Saturday, July 28, 2018

Hanging Out With Mark Twain

Mark Twain House from the back (photo: M. Richmond)


It’s not often you get to soak up the atmosphere of a long-gone author and American legend but as I sit in the Mark Twain House in his library, surrounded by his personal objects, listening to the magical splash of the fountain in the adjoining conservatory, I feel as if he might walk into the room at any moment.

The library, perhaps the most appealing room in the mansion, boasts a large, carved mantelpiece, which he found in a Scottish castle and “simply had to have.” It bears a brass plaque, with the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, etched into it: “The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”

The stately library (photo: Mark Twain House)

The carefully arranged mementoes of his life are neatly placed around me and the bookcases overflowing with his personal books, ornate vases and sculptures interspersed throughout, only enhance the perception that he’s just a breath away.

On some evenings, writers are invited to spend three hours in Mark Twain’s library to hone their craft and this is one of those coveted occasions.

It’s hard to imagine that this former riverboat pilot ended up as one of America’s most revered authors and humorists. According to lore, he took his literary name from measuring the depth of the water while working on the river: “marking the twain.”

Today, Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens) is synonymous with American literature.
           
He traveled throughout the world before choosing Nook Farm, in Hartford, CT (“The most beautiful place I’ve ever seen”) as the spot where he would build, in 1874, the estate which stands as an impressive - if slightly garish - memorial to his genius.


The conservatory from the outside (photo: M. Richmond)
The Hartford Daily Times predicted that, “The novelty displayed in the architecture of the building, the oddity of its internal arrangement, and the fame of its owner, will all conspire to make it a house of note for a long time tocome.”

But then, would you expect anything less from such an eccentric, unpredictable character?
           
The home was a very busy social center for Clemens, his wife, the former Olivia Langdon and their three daughters as they played host to some of the 19th century’s most glamorous personae.

Once inside the dimly lit passages, you’re transported to a kinder, gentler Victorian world full of frills and ornate extravagance.

I find myself gladly giving in to this gilded age, half expecting to see Sam frolicking in the conservatory with one of his girls riding on his back as they played in their “jungle.”


The conservatory (photo: Mark Twain House)
As night falls, I can almost hear the raucous laughter from the adjoining dining room, the table richly set with Olivia’s sterling flatware.

Apparently, Sam and Olivia entertained several times a week. They evidently believed in pampering overnight visitors as the guest room is comfortably furnished and includes a private bath (with tub) and dressing room. They purportedly had the first shower and telephone in Hartford.
           
The second floor houses the bedrooms and the schoolroom where the girls were tutored by their German governess. Their original cradle is on display, as are many period toys and artifacts, poignantly placed as if little hands will return to resume play.

The huge, ornately carved walnut bed on which rest four angels on each corner post, dominates the master bedroom. Thinking it was a 16th century masterpiece, Clemens paid $200 for it in Venice. The fact that he later found that he had been “ripped off” didn’t diminish its value in his eyes. He and Olivia slept in “the angel bed” their feet facing the headboard so that, “The headboard is the last thing I see before I go to sleep and the first thing I see when I awake.”



The angel bed (photo: Mark Twain House)
The man we know as Mark Twain died in that bed on April 21, 1910 in his subsequent home in Redding, CT.
 
His success was boundless during the 1880s but sadly, as the decade drew to a close, he encountered financial calamity which forced him to abandon his beloved Nook Farm in 1891 and move to Europe. In 1896, while the family was in England, their daughter Susy, who had returned to Hartford for a visit, died of meningitis in this house at the age of 24.
           
Clemens, who believed that, “The house had a heart, a soul and the eyes with which to see us,” couldn’t return after her death and the family never occupied the house again. It was sold in 1903.

Somehow, sitting here in the dimly lit library, I can’t help but feel that perhaps they’re all still here.
             
                        
The Carriage House (photo: M. Richmond)