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Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain

Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain

3.6 6
by Hal Holbrook

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A beloved actor's memoir about what it takes to break into the business

In Harold, the beloved stage, film, and television actor Hal Holbrook presents an affecting memoir about his struggle to discover his true self, even as he learned to transform himself onstage. Abandoned by his mother and father when he was two, Holbrook and his two


A beloved actor's memoir about what it takes to break into the business

In Harold, the beloved stage, film, and television actor Hal Holbrook presents an affecting memoir about his struggle to discover his true self, even as he learned to transform himself onstage. Abandoned by his mother and father when he was two, Holbrook and his two sisters commenced separate journeys of survival. Raised by his powerful grandfather, who died when Holbrook was twelve, Holbrook spent his childhood at boarding schools, visiting his father in an insane asylum and hoping his mother would suddenly surface in Hollywood.
As World War II engulfed Europe, Holbrook began acting almost by accident. Through war, marriage, and the work of honing his craft, his fear of insanity and his fearlessness in the face of risk were channeled into discovering that the riskiest path of all—success as an actor—would be his birthright. The climb up that forbidding mountain was a lonely one. And how he achieved it—the cost to his wife and children and to his own conscience—is the dark side of the fame he would eventually earn by portraying the man his career would forever be most closely associated with: Mark Twain.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Harold is] a gripping and illuminating tale, a peculiarly American saga of loneliness, sometimes misguided determination, luck, perseverance, marital failure and the life of a touring player in pre-interstate America.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Like Mark Twain, the alter ego he portrayed on the stage, actor Holbrook (All the President's Men, Into the Wild) has a knack for weaving delightful anecdotes with painful true stories . . . An insightful glimpse into Holbrook's personal and professional life, retold with amazing detail and written with intelligence and raw humor.” —Richard A. Dickey, Library Journal

“[Holbrook] tells his life story beautifully, moving smoothly from being a young boy abandoned by his parents . . . to enjoying a celebrated career on stage and screen. The reader is hooked right from the book's opening lines . . . Looking back with remarkable objectivity, Holbrook seems to be writing--with considerable sensitivity and insight--about another person entirely, someone who used to exist but has been overwritten by age and experience. This would be an unusual approach for any autobiography, and especially for a ‘star bio,' but it works remarkably well here, perhaps because, in Holbrook's case, his professional career is an important part of his life but hardly the only thing worth talking about.” —David Pitt, Booklist (starred review)

“Renowned stage and screen actor Holbrook recounts his early life in this stirring memoir . . . While Holbrook's career stretches on for another half century, this encapsulation of his first 34 years is a movingly honest account of a life spent searching for meaning and purpose.” —Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly
From a boyhood spent wondering about parents who abandoned him to his iconic portrayal of Mark Twain, renowned stage and screen actor Holbrook recounts his early life in this stirring memoir. Raised primarily in South Weymouth, Mass., by his paternal grandparents after his father was committed to an asylum and his mother left for New York, Holbrook idolized his grandfather and was devastated by his death when Holbrook was 12 in 1937. He first discovered his love for theater at the Culver Military Academy, signing up for a drama class on a whim. He enrolled in Denison University's theater program after a stint in the army during WWII and took part in as many plays as possible. It was during his time in the army that he met his future wife, Ruby. Together, they went on the road in 1948, performing for clubs and schools around the country. But Holbrook's drive for success—and the fear of ending up like his father—led to marital strain even as his career took off and he performed his first solo act as Mark Twain, a role that would define him. While Holbrook's career stretches on for another half century, this encapsulation of his first 34 years is a movingly honest account of a life spent searching for meaning and purpose. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Like Mark Twain, the alter ego he portrayed on the stage, actor Holbrook (All the President's Men; Into the Wild) has a knack for weaving delightful anecdotes with painful true stories. Covering the first 34 years of his long life, he focuses on how he came to portray Twain, a decision that forced him to assess his life, admit his mistakes, and accept consequences. He shares important lessons learned, such as endurance from military school and a strong work ethic from summers spent on his relatives' farm. An unconventional Midwestern upbringing by his grandparents prepared him to take on the world as an individual and make his own success. Coming of age during World War II, Holbrook taught himself how to conform when the occasion called for it. By the time he was being hailed as a talented actor, he was still trying to come to terms with who he was as a person. VERDICT An insightful glimpse into Holbrook's personal and professional life, retold with amazing detail and written with intelligence and raw humor.—Richard A. Dickey, Washington, DC
Kirkus Reviews

Noted actor Holbrook serves up a charming but unsentimental memoir of his early life.

The author is well known for one-man shows depicting Mark Twain in all his white-suited, cigar-chomping, brilliant finery. It may come as a surprise to some readers that Holbrook was scarcely out of childhood when the role was thrust on him, along with Shakespeare and Wilde and all the other stuff of a traveling theatrical troupe. His childhood was anything but easy. He opens with an incident in a principal's office that would turn anyone from school, one of many acts of unrestrained evil that pop up from time to time in the narrative—besides, at his next school, he was filled with foreboding at the sight of "massive brick buildings resembling fortresses with openings on the roof for people to shoot at you." Yet acts of kindness, it seems, came along more often enough that Holbrook did not despair. He reconnected with his mentally ill, absent father, whom he came to understand and forgive; he found encouragement among fellow actors in training, and particularly by an acting teacher in college. Holbrook set his sights low—he was elated when he learned of his first acting job that "they were going to pay me $15 a week"—but he quickly discovered that he excelled at his chosen work, which didn't necessarily make the school of hard knocks any easier. Without boasting, Holbrook recounts being recognized early on as both a serious worker and a leader—during his Army years, the brass were constantly trying to make him an officer. But mostly his memoir is a matter of living out of a trunk, traveling dusty roads from town to town and enduring bad turns of fate, not least of them the blacklist of the McCarthy era.

The events in this book end in 1958—meaning, one hopes, that a sequel will appear in short order.

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.40(d)

Read an Excerpt



I'm trying to remember being held by my mother. Those memories are all so dreamy now, as if none of them ever really happened. I could have dreamed my memories and they would be as real to me. I'm told she was just a young girl and that she left when I was two. I have a picture of her, a little brown-tinted photograph in a gold frame, and she is, indeed, a young girl with a shy smile. But there is some other message in her eyes. Something tired, the eyes of a girl who has had enough and wants it to be over.

All I have are two drifting memories of her. The first is on the enclosed porch in the big Cleveland house, green wicker furniture. A baby is stumbling around, knocking into the sharp stub ends of wicker and crying, and a young woman reaches for this baby, but Grandma moves in ahead of her and the baby never gets inside the young woman's arms. That would be me.

The other memory is a few years later, in the cigar-scented den off Grandpa's bedroom in the South Weymouth house when I was about six years old. My mother and father have come out of the blue to visit us. They are tap-dancing in the archway of Grandpa's den and she is smiling, but there is no beginning or ending to this memory. It is just a vision, connected to nothing, two young people dancing in limbo. I revisited that house many years later because I was told the people who live there now had sometimes seen the ghost of a young woman with blond hair when they went down into the basement.They were very matter-of-fact about it. They told me I wouldn't feel afraid of her, because she was not threatening. They had a young son, and he agreed. She was friendly, he said.

When I descended, I told myself that I would like to see her, that if I could believe in this apparition, I would know my mother. The basement was larger than I had remembered, much larger, so clean and dry, the paint so fresh and shiny after all these years. It stretched away around a corner to the right, where the laundry and shop tools were. To the left was the coal room for the furnace, with the coal chute slanting down into it. It gave me a shock of remembrance, the glistening chute. I remembered crouching there as a little boy. They said she would be in this part of the cellar. That I would probably see her here. I waited. I made myself still, my heart and my body. Did I feel a presence? Was someone there? I wanted her to appear.


In my heart I felt a tiny shock. Was it her I felt? Or was it the word I don't remember ever saying that sent a thrill through me?

"Hello, Mother. It's me, Harold."

I hung on to the feeling as long as I could but finally had to let it go. I don't believe in ghosts. Maybe that had something to do with it, maybe not. I don't know.

I would never see her again after she and my father suddenly appeared and danced in the archway of Grandpa's den. Nowadays, at night when I turn out the lights in the living room before going up to bed, I look at her little picture in the gold frame under the lamp where my dear wife has placed it, and I say, "Good night, little girl." She was just a little girl, that's all she was, those years ago when last I saw her.

My name is Harold. The year after my mother disappeared for good, they sent me away to boarding school to make a man of me. I was seven years old. The junior school was run by the Headmaster, a short, round man who told stories about a turtle that lived under a rock beside the path to the dining hall. That was his good side.

One afternoon I was playing halfback in football practice and I got a shoe full of cleats in the face. Baam! I started to cry. The coach banished me for not being tough enough. I was already in disgrace from the Saturday before, when I caught a pass and ran eighty-eight yards for a touchdown. I couldn't understand why no one was chasing me, until they told me I'd gone the wrong way.

I was ashamed. I decided to run a mile. I'd never done it before. Across from the football field was a cinder track—five times around for a mile. I hobbled over there, pulled off my helmet, and drew a line in the cinders. Five times around. No stopping. My football shoes and shoulder pads were pretty heavy, but I didn't think about that right away. Soon I was gulping the fall air of Connecticut and it bit down into my lungs like slivers of ice. By the end of one lap the shoes felt like hunks of pig iron and the shoulder pads were flopping around, banging my ears.

"Please, God, don't let me fail! Maybe the Headmaster is watching me up on the hill, from the window in his office, where he likes to punish us. Maybe he will be proud of me if I keep going all the way."

Five laps. Now only three and a half. I was beginning to cough up stuff and my lungs were filling up with the ice slivers. Maybe the coach was watching me, too, and he would think, "That Harold has guts, after all. Look at him go." I began to think I was going to make it. A sensation of air spread through my chest, and it seemed to me I could even breathe better. The far turn was coming up again, where those big fall leaves were letting go, and then came the homestretch and I had run four laps. Or was it three? Maybe it was only three. I didn't want to cheat. I could say four, but if it was only three, that would be cheating. They're probably watching me anyway. If I can really make it to a mile without stopping, that will be something big. Very big. My legs were beginning to feel as if they were attached to swivels, and I couldn't see anything past the sweat in my eyes. There was no sound outside my head except the awful gasping that erupted from somewhere in my chest. I yearned to walk a few steps. Just a few. No cheating! Gotta keep moving or it's not running the mile,it's walking it. It's being weak. There's that far turn again, with the harsh smell of brittle autumn leaves. If I can just keep moving until I see that line in the cinders, I will have run the mile.

I stopped. There was a great thumping sound in my ears and my eyes were stung shut from the sweat, but I had done it. I had run the mile. It got quiet and I rubbed at my eyes, and when I looked around, I was alone. The football field was empty. Away up the hill I could see the last of the team rounding the corner of the white junior school building, and I could imagine them disappearing into the darkness of the basement, where the Headmaster would be waiting. I would be late.

The hill was going to be tough. In winter we built a ski jump on it out of wet snow, so it was steep. There were cement steps along the left side of the hill, under the three big maple trees we climbed when we were playing Tarzan of the Apes. I could go up the steps. But cutting across the slope of the hill was more direct, and that's where I was already heading. Breathe! Lean forward into the hill so you don't fall and roll down it. Maybe the Headmaster won't be waiting in the basement today.

It must be adrenaline that keeps you going when you want to stop. Adrenaline or something. I made the hill, and I made the corner of the wooden building where we slept and went to school all year long except for vacations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there were the steps, three of them, down into the big, dark space you had to cross before you entered the locker room. And he was there in the dark. Coming out of sunlight into the darkness blinded me, so I couldn't see him. All I heard was a voice.

"Holbrook, you're late." The Headmaster was using my last name, not Harold.

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry ..."

"Come here."

"Sir, I was running a mile ..." Whack! Whack! His hand flew out like a whip and lashed the right side of my face and then the left in one smooth, beautiful move. Perfect aim. I tried to get by him toward the locker-room door, but he caught me and drove his knee betweenmy legs. I saw stars. The blow pitched me toward the whitewashed wall of the locker room with all those black hooks on it, and I saw that my head was going to land right between two of them. Clunk!

"Get showered."

I must have closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone. I heard a sob fly out of me and the tears came quick and hot. "If Grandpa knew what you did to me, he would come down from South Weymouth and kill you, kick you, murder you, beat you until the blood spurted out of your nose and ears. You would be dead!" Grandpa would be wearing his big overcoat with the smell of cigar smoke in it and he would pat me on the head and say, "Don't cry, Buddy, we're going home." Then we would walk away and leave the Headmaster dead on the ground.

I was not going into that locker room with my eyes red. I was going to let the pink go away first and get my breathing right. Maybe I was only seven, but I was not a sissy. I was not going to walk into that locker room crying, even if my name was Harold.



The mind flows back. We enter memory, and events and people pour out like little swaying creatures, saying, "Here I am, here I am." The plot is there, the road your life has taken, and those little creatures appear faint and whimsical because you've traveled so far from them. But some of these creatures—certain crippled ones—do not speak out to you. They limp gravely across the past with hard, dead eyes and they stare at you with a question: What do you think of me now?

The Headmaster is a crippled figure. After seventy-six years I cannot love him. Something having to do with the awful sorrow of life has helped me forgive other people, and that helps me to forgive myself. But I haven't been able to forgive him.

I can see him sitting behind the yellow oak desk in the large classroom after the last class of the day, sitting on a platform slightly above us. It gave his dwarfed height a stature in front of the room full of young boys who waited. We assembled in that classroom before going out to the playing fields, and we waited for our name tobe called out. It meant we were going to be punished. The Headmaster enjoyed this ritual. He played his role like a cat, staring at us for the longest time without blinking. His pale blue eyes and round face were almost expressionless, but not quite. Something was there, a faint emotion. Sometimes it suggested a hint of friendship. Maybe today he wouldn't call out names, he'd tell a little story and we would laugh and feel relief and gratitude. He liked telling little stories. Then he called out a name.


He didn't say the name harshly. It was more like the sound of someone who wanted to share something nice with you. A friendly thing. It meant you had to line up outside his office and be punished. He never told you why.

When you entered his office, he would move about quietly in a familiar way. He was not an imposing figure. He was short and rotund and balding, and perhaps he thought of himself as benevolent, a twin version of the mother and father you didn't have.

"You know what to do, Harold. Take down your pants." You unbuckled your pants and let them fall.

"Both of them." You pulled down your underpants.

"Assume the position."

You took hold of the arms of a chair that had been neatly placed for you and bent over. Meanwhile, he would be searching in the closet for something. It was a one-by-three flat stick from a packing crate, about three feet long. Probably pine. You waited while he got this stick and then you held your breath while he moved across the room toward you. Whack! Whack! Whack! Three. Whack! Four. Whack! Five. You tried not to cry out, because the boys waiting outside would hear that. Whack! Six. If you cried, he'd stop, but—Whack ! Seven. Am I bleeding? Maybe he'll stop if I cry—Whack! Eight. A sob. Whack! Nine. Tears. Tears. Crying. It's over. He just wanted the sound of crying.

"All right, Harold. You can go now. Pull up your pants."

Once, when I came out of the room, humiliation blinding me, the piano teacher was waiting down the hall past the line of boys. I'dforgotten about our lesson, and there she was in a doorway, searching my face with her eyes as I got close. Brown eyes, pools of softness. I could tell she had listened to my punishment. She held the door for me, and while I walked over to the piano and sat on the bench, she closed it. Then she sat beside me on a chair pulled up close. There was a pause, an emotional one, while she waited for me to balance myself on the brink of breaking down. I had been learning to play "America" two-handed, and I placed my hands on the keys and tried to remember the first note. Then I started to cry. The piano teacher put her arms around me and held me to her. It was an act of kindness I have remembered all of my life.

Copyright © 2011 by Hal Holbrook All rights reserved

Meet the Author

Hal Holbrook is a celebrated actor who has starred in such films as All the President's Men, Wall Street, and The Firm. He has won five prime-time Emmy Awards for his work in television and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 for his role in Into the Wild. He lives in Beverly Hills, California.

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Harold 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was an interesting life... very honestly written hope he'll be writing another to cover his later years...
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hal Holbrook graduated from Denison University and was honored when I attended my 50th class reunion. I purchased the book, read the book about his life and long journey in theater. I have lent the book to others and wanted to purchase it as a gift from a college roommate from Hawaii. I highly recommend this book to others. Barnes and Noble helped get a copy for this gift. Thank you.
S-OH More than 1 year ago
When Hal Holbrook presented "Mark Twain Tonight" to our student body in 1959, it was easy to believe that he was the 70-yr-old Samuel Clemens. In reality, he was 34 years old. Mr. Holbrook's account of those first 34 years is compelling reading. He relates the events of his early life with an honesty that is almost painful. His search for the identity behind the stage make-up creates a story of universal appeal.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
MaryCarstairs More than 1 year ago
The book starts out strong. But then it goes into entirely too much detail about Hal Holbrook's travel schedule in the 1950s. The book also quotes too many reviews. His condensing that info could have made one truly fine book where he seems to be planning two less-good ones. Throughout, however, Holbrook analyzes other actors' styles well and explains interestingly how he developed his own style and how he chose material.
MimiLaTree More than 1 year ago
As life long admirers and observers of Mr.Holbrok's acting talents, my son and I were sorely disappointed with this book. It is poorly written and hard to engage and follow the story. Shame on his editor for putting this work out.