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Review: 'Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain' by Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook's autobiography is more encyclopedic than narrative. Where's Twain this time?

December 11, 2011|By Charles McNulty, Los Angeles Times Theater Critic
  • Hal Holbrook, left, is seen with family members. The adult is an aunt; his parents abandoned him and his siblings.
Hal Holbrook, left, is seen with family members. The adult is an aunt; his… (Hal Holbrook, Farrar Straus…)

"Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain"

Hal Holbrook

Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 468 pp., $30

Actor Hal Holbrook, still etching craggy characterizations at 86, recollects his difficult beginnings in "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." This is his version of "Act One," Moss Hart's irreplaceable theatrical autobiography tracing his climb from a hardscrabble boyhood in the Bronx to his first intoxicating whiff of Broadway success. But Holbrook's memoir, written as though he felt the need to offer a clerical hand for his entry in the Book of Life, is too ploddingly encyclopedic to become another classic of the genre.

Admittedly, Holbrook doesn't have Hart's colorful store of streetwise New York vignettes, though he certainly had his share of childhood misery growing up in New England and Ohio. By the time he was 2 years old, his parents abandoned him, leaving him and his two sisters to scratch out an emotionally perilous journey of survival under the watch of his relatively well-to-do paternal grandparents, who stepped in because they had to but made it known that they were going beyond the call of duty.

"I'm trying to remember being held by mother," Holbrook movingly begins his tale, setting up the false expectation that the book will take the form of an elegy of losses recounted and partially recouped. This lyrical note, however, is quickly ditched for a more straightforward accounting.

The most gracefully composed sections are unquestionably those dealing with Holbrook's youthful trials after he was left by a manically unsteady father, who shuttled throughout his life between jail cells and mental hospitals, and a mother who had a stint as a Ziegfeld Follies girl and was rumored to have set out to Hollywood in search of fame. His grandfather, a dynamo in the shoe business, was his rock, but sadly died when Holbrook was only 12, leaving him at the mercy of cruel boarding school teachers and a grandmother who would oppressively dote on her "blue-eyed baby boy" while egregiously neglecting his sisters.

Born or at least raised under a thespian star, Holbrook acknowledges that he was at home essentially nowhere and seldom comfortable unless playing a role, the more attention-grabbing the better. What the great Romantic era critic William Hazlitt once noted of actors seems especially true of the young Holbrook: "[I]t is only when they are themselves that they are nothing." The stage became his sanctuary. At Culver Military Academy in Indiana, the school he promised his dying grandfather he would attend, he had a decision to make: the track team or the drama club. After much agonizing, he decided to betray the jocks, who were counting on him to lead them to victory in his senior year, rather than betray himself and his fellow "weirdos."

"I chose to belong to a bunch of people who were eccentric and daring and fun to be with, show people who had taken me in," Holbrook writes.

He was spurred on to become a professional by Ed Wright, his invaluable mentor at Ohio's Denison University, and Ruby Johnston, his first wife, a budding actress he met while stationed in Newfoundland during World War II. After the war, Holbrook went back to Denison to continue his studies with Ruby. With Wright's encouragement, the two developed an acting partnership, fashioning themselves as the Lunts of the high school, college and woman's club circuits.

The show Holbrook and Ruby developed was cobbled together from Shakespeare, assorted costume dramas and, most fatefully, a sketch Wright suggested to them by Mark Twain titled "An Encounter With an Interviewer."

"This will give Hal a chance to play old in one scene," Wright remarked, knowing just how drawn his charge was to the allures of theatrical makeup and disguise.

Holbrook, of course, would go on to expand his Twain impersonation into "Mark Twain Tonight!," the solo performance piece that would give him his greatest role, earning him a Tony Award and national acclaim. He and Samuel Clemens would indeed become indistinguishable for many Americans, who have had ample opportunity over the decades to see Holbrook transform himself into that folksy literary fellow with the white suit and lancing irony.

It's a shame that Twain's twinkling wit isn't able to enliven this book. Holbrook approaches his task with the seriousness of a man awaiting — or perhaps forestalling — final judgment. He lays out as many facts as he can muster about himself as a son, actor, husband and father, but the sheer bulk of the inventory (there's an entire section numbingly devoted to early road show itineraries) crowds out insight. The failure of his first marriage is presented with the play-by-play detail of a baseball radio broadcast, but the overall picture remains fuzzy.

Curiously, the more Holbrook shares, the more he seems to withhold. There's deep confessional sadness but also an evasive streak. At times he comes off as the kind of guy who would see a therapist only to tick off everything he had for dinner the night before. Some of what he relates is likely to be of interest only to those who share his surname. "Grandma had sold the big redbrick house and gone east on Lake Avenue to the first-floor apartment of a duplex house opposite Lakewood Park" is the kind of chapter opening that might even bore a first cousin.

Good storytelling is as much a function of what the author leaves out as what he includes. There's no question that Holbrook's venerable career deserves being memorialized, but the way "Harold" documents the first third of it is a lesson in narrative smothering.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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