When he was a child in Hannibal, Missouri, living an idyllic Tom Sawyer-like existence, little did Ron Powers know that he would grow up to be a protector of mythic figures. None more mythic than the Spirit of Hannibal himself, Samuel Clemens. Five years ago Powers published Mark Twain: A Life, which has been praised as the definitive Clemens biography of our generation. Now he has returned to Twain, this time as a dramatist.
Powers' new play, Sam and Laura, focuses on 22-year-old Sam Clemens' three-day courtship with a young girl from Warsaw, Missouri, and the lifelong ramifications of that brief tryst. "Their time together was not sexual so much as it was terribly romantic," Powers says by phone conversation from his home in Vermont. "I think we've forgotten what an incredibly passionate man he was."
St. Louis has played a key role in the lives of both Twain and his biographer. In the 1960s Powers was a young sportswriter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who hoped to follow in the footsteps of his hero, P-D columnist Jack Rice. "I would sit at my desk in the sports department and look across the city room at this small, gray-haired, leathery icon," Powers recalls. "And I would think, my God, I'm in the same room as Jack Rice. Can it get any better? I read his work religiously. I loved his humanity, his wryness and the great passion he had for St. Louis. To me, the 'Everyday Magazine' was Nirvana. It was as good as journalism gets. It's possible that if the Post had assigned me to the 'Everyday Magazine,' as I wanted, I never would have left St. Louis."
But they didn't, so in 1969 Powers went to work at the Chicago Sun-Times. Four years later he became the first television critic to win the Pulitzer Prize. Today TV occupies little of his time. "The world of television is so different than it was when I was writing," he says. "The cable revolution hadn't happened yet. Today television is like a spiritual oil slick. I'm not interested in tilting at that particular windmill anymore."
Now he spends much of his time writing books, both fiction and non-. In the 1990s he was hired to cowrite Flags of Our Fathers with James Bradley, whose father was one of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima in 1945. Bradley had little experience as a writer; he felt threatened when Powers was hired to reshape the story. "It was a difficult collaboration," Powers says. "The process of writing became an ordeal, like driving a car with one foot on the accelerator pedal and one foot on the brake. But the result was a book that meant so much to a whole generation of men that I feel humble about having been a part of it."
A happier collaboration ensued when, after Mark Twain was published, Powers learned (to his great surprise) that U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy had chosen him to write his memoir, True Compass. "It was eighteen months of really intense conversations," Powers says. "Ted Kennedy's story had been commandeered by those who will never forgive him for Chappaquiddick and to some extent will never forgive him for being a Kennedy. He was demonized most of his life. The books that were written about him, rooted in half-truths and unchecked facts, were a national blight. But I found him to be a kind of mythic figure. Again, as I'm sure it was with Twain, to be around him was to feel this quality of passion."
Kennedy did not suffer his first seizure until after the two men had been talking for several weeks. By the time they got together again, "We all knew that we were working against the clock. But we got it done. Ted held a hardbound copy of the book in his hands on the day he died."
Sam and Laura now faces its own self- imposed endgame. Powers is offering his script royalty-free to anyone — "It can be a Cub Scout pack, it can be a professional troupe; staged reading, full production" — so long as the play is produced by the end of this year. Why now? Because Powers is doing his utmost to call attention to three confluences in Twain's life: the centennial of his death, the 175th anniversary of his birth and the 75th anniversary of the publication of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, all in 2010.
Go to www.samandlauraplay.com for more information. Or talk to Powers about it next week when he attends the Friday-night performance at the Actors' Studio. If you do go, there's one thing you'll surely find: No one could ever accuse Ron Powers of a lack of passion.