- Historic Sites
Our Neighbor Mark Twain
The years the famous writer spent in their town were magic to a young boy and his sister.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
I may have met him first with his daughter, Miss Jean, on the old stone bridge at the edge of the glen. They were often there, either alone or together. If Miss Jean was alone, she would explain the mysteries of nature to us: the size of the earth, the distance of the sun and moon from us, and how ancient the different colored layers of stone in the ledges of the glen were. When she came to the bridge, her Russian wolfhound came with her. He was a marvel to us. He couldn’t understand English! Miss Jean had to talk to him in German.
Mark Twain gave an occasional luncheon party to which he invited some of his neighbors. I suppose because Father was a friend of Mr. Paine, Mrs. St. Maur, and Dan Beard, our family was included, and we children were especially invited. On the first such occasion he took us on a tour of his house, which he had named Stormfield after his latest fictional character (from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven ) and because he could see the storms coming from every direction. First he took us to the great cellar, where there was a big coal-burning furnace with great, flat tubes to carry the hot air to all parts of the house. It was a novelty; at home we had wood stoves. We toured the main floor, first the big entrance lobby that finished up as the dining room, opening out onto a terrace, and then the big library-living room with a huge fireplace and a mantel that was too tall for the room. It was centuries old and had been given to Mark Twain by a Scottish duke or earl. Next was the billiard room, with another fireplace of blond wood with the word Aloha carved in great letters in the wood of the mantel. In all the rooms there were other new marvels to be seen, such as the wall lights in silver brackets—he explained they were gaslights. The gas tanks were in the attic.
Then came the second floor with its bedrooms. His was the largest. He had an immense bed with a long table alongside it on which was a tray of pens, pencils, and erasers and a box of long, thin cigars that he called cheroots—a wonderful word. Miss Clara’s room was also large and very luxurious, and it had a bay window with small, diamond-shaped panes of glass. It didn’t have any foundation and was called a penthouse. Why it didn’t fall off bothered me. Miss Jean’s room was severely plain, like her father’s. And—a great marvel—each bedroom had its own bathroom with a great tub, tile floors—what were tiles?—and other unfamiliar furnishings that he explained. We had had a bathroom in the city but not in Redding as yet. Baths were taken in the warm kitchen in a big, round laundry tub; for other purposes one went to the little house at the end of the grape arbor, where one could enjoy looking through the Sears, Roebuck catalog at leisure.
He said he couldn’t take us into the kitchen because the cook was a wonderful cook, but she couldn’t tolerate visitors. He didn’t dare go there himself.
On other occasions he would take us to the billiard room, where he had a favorite chair. Beside it was a clothes basket in which a mother cat lived with several kittens. I remember one afternoon when he devoted a great deal of time to us: my two sisters and me, Mr. Paine’s two youngest daughters, Frances and Joy, Barbara Beard, and Marjorie Lounsbury, a neighbor. He related some of the Arabian Nights tales by picking up a kitten and telling its story: AIi Baba, Aladdin, and Sindbad. He gave me one of the prettiest kittens, a Persian calico cat with black, yellow, and white fur. Her nose was half-velvety black, halfgolden, precisely divided. She was my pet for many years.
Miss I. V. Lyon, Mark Twain’s secretary, stopped in several times to urge him to return to his other guests; he said he’d come pretty soon; anyway, they had come to hear Clara sing. We heard music in the distance, a piano and two voices, Miss Clara’s and that of David Bispham, then a star of the Metropolitan Opera. (The pianist was Ossip Gabrilowitsch, famous as soloist and as orchestra director, later director of the Detroit Symphony, and the future husband of Miss Clara.) Finally Clara Clemens came out and scolded her father for neglecting his other guests. He then turned us over to the butler in the dining room and left us.
He gave several parties for the benefit of the library he was founding. Perhaps the biggest party I remember was given to publicize Helen Keller’s The World I Live In . He showed the book to everyone and urged his guests to buy it. On that occasion there were people from Danbury, Ridgefield, and elsewhere, and some newspaper reporters.
He presented us to Miss Keller. It seemed unbelievable that a beautiful young woman could be blind, deaf, almost dumb —and charming. She touched our mouths gently to “hear” what we said, as her nurse-companion, Mrs. Annie Sullivan Macy, explained.
Mark Twain donated a large number of books from his own collection to the library. They were housed in the seldom used old chapel facing the ancient but still used Umpawaug Cemetery. A librarian was on hand Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Twain secured donations from many friends, including Andrew Carnegie, and publishers. At a meeting to promote the library on October 7, 1908, he read a statement that he had composed for the occasion: