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Twain House Adds Living History Tours With Guides In Character

Lizzie Wills has a lot of fun stories to tell about Mark Twain. New living history tours at Mark Twain House

Lizzie Wills has a lot of fun stories to tell about Mark Twain. She should know. She lived in his Hartford house.

"He once said, 'I would rather show off any time than save a human life,'" Wills gossips. "He's not too happy when mentally dead corpses come for a visit," she added. Twain praised authors he liked and snapped about ones he didn't. One in particular: Jane Austen. To hear Wills tell it, "He said, 'I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone.'"

"Lizzie" is really Betsy Maguire, the manager of living-history tours at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. She is also an actress, who puts on a maid's uniform to portray Lizzie, Twain's real-life maid, in special costumed tours on Saturdays.

Maguire is one of three actresses who will give living-history tours at the historical home once occupied by Samuel Clemens and his family. Maguire will portray the irreverent Lizzie during three tours on Saturdays. Starting April 5, Virginia Wolf will do three daily tours on Tuesdays as maid Katy Leary, a jolly but more discreet servant. Lisa Steier will portray Twain's sweet-natured wife Livy Clemens, doing three tours each Thursday starting May 5.

During the tours, the actresses become their characters. They do not answer questions as themselves, only as the women they portray. (During a press walk-through, a cellphone rang, and 19th-century "Lizzie" seemed confused by the strange sound.) Each of the three actresses has a different approach to telling the story of Samuel Clemens and his family. The characters are apropos to the real-life women they depict.

The mischievous and nosy "Lizzie" skulks behind curtains and houseplants to eavesdrop on family drama and retell her stories. "One day Susy told her mother a lie. I didn't hear the lie. I was hiding in a broom closet at the time," Lizzie says. "He uses very bad language, when he thinks no one is listening," continued Lizzie.

"Katy," who worked for and lived with the family for 30 years, laughs a lot and is more easygoing about Twain's snarky character: "His bark was worse than his bite. He didn't have a bite," she says. Wolf has been performing as "Katy Leary" since mid-2014 around the Hartford area, based on Leary's memoirs "A Lifetime with Mark Twain." She now brings her act to the source, where Leary lived, with a script written by herself and Maguire.

"Livy" is the picture of elegance in a pale green silk gown with pink lace trim and pink satin bows, with pretty cameos hanging from her ears. She talks fondly about her children and irascible husband, adoring him even at his crankiest. "He always had a little gray kitten riding somewhere on his shoulder," Livy says. "He had a cat named Satan and Satan had a kitten named Sin." Other cats in the house, she remembers, were named Pestilence and Famine.

Maguire said she pored over about 30 sources — books Twain wrote, letters Livy and Twain wrote, Leary's book — to compile the characters' dialogue and build their characters.

Some time in the near future, Maguire said, a fourth living-history actor will be added into the weekly mix, portraying coachman Patrick McAleer, who lived in the coach house with his wife and eight children.

Traditional, non-costumed tours also will continue at the home on a daily schedule. Living-history tours cost $24. Regular tours cost $19. Details: marktwainhouse.org.

Living History

Other historical attractions in the area offer living-history tours, with costumed actors portraying characters from the eras represented by the historical places. Here are a few:

>>Mystic Seaport, 75 Greenmanville Ave. in the Mystic section of Stonington, presents historians, musicians, storytellers and craftspeople recreating life in the 1876 fishing village. mysticseaport.org.

>>Old Sturbridge Village, at 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road in Sturbridge, Mass., is the region's largest living-history museum, with a big squad of costumed actors recreating life in the village as it was in the 1830s. From April 19 to 24, the village will be visited by actress Melanie Stringer, who will portray author Laura Ingalls Wilder. osv.org.

>>On the second Saturday of each month starting on May 14, a "Digging Deeper" tour at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Wethersfield features re-enactors in colonial garb discussing the life of a Revolutionary War soldier, including a live musket demonstration. The museum also will hold its annual Revolutionary War Encampment on Memorial Day weekend. webb-deane-stevens.org.

>>Free Men of the Sea, a group of historical re-enactors that emphasizes pirates "with a bit of Disney added to the mix," will be at Mystic Seaport on April 19 for the seaport's Pirate Days.

>>The 11th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, Co. A (Averill's Rifles) will be doing a Civil War re-enactment on May 14 all day at the Ashbel Woodward Museum, on Route 32 in North Franklin. Infromation here

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