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Mark Twain's muse comes to life

Almost everyone knows of renowned author Samuel Clemens -- especially here in Missouri, where we're proud to call Hannibal his home.

But the life of the man whose pen name was Mark Twain is far from an open book.

For example, few people realize that a chance meeting in his early 20s with a young girl may have sparked and sustained his writing career and provided the inspiration for the character of Becky Thatcher in his most famous novel, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer."

After an encounter on a steamboat along the Mississippi River, Laura Wright had Clemens at "how do you do." Smitten, Clemens spent the next three days in a whirlwind platonic romance with the 14-year-old in pigtails.

"Sam and Laura, " to be presented as a staged reading by the St. Louis Actors' Studio on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 3-4, at the Gaslight Theatre, is the story of their relationship. Ron Powers, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in the 1960s, created the play using information gathered from Clemens' autobiography, a letter from Wright's family friend and other writings.

The play's debut coincides with numerous important anniversaries: the 175th anniversary of Clemens' 1935 birth, the centennial year of his 1910 death and the 125th anniversary of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Powers, who also wrote "Mark Twain: A Life" in 2005, spoke with The Beacon about his lifelong affiliation with all things Mark Twain, including their mutual birthplace.

Q: What do you have in common with Mark Twain?

Ron Powers: I share the little town that formed him. Hannibal was a lot different in the 1940s than in was in the 1840s but fundamentally it's a little town isolated on a gigantic prairie with this magical river coming by. It's the river that brought the world to Sammy's doorstep: travelers from Europe, all kinds of circus troupes, lecturers and cutthroats.

I remember as a kid in the late 1940s and early 1950s, I would walk downtown on Saturdays with my friend Dooly Winkler, the town rich kid whose family was the custodian of the Mark Twain legacy. We would look at the license plates on the cars that were parked on Hill Street in front of the home and the museum. Cars from Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, California, Florida -- places I never imagined.

I think I did grow up with that sense of Hannibal being a very special and almost mystical place.

Q: How did he inform your early writing career?

RP: In 1969, I went to the Chicago Sun Times, where I won a 1973 Pulitzer prize for my television column. I think I was a little influenced by a Mark Twain sensibility because writing a TV column was a window into writing about the whole world, a world of politics and Nixon and Watergate and also about marketing and advertising and how all these forces in television shaped our consciousness. And they let me do it with a certain amount of playfulness, which I enjoyed -- maybe that was a little of Sam's legacy seeping through.

Q: Is the play "Sam and Laura" historically accurate?

RP: The whole spine of the play is factual. When he wrote about his relationship with Laura, he talked about this child in her plaited pigtails and her white frock blowing about in the wind of that ancient Mississippi time. He was very smitten but they may not even have touched. I'm sure they didn't kiss. But he took her to the French market, they danced on the decks and they talked sitting on the cotton bales.

What I think Laura represented to young Sam Clemens was purity. She was like a healing angel. He'd been on the river long enough to see the dark side of the Mississippi and the prostitutes, the gamblers and the violence -- all the things that make the Mississippi a pretty dangerous place to be.

Then, three weeks after his encounter with Laura, his younger brother Henry was blown up on a steamboat, the Pennsylvania. Sam had gotten Henry the job to get him out of the St. Louis library where he was working. Sam never forgave himself. I think his memories of Laura kept him sane and productive the rest of his life.

Q: What other sources did you have for the play besides Samuel Clemens' writings?

RP: A family friend of Laura's, C.O. Byrd, wrote a letter in 1964 to another Mark Twain scholar. He wrote about a Hollywood nightclub in 1925, where the play is set -- and this, too, is true -- where Laura shows up celebrating her 80th birthday, escorted by this younger fellow, Byrd. Laura Tells Byrd about the romance.

They get back to Laura's apartment and she points to a trunk in the corner of the room, and she asks Byrd to open it. He looks inside and he sees stacks and stacks of letters from Sam. She makes him promise on his word that when she dies he will burn the letters. She lived until 1932 and after she died, Byrd burned the damn letters.

When I was researching the biography, I held in my hand the 1964 letter from Byrd. Suddenly it hit me: Just when you think you know everything there is to know about Mark Twain, something else pops up. That, to me is the great majesty of his life. We have never gotten to the bottom of him. I don't think we ever will, but this play and the story of Laura, I began to realize, this is the origin of his creative power, his dream life, his passion, his capacity to be completely surrender himself to an idea, a person or an adventure.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who, among other topics, covers theater for the Beacon.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.