Building the Mark Twain House was not an easy task for Samuel Clemens and his wife, Olivia. But when they moved into the quirky mansion with their children in 1874, they began the happiest years of their lives.
Clemens had fallen in love with Hartford and with his wife. Of Hartford, he said, “Of all the beautiful towns it has been my fortune to see, this is the chief… You do not know what beauty is if you have not been here.”
In 1873, he tried to beautify the city further by building a grand home for his family. One critic called the final product “part Mississippi steamboat, part medieval fortress, part cuckoo clock.” The family lived in it for 17 years, the happiest of his life. It was in that house that he wrote his most memorable works.
Genesis of the Mark Twain House
It all started in 1867 when Clemens, 31, took a five-month voyage to Europe and the Holy Land to write travel articles. He was then known as a journalist rather than a novelist. During the journey, he made friends with Charles Langdon.
While visiting Langdon in his stateroom, Twain caught a glimpse of an ivory miniature of his older sister, Olivia. It was love at first sight. When they returned to America, he had dinner with the Langdon family in New York City, where they were staying for the Christmas holidays. On New Year’s Day Clemens called on Olivia and prolonged his visit beyond the socially acceptable 15 minutes – by 11 hours, 45 minutes.
Charles then invited him to visit with his family at their mansion in Elmira, N.Y., for a week. When he finally made it to Elmira in August, he stayed three weeks.
Clemens knew Olivia Langdon was much too good for him. She had wealth (coal money), education and social standing. He didn’t.
Her family liked him, but he wasn’t quite what they had in mind for their shy and gentle daughter. The devout Langdons didn’t touch alcohol. Clemens admitted he was “drunk oftener than was necessary & that I was wild & Godless, idle, lecherous & a discontented & unsettled rover.
He capitalized on his travel articles by turning to the lecture circuit, frequently finding excuses to visit Elmira. His fame as Mark Twain grew as his audiences swelled.
All the while he wrote Olivia – 180 letters, in fact. She sent him the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher. The tone of his letters grew meeker and more submissive. Finally, no doubt aware of his growing success, the Langdon family gave their approval to his marriage in 1870. Not only that, his father-in-law bought them a mansion with servants – in Buffalo.
Moving Out of Elmira
The newlyweds worked together on the manuscript of Innocents Abroad, a compilation of his travel articles. It was a monster hit, allowing him to quit his job as a Buffalo Express reporter. While visiting his publisher in Hartford, Clemens decided in 1873 he needed to move there. A dozen publishers operated out of the city, which attracted such prominent writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Dean Howells and Thomas Bailey Aldrich.
The Clemenses commissioned Edward Tuckerman Potter to design the three-story brick mansion in the Nook Farm neighborhood, essentially a writer’s colony. The property included a two-story carriage house and greenhouse. Twain wrote to his mother-in-law about his frustration with the building process:
I have been bullyragged all day by the builder, by his foreman, by the architect, by the tapestry devil who is to upholster the furniture, by the idiot who is putting down the carpets, by the scoundrel who is setting up the billiard-table (and has left the balls in New York), by the wildcat who is sodding the ground and finishing the driveway (after the sun went down), by a book agent, whose body is in the back yard and the coroner notified. Just think of this thing going on the whole day long, and I am a man who loathes details with all my heart.
Nevertheless, great attention to detail went into the opulent, 11,500-square-foot house. It had high ceilings and massive amounts of carved wood. Clemens insisted on a window over the fireplace so he could see snowflakes meet the flames. He added a patch of tin to the roof so he could hear the rain drumming on it. Around the house he had rambling porches built like riverboat decks. And he had a massive carved mantle brought over from a Scottish castle installed in the library.
The house had modern conveniences available only to the upper crust: a bell system, central heating, lots of indoor plumbing, a burglar alarm, a shower and a telephone, hidden away in a telephone booth in the entryway.
No one seems to know quite what to call it: “Continental Picturesque,” “High Gothic” or just “Mississippi Steamboat.” Today the Mark Twain House is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “an asymmetrical polychromatic brick structures, with sweeping wood cornices and gables and flamboyant patterns of black and vermilion brick.”
The Good Life
The Clemenses moved into the house in September 1874 with their two daughters, Susy, a toddler, and Clara, an infant. Jean would follow in 1880.
The 17 years the family spent in the house were the happiest of Sam Clemens’ life. “”To us, our house was not unsentient matter — it had a heart, and a soul … It was of us, and we were in its confidence,” he wrote.
The Godless, idle, lecherous rover turned into a devoted family man. Olivia home-schooled the children in the classroom, later hiring a governesses. Their father played with them in the conservatory and told them bedtime stories at night.
The family led a busy social life with the neighborhood influentials, hosting dinner parties, teas, charades and stag billiard nights. Guests included included the actor Edwin Booth, author Thomas Bailey Aldrich, political cartoonist Thomas Nast, explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, Gen. William T. Sherman and writer Rudyard Kipling.
Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door and often came over to play the piano.
The lavish living cost Clemens almost as much as he earned.
He earned quite a lot during his time in the Mark Twain House. He wrote his most notable fiction in his billiard room. Clemens sat at a desk facing the wall so the billiard table and the outdoors wouldn’t distract him. It worked; he wrote Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi.
In 1881, the Clemenses hired Louis Comfort Tiffany to redecorate the mansion’s public rooms. Tiffany stenciled the elaborate entryway and painted patterns on the walls and ceiling in red, black and silver. His firm decorated the walls and ceilings with wallpaper and stencils. The result: “A circuit of the ground floor went from the Moorish front hall to a pink and silver drawing room evoking India to an Asian dining room and ended in a green and gold Persian library,” according to the Mark Twain House website.
Leaving the Mark Twain House
Clemens was as bad a businessman as he was good as a writer. He made some bad investments and in 1891 moved to Europe where the cost of living was cheaper. He lost more money in 1893 and went on the lecture circuit to earn it back. “The lack of money is the root of all evil,” he wrote.
Daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis in 1896, and the Clemenses couldn’t bear to return to the house. Olivia never set foot in it again. But they hung on to it until 1903, when he sold it for one-sixth the amount he’d put into it. It then became a library, an apartment house and a school. Finally the house was going to be torn down, but preservationists saved it in 1929.
The Mark Twain House is now a museum open to visitors. It has the only Louis Comfort Tiffany rooms outside of New York City.
If you go to the Mark Twain House:
The only way to see the house inside is to go on a guided tour. Visitors are advised to buy tickets in advance. A trip led by a re-enactor costs a few extra dollars and generally gets good reviews. There is also a modern, handicap-accessible museum wing which has a 23-minute film on Twain running continuously, a couple of exhibit spaces, a gift shop, a cafe and two parking lots.
351 Farmington Ave., Hartford.
All other images courtesy Library of Congress.