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Thursday, July 15, 1999
Mark Twain's domain far from the Old Mississippi
By JANE FAULDERS
HARTFORD, Conn.-- One thinks of life on the Mississippi River when Mark Twain's name is mentioned, but the author, whose given name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, wrote his most memorable books living as a prosperous Victorian gentleman in Hartford, Conn. Today the commodious red brick home, trimmed in black and vermilion, that he shared with his wife and three daughters for 17 years is a museum open to the public.
The former printer, river pilot, western roustabout, humorist and writer moved to Hartford with his bride, the former Olivia Langdon of Elmira, N.Y., to be close to his publisher. Although Twain was moderately successful, it was Livy's inheritance that paid for the house, completed in 1874.
The house went over budget, so it was not until 1881, with the success of "Tom Sawyer" and "A Tramp Abroad" that the interior got full attention. The Clemenses hired Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated Artists of New York, top designers of the late 19th century who drew heavily on African, East Indian and Oriental influences.
Twain coined the term "Gilded Age," and his home displayed this tasteful opulence. The front door is bordered with Tiffany glass opening to an entrance hall with walls stenciled to look like inlaid mother of pearl. The fireplace has wood panels from India. Along with lavish surroundings, Twain loved having the latest gadgetry. His was one of the first homes to have a telephone and indoor plumbing.
On the first floor one can see the fancy drawing room, the dining room, library and a guest bedroom. The family spent a lot of time in the library, a large room with a stunning mantelpiece from a Scottish castle and carved bookshelves filled with books. Here the girls gave theatrical performances and Twain made up stories about the objects on the mantelpiece for his daughters.
The plant-filled conservatory off to the side was "the jungle" to the girls and Twain or the butler often played the part of the animals. The guest bedroom has a grand mahogany bed and a bathroom that, Twain boasted, had the first shower in America.
A winding wooden staircase with low banisters leads upstairs to the second floor bedrooms and study. Visitors can see Olivia's sewing room, her mother Mrs. Langdon's bedroom, the nursery, a girl's room with straw-mat flooring and Japanese fans, the master bedroom and the study.
In the master bedroom is the wooden bed with carvings of angels that the Clemenses bought in Venice. The headboard was often at the foot of the bed because Twain said it was "so beautiful to see the angels in the morning." From the bedroom balcony, Twain would often wave to people as they went to church.
The study with its comfortable couch only inspired Twain to take naps so he gave it to his daughters. Here the girls were home-schooled by their mother and governess in music, literature and foreign languages. They all spoke Italian, French and German by the time they were 10.
The third floor, Twain's domain, was rarely visited by the women of the house. The pool room was also his study. At a desk or on the pool table he wrote in longhand and later typed his manuscripts on what he claimed was the first typewriter. Twain "got up at the crack of 11," had a little breakfast, wrote until 6 p.m., when he had dinner and joined the family. He suffered from insomnia and sometimes stayed up until 3 or 4 a.m.
A small room with a bed and desk was kept for the butler when he needed to stay over. A one-time slave, George worked with the family 17 years and may have been a model for Jim in Twain's greatest novel, "Huckleberry Finn."
In 1891, Twain lost the equivalent of $2 million by today's rates from investments in a typesetting machine. He declared bankruptcy and moved to Europe. Twain was able to pay off his debts after a successful worldwide lecture tour, and a book about those travels, "Following the Equator." After Twain's oldest daughter died of spinal meningitis during a visit to the family home in 1896, the Clemenses never again occupied the house.
The house was sold in 1903 and later became a boys' school, then an apartment building. In 1929, the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission, chartered by the state, purchased the property. The commission paid off the mortgage by 1955 and began to restore the house. Clemens family memorabilia, art objects, and archival material were donated and a fund drive established the museum endowment.
The museum offers educational programs, lectures, children's workshops and symposia that have attracted important contemporary literary figures, including playwright Arthur Miller and author William Styron.
Each year more than 55,000 people come to the museum, many from overseas (Twain's books have been translated into 70 languages). Of all the nationalities who visit, one guide said, the Russians, who come by the busload, are most reverential.
The Mark Twain House, a National Register Historic Landmark, is located at 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford. Open Monday through Saturday 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m., closed on Tuesdays. Admission $9.