It began with some free time and a bit of curiosity. James Nicoloro, producer, director, cameraman and photographer, was between assignments and the centennial of the death of Mark Twain (1835-1910) had been much in the news. A researcher at heart, he decided to learn more about Twain’s time in Redding — and quickly discovered that not much had been written about it. He started putting together ideas for a documentary called The Redding Mark Twain, and began digging.
Four years later he is still at it.
“Like everyone who lives in Redding, I knew Twain had lived and died here — and I knew the train he came out on arrived about 6:25 pm on June 18, 1908. He had never been to Redding prior to that; said he didn’t want to see the place — Stormfield — ‘until the cat was purring on the hearth.’ His secretary Isabel Lyon oversaw many aspects of the construction of the house. So 102 years later, I set up my camera and shot some footage when the present-day six-something train arrived. I just felt I needed to do this.
“I had no clue what I was getting into when I started this,” he admits. “I thought it would be relatively simple, a bit of basic research — look at history, break it down, what was the motivation…”
As a producer at WNET for a dozen years — including being the creator, producer and director of PBS’s popular Walking Tour series with David Hartman and historian Barry Lewis from 1998 to 2006 — and a two-time Emmy Award winner for documentary/current affairs, Mr. Nicoloro was well versed in doing research. But as he dug into Twain, he found so many threads that could be followed.
“He’s really fascinating; it would be easy to make a straight-forward documentary, but I want to do it much deeper,” Mr. Nicoloro said. “A number of significant things occurred during his 22 months in Redding: he was working with his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, and he was beginning to feel the effects of congestive heart failure. His relationships with his daughters Clara and Jean were difficult. There was the Isabel Lyon fiasco and Jean’s death on Christmas Eve morning. Although he was basically retired from writing books, he coped by writing; ‘The Death of Jean’ was one of the last things he wrote.
“Prior to Twain coming to town, Redding had been a flag stop on the train to Pittsfield, Mass.,” he continued. “It cannot be overstated how much influence Twain’s presence had on Redding and the railroad at the time, all of the famous people who took the train to Redding to visit him, and the many who came hoping to see him.
“Twain was an incredibly complex guy; he was the first to copyright his name and image and was a genius at self-promotion. He was a grand manipulator, but also fair; he had a place in his heart and soul for the downtrodden.”
Working on the documentary when time allows, Mr. Nicoloro has come to realize, “This piece has to be for me; everything else I’ve done has been for someone else. I want to do things right. I can shoot and edit my own stuff. In general, I love the process more than the finished project, which is all about compromise; it can never be as good as you imagine. Vision is what drives you — and can sabotage you at the same time.”
He continued, “I’ve only scratched the surface on Twain — the University of California’s Mark Twain Project has a massive amount of information and is the publisher of his autobiography — but these little things, I think they are real, authentic, help fill in the cracks. The only Twain I want to know is the Twain who lived in Redding. I am interested in the physical Mark Twain; where he lived, where he walked, the things he saw. I retrace his steps any way I can, and have discovered some old roads in woods in the process.”
He has a WordPress blog where he shares information he has discovered, photos and video clips, his thoughts and questions that arise. Uncertain what its final form will be — “How am I going to present all of these little pieces? Life is not linear; maybe there is no solution and I will only end up with a series of vignettes on my blog.” — he does know it will start when Twain was still living in New York City.
Twain came to Redding at the suggestion of Paine, whose biography was published in 1912, but “it does not have much credence today because it was orchestrated by Clara and written to flatter him. It also has virtually no mention of Redding. Paine later said he was sorry he only paid lip service to the end of Twain’s life here.”
What Mr. Nicoloro has found especially helpful is Paine’s Dwellers in Arcady, the story of an abandoned farm house, published in 1919. “Even though it was written as fiction, most of the illustrations were probably taken from photographs and though many of the names were changed, it’s a good picture of what Redding was like in the very early part of the 20th Century — and I have found some of the places described.”
In his work, Mr. Nicoloro notes, “I love to play with past and present, stretch photos of the same place at different times so they line up to show passage of time.” In his research in the Library of Congress, Mr. Nicoloro came across a group of photos taken by a company named Bain. One is his favorite: “I consider it to be ‘the photograph’ of Twain. It was taken five days before Jean died. There is a sense he is not well, but he looks great; it represents Twain when he is not acting or posing — he loved to have his photograph taken.”
Mr. Nicoloro has drawn a number of conclusions about the man born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Among them: “He was Samuel Clemens until all of his friends died, then he became Mark Twain; that was all he had left. Livy kept him grounded. He became an old man after Jean died.” And, “He had a very inquisitive mind, loved technology. If he was around today, he would probably own every Apple product out there.”
As he continues his research, “I am looking for people in the area who are passionate about Twain, and I strongly suggest to whoever is the next owner of the Redding Roadhouse, consider creating a Mark Twain museum in the upstairs room; give people a place to visit and learn more about this fascinating guy.”
Mr. Nicoloro can be contacted at [email protected]; for more information, visit the blog jamesnicoloro.wordpress.com or his website, jamesnicoloro.com.