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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Beach on Twain House



Things are tough all over, prices for everything are going through the roof, but that doesn’t mean they have to close down the Mark Twain House.
Do they?
A couple of weeks ago it seemed the end was near for this Hartford landmark, one of my favorite places on earth.
When I picked up The New York Times June 3 and read this shrine "may be forced to close because it is running out of money," I nearly choked on my Cheerios.
Yes, and the headline read: "Rumors of demise not so greatly exaggerated." That, as all Twainiacs know, refers to Twain once being quoted: "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
Fortunately, the Times report turned out to be exaggerated, since its publication spurred contributions from corporations and anxious individuals.
But when I saw that headline, I knew it was time to get back up there and see what the heck was going on.
The last time I was in that whimsical rambling house, I had the great fortune of spending a few precious minutes sitting on the veranda with another great American humorist I admire as much as Twain: Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Vonnegut was in town to address a large audience on the evils of war and the idiocy of George W. Bush. This was in May 2003, and the Iraq War was in its infancy.
The second wonderful thing that happened that spring day was getting a chance to accompany Vonnegut for a tour of Twain’s house, especially the fabulous billiards room on the third floor.
There, friends, is where it all happened. Twain spent many fine hours up in that room between 1874 and 1891, entertaining his gentleman friends, smoking cigars with them, drinking with them, playing billiards and, when the place cleared out, sitting down in the corner to write novels.
What did he write in that corner? Oh, merely "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "The Prince and the Pauper," "Life on the Mississippi," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court" and "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Vonnegut had a grand old time exploring the house, which he called "sacred." When he reached the billiards room, he was as awestruck as any tourist. He also bounced back from a Twain House official’s refusal to let him shoot a game of billiards.
"I like that room, I tell you!" Vonnegut said as he departed.
He’s gone now, having joined Twain in humorists’ heaven. Maybe the two of them are looking down at the house, appalled by its financial state.
I spent a lot of time in that room last Wednesday, staring at the notes scattered on the floor and writing table, a careful arrangement evoking Twain’s work habits.
Augusta Girard, a Twain House representative, told me as we stood there, "He liked to be away from distractions. He originally tried writing downstairs (where his daughters, Clara, Jean and Susy, were home-schooled), but he found it too noisy."
And his wife, Olivia, hated cigar smoke. Twain tried to pacify her: "I’ll only smoke one cigar at a time."
During my reverie in that room, a group of school kids came in. Clearly, they had read Twain and were impressed by the setting.
"That’s why it would be a terrible shame to close," Girard said. "So many students come through here." (I wondered why my daughters, who are in the New Haven public schools, have never had a field trip there.)
Later I did a quick walk through a massive nearby building that opened in 2003: The Education and Visitor Center, part of the Twain complex.
It’s got fancy auditoriums and galleries. But it’s a big reason why the house now finds itself in trouble.
The center’s construction cost totaled $19 million, twice what had been projected. The Twain organization, which has reduced its staff from 49 to 17 because the budget is about $200,000 in the red, still owes nearly $5 million on the loan for that construction.
With energy costs soaring, the annual utility bill for the giant center is now $300,000, three times what it was a couple of years ago.
"It was needed," said Jeffrey Nichols, executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum when I asked him about the center. "But certainly it was too expensive. Maybe it was a little too grand."
Nichols said that since the Times story ran, donations have saved the house from imminent closure. "But it’s still a serious situation. It’ll take years to get where we want to be."
He noted 68,000 people visited the house last year and Twain remains a beloved writer.
If you want to help stave off the unthinkable, go to www.marktwainhouse.org.
Randall Beach can be reached at rbeach@nhregister.com or 789-5766.

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