LOCAL LEGACIES: Sculptor Walter Russell leaves unforgettable mark on Hannibal, Mo.
By Mary Lou Montgomery
For the Hannibal Courier-Post
Published Nov. 21, 1981
Walter Russell, while never a resident of Hannibal, left and unforgettable mark on this town. His sculptures which reflect Mark Twain’s writings will demonstrate Hannibal’s sense of pride in its author for many years to come.
Russell, an artist and sculptor, was selected by the Mark Twain Centennial Commission of Hannibal during 1935 to create sculptures of Mark Twain’s characters. The works that resulted were a bust of Mark Twain and another sculpture of Huck Finn.
Roberta Hagood of Hannibal researched Russell’s life, and found that he lived from 1871 until 1963. During this time he painted portraits of the children of Teddy Roosevelt, one of Iowa’s governors, and other prominent persons. His greatest dream, however, was his vision of building a grouping of Twain characters, larger than life-size, in bronze on Cardiff Hill. While this hope was shared by leaders of Hannibal, the dream was never realized.
This massive sculpture was Mark Twain in the midst of many characters which the author made famous, including Joan of Arc, the Prince and the Pauper, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher.
Mrs. Hagood pointed out that Russell attempted to raise funds for the project to be built for the Centennial celebration n 1935. But, since the country was in the midst of the financial depression, the money could not be secured for the project. All that remains of Russell’s dream is a model of the statuary which is still displayed in a glass case in the Mark Twain Museum.
“On Mark Twain’s 100th birthday,” Mrs. Hagood writes, “the Centennial Commission invited Russell to attend the November banquet. He was unable to attend, but wrote that he would send a representative – and it would be ‘Huck Finn.’ The statute arrived, but was broken, and could not be displayed until the head was repaired.” In the museum files, a copy of the letter from the Hannibal Chamber of Commerce to Frank Russell, dated Jan. 6, 1936, states that Huck Finn had arrived, now repaired, and ‘with a grin on his face.” The little statue was placed in the Mark Twain Museum.
Russell was frequently honored during the Mark Twain Centennial year, spoke at meetings, and made many trips to Hannibal. He was in Hannibal when final preparations were being made for the opening of the first Mark Twain Museum in the Trust Building. Mrs. Hagood found that Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch was interested in Russell and his projects and she was to come by train from St. Louis to be present at the opening. Russell traveled to St. Louis to meet her, and accompanied her to Hannibal.
The following quotation, written by Russell while in Hannibal, appeared in the Hannibal Courier-Post on March 6, 1935:
“Mark Twain was a
member of the Authors Club of New York of which I have been a member for 30-odd years. I saw him there very much, and, very fortunately, fixed his features, and his mannerisms upon my mind so indelibly that the portrait, busts and other likenesses of him which I had done as a sculptor for the Mark Twain Monument have in them the spirit of the man without which it would have been impossible. Photographs are not sufficient to convey the real spirit of the man.
“All of which points to a great lesson which few of us learn, that every act of life has some relation to every other act of life, for, had I not become so saturated with memory of him, I doubt if I ever would have the honor of doing the monument.
“Mark Twain has left an indelible impression upon this and future ages. His characters have had as much to do with the shaping the thought of our civilization as the real people of flesh and blood who fought in our wars, or gave us our philosophies. His fiction images should not be counted as less real than characters who lived outside of fiction.
“That is the way I feel about it, and my reverence and respect for our greatest author have found their way into the sculptured characters which will forever help to keep this great author’s name hallowed by his fellow men throughout the world.”