Apr 18, 2011

Ockie's Way

I mostly know Oscar Hammerstein lore via his relationship to Sondheim, though I did fill in some gaps in my knowledge recently when I reviewed The Hammersteins, a reasonably fascinating new family biography by his grandson, Oscar III, for The Sondheim Review. Now another relation, his nephew John Steele Gordon, chimes in with a rambling but illuminating memoir-essay. One weirdly telling observation:
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.
That's...odd. But this is the money story, worth retelling:
[Oscar] 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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