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Oscar Hammerstein II in the archive, photograph by Laurie Winer.

Oscar Hammerstein II: Works Well With Others

Laurie Winer—

I had gotten my Library of Congress ID card, but I did not have an appointment with anyone in particular at the Music Division, the large research room above where the papers of Oscar Hammerstein II reside. Like other incipient authors, I was going by blind instinct, feeling sure I would be able to find things in the archive that others hadn’t found, and that a worthy book would eventually emerge. That day, by luck, Senior Music Specialist Mark Eden Horowitz was on duty. I immediately liked this large, kind man, and, though I didn’t realize it for several years, his physical presence made me think of Oscar Hammerstein II, likewise a large figure who generated a calm that soothed everyone who knew him, including rather difficult thorns like Richard Rodgers and the young Stephen Sondheim.  

On other days, when Mark was not there, librarians were simply gatekeepers to the large boxes that held the folders that held the correspondence. But whenever Mark was in, I felt I was there with a friend, someone interested in what I made of the stack of papers I went through that day. We began to have lunch together in the cafeteria to discuss Oscar, the musical theater in general, and some mild gossip, usually generous in nature thanks much more to Mark than to me. He never let me buy him even a coffee—he was a government employee. A coffee could be a bribe. I didn’t know, and he didn’t tell me because it might have sounded like bragging, that he and Sondheim were quite close; I think Sondheim must have sensed the same trustworthiness in Mark that I did. In fact Mark had interviewed the composer extensively for the Library and had already published an important book, Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions.

I don’t know exactly at what point Mark decided to publish a collection of Oscar’s correspondence (The Letters of Oscar Hammerstein II, Oxford University Press)—it might have been around the time he notified me that he had located some misplaced love letters from Oscar to his wife Dorothy, a surprise bonus for me and my book. But suddenly we were working on companion books, which, because of Mark’s characteristic generosity, meant that I had digital access to all of Oscar’s letters as I went through my final copy edit, an infinitely helpful resource in fact and date checking. More than that, we were both adding to the world’s general understanding of an artist whose importance, due to his own modesty and the spare nature of his craft, was often under-valued and even mocked (see the work of critic Kenneth Tynan).

When I was thinking about my potential cover, I remembered a photo Mark had shown me that I had never seen before—a sepia studio portrait of the twenty-something Oscar that was quite striking. I asked him about if he was thinking of using it as the cover for his book of letters, and we had one of those “after you” conversations—we both insisted that the other one really had the right to use it. As it turned out neither one of us used the photo for our covers (I’m thrilled with mine, designed by Kathleen Lynch, because I think it evokes the loss of the great light that Hammerstein represented, something I try to pay tribute to in the book). In the end I decided to credit Oscar himself for the feeling of cooperation that developed between Mark and me. In his long career Hammerstein had collaborated with an exceedingly wide variety of tricky personalities and never had a problem with any one of them, which was definitively not the case when the two artists closest to him—Sondheim and Rodgers—worked together, at his suggestion, on a musical called Do I Hear a Waltz?. As I say in the book, the young Sondheim learned many things from Hammerstein, but getting along with everyone was not one of them. Of course, he got along famously with Mark.

A founding editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Laurie Winer has been a theater critic for the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Winer is the author of Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical.

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