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.

Tuesday, September 13

Our Friend Mark Twain by Helen Nickerson Upson

Excerpts from-
"Our Friend Mark Twain" by Helen Nickerson Upson
The Redding Times, June 2, 1960


During the Civil War- John N. Nickerson, later known as Judge John N. Nickerson of Redding, served as a Private in New York's 56th Regiment. While in action, he was very seriously wounded and visited by a young Army Chaplain named Joseph H. Twichell. Nickerson survived, received a Medal of Honor and in the process formed an enduring friendship with Twichell.

Later in life, While serving as a State Legislative Representative (1885), Nickerson, through his friendship with Twichell, met informally with many of the "Hartford Wits" including Samuel L. Clemens and Charles Dudley Warner.

Narrative of Helen N. Upson-

Frequently Dad passed an evening playing billiards with Mark Twain in his Hartford home, and the Rev. Twitchell and Mr. Warner were often guests at our home in Redding.

I recall very well when I was a small girl that Mr. Warner lifted me on his knee and said, much to my delight: "Helen you are a girl after my own heart- brim full of spunk, fire and go. No grass will ever grown under your feet."

Twain Comes to Dinner

Only once was Mark Twain a dinner guest at our house and then he was accompanied by Mr. Warner and Albert Bigelow Paine. He was so impressed by Redding's beautiful hills and rolling landscape that eventually he wanted to build a house here.

{BMC: I do recall a letter by Isabel to an Angelfish that notes Paine and Clemens are headed to Redding well before he arrived here officially. There is no follow up on the trip and it did prompt me to note the entry for further research. The trip may have been the dinner date Helen writes of...makes sense, why would you not want to view this type of investment? Given the history of poor investments he had made, it would seem probable he would at least want to see Redding before purchasing land here.}

One day after answering a telephone call my father seemed happily excited. Nobody knew why and he didn't talk about it. It seems the call was from Mr. Paine who wanted Dad to drive around with him to look over a few building sites. Twain had asked for a site on higher ground, with an expansive view and neighbors- not so near.

Dad went and the site of "Stormfield" was selected, deeds and other business were taken care of and construction was started and proceeded secretly. No one knew for whom "Stormfield" was being built.

There was much curiousity and gossip in Redding about the mysterious structure rising in the pasture on Diamond Hill. It was so much larger than the average Redding home that a rash of guesses went all the way from a select school for girls to an infirmary for incurables.

Mark Twain's orders were that no one was to know that he was to own the place nor that he was to live there. He did not want to see the place until is was entirely finished, furnished, and complete with a kitten purring on the hearth.

His wishes were carried out to the letter and he seemed delighted with his new home in its quiet, restful setting.

The House is Named

However, soon after his arrival, a thunder storm of such violence came up that Mr. Clemens said it sounded as if its force was being created over his head which gave rise to the name "Stormfield"

{BMC: One of many theories on the re-naming of the house. This is not too far fetched. In the summer of 1999, I was caught completely off guard by a freak, late afternoon thunderstorm. It came out of nowhere while I was mountain biking in the Stormfield trail system. It was a thunder and lighting show like to no other I've encounter before or since, further enhanced by the fact that I was wearing steel toe-clips! I've encountered similar storms while visiting Susan Durkee at the Lobster Pot. So, it is a fact that... for one reason or another Storms do hit hard on that ridge.}

My father so successfully engineered...Mark Twain's purchases of real estate in Redding that during the rest of his life Dad took care of his personal legal business and affairs.

{BMC: She must mean legal business and affairs in Redding.}

At the time I assisted my father with his office work and also did all his driving for him, so I spent much time at "Stormfield." Frequently Dad and I had the priviledge of listening to Mr. Clemens' masterful organ playing on his fine instrument placed on the landing midway between the floors in the large hall at Stormfield.

It was indeed a treat to listen to the white haired Clemens accompany his daughter, Clara, who was a concert soloist. His heart was in it and I really think that this was his favorite pastime. Had Mark Twain not been a great humorist he certainly would have been a famous organist.

Careless with Copy

Mr. Clemens was a most informal, but geniune personality. He detested insincerity and over stressed formality was distasteful to him. He preferred to receive his guests or associates while he was propped up in bed. Here one usually found him busy with his writing or reading. As he wrote long-hand, a sheet finished was a sheet discarded. It might be manuscript or waste paper. To him that was a minor detail.

Once finished, a sheet of paper was indifferently cast aside. It might nestle in the bed clothes or slide on to the floor. Family and attendants were instructed never to disturb ANY papers in that room except Mr. Albert Bigelow Paine. We have him to thank for his painstaking daily care of every scrap of Mark Twain's paper as he carefully scanned each piece arranging and organizing usable material in proper sequence so that the literature for which Mr. Clemens was famous would be published in proper form.

With all his splendid qualities Mark Twain was the victim of two besetting sins. Reports of great conflagrations or of people burnt to a crisp could not stop him from smoking in bed. Also he was so obliging that if anyone asked for his signature on a paper or document, without a second look, he would sign and for him, at least, the transaction was finished.

Mr. Paine had repeatedly rebuked him for such readiness with his pen and over and over again Dad had warned him that if he continued so indifferently to this practice that sooner or later he would find himself in very serious trouble. Someway their warnings went unheeded and slipped away like water off a duck's back.

Signed the Wrong Letter

Early one morning the phone beside Dad's (Judge John N. Nickerson of Redding) bed rang persistantly. He answered. It was Mr. Clemens - distress plainly registered by his voice, "Jack, can you come to me at once? I am in trouble - very serious trouble."

"What under heavens is the matter now?" my father asked.

"I'll tell you when you get here, can you come now?" the humorist answered.

Dad called me to hurry through my breakfast, harness my horse and be ready to drive to Stormfield in half an hour. When we arrived Mr. Clemens was angrier than we had ever seen him and his daughters Clara and Jean were very much disturbed.

"Now, Sam, what on earth has happened that you are so excited and upset?" asked Dad. The great humorist replied with something far removed from humor,

"Well, Jack, just as you predicted, I have been a damned fool, and as a result I am in the deal of a fix. A trusted friend of mine who has recently married a 'man of experience' brought me a document to sign without in any way explaining it- and I was foolish enough to require no explanation."

"At the moment I was concentrating on the writing of a script and, as was my custom, took the paper and quickly signed as she directed without reading it and I supposed the matter was dismissed, but this morning, to my horror, I discover that I have signed over to a trusted friend ABSOLUTE Power of Attorney over everything that I possess and I cannot spend so much as a nickel! without her O.K. Could any man have been a bigger damned fool??"

Eventually she consented to withdraw if a certain [piece] of Mr. Clemens treasured real estate (and he owned property in several states) could be turned over to her. As Mr. Clemens was convinced this was the only way out he acceded. Dad took care of the transaction and the case was closed.

One day after the case was settled, Dad was seated beside Mr. Clemens' bed talking to him when the humorist reached over to a table and picked up a copy of Innocents Abroad. I saw his eyes twinkle as he opened the book and wrote something inside the front cover, then he passed the book to my father. Dad grinned as he read the handwriting, then passed the book to me. This is what he wrote:

"The sane man readeth first but the ass signeth without looking. Truly yours, Mark Twain"

Below this he added:

"To John N. Nickerson with the compliments of the Author."

This book today is among my (Helen's) treasures.

Bermuda- Last Trip Abroad

Mark Twain as we knew him was thoroughly American and always revealed the deepest respect for all things worthy of reverence, and would hit hard at anything which seemed to him to be hateful or mean. As a humorist, in my opinion, none greater ever lived. For this quality he was best known and loved. It is doubtful if any one in this century has made more people laugh than Mark Twain has done, and yet the laughter he has aroused has been clean, wholesome, and self respecting. However, he harbored a scorching and bitter hatred for frauds, hypocrites, and pretenders and often he seared them with his wit. As a man he was always sincere and straight-forward.

It was during Mr. Clemens' last summer while he was resting at his home in Bermuda that he sent for Dad to go to him on important business and suggested that I accompany him for the pleasure of the trip. It was my good fortune to go with my father on this errand. Mr. Clemens was do delighted to have us both accept the invitation- that in honor of my visit he arranged an afternoon tea with young women my own age as guests. He said that he doubted very much if my father would enjoy a hen party presided over by an old, strutting cock, so he sent Dad off fishing with a couple of friends.

It was a memorable occasion. Although the great humorist was not well, seated there among us in his easy chair he made a distinguished appearance. We all were delighted with his conversation which was simple yet verbose. Although his humor was gay and laugh provoking, there was a seriousness about the man which probably was due to his age and the imprint of the grief he had endured.

For further entertainment I rode around in Mr. Clemens' little two wheeled Park Wagon pulled by a pretty little donkey; also I rode a number of miles on his daughter's bicycle. Among other things I saw a large field of Easter lilies (Bermuda lilies) in gorgeous full bloom. They made such an impression that when I returned to Redding I threw away a pathetically sad looking, spindly Easter lily that I had been coaxing to bloom for three years.

Death Comes to Stormfield

Having already lost his devoted wife and talented daughter, Susie, before coming to Redding, Mark Twain received a crushing blow when his devoted daughter, Jean, in the midst of Christmas celebration in 1909, died very suddenly. Dad went to him at once. Albert Bigelow Paine was already there and Clara and her husband were returning from Europe. The great humorist could not be comforted. From then on he failed rapidly and on April 21, 1910, when Spring was dawning over the Redding hills, our beloved humorist breathed his last breath in the home he had learned to love- Stormfield.