Our Neighbor Mark Twain

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A year after our arrival in Redding, Connecticut, Mark Twain came there to live. Everybody in town had watched the building of his great house on a wide, more or less level plain, which, on our side of it, rose above a cliff that ran along Knob Crook Brook and its lovely glen. His land had been the sheep pasture of my Great-greatgrandfather Banks and was approached by an ancient stone bridge over the brook and below a steep road that no horse cared to climb. The entrance road to his mansion was on the other side, accessible from Redding Center, West Redding, and Umpawaug.

For months everyone knew that the great man was coming. Several friends of his had come before him, Albert Bigelow Paine, his biographer, Mrs. Kate V. St. Maur, a writer and former actress, and the artist and outdoorsman Dan Beard. My father, an architect and builder, had remodeled—modernized—the houses of Mr. Paine and Mrs. St. Maur and was then remodeling the big house that Dan Beard had bought. I remember going to Mr. Beard’s with him one day. Mr. Beard invited me to join the Boy Scout troop he was then forming in Redding.

Mark Twain’s great house, in the process of being built, had been a mighty curiosity. Families drove in from miles around of a Sunday or Saturday afternoon to look at it in its scaffolding and to check on its progress. It was the chief topic of conversation. In the first place, it was designed by a famous New York architect in the style of an Italian villa, which, to us, meant palace. There were no other palaces round about.

Everyone wondered why the famous old man wanted to build a great mansion in such a lonely, isolated place; the land wasn’t good for anything but grazing, and it had hundreds of red cedar trees to prove it was useless. Then there were rumors that a daughter, Jean, was a victim of epilepsy and had to live in the country in a quiet place.

Mark Twain came to Redding on June 18, 1908. The New Haven Railroad stopped its afternoon express for the first time to let him off, and, moreover, the express would continue to stop every day to accommodate him and his friends—a proof of his importance.

A few people in town had bought some of Mark Twain’s books, and these were carefully read, loaned, or borrowed and discussed. Children were not supposed to read them, but I discovered Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and took each to the barn to read unobserved: the best haymow reading I had come across.

The doings at the Mark Twain house were excitedly talked about, especially by telephone. The telephone in those days was rather exasperating—a large oak box on the wall. You took down the receiver and turned the crank to call a number on the line. Everybody on the party line who wasn’t rushed to death —nearly everybody—listened in as a matter of course. All his servants except the cook were local people, great sources of news, news that became more fabulous with each relay.

The great man sometimes had breakfast—in bed!—and he had wine with his dinner every night.

The great man did not get up early. He sometimes had breakfast—in bed!—at ten o’clock or even later. He smoked the cheapest cigars, long Cuban stogies that smelled to heaven. He always had wine with dinner and ate all sorts of strange foods—calf brains and lamb kidneys, for instance. Supper, especially when he had guests from New York, which was most of the time, was at eleven o’clock at night. He played billiards with Mr. Paine every day and with some of his New York friends. Billiards (pool, to the village loafers) was rather frowned upon by the solid citizens of Redding. But one of the biggest rooms in his house was the billiard room!

We soon saw Mark Twain about in his famous white suit, the great man who was a friend of all the famous people in the world, even emperors, kings, and presidents. The remarks he made to some neighbor or other went through the town like wildfire. He was against all wars. He said that the female sex was the only valuable one, that all men were liars. A remark that shocked everybody was: “Man was made at the end of a week’s work when God was tired.” And another was: “If man could be crossed with a cat, it would improve man but it would deteriorate the cat.” A piece of advice that shocked many and tickled others was: “Never refuse to do a kindness unless it would damage you, and never refuse to take a drink under any circumstances.” (The town, legally dry under local option and strongly under the influence of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was not bone-dry; there was a barrel of hard cider in nearly every cellar.)

I cannot remember when I first met Mark Twain. It may have been when some other children and I were investigating the treasures of his dump. There were all kinds of empty liquor bottles in several colors, shapes, and sizes. The Italian Chianti bottles in their varicolored raffia baskets were special prizes. I remember his catching us one day, and when we started to run, he called out to us to wait. We feared the worst, but he gave us permission to take anything there that we wanted. We asked if he had any more of the pretty bottles in hanging baskets, and he said he thought not but that he would attend to it.