by Patricia Grandjean
Jul 11, 2013
01:54 PMBox Office
Final Say: Cindy Lovell of The Mark Twain House & Museum, Hartford
At 57, Lovell spent more than four years as executive director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Mo., before moving to Hartford this spring to become executive director of the Mark Twain House & Museum. Yes, she’s a lifelong enthusiast.
Tell us about your background.
I’m a high school dropout like my heroes Samuel Clemens and Huckleberry Finn. Back then, I was just one of those bored, restless kids—I was also entrepreneurial and had my own business already. But I always wanted to be a teacher, so at the age of 35 I finally began college. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Stetson University in Florida, and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa.
How did you get interested in Mark Twain?
I grew up in Pennsylvania on a farm, and when I was 10, my favorite 4th-grade teacher, Ronald E. Riese, would read us a chapter from a great book every day. The day he read us the whitewashing chapter from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that was it. I got my hands on a copy of the book and read it over and over.
How does the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Missouri compare to Hartford’s?
They share the same mission, to preserve Samuel Clemens’ legacy. They differ in that Hannibal is harder to travel to, so that location doesn’t receive casual tourists; but dedicated visitors seek it out as a literary mecca—it’s 100 miles north of St. Louis. The Missouri site has nine properties, as opposed to Hartford’s three, the main one being the boyhood home he lived in from age 4 to 17.
What’s most distinctive about that home?
It has the Mississippi River for its backyard. When Samuel woke up every morning, he could look right out his bedroom window and see the river across to Jackson’s Island, where he spent a lot of time playing as a boy. That’s the place Tom and Huck and Joe Harper ran away to as boys. I thought Tom Sawyer was fiction for many years, but once you see Hannibal, you realize it’s 95 percent fact.
What attracted you to working at the Hartford house?
This is the magical home that he and his wife Livy built to raise their family. It’s such a storybook house: When you enter the library, you realize that this is where they would gather in the evenings and Twain would tell stories to his daughters. The billiards room is where he and his butler—and good friend—George Griffin would play until the wee hours of the morning. One house is where he lived the adventures of Tom Sawyer; this one is where he wrote about them. So I love both places.
Financially speaking, this is not an easy time for museums of any type. What are your plans for keeping this one in the black?
To implement an endowment campaign—if museums have a proper endowment, they can weather the storm. In Hannibal, I started a program they still have called “Dollar at the Door.” Every time visitors come in to take a tour, they buy their tickets and just before the cashier rings up the total, they’ll ask, “Would you like to donate a dollar to our endowment fund?” It’s been greatly successful. We implemented the same program in Hartford on April 15, and by the end of May we raised $1,500.
Now, we've challenged our friends in Hannibal to a “Dollar at the Door” competition, which has just officially started. To be fair, we’re going to evaluate the results on a per capita basis, because there’s more foot traffic here. If we lose, I have to go to Hannibal and whitewash the fence at that Twain house. If they lose, Henry Sweet, who took over as executive director when I left, has to come here and wash the windows. The rationale for that has to do with George Griffin, who originally met Twain when he knocked on the door and offered to wash the house’s windows—and ended up working for the family for 17 years. We’ll also do an artifact loan: Whoever loses has to donate a nice Twain piece to the other museum. We’re hoping to get some national attention for this little competition. It’s a way we can both benefit.
What is your favorite Twain book?
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his best book. But my favorite is Tom Sawyer, because of the way it romanticizes childhood. It’s not even a real storyline; it’s just a bunch of antics that kids get up to, but I make no apologies for loving it. I also dare people to read it as an adult: Most think it’s a book for kids, but it’s really a book for people who used to be kids. And it has some of the most gorgeous writing. The passage where Twain first introduces Huck Finn is pure poetry.
What do you find most interesting about Twain’s personal life?
That he came from this poverty-ridden childhood, and the ghosts of poverty were always lurking. He had to write with one eye on the marketplace, because he was always thinking about money. Even though he satirized greed and wealth, he wanted the lavish life, and enjoyed it when he had it. Yet, he didn’t hold back—when he saw things wrong in the world, he pulled out that pen warmed up in Hell and let fly. He told the truth even when it hurt, and even if it hurt himself.
Do you have a favorite Twain quote?
I have many, but the one I go to all the time is, “Let us endeavor so to live, that when we die, even the undertaker will be sorry.” He was a moralizer, but he used humor to deliver every sermon. I admire that, because when people are laughing, they can let their guard down and be open to a new idea that they otherwise couldn’t.
Certain staff members at the Hartford Twain house think that it’s haunted. What do you think?
I see no evidence, but you can believe that I hope it’s haunted. I hope I walk in some morning and smell his cigar smoke.