Southwords

Mark Twain and Me

A fascinating seat at the table

By Gayvin Powers

As far as American writers go, Mark Twain is as iconic as Halley’s comet. That’s why I jumped faster than Huckleberry Finn onto a river raft when given the opportunity to have dinner with this immortal being.

Now, I know that Mark Twain isn’t immortal. However, he certainly has been eternal for over a century due to his writing and for 63 years after that, thanks to Hal Holbrook, who created the touring show “Mark Twain Tonight!” before he hung up his white suit for good in 2017.

When I was an aspiring writer in my 20s and madly in love, my boyfriend was putting on “Mark Twain Tonight!” at Stanford University. From the moment Hal sauntered across the stage, I didn’t see him, I saw Twain. I was captivated as Twain came back to life with his white handlebar mustache and stylistic speech, monologuing about subjects of race and equality.

After the performance, a private dining table was set for us with a single yellow rose on it.

“Like my grandfather’s roses,” I thought, waiting for Hal to de-Twain himself. Throughout my life, my grandfather gave me roses from his garden when they were in season. When Hal arrived, he was looking like himself again and accompanied by a bald man with a serious face.

They were clearly not expecting company. Our first interactions could be described as excited on my part, and reserved and guarded on theirs.

Hal’s eyes looked tired, and I couldn’t blame him. He’d just given his Tony award-winning performance under the hot lights for two hours. The most relaxing thing he did on stage was sit in a winged back chair and smoke a cigar — he probably wanted more of that and a glass of whiskey. Instead, he got a plucky Gen-X-er who looked like apple pie but was more like a Red Bull.

I introduced myself. Hal was courteous while the short man grumbled his name.

“That’s my manager,” Hal said. They were quite a pair: Hal was tall with mischievous, curious eyes, and his manager was like a stout boxer.

The four of us ate steak and potatoes while Hal and I talked between bites. I wondered if he had been to the Clifford Powers’ grandchild training academy because every time I asked him a question, he asked one back. Growing up, I was accustomed to talking with my grandfather, which was more like an interview. Hal was just shy of achieving this level of interrogation.

“You enjoyed the show?” he asked me.

“It was amazing! How did you come up with the idea to perform Mark Twain?” I asked. He took a bite, letting the question hang in the air. “Did you write it too?” I added.

“Do your parents live near here?” he replied.

“No. My mother passed away a few years ago,” I said, fluttering my eyelashes to force the tears back down. “And I’m closer with my grandfather than my dad.”

“I was an actor,” he said, giving me the version that one gives a youngster. “I wanted to act. Making the show let me to do that.”

I found out later that Hal had invented his celebrated performance out of necessity. He was out of work, his wife had postpartum depression, his parents were gone, and he was alone. Prior to “Mark Twain Tonight!” he had never read any of Twain’s books. His manager recommended he create the one-man show, and Hal did it to feed his family.

Later he asked, “Did you know, Mark Twain created the Angel Fish and Aquarium Club for girls after his wife and daughter died?”

I had no idea. Hal clearly admired Twain. He shared how Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name, went on tour when his fortune ran dry — even though he hated touring.

“So, both of you were on the road, leading similar lives,” I said.

“In a way.”

With the last of the crème brûlée devoured, Hal said, “You should take the rose.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I think you should have it.” He looked puzzled. “Then you can take it home to your wife, and she’ll know that you thought of her while you were on the road.”

As if seeing me for the first time, his eyes softened as he said, “Why, thank you. I’ll do that.”

He put the flower in his lapel.

“Gayvin, what do you want to do?” Hal asked me.

“I want to be a writer.”

“Then you need to write. Write your own material. Don’t wait for someone else.”

With that, he gave me a hug goodbye, and for a brief moment I felt like one of Twain’s Angel Fish.  PS

Gayvin Powers is author of The Adventure of Iona Fay series and writing coach at Soul Sisters Write. She can be reached at hello@gayvinpowers.com.

 

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