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Mark Twain House Comeback

AuthorsLiteratureMark TwainFinance

It took a little ice cream, some beer, a lot of visiting authors and a staff eager to try new things in a city that clings to old ways.

And it worked. Over the past five years, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford has built on its foundation as a National Historic Landmark home to become a literary center of innovation and renown, presenting talks by writers as varied as Judy Blume and Stephen King.

Twain, who lived in the house on Farmington Avenue from 1874 to 1891 and wrote "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and other classics there, loved to entertain writers and would surely approve.

Authors certainly do. "It very much is holy ground," says David Baldacci, a best-selling writer of thrillers and a member of the board of trustees.

"I first visited the Twain House with my wife and very young daughter ... I wanted a career as a novelist, as Twain had. Now that I've been back many times, the lure and attraction and electricity I feel never lessens," Baldacci says.

Jon Clinch, whose 2007 novel "Finn" imagines the life of Huckleberry's father, has given talks there.

"When I was calling other writers to take part in a big fundraiser that helped the House navigate a very rough patch, every individual I contacted stepped up with no questions asked," Clinch says.

"Folks came from the Midwest, from Florida, from Tennessee, from all over the map — because we finally had the chance to repay some of the debt that we all owe to Mark Twain."

The Twain House's financial crisis — attributed to the embezzlement of more than $1 million over eight years by its controller at the time and the cost of building and operating the museum and visitors' center designed by Robert A.M. Stern — eased by 2011. In 2012, National Geographic named the Twain House one of the world's 10 best historic homes.

Baldacci says it "has become a living, breathing experiment with a forward-looking vision as to how history and the future can work as one. ... The future is represented in all the amazing programs now offered there, as well as the innovative events designed to broaden and deepen awareness about Twain and his career."

In 2013 alone, the Twain House presented Baldacci, Stephen King, Scott Turow, Alice Hoffman, Sue Grafton, Christopher Moore, Penn Jillette, Mary-Ann Tirone Smith, Anita Diamant and many others.

This year it partnered with Mohegan Sun for the Big Book Getaway in February at the casino, hosting more than 50 authors, including Debbie Macomber, P.J. O'Rourke, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Pete Hamill and William Mann.

On April 25 to 27, it will host its third annual Writers Weekend, offering talks and workshops with at least 20 writers. The cost is $150. The fourth annual Mark My Words event, at which three famous authors are interviewed by a celebrity host, is scheduled for the fall.

And on June 7, the Twain House will bring Dan Brown, the mega-best-selling author of "The Da Vinci Code" to The Bushnell. Brown's latest, "Inferno," was named Amazon's No. 1 best-selling adult book of 2013.

The free "The Trouble Begins At 5:30" discussions with Twain experts and Nook Farm Book Talks presented with the Harriet Beecher Stowe House continue, and workshops, begun with memoir classes led by Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine in 2010, now include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children's literature and playwriting.

A new series, "Book/Mark," will present many talks, including one by Charles MacPherson, author of "The Butler Speaks," on March 13 and another on humorist Mark Russell's and cartoonist Shannon Wheeler's comic version of Bible tales, "God Is Disappointed In You," on April 3.

Other events, present and past, include ice cream socials and beer tastings, which attracted big crowds, traditional, holiday, ghost, graveyard and "Clue" game tours with Twain-era characters; plays, exhibits linking Gilded Age and current concerns, debates between speakers representing Twain and authors he despised, storytelling events, steampunk-themed parties, Tom Sawyer Days and more.

When Jeffery L. Nichols became executive director in 2009, the Twain House offered about 10 public programs. In 2013, there were more than 100, with 10 in the first two weeks of December alone.

"We were dead in the water in 2008, but when Jacques LaMarre showed up, things really began to take off," says Nichols, now CEO of Poplar Forest, Thomas Jefferson's retreat in Virginia. "He brought that spark."

Says LaMarre: "In 2009, it was an institution in survival mode. They only had one way to go. It was a world of opportunity."

LaMarre, director of communications and special projects, draws on his varied experiences, from attending a Catholic seminary in Rome to writing scripts for drag performer Varla Jean Merman to working with the Hartford Symphony, Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks and Yale Rep.

"You have to be fearless to pull off anything new in Hartford," he says. "They say it can't be done, but we just plowed ahead. We're about getting them excited and connected to the house."

LaMarre works closely with Julia Pistell, director of writing at the Mark Twain House.

"We say yes to every idea immediately," says Pistell, "and then we have to make it work. We are willing to try new things."

Pistell's pursuits include writing, teaching, founding the Syllable reading series featuring Connecticut writers, and co-founding the Sea Tea Improv comedy troupe and Literary Disco, a book criticism website and podcast, not to mention a stint as a dog-walker.

Says Clinch: "I'm delighted that their vision has gone beyond the specifics of Twain's work and world to incorporate all kinds of writing and creative enterprises. That keeps things fresh. And yet there's always that indelible imprint of Twain's voice and world view on everything."

That voice resonates with Nichols, who says, "He's still a part of me. I quote him every day," and with Cindy Lovell, who became executive director in March.

"I hear his voice in my head all day. He's the first truly American voice and writer," says Lovell, previously executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo.

To benefit that institution, she co-produced a double CD, "Mark Twain: Words & Music," featuring Jimmy Buffet, Garrison Keillor, Clint Eastwood, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Ricky Skaggs and others.

"Twain was the first truly American voice and writer," she says. "He was a rock star and the most recognized American worldwide" and "a bottomless pit of curiosity who loved technology.

"He would have been a great blogger and Tweeter," Lovell speculates. "He would have loved the Internet."

She plans to increase audience and revenues through documentaries about Twain House exhibits, virtual tours and restoration of the carriage house and its sleigh and "Mahogany Room" guest quarters.

Lovell launched The Paige Compositor Press to republish Twain works, named for his famously failed investment in a typesetting machine, which led to the bankruptcy that forced the family to leave Hartford for Europe.

The press has published "We Shall Have Them With Us Always: The Ghosts of the Mark Twain House," by Steve Courtney, a Twain historian.

"It's Cindy's plan to publish out-of-copyright books with new introductions by people like Jimmy Buffet," Courtney says. "They'll finally make money off that thing that ruined Twain."

John B. De Laney, an attorney and director of international publishing at ICM Partners in New York, recently joined the board of trustees.

"Twain," De Laney says, "is a spectacular poster child for literacy and the printed word in the U.S. and all over the world."

He'd like to see the Twain House function as a community center offering "access to great writers and an exchange of ideas for the public to participate in" and as a bookstore, "fundamental to the fabric of a strong society" but lacking in Hartford.

Baldacci has his own wish list.

"I would love to see multi-day events built on the author series, Mark My Words, that we began with me, John Grisham and Jodi Picoult and a publishing prize connected to Twain," he says.

"If the Kennedy Center can have the Mark Twain Humor Prize, the foundation that operates the man's home should be able to partner with publishers and others to design a major award that has his name attached.

"He is our 'Lincoln of Literature,' and I think it would be a well-deserved honor."

Carole Goldberg writes and blogs about books and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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