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Samuel Clemens and His Cigars

Samuel Clemens, AKA Mark Twain, found his muse in great plumes of cigar smoke.
| By Alejandro Benes | From Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

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 not go."

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" Langdon Clemens.

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 crutch."

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 autobiography:

"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 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.

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."

* * *

Upon returning to the United States at the turn of the century, Mark Twain had certainly become more worldly, more famous and more cynical. The difference between the private Clemens and the public Twain became less clear. Boyer calls Twain the first "true celebrity in the modern sense. He was a person whose opinion was sought every day on every subject. He was now recognized across America as a legitimately powerful public citizen."

Because of his fame, he no longer needed to hide, nor could he hide, behind a pseudonym. He no longer felt required to cloak his essays in humor. "His social criticism went largely unnoticed beforehand, but now he felt much more free to write pieces that were direct social criticism," Boyer says.

Perhaps the most critical issue to Clemens was race. In his 1876 classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Clemens deals with racial issues through a veneer of humor and satire. The book is still in the news today because it contains the word "nigger." Some argue that the book should not be taught in public schools because of that word, but Boyer, whose group held a forum for educators on how to teach Huckleberry Finn, believes it is relevant and valuable, especially to young people, if it is taught the right way.

"The teacher must provide the historical context of what was going on in the 1870s and 1880s, and make sure to be attuned to the realities of the 1990s," Boyer says. "The book provides very clearly a series of moral decisions made by a young boy who discovers that it's more important to learn from his own experience than from what people tell him. You make your own decision in the end." The point is that Huck learns on his own that Jim is an individual and not a stereotype.

The reason Clemens was sensitive to racial issues has to do with the times in which he lived. "He was of that generation," Boyer says, "that was frank about their Southern, white guilt." Clemens was disappointed about the failure of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War. He believed that the rebuilding effort was providing a remedy to past inequality only to see it "snuffed out" by politics.

In the intensely controversial presidential election of 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes became the 19th president of the United States. Hayes, a hero of the Union Army, had lost the popular vote, and the outcome was challenged by both parties in four states. Only after long and acrimonious negotiation that came to be known as the Compromise of 1877—or in some quarters as "the betrayal of the Negro" (Hayes was on record as favoring the withdrawal of remaining federal troops from the Reconstructed South)—did a special committee appointed by Congress award Hayes a hotly disputed, one-vote electoral college victory over Samuel Tilden. "[Clemens] was very angry," Boyer says. "America truly served for Twain what was most resilient, noble and renewing, but also venal, corrupt and tragic."

Tragedy followed Clemens as well. Of his four children, he was survived only by his middle daughter Clara. His 19-month-old son, Langdon, born prematurely and sickly all his brief life, died of diphtheria in 1872. Langdon had taken ill shortly after catching a chill during a carriage ride with his father; Clemens blamed himself.

His wife, Olivia, died in Florence, Italy, in 1904. The family had sold the Hartford home (at a huge loss for $27,500) and moved to Italy a year earlier, seeking a more temperate climate for Olivia on the advice of her doctors. But there was little comfort for Olivia, who had lived a life beset by frequent illness. Toward the end, Clemens was not allowed into her room during much of the day because she was too weak and needed rest. This was torture for him, but it was not the last he would suffer.

On Christmas Eve in 1909, his youngest daughter, Jean, died at 29 in Clemens' new home in Redding, Connecticut. She had had an epileptic seizure while taking a bath and died of heart failure. "I lost Susy thirteen years ago," wrote Clemens the day of Jean's death. "I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich!"

* * *

But Clemens would not allow himself to turn completely to melancholy. In his later years, he abandoned the black suits that were then the fashion, deeming them too depressing. He began wearing the white serge suits that would become his trademark. His passion for his other trademark, cigars, continued unabated.

Clemens would often smoke while visiting with other notables of his day, such as Ulysses S. Grant (whose memoirs Clemens published). Clemens had visited Grant in 1885 after reports that the former president and Civil War general had taken ill. "The last time I had been at his house he told me that he had stopped smoking because of the trouble with his throat, which the physicians had said would be quickest cured in that way," Clemens recounted in his autobiography. Grant told Clemens that he no doubt had cancer and Clemens was "both surprised and discomfited. I am an excessive smoker, and I said to the general that some of the rest of us must take warning by his case."

Image courtesy of The Mark Twain House & Museum. Samuel Clemens on the porch of Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York. Clemens was not just an "excessive smoker;" his cigar habit shocked most who came in contact with him. His taste in cigars was, well, odd. Some reports said that he would buy Havanas when he could afford them, even though he once wrote, "Nearly any cigar will do me, except a Havana." He sampled the better cigars available in those days, but seemed unsatisfied. So, the story goes, he found a New York tobacconist, whom he insisted provide him with his worst cigar. He was delighted.

"No one can tell me what is a good cigar—for me," Twain wrote in "Concerning Tobacco," an essay published in the early 1890s. "I am the only judge. People who claim to know say that I smoke the worst cigars in the world. They bring their own cigars when they come to my house. They betray an unmanly terror when I offer them a cigar; they tell lies and hurry away to meet engagements which they have not made when they are threatened with the hospitalities of my box. Now then, observe what superstition, assisted by a man's reputation, can do. I was to have twelve personal friends to supper one night. One of them was as notorious for costly and elegant cigars as I was for cheap and devilish ones. I called at his house and when no one was looking borrowed a double handful of his very choicest; cigars which cost him forty cents apiece and bore red-and-gold labels in sign of their nobility. I removed the labels and put the cigars into a box with my favorite brand on it—a brand which those people all knew, and which cowed them as men are cowed by an epidemic. They took these cigars when offered at the end of the supper, and lit them and sternly struggled with them—in dreary silence, for hilarity died when the fell brand came into view and started around—but their fortitude held for a short time only; then they made excuses and filed out, treading on one another's heels with indecent eagerness; and in the morning when I went out to observe results the cigars lay all between the front door and the gate. All except one—that one lay in the plate of the man from whom I had cabbaged the lot. One or two whiffs was all he could stand. He told me afterward that some day I would get shot for giving people that kind of cigars to smoke."

Clemens' cigars so offended others that a reporter for the New York World was mystified by the "long, black, deadly-looking cigars" that Clemens smoked during an interview in 1902. "Their mere appearance compels comment," the reporter wrote. "You express surprise that the first one was not guilty of murder."

Two years before his death in 1910, Clemens "had an undisguised attack of angina pectoris," writes biographer Kaplan. "He said it was 'tobacco heart' and he tried to cut down his cigars from forty to four a day."

Yet Samuel Langhorne Clemens—Mark Twain—lived to 74, and was, by his own report, always in excellent health. Through-out his life, cigars were his muse, his comfort and his constant companion. It was in smoking a cigar that he found "the best of all inspirations."

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