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Cultural Compass: Can you tell us about some of your most memorable guests?
Martha Campbell: Oh, heavens!
Martha Campbell, 73, is not your typical B&B owner. During the time she hosted Ransom Center scholars at her home between 1995 and 2010, Campbell helped one renter woo her future husband, competed with a guest in a bake-off, hosted a frequent renter’s book launch, and became a close friend and confidante to many of the scholars who stayed with her.
“When I first started doing this, I thought: ‘How would I feel if I were a stranger in a strange place? How would I want to be treated?’ That’s guided me through the years,” Campbell said.
Campbell quickly became a legend among the Ransom Center scholars, in part for her breakfasts. Vanessa Guignery, past guest and former Ransom Center fellow, reports that Campbell served fruit, juice, muffins, and either waffles, pancakes, or french toast every morning.
“Other scholars stayed with other people who were very nice, but there was no breakfast. So each time I arrived at the Ransom Center and said, ‘Mmm I had waffles for breakfast!’ the other scholars would say, ‘Stop it!’ Everybody wanted to stay with Martha,” Guignery says.
Campbell’s hospitality didn’t stop at breakfast. She invited her guests to dinner parties with her friends and to Austin’s famed live-music concerts. (“I got a kick out of introducing them to Texas music.”)
“It wasn’t just coming back, closing the door, and that’s it. She didn’t make you feel as though you were actually paying to be there. It truly felt like home,” Guignery says.
Campbell’s guests have formed a network, and many of them became close friends and colleagues. During one of Guignery’s stays, Campbell invited two Norman Mailer scholars staying elsewhere, Michael and Donna Lennon, over for a wine and cheese party. Guignery told Michael Lennon about her work on British writer Julian Barnes, whose archive Guignery was researching at the Ransom Center. He suggested that she publish a collection of interviews with Barnes, put her in touch with an editor, and three years later Guignery published Conversations with Julian Barnes. The book now sits on Campbell’s table.
Campbell made her own contributions to her guests’ work. She introduced a few scholars studying spiritualist writers like W. B. Yeats and Arthur Conan Doyle to a spiritualist church down the street. During one of his stays with Campbell, Michael Lennon was invited to read at the Ransom Center’s monthly Poetry on the Plaza event. He asked Campbell if she happened to have any beat poetry around, and he ended up reading from her copy of A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, which she bought at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1960.
Built in 1910, exactly 100 years before Campbell hosted her last guest, the home is a registered historical landmark in Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Campbell started housing renters in 1994, soon after her husband passed away.
“I had never had a job. I always thought I couldn’t do anything since I always had my husband,” Campbell says. “Every time I did something like change a light bulb or carry something heavy or fix a toilet, I kept getting more and more self-confidence to live by myself. So I grew as a person along with the house. It really made me a different person. The house is kind of the third big chapter of my life.”
Before hosting Ransom Center scholars, Campbell housed mathematicians and scientists visiting The University of Texas at Austin. Her very first renter was a Japanese man who spoke little English.
“When he left, he looked really forlorn, so I gave him a hug. Then I thought, ‘Am I supposed to do that?’ When I cleaned his room, I found five or six beautiful origami cranes placed around the room. I found out later that was a compliment. He came back once to say hello, so I figured I must’ve done a pretty good job,” Campbell said.
Though she stopped renting in 2010, Campbell periodically hosts informal gatherings for current Ransom Center scholars and staff.
“Somebody said I fall in love with all my guests. I think it’s true. I have a charming man who has breakfast with me, talks to me like what I have to say is important, he stays for a month, then another one comes and takes his place,” Campbell laughs.