The purpose of this project is to celebrate Samuel L. Clemens' life in Redding, Connecticut by documenting and showcasing his time here in multiple formats both online and offline. Your donations & site sponsorships will help me dedicate more time to these projects and allow me to get them online sooner.

Wednesday, August 24

Mark Twain Through the Eyes of an "Angelfish"

In the years since the death, in 1910, of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, whom we all knew and loved as Mark Twain, many people have asked me, "You actually knew him, didn't you?" What do you remember best about him?"


Yes, our family had the wonderful privilege of knowing him because father, Albert Bigelow Paine, was his biographer and was closely associated with him for many years. After Mr. Clemens moved to Redding, we frequently stayed at his hilltop home, Stormfield. On his afternoon drives- the old Redding Glen was one of his favorites- he often invited my sisters or myself to accompany him. He liked the companionship of young people and was especially understanding with little girls. Perhaps they reminded him of his own three daughters, whose long-ago games and make-believe he had shared and helped to invent.

What do I remember of those years? A good many things, but two of the highlights are the Sunday morning he took me for a stroll and a bus ride on Fifth Aveneue, and the afternoon in June 1908, when he came to Redding for the first time, and I was fortunate enough to be in the small group that traveled with him.

To make these events more understandable, it might be well to give a brief picture of the background which made them possible.

In 1906 my father was busy with the extensive preliminary work, preceding the writing of Mark Twain's biography. His subject was co-operating with enthusiasm.

Mr. Clemens was then living in an impressive corner house at 21 Fifth Avenue. It was luxurious and lonely. His wife had died and his two surviving daughters were elsewhere. Father found himself being encouraged to spend more and more time in the big house.

Mornings, accompanied by a stenographer, he would arrive for the daily interviewing, ready to encourage with questions, if need be, and alert for the fascinating stream of reminiscences, or philosophy, or occassional violent outbursts over burning subjects that followed.

Father said of these mornings: "He was in bed when we arrived, and he remained there during almost all of these earlier dictations, clad in a handsome silk dressing gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against great snowy pillows. He loved this loose luxury and ease and found it conducive to thought. On the little table beside him, where he lay his cigars, papers, pipes, and various knick knacks, shone a reading lamp, making more brilliant the coloring of his complexion and the gleam of his shining hair."

After these richly productive mornings, father often spent the afternoons working in the study adjoining Mr. Clemens' bedroom. At least that was the procedure until the Christmas when a handsome billiard table proved to be a history-making gift. From then on no day was complete without a spirited session around the great green table. Often the play would last for hours and then be resumed again in the evening. For all Mr. Clemens had passed his 70th birthday, he seemed tireless when engaged in his favorite game, and would twit my father- who was still in his 40's- when he seemed to falter. As their official relationship rippened into friendship, that friendship was extended to the rest of our family.

The first time I saw this extraordinary man was at dinner in his home in New York in 1906. Under my father's guidance I had made the delighted acquiantance of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and the Connecticut Yankee. The worldwide fame of the author had been explained to me. Now, he had become a friend of the family, and during my stay in New York at Thanksgiving time, on vacation from boarding school, we were all to have dinner with him!!

He was a charming host. He looked just like the pictures and he was as gracious to us three little girls as to my mother and father. Moreover, there was a dinner to delight children, topped off with a fairy-like mousse, piled high in a crystal bowl and accompanied by a sauce of big, red strawberries. Had he remembered that, at our age, dessert was at least as impressive as fame?

After dinner, he played the orchestrelle, the first time I had ever heard the full, warm tones of an organ except for church music. Years afterward this orchestrelle was presented to us and we added a special room for it to our Redding house. I used to run it by the hour, playing over and over again the selections that Mark Twain had preferred.

I believe it was the next spring that I was invited to return for the weekend, to be spent under the kindly supervision of Mr. Clemens' housekeeper and his secretary. What a story-book experience for a little girl! On Saturday we had a box for the Weber and Fields matinee, and I loved every minute of it, although once I was conscious of whispering concern behind me as to whether some of the humor was a trifle "adult" for my ears. But, like most children, I was blissfully unconscious of any lurking innundoes, and thought the whole show enchanting.

Sunday my breakfast was brought to me on a tray by a uniformed maid. I knew then that I was "living like a princess," even though this was long before the movies had familiarized every schoolgirl with the details of luxury living.

Then Sunday morning, came the memorable walk and bus ride. In those days the upper decks of Fifth Avenue buses were uncovered so that passengers could bask in the sun as they rode. Mr. Clemens enjoyed this and on a bright, mild Sunday he liked to ride from his home on lower Fifth Avenue up toward Central Park, and watch the gay crowds, returning from church or on the way to luncheon.

Hatless, with his dramatic white hair and his famous white flannel suit, he was a unique figure. As we rode, people turned to look up at him and point him out. Afterwards, when we walked a few blocks, more than one person came up and spoke a brief word to him about the joy some particular book had given him. In the St. Regis, where we paused to leave a message, one bell boy was quite overcome. Eagerly, he started "You are Mark Twain, aren't you?" and then, on being reassured could hardly continue his sentence of appreciation. Mr. Clemens encouraged him gently and I don't suppose that young man ever forgot the encounter.

Before I returned to school he gave me his photograph, inscribed with my name and "with love from Mark Twain."

He had a little group of schoolgirl friends whom he called his "Angel Fish." Each one of us was given a small enamel angel fish pin from Bermuda, and each was assigned one of the charming collection of fish pictures which used to hang on the walls of his billiard room. He inscribed each name carefully on the picture. Collectively, we were referred to by him as "Members of the Aquarium." One of the obligations of the membership was to write regularly to the "Curator of the Aquarium." His replies were prompt, and in longhand. One of these cherished letters to me begins with a well-deserved reproof. Here it is:

Dear Louise,

I don't expect this to reach you, for your habit is to violate the first law of correspondence, which is, repeat your address in every letter.

Tammany is dead. I am very sorry. She was the most beautiful cat on this western bulge of the globe, and perhaps the most gifted. She leaves behind her, inconsolable, two children by her first marriage-Billiards and Babylon; and three grandchildren by her second-Amanda, Annanci, and Sindbad. She met her death by violence, at the hands of a dog. She was found dead in the early dawn, under my windows, whither she had apparently dragged herself from a predacious excursion, for she had with her a field mouse that had suffered death by murder.

She was buried by Miss Lyon with the honors due her official rank- for by appointment she was Mascot to the Aquarium, and brought it good luck as long as she lived. She took great interest in the M.A.'s and went to the billiard room every day to look at their pictures.

As a token of respect and regret, it is requested that each M.A. wear black head ribbons during one hour on the 30th of this month- Tammany's birthday.

Lovingly, S.L.C.

At this time our family home was in Redding, in a simple old saltbox house at the foot of Diamond Hill Road. Father's enthusiasm for this unspoiled bit of country communicated itself to Mr. Clemens. He decided to buy some nearby property. He did not plan to build immediately, if at all, but perhaps he was wearier of the city life than he realized for it was not long before he began to dream of a home on the hilltop he had never seen.

It was is daughter Clara who first saw the property, liked it, and selected the location for the house.

Of the building of Mark Twain's Redding home, father says, in the Biography: "Innocence at Home" as the place was originally named, was to be ready for its occupant in June, with every detail in place, as he desired. He had never visited Redding; he had scarcely even glanced at the plans or discussed any of the decorations of the new home. He had required only that there should be one great living room for the orchestrelle, and another big room for the billiard table, with plenty of accommodations for guests. He had required that the billiard room be red, for something in his nature answered to the warm luxury of that color, particularly in moments of diversion...His one other requirement was that the place should be complete. "I don't want to see it, until the cat is purring on the hearth." He wanted the dramatic surprise of walking into a home that had been conjured into existence as with a word."

And that is exactly how it was. On the 18th of June, 1908, at about four in the afternoon he left New York City by an express train that was to make its first stop in Redding that day. With him were my father, a reporter or two, a photographer and that most fortunate little girl, myself, whose boarding school closed that day so that I, too, was homeward bound to Redding.

It was exciting to be going with Mr. Clemens when he was about to get his first glimpse of his new house. Moreover, he generously provided me with a large box of candy to enjoy on the way, although when we were about to leave the train, he suggested that we leave it behind, "because the porters sometimes like candy, and we can get some more."

Waiting for us at the Redding station was a proud array of carriages, flower trimmed, and filled with smiling people who waved warmly. I knew I would never forget it. Mr. Clemens waved in return, then stepped into his own carriage and drove toward the beautiful house that was t be his last home.

What a lovely place he made of it, and how we used to enjoy visiting him there. We lived nearby so my sisters and I could walk there easily, but other "Members of the Aquarium" came with there parents or governesses to stay for the week-ends or longer, and he taight us all to play Hearts and, with infinite patience, to manage billiard cues. He never made us feel that he was elderly man whose good manners included being kind to children. On the contrary, he seemed to be having such a genuinely good time himself that age differences were forgotten. Another question I am asked is "Was he always joking?" No. His tender, pervasive humor was far removed from ordinary joking. For me, it is summed up with his lovability and his philosophy- in the inscription he wrote in my autograph book: "Dear Louise: Consider well the proportion of things: it is better to be a young June-bug than an old bird of paradise. Affectionately yours, Mark Twain."

1 comment:

charles behlen said...

Great to read a recollection from one of the Angelfish. I'm glad that Twain had these beauties to keep him connected with life during his last years. Like Twain, I know what it's like to be grandchildless.