Obituary: James Hammerstein

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The Independent Culture
JAMES HAMMERSTEIN was a successful and complete man of the theatre. The son of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, he was born to the purple and could have remained in it, becalmed but important. He chose instead to begin at the bottom.

He took his first job at the age of 19, in 1950, as a replacement extra in the first New York production of Mister Roberts. He went on to work as a stage manager for half a dozen shows, among them The Fourposter, when he was still only 21, and Damn Yankees when he was 24. Almost anyone can pass for a director, but only intelligent and highly responsible people can cut it as stage managers, who have to know everything about a production, from the producer's IQ to the (on- and off-stage) whereabouts of a box of matches. When Hammerstein went on to produce and direct, he was already qualified at an altogether higher level.

He took on, in one capacity or another (and sometimes in both) productions which demanded a variety of contradictory skills. There were the small and intense straight plays - Harold Pinter's Tea Party (1968) and Israel Horovitz's The Indian Wants the Bronx (1968) on the one hand; his father's large-scale Oklahoma and The King and I (over a number of years) on the other - all highly successful.

I first met him when he was directing a play of mine, Wise Child, in 1972. It was a disaster - though his production was much admired, The New York Times hated the play. Subsequently he directed two more of my plays with great success - Butley on Broadway, and The Rear Column off it. But for my part I shall always be most grateful to the failed Wise Child for bringing me Hammerstein and his future wife, Dena Sherman, closest of friends ever since.

James Hammerstein achieved as much as anyone can reasonably hope to achieve in the theatre - more in fact; nevertheless, he had to bear an unusual burden, the burden of inheritance. He was the son of a genius and had a great name, almost a title. For all the independence he won for himself, he always assumed that what he had been given also entailed a debt. It must sometimes have been hard, even for such an honourable and dutiful son, to have to devote so much of himself to being a custodian (his father died in 1960). Mostly, though, he showed his pride and pleasure in it, travelling about the world overseeing productions of his father's musicals, and receiving awards on their behalf, with a laconic and beguiling grace.

Still, he was blessed in his work, and, more importantly, blessed in his wife and children, becoming even busier and feeling even more blessed after he discovered a few years ago that he had a heart condition. Although he found his increasing deafness a great nuisance, he did say, when discussing various actors with whom he had once worked, that he sometimes wished he had got deaf younger.

He was a man of great but almost invisible elegance. You never noticed what he was wearing, he made no show of his innate good manners, and his natural kindness was offered tentatively, with a shyness. His air of sagacity, completely unassumed though not always relevant, sometimes led him into positions of unwanted authority. In impromptu games of any sort, he was invariably appointed scorer, umpire, referee, which was all right by him as long as he was allowed to play too. Tall and unfairly handsome, he reminded one of long-gone film stars - a beau ideal, American style. Inevitably women found him sexy and sympathetic: men liked and admired him in spite of that.

He had only one truly irritating characteristic. When playing tennis or ping-pong, he had a habit of complimenting his opponent on a shot, even as he was returning it unplayably. I remember one game, from about a quarter of a century ago, when I was so tormented by his lethal combination of good manners and swift reflexes, that I met his conclusive "Hey, good shot, Si!" with a volley of oaths. He was a jolly good winner and I was a rotten loser, but then I have no idea what he could have been like as a loser, which isn't fair of course. There was only my own social disgrace in losing to him - he was the most complete sportsman I've ever come across.

As a young man he played tennis to a professional level (when living in London he played at Queen's, and had represented the club in tournaments), and as an older one he was good enough to mix it with veteran champions. He was a marvellous swimmer and diver, and in these last years took up golf as well. As well!

Hammerstein, like many of us, I think, was most himself at play, and I know that my most vivid memories are of him in movement - in the water, on the tennis court, dealing cards, simultaneously concentrating and relaxed, full of enjoyment.

He died in the arms of his beloved Dena, with their beloved son Simon close by, after celebrating the 100th performance of one of his current off-Broadway successes, Over the River and Through the Woods. A decent enough way to go, at least so everyone says, but too soon, indecently soon, for those many who loved him. James Hammerstein, such a son to his father, and such a father to his children, has made quite a few feel partly orphaned all over again. "Wow!" he'd probably say, with his sudden boy's grin. "Hey, guys, I didn't mean it to be like that, I really didn't!"

James Hammerstein, theatre director and producer: born New York 23 March 1931; married three times (three sons, one daughter); died New York 7 January 1999.