Samuel Clemens and His Cigars
Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, found his muse in great plumes of cigar smoke.
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96
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"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 daughters.
"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.
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