Today I visited 351 Farmington Avenue in hopes of interviewing (or at least glimpsing) one of the Victorian Ages greatest writers, Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain.
The cab dropped me off at a three-story Gothic-style mansion. Created by an imaginative architect for an imaginative man. I trudged through the snow up the driveway to the house.
Near the porch I found a chap in a fur coat and hat shoveling the walk. His back was to me as I approached him. “Excuse me, sir. Do you work for Mr. Clemens.”
He turned and twitched a lush dark mustache peppered with grey. “No, I work for Mrs. Clemens,” he drawled.
|Samuel Clemens circa 1891|
“It would appear the jig is up.” He chunked the shovel in the snow. “Are you here to sell me insurance or do you just want an autograph?”
“No, I’m a freelance journalist for the London Times.” That line usually worked.
Mr. Clemens looked even more irritated. “Reporters. Bad enough every reporter in New England pesters me. Now they are importing you scoundrels. I’m busy.” He went back to shoveling the snow.
I stepped up on his porch out of the snow. “I know this might not be the best time. If I could make an appointment for a more convenient day.”
He just grunted.
I felt something brush against my ankle. I looked down to see a tabby rubbing against me. “Why, hello there, little one.” I knelt down. “What are you doing out in the cold?” I scratched the moggy’s ear and she purred.
“You like cats?” Clemens asked.
“Yes, of course. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of Dickens, my cat. I’m afraid I travel too much to have one now. Perhaps some day.”
Clemens broke out in a grin. “Sir, any man who loves cats, I count as my friend without further introduction.” He came up on the porch and leaned the shovel against the pillar. “Besides I need an excuse to stop this useless labor. It will probably just need shoveled again tomorrow. At least we aren’t having a blizzard like we did back in ‘88.”
|Olivia "Livy" Clemens|
“Just a reporter, Livy dear. I was going to take him up to the billiard room and see if I couldn’t bamboozle him out of some money.”
She turned to me. “Could I get you some coffee, sir.”
“Erm, no thank you.” I tried not to make a face.
She laughed. “By that look, I’d say you aren’t a coffee drinker. Would you prefer tea, Mr.--eh, what is your name?”
“Howe.” I stuck out my hand to her. “Mr. Wendell Howe. And tea would be delightful.”
Clemens steered me up the stairs to the third floor to a large attic room. In the middle of the was a large billiard table. At the far end was a desk. Apparently this was also his study where he wrote. He walked over to a whicker chair full of cats and dumped the cat he was holding among them. It curled up and joined them in a nap.
|Clemens Billiard Room and Study|
“No, but feel free to smoke. This is your home.”
“How about a shot of whiskey?”
“I do not wish to be rude, but I don’t drink, either.”
Clemens eyebrow raised as if his opinion of me was dropping. “I suppose you don’t cuss either.”
“Of course not. It sounds like bloody hell,” I said with a straight face.
Clemens laughed and slapped his thigh. “I like you Howe, even if you are straight-laced. At least you aren’t some self-righteous prig who tries to foist his bad habits on others.” He stuffed the cigar in his mouth and lit it. As he shook out the match, he gave me an odd stare. “Have we met before? You look familiar.”
Actually I had asked for his autograph at a lecture ten years from now, but he wouldn’t remember that since it hadn’t happened for him yet. I racked my brain. Yes, we had met before--more than once. “No,” I lied. “I just have one of those faces.”
Clemens studied me and nodded. “Yes, I suppose you do at that. Do you play billiards?”
“In a manner. I am quite adept a losing graciously.”
“Then I might actually beat you. I usually lose to the cats.”
|Twain's cats wide awake now|
A lovely girl in her late teens came into the room, carrying a tray with a tea set and a mug of coffee on it. “Papa? Can I come in?”
“You may enter.” Clemens bowed to her, dramatically. He came over and took her tray. “Mr Howe, I would like to introduce my eldest daughter, Olivia Susan Clemens. We just call her Susy.”
“Men need a room they can drink, smoke, gamble and cuss in.” Clemens defended himself.
I bowed to Susy. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Clemens. Thank you for the tea. And thank your mother for me please. Tell her the game stakes are only twenty-five cents and we are both losing to the cats. Your home is safe...unless the cats collect.”
Susy giggled and left. Clemens watched her with fatherly pride. “My Susy is as smart as she is beautiful. She’s quite the writer. You just wait Mr. Howe. Long after the world has forgotten Mark Twain, they will remember Olivia Susan Clemens, the great author!” He looked over at me. “Are you all right, Howe? You look kind of haunted.”
I try to control my face and show no emotion, but sometimes my eyes betray me. “Sorry, sir. It’s just that I had a sister named Susan. Struck down by scarlet fever.”
I never had a sister. But I knew Susy’s future. She will die of spinal meningitis in five years. It’s a blow none of the Clement family will ever recover from. While Samuel Clemens loves his other two daughters dearly, Susy is his favorite.
I tried to change the subject. “This is a very lovely home you have, Mr. Clemens.”
“Built it myself. All right, contractors built it, but I designed it. Okay, that’s not entirely true either. Livy designed a lot of it. Probably would have looked like a farmhouse if I had designed it all. Livy has all the taste and style a boy from Missouri lacks. I have done many a foolish thing in my life. Marrying that woman was not one of them. I fell in love with her before we even met.”
Clemens then told me how in 1867 a paper paid him to go on a European tour on a decommissioned naval ship, “Quaker City.” He sent back letters to be published for the readership. These articles were so popular, they were published as a book titled Innocents Abroad, which became Clemens biggest seller during his lifetime. The trip not only made Mark Twain famous, it would change Clemens life in other ways.
|Love at First Site|
In November, their first child, Langdon Clemens was born premature. He died at nineteen months. Clemens paused a moment here. Then he brightened as he spoke of the three daughters that followed: Susy (1872), Clara (1874) and Jean (1880.) They were the joy of his life. Clemens went on and on about them. As he talked about the plays he wrote for them and the games they played, I was sure the girls would have gushed over their father.
|Clara, Jean and Susy in 1881|
“So you are an autograph hunter,” he sounded more amused then irritated. “Sure my good fellow.” He signed my book and handed it to me. “So, did you like it? I thought I would do something different.”
“It was--” I caught myself. I almost said he beat H.G. Wells time travel story by six years, or that the book had invented the science fiction genre of “alternative history.” “Erm, it was brilliant.”
“Didn’t care much for it, huh?”
“No, I loved it! I especially liked your observations that cats would make better monarchs. They would lay about, get into indelicate situations and act haughty like other crowned heads, but they would ingratiate themselves to their subjects by never having anyone beheaded, imprisoned or inflicting any other injustice. Cats would be far more loved than human kings and far more deserving of that love. I believe that was the gist of it.” I petted our closest billiard partner, who purred her approval. “I’m looking forward to your next book.”
Clemens shook his head. “No more books. No more lectures. I’m retiring. I am currently sitting on a big bonanza that will make me rich beyond my wildest dreams.”
“You bought into a gold mine?”
‘I did indeed, sir. A fellow by the name of James Paige showed me a contraption he is working on, the Paige Compositor. It is a typesetting machine that will replace humans. Being a former printer and typesetter myself, I knew the need for such a marvel. I’ve seen it work. Every time I see it in action my admiration for it towers. It will revolutionize the printing industry. All right, it does have a few minor problems, but Paige is ironing those out. It will repay itself a hundred fold.”
|The Paige Compositor|
“Most of the profits of my books and Livy’s inheritance. About $300,000.”
I’m afraid a snorted as I fought back a yelp. In 1891, $300,000 is a fortune! Enough to--well, build this mansion, travel around the world and retire very comfortably indeed.
“Yes, I know it’s a gamble.” Clemens shot a ball into a pocket without a cat. “But it is a sure deal.” He smiled, and took another shot. This time a cat whacked it right off the table.
The poor blighter. I force a smile and nodded at him. I can’t warn him and it would do no good if I could. The Paige Compositor is too complex and prone to breakdowns. Already Ottmar Mergenthaler is perfecting his Linotype typesetting machine which will be the industry standard until it is replaces by offset lithography in the 1960s and 70s. Clemens will learn soon enough what a mistake he has made.
University of Connecticut wanted me to capture Mark Twain at the peak of his private life. This is the beginning of the end. From 1874 he and Livy have lived in this wonderful house, raising their three daughters and creating many happy memories. During this time Clemens has written his most famous works: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889.)
All too soon the debts will mount up and Clemens will realize the hot water he is in. This June he will close up their home and take the family to Europe to go on a speaking tour to make money. He will go back to his typewriter in between engagements. Although he will be forced to declare bankruptcy, Clemens will have all his creditors paid back by the beginning of the new century.
Clemens lectures are like no other. Instead of a dull speech or book reading, he gets up and tells funny stories and makes witty observations about life. Some day the likes of Will Rogers and Bill Cosby will steal his act. Clemens is in fact the world’s first stand-up comedian. That will be acknowledged later when in 1998 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will create an award for the top comedians and humorists in the country. They will name it the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
While Clemens is a big celebrity now, these coming tours will make him an international super-star, hob-knobbing with kings and giants, who are just more adoring fans. However, his private world will unravel. Susy will die in 1896. Livy will be unable to return to their home here in Hartford. There are just too many memories. Then his wife, editor, friend and soulmate will pass away in 1904. Jean, his youngest daughter, will have an epileptic seizure and drown while taking a bath, Christmas Eve 1909. Her father will be downstairs at the time, unaware anything is wrong. It is one more blow he will never recover from. Only Clara, the middle daughter, will live to a ripe old age.
After Livy’s death Clemens will take speaking engagements, not so much to make money (by then he was solvent again) but to alleviate his loneliness. He will “adopt” a bevy of little “granddaughters,” trying to recapture those happy days in 1880s Hartford. In 1910, at the age of seventy-five, he welcomed death. He said he had come in with Halley’s comet and he wished to go out with it. And he did.
|Clemens waiting for Halley's Comet|
At the end of the game we concluded that the cats were indeed the winners. I paid up “two bits” to buy the felines cream. Clemens laid a quarter on the table next to mine. I thanked him for the interview and wished him good luck in his endeavors. I told him the world needed a typesetting machine. (He could interpret that as encouragement if he wished.)
Clemens escorted me to the front door. I turned to him. “Thank you, sir for making me laugh.”
“You should thank the cats for that.”
“No, I mean thank you for making me laugh on those lonely nights when my only companion was one of your books.”
Samuel Clemens smiled at me. I’m not sure, but I think his eyes got misty.
1909 movie footage of Mark Twain
Taken at his estate “Stormfield” in Redding, Connecticut by Thomas Edison. The young women are his daughters, Clara and Jean (just months before her tragic death.)
Hal Holbrook recreation of Mark Twain’s standup comedian act
Holbrook’s one-man show called Mark Twain Tonight, won him an Emmy Award when broadcast on CBS. He ran it three times on Broadway (1966, 1977, and 2005), the first won him a Tony Award. Every line of the act is “stolen” from Mark Twain. So you could say Clemens won both an Emmy and Tony as the playwright.
The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
Steve Martin accepting The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
in pdf and ebook with original illustrations (free)
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
read by John Greenman (also free)
The War Prayer
Mark Twain’s short anti-war tour-de-force. None dared to publish it until six years after his death.
“I have told the whole truth in [the War Prayer,] and only dead men can tell the truth in this world.”
Warning: May be disturbing to children or those with a soul.
|Nikola Tesla (in background) with Mark Twain|
“I had hardly completed my course at the Real Gymnasium when I was prostrated with a dangerous illness or rather, a score of them, and my condition became so desperate that I was given up by physicians. During this period I was permitted to read constantly, obtaining books from the Public Library which had been neglected and entrusted to me for classification of the works and preparation of the catalogues. One day I was handed a few volumes of new literature unlike anything I had ever read before and so captivating as to make me utterly forget my hopeless state. They were the earlier works of Mark Twain and to them might have been due the miraculous recovery which followed. Twenty-five years later, when I met Mr. Clemens and we formed a friendship between us, I told him of the experience and was amazed to see that great man of laughter burst into tears.''
--from "My Inventions: the autobiography of Nikola Tesla", Hart Bros., 1982. Originally appeared in the Electrical Experimenter Magazine in 1919.
Apparently laughter IS the best medicine.