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The following review appeared 15 September 2011 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Hal Holbrook has explained that he is drawn to Mark Twain because Mark Twain tells the truth and because we all need somebody who tells the truth. Even Huck Finn fails to give Mark Twain such high praise as Holbrook, pointing out that "there was things which he stretched" but Huck would approve of Holbrook's new book. It frankly tells some painful truths and attains a confessional level that Mark Twain himself never achieves in his own autobiography. Hal Holbrook has been Mark Twain longer than Sam Clemens was Mark Twain, but it took decades for Harold Holbrook to become Hal Holbrook, and then find Harold again. Holbrook's book, the first volume of a planned two-volume autobiography, chronicles the first thirty-four years of that often painful and sometimes hilarious journey.
Try to imagine a little boy whose mother leaves the family when he is six years old and whose father is soon sent to an asylum, leaving him and his sisters to be raised by grandparents. The little guy is continually beaten and abused by a schoolmaster, and one of his sisters later dies from a botched abortion. As a young man during World War II he watches an army drill sergeant work an older recruit to death and his best friend is killed in action in Belgium. After the war he drinks too much and has an affair. His marriage fails and he belatedly realizes that he has failed his children. Years later he has an epiphany and realizes he was an abused child. I've skipped the grimmest details, but you've just met Hal Holbrook, who describes in a matter-of-fact manner how these events shaped his life. He recalls his feelings at the time, and brings you back in time with him as he evokes the sounds and smells, the very texture of being in each of these moments. Mark Twain once described biography as the "clothes and buttons" of a man, not the man himself. Holbrook gives himself.
Faced with cruelties and tragedies beyond his understanding, Holbrook tries to escape into mere "clothes and buttons." He craves attention, at one point holding his breath under water until frightened onlookers dive in to save him, pushes himself to run beyond his limits in track, and fears meeting a fate like that of his own father. But two things save his life. During the long intervals of confusion and unhappiness he experiences brief acts of kindness by others and he discovers the contents of the trunk his mother left behind.
Holbrook recalls a simple hug by a piano teacher who sensed that her young student had reached the end of the tether and could not go on. So, she sat quietly beside him as any mother would, hugging him as he cried out his heart, a moment her student has never forgotten. These small moments of kindness punctuate Holbrook's story with a power far beyond their temporal allotment in the narrative. There is the poised girl at the dance who has the priceless grace to pretend not to notice that Holbrook, her dancing partner, can barely dance and is stepping on her feet. There is Holbrook's buddy Ace, who talks him through a crisis like a true friend. All are testaments to the power of kindness.
In the cellar of his grandparent's house Holbrook made a discovery that would change his life. First, he found his mother's record collection and established a connection to her as he listened to her favorite music. Next he found mementos of his mother's career in show business. He enrolled in a drama class and soon found comfort in pretending to be somebody else. His early life on stage was not an easy one, with long road trips, frequent rejections, and some hilarious blunders. The funniest moment in the book may be when Holbrook, playing an army captain delivering a telegram to President Wilson, rushes onto the stage to make his delivery, forgetting to bring the telegram with him, dashes back off-stage to get it, and then returns to the stage so flustered that he forgets to give it to the other actor, and all the while the other actors are adlibbing their lines to cover for him, and trying not to laugh as a thoroughly bewildered Holbrook sweats off his makeup, bringing down the house. For thespians, Holbrook also provides candid insights into how an actor practices his art. Mark Twain became part of Holbrook's repertoire when he included Twain among the pieces he and his first wife performed in a traveling show for schools in 1949.
Before Holbrook, there had been a history of Mark Twain impersonators and imposters. They plagued Sam Clemens from the 1860s to the very last years of his life. While the imposters were an affront to Twain's dignity, impersonators were not exactly flattery personified. A Brooklyn dentist, J. Jay Villers (1836-1912) made a career of performing "twenty-five comic impersonations" including Mark Twain. In 1874, Alfred P. Burbank was doing the same in Saco, Maine, and about that same time a self-styled "Professor," R. L. Cumnock, was killing audiences in Great Falls, Montana with his impersonations presented under the banner "a night with Shakespeare and Dickens." Twain got third billing. In 1878, George Lyon was doing the same in Iowa, with the help of supposed testimonials from appearances in New York, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas from the previous two years. One W. W. Cranes of Kansas City advertised his Mark Twain impersonations in the 1880s, promising to make his audiences "laugh or cry!"
On the evening of June 5, 1877, at the Seminary Hall in Hartford, a Twain impersonator made a debut that changed everything. William Gillette (1853-1937) who later became famous playing Sherlock Holmes in the movies impersonated Twain that night and recited the story of the jumping frog. Having delayed his annual summer departure for Elmira for a few days, Mark Twain himself sat in the audience, and said Gillette's performance gave him "one more reason for being sorry I [Gillette] was born" (Zecher, _William Gillette_, pp. 528). This was a compliment. Twain and Gillette were friends and neighbors, and spent a good deal of time together. The combination of Gillette's talent at mimicry and his familiarity with Mark Twain's speech, were a boon. Twain and his wife helped Gillette in his stage career, loaning him $3,000 to get started, and got him a role in the stage version of "The Gilded Age" with John T. Raymond. Gillette went on to more enduring fame, but continued performing his impersonation of Mark Twain into the 1920s and 1930s.
When Holbrook heard a recording of Gillette's impersonation of Twain for the first time, he'd recently debuted his own show, "Mark Twain Tonight!" He'd met Bim Pond, the son of Mark Twain's lecture agent, James B. Pond, who'd once worked for James Redpath, Twain's previous lecture agent, and who later managed the Twain-Cable tour of 1884-85, and the first leg of Twain's world tour in 1895. Bim had known Twain and he helped Holbrook with his act. Bim Pond provided Holbrook his first direct link to Mark Twain. Pond demonstrated Twain's drawl for Holbrook and encouraged him. Soon Holbrook was reading all of Twain's books he could get his hands on as well as critical works about Twain by Dixon Wecter, Bernard DeVoto, Arthur L. Scott, Philip Foner, and Fred Lorch. A ride on a steamboat gave Holbrook insight into Twain's unusual gait which was confirmed when he later watched the Edison film of Twain sauntering around Stormfield. He also met Madame Charbonnel, who had known Twain in Vienna. She reminded Holbrook that Twain's humor was drawn from a deep well of seriousness. Until then, Holbrook's impersonation of Twain was just a generic imitation of a funny old man. It wasn't long before Holbrook was using Twain's own words to deal with hecklers and choosing pieces for his show that would relate to then current issues like McCarthyism and Civil Rights.
In 1958, Holbrook met with the elderly Isabel Lyon several times in her Greenwich Village home, where she would prop herself up with a pillow, pour a Scotch, and smoke a pipe given to her by Twain as she told Holbrook things that she made him promise never to "publish." She denied being in love with Twain, or his being in love with her, but Holbrook has previously said it was from Lyon that he got a better feel for Mark Twain than from any other person he ever met who had known the great author. On April 12, 1961 Holbrook visited Clara Clemens, who praised his impersonation and then startled him with the suggestion that after mastering Mark Twain he should give Jesus a try. Accounts of these encounters with Bim Pond, Isabel Lyon, and Clara Clemens have been published elsewhere and although this book adds some information about his meetings with Bim Pond beyond what Holbrook had already written in his first book, Mark Twain Tonight! (1959), he does not mention his meetings with Clara or Isabel. Those encounters will hopefully be described when Holbrook publishes the planned second volume of his life covering the years 1959-2011.
This first volume of Holbrook's life story is rightly subtitled
"the boy who became Mark Twain" and deserves a reading by every
Twainian. The events of Holbrook's early life led him to the act that has
brought him an enduring fame for more than fifty years, a recognition that
stands entirely separate from his many distinguished achievements on stage,
television, and motion pictures. In this single volume Holbrook does for himself
what it took the last four decades of Mark Twain biographies to accomplish
for Mark Twain -- he humanizes himself. He does this by bravely stepping out
from behind the mask that every actor uses as a shield. And like Mark Twain,
who is more fully understood thanks to the biographies by Hamlin Hill, Ron
Powers, Karen Lystra, Jerry Loving, Laura Trombley, and Michael Shelden, we
are drawn to Hal Holbrook for the same reasons he is drawn to Mark Twain.
Holbrook's experiences will remind readers of the joys and terrors Tom experiences
in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and when Holbrook tells the rest of
his life story, that next book could be his own Adventures of Huckleberry