- 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
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.
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:
“My fellow farmers of this vicinity have gathered together some hundreds of books and instituted a public library and given it my name. Large contributions of books have been sent to it by Robert Collier of Collier’s Weekly , by Colonel Harvey of Harper & Brothers, and by Doubleday, Page & Company—all these without coercion; indeed upon the merest hint. The other great publishers will do the like as soon as they hear about this enterprise.…And so, we have a library. Also, my fellow farmers have arranged for the librarian’s salary and the other running expenses, and will furnish the necessary money themselves. There is yet one detail lacking: a building for the library. Mr. Theodore Adams gives the ground for it. Mr. Sunderland furnishes, gratis, the plans and specifications, and will let the contracts and superintend the erection of the house. The library building will cost about two thousand dollars. Everybody will have a chance to contribute to this fund. Everybody, including my guests—I mean guests from a distance. It seems best to use coercion in this case. Therefore I have levied a tax—a Guests’ Mark Twain Library Building Tax, of one dollar, not upon the valuable sex, but only upon the other one.”
Everyone howled with laughter, as usual.
There was a women’s group that met fairly often to sew clean strips of rags of all colors and fabrics for making braided rugs to sell at an annual fair for the library building fund. We children went to the meetings too; there were no baby-sitters then; we could roll the long strips into balls. It was my job to turn the ice-cream freezer for the cake-and-ice-cream binge later.
The annual fair was held late in August to attract the summer people, who would leave for their homes by Labor Day. There weren’t many in Redding, but the lake resorts near Danbury and a noted summer colony in nearby Ridgefield provided the necessary crowds, together with local residents. All kinds of things were sold at the fair: cakes, pies, jellies, pickles, canned fruits in glass jars, salads, the rag rugs, and secondhand furniture, which was grabbed up as antiques. A long picnic table under a tent was loaded with food, providing luncheon for the guests—at a price, of course.
I do not remember meeting Jean Clemens at any of her father’s parties. She was the sick daughter, and I believe she avoided all exciting situations. After her mother’s death in 1904, the family had returned from Italy and lived in the charming old brick Gothic mansion at 21 Fifth Avenue. But New York life was hazardous for Jean Clemens; she had to live much of the time in a nursing home until her father built Stormfield.
We children were devoted to her. My sisters and 1 had a big goat, Billy; we drove up and down the road by the hour, one of us in the wagon and the others impatiently waiting their turn. Father commanded us to turn out to the side of the road when a team of horses or a horse and buggy—or, most unlikely, an automobile—came along. The first time we saw Jean Clemens coming, on horseback, we hurried into the ditch, an exciting matter since Billy had no love of ditches. His was a strictly middle-of-theroad temperament. The strange lady drew up and introduced herself and asked our names and where we lived. Then she told us that we must never turn out for her. “The carriage always has the right of way,” she said. “And you have the carriage, so I must take to the side of the road.”
We talked for some time. When she rode away we were firm friends. Whenever she saw us, she stopped to talk. Somewhat later she told us that she had bought the farm across the road from us, gave us permission to roam all over it, and asked us to visit her. In the autumn she asked us to drive off any hunters we caught there. We exchanged information, in season, about the best berry patches or where to find the best hazelnuts, butternuts, and hickory nuts.
The most significant meeting that I had with Mark Twain was on the old stone bridge one afternoon. He was alone; it is likely, however, that Miss Jean was nearby in the glen. I was glad that he was alone. I had wanted to tell him how much I had enjoyed Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn . He listened to me and then, to my surprise, he bent over and shook his finger at me and scolded: “You shouldn’t read those books about bad boys! Why, the librarians won’t allow them in the children’s rooms in the libraries! Now don’t you go and imitate those rascals Tom and Huck.” He continued to shake his finger in my face. “Now listen to what an old man tells you. My best book is my Recollections of Joan of Arc . You are too young to understand and enjoy it now, but read it when you are older. Remember then what I tell you now. Joan of Arc is my very best book.” I had never seen him so cross. I can see him yet, shaking that long forefinger at me.
I went to the Umpawaug Chapel as soon as I could and borrowed Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc . At first I thought that Mr. Grumman, the librarian, had made a mistake. The title page stated that the book was by the Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan of Arc’s page and secretary, and that it was a translation from the French. But it was not a mistake. Mr. Grumman explained that the Sieur Louis de Conte was another pen name for Mark Twain. But the secret was soon out. A few literary notables, including William Dean Howells, the Harper’s staff, and Andrew Lang in England, were “in the know,” and besides, the character of Paladin was a French incarnation of Tom Sawyer.
The book had puzzled critics and readers alike. What had happened to Mark Twain? Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was not a satiric spoof of the Middle Ages. His medieval France was sufficiently accurate as history, and he had canonized the Maid of Orleans a quarter of a century before her liturgical canonization. He had “come to comprehend and recognize her for what she was —the most noble life that was ever born into this world save only one,” to quote the fictional Sieur Louis de Conte, Mark Twain’s mask.
I enjoyed Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc as a boy. It was high romance, far more dramatic and interesting than The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer , or Huckleberry Finn , which I also enjoyed. I have read it several times since and greatly enjoy it still. It was the only one of his books dedicated to his adored wife—in honor of their twentyfifth wedding anniversary.
Often he wore his cap and gown as he sat smoking and thinking up savage things to say.
On June 26, 1907, Oxford University conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Literature. Henry James had to wait several years for a like distinction. Mark Twain was immensely proud of the honor and frequently wore his gown and cap—at Clara’s wedding, for instance—and often enough when only sitting on his terrace or in the loggia, smoking and thinking up savage things to say about the human race—to be published fifty years after his death.
One day in 1909 my little sister Adelaide, who claimed full ownership of our goat, disappeared with the beast for several hours. Mother was frantic, imagining an accident. When Adelaide reappeared, she was greatly excited. “Mama, I went to see Mr. Mark Twain to give him a ride with Billy and he had on a black nightgown over his clothes and was wearing a square black hat with a gold tassel.”
“You must have interrupted him when he was doing something important,” Mother chided.
“No, Mama, he was just sitting on his porch, smoking. He was very glad to see me and he had a long ride in Billy’s wagon, almost down to Miss Lyon’s house and back. He said he enjoyed it very much and had his butler bring out some carrots for Billy and a chocolate candy for me.”
“I would love to have seen that,” said my mother. “He must have been miserable, cramped up in that goat wagon.”
“No, he wasn’t,” Adelaide said. “He laughed and laughed and said he wished he had a picture of it.”
He told my father that the goat ride with Adelaide’s Billy had pleased him more than anything since his Oxford degree, surely a gross exaggeration.
Early in the morning of December 24, 1909, Jean Clemens died in her bathtub after her usual morning ride to West Redding for the mail. The family doctor attributed her sudden death to heart failure. It was a great blow to all of us who loved her. We heard the news that evening en route to Georgetown in Ben Banks’s carryall to perform in a Nativity cantata in the Congregational church. We cried all the way but we had to sing, nevertheless. I had the role of the herald angel and had to sing a long aria that went up and down the soprano scale. I loved to sing, but not that night.
Mark Twain did not recover from that blow. After writing The Death of Jean , a beautiful tribute and threnody, he went to Bermuda for several weeks. Suffering from a heart condition, he soon returned to Redding, but we never saw him again. He died the twenty-first of April 1910 in his home, Stormfield. He left all his books to the library he had promoted except those that Clara might want to keep. She chose only a few, those she and her sisters had studied or enjoyed, and a collection of her father’s first editions. All the rest are in the Mark Twain Library, dedicated to the memory of Jean.
We in Redding were somewhat prepared for Mark Twain’s death. He had predicted that he “would go with Halley’s comet” since he had been born with it. The great comet appeared shortly after his death, remaining for many months. We children used to watch the beautiful new thing in the heavens with its long tail filling the evening sky. For us it was Mark Twain’s star.