Getting to Know Her: Meet Alice Hammerstein Mathias, Oscar's Daughter

As the musicals of lyricist and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II continue to be performed around the globe, Alice Hammerstein Mathias reflects on the life and work of her groundbreaking father.

Alice Hammerstein Mathias
Alice Hammerstein Mathias (Photo by Leo Sorel/Imagem Music Group)

*

Is there ever a day when one of the many musicals written by Oscar Hammerstein II are not heard — somewhere — around the world? As of this publication date, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is enjoying an acclaimed hit encore run at Arena Stage in Washington, DC; Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat is wrapping up a nearly sold-out engagement at Goodspeed Opera House; the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific is playing London's Barbican Centre; The Sound of Music is being prepped for a spring Carnegie Hall concert; and the list goes on.

It's time, my editor at Playbill.com decided, to reach out to a primary source in the world of the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist — Oscar's daughter, Alice. I had been in touch with her when I spent several years reading scripts and correspondence in order to assemble and annotate "The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II" (Knopf), a coffee-table reference book for which she wrote the foreword.

I was eager to interview her, as I remain passionately interested in all things Hammerstein (I'm currently working with producer JoAnn Young on a documentary about Hammerstein to air on PBS in March 2012).

Alice Hammerstein Mathias, who turned 90 earlier this year, grew up as a child of divorce, traveling between her mother Myra Finn Hammerstein's home and her father's home, and also between New York and Los Angeles depending on her father's work, with extended stays in London and Vienna. Her older brother William (1918-2001) worked in theatre and television, and helped guide their father's estate. Her younger brother James (1931-1999) was the child of her father's second marriage, to Dorothy Blanchard. Jamie was a director and producer too. Another sibling is Susan Blanchard Widmark, who came into the family when her mother married Oscar in 1929. As you'll read in the Q&A below, drawn from our Aug. 20 chat in Alice's Westchester County home, Alice did occasional assignments for her father's shows and shared his interest in poetry and lyric writing. She married Philip Mathias in 1949. During a long career in the arts, he was a screenwriter, stage manager and director. They spent most of their long married life in Westchester, where they raised a daughter Melinda and a son Peter. Alice and Phil also collaborated on shows built around the song catalogs of Oscar Hammerstein and of Jerome Kern. He died in 2006 after a long illness. At the time of our conversation, Alice's daughter Melinda Walsh was representing the family at the London opening of the Lincoln Center Theater production of South Pacific.

What Hammerstein show have you seen most recently?
Well, I've seen Show Boat at Goodspeed Opera House. It has been a wonderful production — it still is going on — and it meant a lot to me. I've seen many productions. This was done in a small theatre with a pretty large cast and it fit so well, the way the director [Rob Ruggiero] and everybody connected with it performed. And I was really very excited about it. It would be nice if it continued.

Andrea Frierson and David Aron Damane in Goodspeed's Show Boat.
photo by Diane Sobolewski

Besides attending shows, what kind of things do you do as the Hammerstein family representative?
Professional things like making notes on scripts when people want to make a change to Show Boat. Or any Rodgers & Hammerstein show. And even just [other shows by] my father and whoever else he was related to. Actually, for Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, I don't have much clout with anything now, because we sold the business [to Imagem]. What we are allowed to do — "we" meaning Mary Rodgers and I — is give our approval to first-class productions of those shows; if they're making changes, or doing something with the songs, particularly we're interested. They may not change lyrics.

Aren't you doing something with your father's letters?
Yes, I am. I've been doing something with them for about six years. Because I've been wasting my time doing other things. And I do really want to get back to that. He wrote over — well, what I have is over a hundred letters from him, and then I have letters to him [from me] that he had saved, and I got back when he died.

So I'm trying to make a book that has the letters back and forth, to let it be known that he was a father with fatherly instructions or scoldings or inspirations. Because not much is known about him as a person. He's known more as a lyricist.

Some people see their father at breakfast every day. How was it that your father was writing letters to you?
He was writing letters because he was away so much. My father and mother were divorced when I was about seven. And [on top of that] his job was going out of town to do shows and to present them or to re-write them. That was his job. And he would come back and he would want to see us, my [older] brother [William] and me. When he was away, he always wrote letters, and I would get them sometimes once a week. Not certain days, but whenever he felt like writing. I have long letters from him on a train, on a boat, and he tells all about it. Some of them are very cute. Some of them are very emotional. I have one, for instance, that's at a later time telling me about the death of Jerome Kern [in 1945] and how it affected him. It brought you to tears.

When Kern died it affected [my father] a great deal. And he wrote to me — he wrote and told me all about what happened, what hospital they went to, where they were moved to, what doctor there was, and he and Kern's wife and daughter were there all the time in this hospital. And [that letter] showed how it affected him. [Note: An anecdote — apparently apocryphal, but very touching — has Hammerstein whispering the words of "I've Told Ev'ry Little Star" to his unconscious collaborator and friend.] I don't think there was anything about singing a song [in that letter]. I don't think Kern would have heard it lying there. It affected him to lose Kern. He said when you have a collaborator like that, it's so difficult, it's almost like losing a wife. Then, I know that after that, he had to make a eulogy. He sent that eulogy [to] me, because I wasn't there. And he said he broke to pieces before he finished.

Alice Hammerstein Mathias (right) with Julie Gilbert (great-niece of Show Boat novelist Edna Ferber) and Goodspeed cast member Sarah Uriarte Berry (center)
photo by Goodspeed Opera House

What else can you tell me about the letters?
We would send little poems back and forth to each other, silly ones. And when I was ten or eleven I sent him a [serious] poem I was working on, and he analyzed every line. And he wanted me to look at "The Brook" by Tennyson, because my poem was called "The Brook." He was very encouraging. He sent me the Oxford Book of Verse. But I didn't finish writing it because he was too analytical.

You did some work for your father when you were older.
My father said he needed somebody to do research for him…for Carousel.

I think you've told me that you had to look up the recipes for the clambake scene.
I did. Well, he wanted a reason to get everybody in the cast into one place for a celebration and he wanted to find what that could be. …I went and looked up the whole recipe for a clambake, which he used, of course, but he changed. I remember one of the things I said: that when they were finished it was like "manna from heaven." And he changed that to "fitten' fer an angels' choir." It gave him an idea.

I'm thinking about the song "June Is Bustin' Out All Over" and how someone wrote a letter to your father about the stanza that had to do with "ewe sheep" and "new sheep."
I think he wouldn't change it, because the rhyme went so well.

I think you're right.
But there was another thing. In the clambake song, one of the lines was about lobsters. "You slit 'em down the back, and peppered 'em good, and doused 'em in melted butter." And somebody wrote in and said: you don't slit lobsters down the back, you slit them down the front. So he had me go to a restaurant and speak to a chef. I went to a place called King of the Sea, which was rather well known then.

When I was starting to work on the "Complete Lyrics," you used the expression "research poison."
That is right. For instance in Carousel: I did research on what was going on in that time in New England. And I went into the trolley cars, the kind of policemen they had and all. And that's when he said, "I don't need all that. You have research poisoning." Which was true. Because I would [even] draw pictures of what I was reading.

When your father and Richard Rodgers started producing, people started to send them scripts. Maybe more than they could read themselves?
I read a lot of scripts that came in. And I wrote a couple of lines on each one. If it was quite good I would say so and say why. They were pretty bad, most of them. And I tried to be nice about it. I wrote letters back to the people. But they got scripts every day.

Did you have any interest in writing a script of your own, or directing a play?
Not directing. But I have written.

I know you're modest, but would you say something about your work on Babes in Toyland or The Merry Widow? Were you associated with a particular theatre group?
The Light Opera of Manhattan, known as LOOM. After my father died, I wanted to do something. First I wrote a few things for Thomas Scherman and his Little Orchestra Society. Later I heard from a friend of mine about this man who had a Gilbert & Sullivan group and he was looking to do other things in his little theatre. I translated the lyrics of The Merry Widow for LOOM. I knew a child's amount of German from having gone to school in Vienna for a year. And I got help from other people. The show was very popular. It brought them out of the red. I also adapted Babes in Toyland which was done every year at Christmas.

Had you talked to your dad about writing lyrics?
Yes, and he encouraged me a great deal. He said that I wrote better lyrics than he did at the same age. So that was a big thing. And it made me soar.

Oscar Hammerstein II

I've read that Oscar's father, William Hammerstein, did not want Oscar to go into the theatre.
Right.

He wanted him to become a lawyer. Did your dad give you instructions about what you should be when you grew up?
No. He would have liked it if I were in his field. But for a funny reason, I didn't want to go too deeply into that field, writing lyrics. Because I didn't want to compete with him.

I read that you once wanted to be a veterinarian.
Yes.

Did you have lots of animals and pets when you were growing up?
No, but I loved dogs. We did always have a dog. Both my mother and my father loved dogs.

In your father's lyrics, there are lots of references to birds, different kinds of birds, and trees and the moon. I get the idea that he loved nature, the countryside.
Yes, he did. Did he go to a farm when he was a kid growing up?
I don't think so. I think they lived in the city mostly. So I don't think so. But I guess it hit him, you know, when he saw the country, he must have been overwhelmed by all these things, of nature. The way he personalized his characters, I mean, he personalized the nature things, the birds and the wind and the leaves — they were all people. And it's nice. But sometimes people think that's sentimental — over sentimental. But if they analyze a lyric, they'll see it relates to other things in the song.

Would you tell me about Highland Farm — Oscar and Dorothy Hammerstein's Doylestown, PA, home? You were grown by the time they got it. Was it a real farm?
Yes, it was a real farm. They had cows, they had chickens and they sold the eggs to the market.

Your dad liked one particular kind of cow. In the Hammerstein correspondence files there are a couple of letters about cows.
Aberdeen Angus. I believe there was [an all-black cow] that was sent to him by Billy Rose, who produced Carmen Jones.

So Billy Rose sent him a black bull?
I don't know if it was a bull. I'm not sure. There was one called "Oklahoma" that he got before.

You've told me that Carmen Jones is a favorite of yours.
I thought, and I think today, that it is a work of genius. And even though it isn't exactly Carmen, it hasn't changed enough to not be Carmen. It's Carmen Jones in black elements. And it has been changed as far as the locale — it's during the war, so the time has been changed. But the songs are wonderful. The lyrics are just the best I've ever heard that he has done. And they always meant a great deal. I saw the show a lot.

Carmen Jones was 1943, so you would have been in your early twenties?
Twenty-two.

Carmen Jones star Muriel Smith

It had a good run.
I remember seeing — when I saw the end every night, every time I saw it, I cried. And I don't usually cry in theatre. But it made me cry. It was just beautiful. Someday maybe they'll do a great production of that. But it has to be great.

Did you see much of Oscar's protégé Stephen Sondheim when he was a boy? He was a friend of James and often spent time at Highland Farm.
We had fun. But I was ten years older. He played the piano very well then — he was ten. We did write a song. I forgot what it was, but it was a funny song. And I liked to be with him, I liked to see him. He was funny and fun. I liked to see him and Jimmie play together.

Could you tell me something about your Great Uncle Arthur [Hammerstein]? He was such an important producer in the '20s and he really gave your father a big boost in starting in the theatre.
Yes, he did. And he was married to a well known actress at that time, a silent star, Dorothy Dalton, whom I loved. We were friends later on, for a long time, until she thought I was a Communist, which I wasn't. And that kind of broke it up. But she and I really got along very well.

She thought you were a Communist? What were you doing?
I was just... I don't know. I was in school. And I guess I joined some group or something. But it wasn't Communist.

I think the FBI thought that your father might be a Communist.
They investigated. They investigated a lot of people. They investigated Pearl Buck [the novelist, a friend and neighbor of the Hammersteins]. But they came up with nothing, if you've seen any of the write-ups, the investigations, the files.

No, I haven't seen them. Oscar was involved in a number of liberal causes, social causes.
Yes. Mostly the United World Federalists, which started in 1947. But I think he started his work with them in 1950. A lot of well-known people were part of it: Russel Crouse, Clifton Fadiman, Rex Stout, Carl Van Doren. He did a lot of work, writing for them. And they put on a show called The Myth That Threatens the World, for the purpose of trying to [convince people to] strengthen the UN, so there would be a united [international] police force.

I have the idea that they wanted a world power to prevent war.
That is right.

In his songs he talks a lot about tolerance and understanding — "you've got to be carefully taught." Did he have an example? Was someone of the older generation active in the social causes that Oscar believed in?
I don't know that he did [have an example]. He was that way internally.

What religion did he follow?
Once I asked him. And he said he doesn't have a religion. But he believes. He has faith in people. And that's what it was.

Alice and her father dancing together at Richard Rodgers' 50th birthday party.
Rodger & Hammerstein/Imagem Music Group

That's a nice expression. Faith in people.
He believed that the world wasn't at its best. In these things he's written about having a good United Nations, a stronger one, and all: He could have written those things today. Everything, almost, that he's written politically would apply to what we're doing today — or not doing.

Your father did so many different kinds of work in the theatre. He was a lyricist, but he also wrote the librettos. He was a producer. People asked him to be a play doctor. He could even direct if need be. Do you have a sense of which of those jobs he liked the most?
Oh, I think he liked the writing the most. And when he had a lot of flops between Show Boat (1927) and when he started working with Rodgers, which was 1943, he had one unlucky thing after another. I remember calling him once, after the reviews came out — I don't remember which show it was — and I said [in a worried voice], "What are you gonna do?" And he said, "Do? I'm writing my next play." So he believed in that. He kept at that.

Did your dad complain that it was hard to do?
No, but we could see that he was working all the time. We had certain times that we could see him, when we stayed in Doylestown with him. He would take a walk, but we weren't allowed to go. Because he was probably talking to his characters, finding out how, what dialogue or dialect they would use. He was just getting acquainted with his characters. He never talked about it, that I know of. He also had a certain time... We didn't visit him at breakfast, because he had breakfast in the bedroom with Dorothy, his wife. And then he went into the study. And we weren't allowed to go there unless we made an appointment. But he would come down for lunch, and then we might play some croquet after that. He'd go back to work and he'd come for tea. And then I guess he went back and got dressed for supper.

He was always looking to write a love song differently. He thought love songs were extremely hard to write, and they are. Because it's always "I love you" and blah, blah. And he often wrote songs about "what would love be if such and such..." In The King and I....

"Hello, Young Lovers"? "I Have Dreamed"?
"I Have Dreamed." Yes. I have dreamed how it would be if we were together. That kind of thing. Even in Oklahoma! — "People Will Say We're in Love." And there was another one I was thinking of. There are a lot.

There are some songs about "after we're married and living together a long time."
That's "An Ordinary Couple." I love that song. I'm sorry that they didn't keep it in the movie [of The Sound of Music.] I thought that music was so good, and the lyric was so good. But the other thing about married couples was "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" — "Darby and Joan who used to be Jack and Jill." And then the poem [he wrote], "The Sweetest Sight That I Have Seen." That was also made into a [Kern] song. It's about how much beauty he has seen in the world, and bells chiming from churches, and birds drawn across the sky. But the sweetest sight he has ever seen is one old couple walking hand in hand.

So those are different ways of writing love songs.

We were saying that he worked hard. How did he relax?
Well, once I was in the study with him. I think I was not feeling well and there was nobody else in the house, so he told me to come in and lie down. I had mononucleosis, and I didn't know it then. Anyway — he said, "You know I walk up and down here, but I'm not always working. I sometimes just look at my trophies and the books, and all..."

And when he left the study?
Well, he played Scrabble at night after dinner. He was pretty good. He played bridge, not too often, but they did play bridge.

What about outdoor games? Did he play sports for fun? Was there a pool at Doylestown?
He played tennis. There was a pool. He had a massage every day and then he ran into the pool to swim. The man who ran the farm for him [Peter Moen] was a Norwegian masseuse, and he gave him this back massage every day. His back bothered him. And when Peter wanted to go back to Norway, [my father] decided to go, too [on vacation].

Did your father like to travel?
I think he did, yes. He traveled a lot. I remember when he first took an airplane. Because usually it was boats and trains. He and Dorothy decided they'd better take different planes in case something happened to one of them — the children and all. So they took different planes and they took some kind of medicine, valium. And that's how it was, but not for long. Because then they traveled together and they found it wasn't so bad.

A certain amount has been written about Oscar's second wife, your stepmother Dorothy Hammerstein, but very little is known about your mother, Myra. Would you like to say anything about her? Was she an actress?
No, she loved to sing. And she sang at little concerts. She had a very good voice. She was a very small person.

Like you?
No, smaller. She was four foot eleven.

How tall are you?
Well, I've shrunk a bit, but I was five four.

I asked you because your brother Bill was so tall.
Yes, but she was really small. And she was cute. That's what is said and that is true. But I don't know how true it is that she had lovers and all when she was married to my father. She might have later.

I think you told me that she did not live much longer than your father.
Right. Six weeks. What a terrible time in your life.
It was, it was. My whole world.

And it was sudden with your mother?
Well, she had a brain hemorrhage. And I think she was very much affected by his death. Because I think she had feelings for him all along. And they did meet every so often or talk on the phone, mostly about kids and business and money. So I think that affected her a great deal.

Here are a few last questions for you. Do you go to any new musicals?
I saw War Horse and the one that closed, that Susan Stroman did —

Scottsboro Boys.
The Scottsboro Boys, thank you.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II

Is there any hope of an Oscar Hammerstein Theatre on Broadway? There's a Richard Rodgers Theatre and Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
They said that the next theatre would be named for my father. That was a long time ago that they said that. I have no idea.

It would be nice if there was one again. Or even if the Ed Sullivan Theatre could go back to its original name — Hammerstein's Theatre.
What are they doing there?

The Ed Sullivan Theatre is where "The Late Show" with David Letterman is taped. It was built by your Uncle Arthur, to honor the memory of Oscar the First. A couple of your father's shows were there. Golden Dawn was there. I think Sweet Adeline was there. Some of the 1930s flops were there for sure.
I must have seen Sweet Adeline, because I loved Helen Morgan, who was in it. When I first saw Show Boat, it affected me so much that this woman [Morgan's character "Julie"] was so badly treated — when I didn't even know was "mixed blood" was. I felt very sorry for her, and I fell in love with her. Fortunately, my uncle Reggie [Oscar's younger brother] was in love with her also. He lived with us and brought her to the house almost every weekend. She taught me to swim.

You were a child at the time of the original production of Show Boat.
Show Boat, which was probably not my first play, meant so much to me. Because it was so different. It was so innovative — not that I knew [at the time]. But most shows were just dancing girls, and you know... As I say, not that I knew that this was going to change theatre, but it meant a lot to me. I feel that young people should see Show Boat today, if they can. Because it might make them think about things in the future, about injustices and race.

Amy Asch is the assistant editor of Playbill's Broadway Yearbook series.