Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


An Investment in Redding

Many of the less important happenings seem worth remembering now. Among them was the sale, at the Nast auction, of the Mark Twain letters, already mentioned. The fact that these letters brought higher prices than any others offered in this sale was gratifying. Roosevelt, Grant, and even Lincoln items were sold; but the Mark Twain letters led the list. One of them sold for forty-three dollars, which was said to be the highest price ever paid for the letter of a living man. It was the letter written in 1877, quoted earlier in this work, in which Clemens proposed the lecture tour to Nast. None of the Clemens-Nast letters brought less than twenty-seven dollars, and some of them were very brief. It was a new measurement of public sentiment. Clemens, when he heard of it, said:

“I can’t rise to General Grant’s lofty place in the estimation of this country; but it is a deep satisfaction to me to know that when it comes to letter-writing he can’t sit in the front seat along with me. That forty-three-dollar letter ought to be worth as much as eighty-six dollars after I’m dead.”

A perpetual string of callers came to 21 Fifth Avenue, and it kept the secretary busy explaining to most of them why Mark Twain could not entertain their propositions, or listen to their complaints, or allow them to express in person their views on public questions. He did see a great many of what might be called the milder type persons who were evidently sincere and not too heavily freighted with eloquence. Of these there came one day a very gentle-spoken woman who had promised that she would stay but a moment, and say no more than a few words, if only she might sit face to face with the great man. It was in the morning hour before the dictations, and he received her, quite correctly clad in his beautiful dressing-robe and propped against his pillows. She kept her contract to the letter; but when she rose to go she said, in a voice of deepest reverence:

“May I kiss your hand?”

It was a delicate situation, and might easily have been made ludicrous. Denial would have hurt her. As it was, he lifted his hand, a small, exquisite hand it was, with the gentle dignity and poise of a king, and she touched her lips to it with what was certainly adoration. Then, as she went, she said:

“How God must love you!”

“I hope so,” he said, softly, and he did not even smile; but after she had gone he could not help saying, in a quaint, half-pathetic voice “I guess she hasn’t heard of our strained relations.”

Sitting in that royal bed, clad in that rich fashion, he easily conveyed the impression of royalty, and watching him through those marvelous mornings he seemed never less than a king, as indeed he was — the king of a realm without national boundaries. Some of those nearest to him fell naturally into the habit of referring to him as “the King,” and in time the title crept out of the immediate household and was taken up by others who loved him.

He had been more than once photographed in his bed; but it was by those who had come and gone in a brief time, with little chance to study his natural attitudes. I had acquired some knowledge of the camera, and I obtained his permission to let me photograph him — a permission he seldom denied to any one. We had no dictations on Saturdays, and I took the pictures on one of these holiday mornings. He was so patient and tractable, and so natural in every attitude, that it was a delight to make the negatives. I was afraid he would become impatient, and made fewer exposures than I might otherwise have done. I think he expected very little from this amateur performance; but, by that happy element of accident which plays so large a part in photographic success, the results were better than I had hoped for. When I brought him the prints, a few days later, he expressed pleasure and asked, “Why didn’t you make more?”

Among them was one in an attitude which had grown so familiar to us, that of leaning over to get his pipe from the smoking-table, and this seemed to give him particular satisfaction. It being a holiday, he had not donned his dressing-gown, which on the whole was well for the photographic result. He spoke of other pictures that had been made of him, especially denouncing one photograph, taken some twenty years before by Sarony, a picture, as he said, of a gorilla in an overcoat, which the papers and magazines had insisted on using ever since.

“Sarony was as enthusiastic about wild animals as he was about photography, and when Du Chaillu brought over the first gorilla he sent for me to look at it and see if our genealogy was straight. I said it was, and Sarony was so excited that I had recognized the resemblance between us, that he wanted to make it more complete, so he borrowed my overcoat and put it on the gorilla and photographed it, and spread that picture out over the world as mine. It turns up every week in some newspaper or magazine; but it’s not my favorite; I have tried to get it suppressed.”

Mark Twain made his first investment in Redding that spring. I had located there the autumn before, and bought a vacant old house, with a few acres of land, at what seemed a modest price. I was naturally enthusiastic over the bargain, and the beauty and salubrity of the situation. His interest was aroused, and when he learned that there was a place adjoining, equally reasonable and perhaps even more attractive, he suggested immediately that I buy it for him; and he wanted to write a check then for the purchase price, for fear the opportunity might be lost. I think there was then no purpose in his mind of building a country home; but he foresaw that such a site, at no great distance from New York, would become more valuable, and he had plenty of idle means. The purchase was made without difficulty — a tract of seventy-five acres, to which presently was added another tract of one hundred and ten acres, and subsequently still other parcels of land, to complete the ownership of the hilltop, for it was not long until he had conceived the idea of a home. He was getting weary of the heavy pressure of city life. He craved the retirement of solitude — one not too far from the maelstrom, so that he might mingle with it now and then when he chose. The country home would not be begun for another year yet, but the purpose of it was already in the air. No one of the family had at this time seen the location.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00