Samuel Clemens, known to the world as Mark Twain,was the legendary author of such iconic works as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. He was also one of the world's most famous cigar smokers. "I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals," he once said. Clemens died 100 years ago this week, and Cigar Aficionado presents this story from our Winter 1995 issue describing Clemens and his unparalleled love of cigars.
Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
Samuel Clemens in 1906.
Rarely have cigars had a better friend than Samuel Clemens, who is
reputed to have said, "If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall
That promise nothwithstanding, there was no guarantee that Clemens,
whose piety often lapsed, would ever get by St. Peter. Better known
under the pen name Mark Twain, a moniker he adopted during his
Mississippi riverboat days from the terminology for measuring water
depth, Clemens was unwilling to give up, even in the afterlife, his
eternal habit of smoking 22 cigars a day.
Twenty-two is the estimate of The Mark Twain House, just up Farmington
Avenue from the Aetna Life & Casualty Insurance Co. headquarters
in Hartford, Connecticut. Other sources have placed the number as high
as 40. The point is, the man smoked all the time.
"Clemens was a great walker," wrote his good friend, novelist William
Dean Howells in his biography, My Mark Twain. "As he walked of
course he talked, and of course he smoked. Whenever he had been a few
days with us, the whole house had to be aired, for he smoked all over
it from breakfast to bedtime. He always went to bed with a cigar in
his mouth, and sometimes, mindful of my fire insurance, I went up and
took it away, still burning, after he had fallen asleep. I do not know
how much a man may smoke and live, but apparently he smoked as much as
a man could, for he smoked incessantly."
Clemens' defense makes him a role model for the ages. "I smoke in
moderation," he said. "Only one cigar at a time." His "moderation"
would be a constant source of irritation to his wife, Olivia "Livy"
He tried to quit or cut back on a number of occasions, but he just
couldn't manage it. "To cease smoking is the easiest thing," he once
said. "I ought to know. I've done it a thousand times." In
Following the Equator he wrote, "I pledged myself to smoke but
one cigar a day. I kept the cigar waiting until bedtime, then I had a
luxurious time with it. But desire persecuted me every day and all day
long. I found myself hunting for larger cigars...within the month my
cigar had grown to such proportions that I could have used it as a
Yet he found the idea of giving up cigars "ludicrous and hateful,"
writes Justin Kaplan in the definitive Mr. Clemens & Mark
Twain: A Biography. "I am sure," Clemens insisted about Olivia's
admonitions to give up smoking, "it has caused us more real suffering
than would accrue from smoking a million cigars."
But when Clemens married Olivia in 1870, he made a determined effort
to quit. It was during this rare period of abstinence that he was
commissioned to write Roughing It. "He came almost to a full
stop as a writer that year," Kaplan reports. Attempting to give up
smoking was especially difficult when Clemens was writing. That is
when he smoked the most.
"I was three weeks writing six chapters," Clemens recounted. "Then I
gave up the fight, resumed my three hundred cigars [a month], burned
the six chapters, and wrote the book in three months, without any
bother or difficulty. I ordinarily smoke fifteen cigars during my five
hours' labours, and if my interest reaches the enthusiastic point, I
smoke more. I smoke with all my might, and allow no intervals."
Born in 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens began his lifelong affair with
the cigar at a young age in Hannibal, Missouri, his childhood home. "I
began to smoke immoderately when I was eight years old," he wrote in
an 1883 essay called "Smoking as Inspiration." "That is, I began with
one hundred cigars a month, and by the time I was twenty I had
increased my allowance to two hundred a month. Before I was thirty, I
had increased it to three hundred a month."
Before taking up cigars, he had tried chewing tobacco at the age of
seven and reacted badly. "Of course, in Tom Sawyer, the boys
are over on the island and try to learn to smoke and get quite ill
from their experience," says Henry Sweets, director of the Mark Twain
Museum in Hannibal, where Clemens' boyhood house is preserved. "When
he was living in Hannibal, cigar making was a profession here. He
talks about finding some stubs on the sidewalk and trying one out."
Clemens describes this episode in his autobiography: "I had not smoked
for three full months, and no words can adequately describe the smoke
appetite that was consuming me. I had been a smoker from my ninth
year—a private one during the first two years, but a public one after
that—that is to say, after my father's death. I was smoking, and
utterly happy....I do not know what the brand of the cigar was. It was
probably not choice, or the previous smoker would not have thrown it
away so soon. But I realized that it was the best cigar that was ever
made. The previous smoker would have thought the same if he had been
without a smoke for three months. I smoked that stub without shame,
because now I am more refined than I was then. But I would smoke it,
just the same. I know myself, and I know the human race, well enough
to know that."
Tobacco was grown in Missouri in the 1840s, and that provided some
clear advantages. "In those days the native cigar was so cheap that a
person who could afford anything could afford cigars," Clemens
recalled. "Mr. Garth [the father of a friend of the young Clemens] had
a great tobacco factory, and he also had a small shop in the village
for the retail sale of his products. He had one brand of cigars which
even poverty itself was able to buy. He had had these in stock a good
many years, and although they looked well enough on the outside, their
insides had decayed to dust and would fly out like a puff of vapor
when they were broken in two. This brand was very popular on account
of its extreme cheapness. Mr. Garth had other brands which were cheap,
and some that were bad, but the supremacy over them enjoyed by this
brand was indicated by its name. It was called 'Garth's damnedest.' We
used to trade old newspapers (exchanges) for that brand.
"There was another shop in the village where the conditions were
friendly to penniless boys. It was kept by a lonely and melancholy
little hunchback, and we could always get a supply of cigars by
fetching a bucket of water for him from the village pump, whether he
needed water or not. One day we found him asleep in his chair—a
custom of his—and we waited patiently for him to wake up, which was a
custom of ours. But he slept so long, this time, that at last our
patience was exhausted and we tried to wake him—but he was dead."
Clemens took more than his appreciation of cigars and his pen name
from his childhood and his days as a river pilot on the
Mississippi. "The environment and society in which he grew up in
Hannibal were pretty much ingrained in him," says Sweets, "and was
pretty much the mental and moral baggage that he took with him the
rest of his life." Sweets believes, and others who have studied
Clemens' life agree, that some of the tragedies he experienced as a
boy in Missouri stayed with him all his life.
On one occasion, young Sam and a friend had passed some matches to a
vagrant who was locked up in the local jail. The vagrant apparently
used the matches to set the jail on fire and died in the blaze. In
1858, when Clemens was working on the steamboat Pennsylvania,
he got into a fight and was kicked off the boat in New Orleans. His
younger brother Henry remained on board and died after an explosion
on the Pennsylvania just south of Memphis. Sam had gotten Henry
the job on the boat and forever felt responsible for Henry's death,
even believing he had presaged it in a dream. He wrote in his
"The coffins provided for the dead were of unpainted white pine, but
in this instance some of the ladies of Memphis had made up a fund of
sixty dollars and bought a metallic case, and when I came back and
entered the deadroom, Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed
in a suit of my clothing. I recognized instantly that my dream of
several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these
details went—and I think I missed one detail, but that one was
immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place
with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the
center of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast." Henry's
death weighed so heavily on Sam that once he even tried to reach his
brother through a seance. "In his age as well as his youth, these
recollections filled his nights with remorse," writes Kaplan.
Early in adult life, the literary Mark Twain differed significantly
from Samuel Clemens. What is widely known about the writer has made
him an American icon and among the nation's most popular exports. The
torments of the private Samuel Clemens, which affected the tone of his
alter ego's later stories, are not as well known.
"His private life is one in which he showed his vulnerability and his
truest sympathies and his recognition that life in America was a
complicated thing," says John Boyer, executive director of The Mark
Twain House. Clemens was devoted to his family; the Hartford home was
a nurturing atmosphere for his three daughters. "There was an effort
to keep the two lives separate," says Boyer. "The casual atmosphere of
family life was precious to him."
Clemens believed that the rearing of the children was the
responsibility of his wife, Olivia, while the father's duty was to
entertain them. This he did masterfully. On Saturdays his daughters,
Susy, Clara and Jane (known as Jean), would invite friends over and
they would stage selections from Mark Twain's writings, with the
author's help. In the library, next to the conservatory, the family
(with any number of their many pets—including three dogs named "I
Know," "You Know" and "Don't Know") would gather and play a game
based on the objects settled on the mantel of the fireplace and its
flanking bookshelves. The girls would rearrange the objects so that
the plots of the story would vary, but the stories were regularly
about the circus, because Clemens knew the subject would please his
"On these shelves, and on the mantelpiece, stood various ornaments,"
Clemens relates in his autobiography. "At one end of the procession
was a framed oil painting of a cat's head; at the other end was a head
of a beautiful young girl, life size, called Emmeline, an
impressionist watercolor. Between the one picture and the other there
were twelve or fifteen of the bric-a-brac things...also an oil
painting by Elihu Vedder, 'The Young Medusa'. Every now and then the
children required me to construct a romance—always impromptu—not a
moment's preparation permitted—and into that romance I had to get all
that bric-a-brac and the three pictures. I had to start always with
the cat and finish with Emmeline. I was never allowed the refreshment
of a change, end for end. It was not permissible to introduce a
bric-a-brac ornament into the story out of its place in the
procession. These bric-a-bracs were never allowed a peaceful day, a
reposeful day, a restful Sabbath. In their lives there was no
Sabbath. In their lives there was no peace. They knew no existence but
a monotonous career of violence and bloodshed. In the course of time
the bric-a-brac and the pictures showed wear. It was because they had
had so many and such violent adventures in their romantic careers."
Their house had been built after Clemens and Olivia decided to settle
in Hartford in 1871, shortly after they were married. After three
years of construction at an eventual cost of about $100,000, a
considerable sum at the time, they moved into their house, which stood
on a large lot adjacent to the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the
author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
With its bricks painted vermilion and black and its numerous gables,
the house's style is "picturesque gothic" or "stick style." Neighbors
thought the house was hideous. Clemens loved it.
Clemens had planned to use part of the second floor as his study, but
found it too noisy, as it was situated between the girls' nursery and
the guest room frequently used by his mother-in-law. Too many
distractions. He gave it over to the girls as their classroom.
He moved his work upstairs, into the billiard room. There he wrote,
but the room was also used for its original purpose. Albert Bigelow
Paine, Clemens' friend, literary executor and a biographer of the
author, reported, "Every Friday evening, or oftener, a small party of
billiard-lovers gathered, and played until a late hour, told stories,
and smoked till the room was blue, comforting themselves with hot
Scotch and general good-fellowship." (The original table is gone,
replaced by one from Clemens' later home in New York City.) The
ceiling is decorated with painted pipes, cigars and billiard cues, as
are the translucent marble windows on the south wall of the house,
which record the year it was built.
Some of the wall finishes on the first floor of the house were
designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the glass designer and son of the
jeweler. For a man with a reputation for candor and simplicity,
Clemens went to great lengths to fit in with Hartford society.
Although his wife's family had considerable wealth, money was always
an issue for Clemens. There were times when his business acumen, or
lack thereof, seemed to have been acquired from his father, a lawyer,
who died when Clemens was 12.
"His father was a poor businessman," explains Henry Sweets, "[who]
once used the family home to back a friend's note. The friend
defaulted on the note and they found themselves without a home. Later,
Mark Twain showed this same lack of business sense over and over; with
investments, trying to run a publishing firm, going bankrupt himself
[but never legally declaring bankruptcy]." In fact, Clemens always
repaid his debts dollar for dollar, even when he lost as much as
$300,000 backing the invention of a typesetting machine called the
Paige Compositer. A rival machine proved simpler and more affordable.
Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum.
The Clemens Family on their Hartford home's porch (or "umbra") with cigar.
Clemens invested in the machine because he had firsthand experience
with the difficulty of having to set type manually. When he was 12 he
had learned the craft as an apprentice at the Missouri
Courier. Clemens thought James W. Paige's machine would
revolutionize printing and make millions. "Very much the best
investment I have ever made," Clemens once said, but at that time he
had put up only $5,000. Among other minor investors Clemens attracted
was Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula.
In 1881, Clemens had also set up the Charles L. Webster Publishing
Co. to publish his own works, as well as the books of other
writers. By 1891, Clemens had invested so much of his money that the
family could no longer afford to keep its house in Hartford, with its
19 rooms and many servants, operating. The Clemenses decided to move
to Europe where they could live more frugally. After the Panic of 1893
in the United States and the national depression that followed, the
publishing venture failed in April 1894, $200,000 in the red. The
typesetting venture crashed in October of the same year.
The economic calamity led Clemens, in 1895, to set off on a worldwide
lecture tour. He regained financial stability, and later acquired
considerable wealth from his writings. He even registered the name
Mark Twain as a trademark and endorsed numerous products, including
cigars. (He also lent the Mark Twain name to flour, a typewriter, a
fountain pen, bourbon and beer. Biographer Kaplan says this might have
been done more for exposure than for money.)
In 1896, while Clemens was still on tour, his 24-year-old daughter
Susy died of spinal meningitis during a visit to the family home in
Hartford. Clemens showed his pain in a letter to his good friend and
minister in Hartford, the Rev. Joseph Twichell, referring to the house
in the past tense.
"Ah, well, Susy died at home. She had that privilege. Her dying eyes
rested upon no thing that was strange to them, but only upon things
which they had known and loved always and which had made her young
years glad....If she had died in another house—well, I think I could
not have borne that. To us our house was not unsentient matter—it was
heart and soul and eyes to see us...and approvals and solicitudes and
deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence."