowitz
By Phil Gianficaro
The true measure of the man, author and researcher Mark Eden Horowitz learned, cannot totally be gleaned simply by gazing at glittering marquees on Broadway. The Tonys, the Oscars, the Grammy, the Pulitzer Prize. Each of those awards representing the highest level of achievement in the arts give way to that which precisely defines long-time Doylestown resident, the late Oscar Hammerstein II, the most consequential figure in the history of the American theater.
In his recently published book, “The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II,” Horowitz delights readers with illuminating and entertaining information on the man beyond the footlights, from his fight for racial justice and urging politicians and military leaders about the need to ensure world peace.
Horowitz’s book, a 2 ½-year project, includes gems from 1,000 of the 4,600 letters he transcribed from among the 25,000 in the Hammerstein collection of the US Library of Congress, where Horowitz is a senior music specialist in the music division. “I had a sense of Hammerstein, but no idea about so many surprises the letters revealed about him,” said Horowitz, during a recent phone conversation from his office in New York City. “There were little details, and sometimes bigger things. There were projects beyond the theater he was so passionate about. Every day, I’d have one or many discoveries. There were shocks of delight.”
The letters show Hammerstein, who died in 1960 at age 65, was a compelling voice addressing the social ills that raged throughout America during the first half of the 20th Century. Among them was his public commitment to civil rights, taking what then was viewed by many as an unpopular stance to support equal rights for African-Americans. A member of the board of directors of the NAACP, he publicly supported Black actor Paul Robeson, who was viewed then as a liberal pariah to many. He created roles that diversified the casts of shows like “South Pacific” and “The King and I.” He reset Bizet’s opera, “Carmen,” in the American South with a nearly all-Black cast. This during a time when interracial casting was not a common practice. But backlash that may have impacted his professional career was never a deterrent. The letters also showed that Hammerstein, in his 50s during the 1950s, sent letters to dozens of prominent figures in protest of housing segregation in Bucks County, where he lived.
“The question is, of course, how to stand up against the prejudice which lies at the root of housing segregation, unequal job opportunities, etc.,” wrote Hammerstein, in one letter. Noted Horowitz: “(Hammerstein) did work and fundraising for civil rights. And he got a fair amount of flack because of it. It didn’t stop him. He took the issue very seriously.”
Another revealing side of Hammerstein uncovered by Horowitz in the trove of letters was his opposition to war. His feelings on the folly of war were articulated in correspondence with Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, to whom Hammerstein suggested there ought to be a world power that could enforce sanctions against governments that wage war.
In a letter dated in 1952, Hammerstein wrote: “Today, our title to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is heavily mortgaged. Foreclosure can come without notice, with the dropping of one bomb in the right place. And it doesn’t have to fall right on your head, either. It can miss you by 20 miles and still kill you.
“Now, you would think that all men and women in the world would be uniting to defend themselves against this condition. You would think they would be applying all their energies and ingenuities to conceiving ways to stop it.”
Horowitz noted he learned from Hammerstein’s letters his involvement with the United World Federalists, a non-partisan organization whose primary purpose was to achieve permanent peace through universal disarmament enforced by law and to maintain human freedom. “Near the end of his life he was most passionate about preventing another world war,” said Horowitz. “What many of the letters reveal about Hammerstein is what a spectacularly good and thoughtful person he was.” And passionate. “We have drippingly romantic love letters he wrote to his second wife, Dorothy,” said Horowitz. “Some are a little hotter and heavier from Oscar than you might figure; some bordered on erotic. He was over the moon with his love for her. He put his heart on his sleeve. The letters were charming.”
There is, however, one letter from among the 4,600 he reviewed for the book that most struck Horowitz about Hammerstein: “The letter is not one of the sexiest or funniest,” said Horowitz. “But it said so much about Oscar. It had to do with a pre-recorded Christmas Eve radio program to be broadcast. He was going to be in Jamaica on Christmas Eve, a fact that wasn’t a secret. “So, Oscar sent a letter to his publicist, saying he didn’t want to deceive the public by pretending to be doing the broadcast when he was out of the country. He told his publicist he either wanted to be deleted from the broadcast or announce that the broadcast was pre-recorded. He didn’t want the public to think he was pulling a fast one. That’s how honorable a man he was.”
Horowitz also includes some letters related to Hammerstein’s brilliance as a producer, director, and songwriter in the book, which he says he tried to write in three distinctly different ways.
“The book was a hard needle to thread, and I’m not sure I was perfect at any of them,” he said. “I believe there are three audiences for this book: One, for somebody who is passionate about Oscar Hammerstein the world and history; Two, It’s a huge book (1,054 pages), but it’s easily browsable for people, to see what catches their eye; and, three, it’s a reference book that someone doing a revival can get meat on that particular subject.”
Horowitz notes there’s huge amounts of nothing to do with the theater or any of Hammerstein’s timeless productions. There are letters that reveal the heart of the man, such as his creation, with Dorothy, Pearl S. Buck, and James A. Michener, of the Welcome House, an adoption agency in Doylestown that matched more than 7,000 orphans and children from around the world with families in America.
“Oscar helped place children from mixed races who at that time were difficult to get them adopted,” said Horowitz. “It turns out his first grandchild was from Welcome House.” Some of Hammerstein’s letters are more than 60 years old. But some, given the strife around the world, are as relevant today as ever.
Hammerstein to composer Jerome Kern, 1942:
“Knowing that you file your letters and I file copies of mine, it is quite possible that in a couple of thousand years, some archaeologist might dig up the original or the copy, and seeing the date will be completely puzzled that during the great war, so long a letter could be written without some reference to it. It will be hard enough for him to understand how people could be so dumb as to wage wars like this. But once in them, how could they possibly be interested in such things as I discussed so seriously in this letter. Well, Mr. Archaeologist, that’s the way we were in those days.”
The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II, highlights hundreds of letters both from and to Hammerstein reflecting on every aspect of his life and career. The new collection, compiled and edited by Mark Eden Horowitz, has been released from Oxford University Press and can be found where all books are sold.