Mark Twain fan visits his Hartford mansion, finds it’s like communing with a long-lost friend
Yes, you can count me among his admirers — the Twainiacs. Ever since I moved to Connecticut in the 1980s, I’ve felt Twain’s presence. Redding, his last address, was the first town I covered as a journalist. It’s also home to the Mark Twain Library, which he started with books that wouldn’t fit on his own shelves.
On a recent visit to his Hartford mansion, where he lived from 1874 to 1891 and wrote some of his best-loved works, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” I felt as if I were communing with a long-lost friend — a friend who was also an international celebrity. So popular in his day, Twain sometimes disguised himself to keep from being mobbed. While traveling in Berlin, people gawked to the point that his daughter Jean said, “Why papa, if it keeps going on like this, pretty soon there won’t be anybody for you to get acquainted with but God.”
The Mark Twain House & Museum has restored his cathedral-like home so we all can see where he slept, played with his children and entertained guests with his wife. The Tiffany-decorated residence is gorgeous, although slightly spooky with its dark wood and ornate carvings.
Tour guides insist you don’t touch anything. But you can hold the bannister Twain used as he climbed the steps to his third-floor study, where he wrote “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Also known as the billiard room, its main feature remains — a grand billiard table. (Every good writer needs a break now and then.)
Twain’s study was his private domain, or as some say, the original man cave. Open books and notes tacked on a wall there suggest he was a tad messy. But he liked a sense of order, too. The wooden headboard in his bedroom, purchased during a trip to Venice, features elaborately carved angels atop its twisted columns. The walnut angels were removable and his daughters were allowed to play with them, provided they returned them to their proper posts at night.
Surely if Twain were still alive, he’d be all over social media, sharing news of his family and travels. He does have a Twitter feed, @MarkTwain. Someone shared this line there that “Lies can spread around the world while the truth is putting on its slippers.” At way under 140 characters, perfect for Twitter.
I’m sure he’d also have a top-of-the-line iPhone because he loved cutting-edge technology. When living in Hartford, he was one of the first people in the country to have a phone. Twain turned down Alexander Graham Bell’s request to invest in what was then a newfangled gadget. But he still had to have one, even though the service was poor and he was regularly cut off during conversations.
Twain scholar Steve Courtney, author of “The Loveliest Home That Ever Was: The Mark Twain House in Hartford,” said there’s a famous story about Twain cursing and complaining on the phone because he thought the operator was on the line, but it turned out to be his doctor’s wife. When he realized his mistake, he left briefly and then returned, apologizing for his butler’s rude behavior.
“He threw his butler under the bus,” Courtney said.
Twain wasn’t known only for his writing, Courtney said, he was a public intellectual — a person who was sought to comment on current events. We already know how he would have responded to the controversy over Barack Obama’s birthplace: “Why waste your money looking up your family tree? Just go into politics and your opponents will do it for you.”
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Mark Twain House, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford. Sunday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m., house tour and museum, $16 age 65 and up; $19 age 17-64; $11 age 6 to 16, free for 5 and younger. 860-247-0998, marktwainhouse.org