Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCLI

A Lobbying Expedition

Clara Clemens came home now and then to see how matters were progressing, and very properly, for Clemens was likely to become involved in social intricacies which required a directing hand. The daughter inherited no little of the father’s characteristics of thought and phrase, and it was always a delight to see them together when one could be just out of range of the crossfire. I remember soon after her return, when she was making some searching inquiries concerning the billiard-room sign, and other suggested or instituted reforms, he said:

“Oh well, never mind, it doesn’t matter. I’m boss in this house.”

She replied, quickly: “Oh no, you’re not. You’re merely owner. I’m the captain — the commander-in-chief.”

One night at dinner she mentioned the possibility of going abroad that year. During several previous summers she had planned to visit Vienna to see her old music-master, Leschetizky, once more before his death. She said:

“Leschetizky is getting so old. If I don’t go soon I’m afraid I sha’n’t be in time for his funeral.”

“Yes,” said her father, thoughtfully, “you keep rushing over to Leschetizky’s funeral, and you’ll miss mine.”

He had made one or two social engagements without careful reflection, and the situation would require some delicacy of adjustment. During a moment between the courses, when he left the table and was taking his exercise in the farther room, she made some remark which suggested a doubt of her father’s gift for social management. I said:

“Oh, well, he is a king, you know, and a king can do no wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” she answered. “The king can do no wrong; but he frightens me almost to death, sometimes, he comes so near it.”

He came back and began to comment rather critically on some recent performance of Roosevelt’s, which had stirred up a good deal of newspaper amusement — it was the Storer matter and those indiscreet letters which Roosevelt had written relative to the ambassadorship which Storer so much desired. Miss Clemens was inclined to defend the President, and spoke with considerable enthusiasm concerning his elements of popularity, which had won him such extraordinary admiration.

“Certainly he is popular,” Clemens admitted, “and with the best of reasons. If the twelve apostles should call at the White House, he would say, ‘Come in, come in! I am delighted to see you. I’ve been watching your progress, and I admired it very much.’ Then if Satan should come, he would slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Why, Satan, how do you do? I am so glad to meet you. I’ve read all your works and enjoyed every one of them.’ Anybody could be popular with a gift like that.”

It was that evening or the next, perhaps, that he said to her:

“Ben [one of his pet names for her], now that you are here to run the ranch, Paine and I are going to Washington on a vacation. You don’t seem to admire our society much, anyhow.”

There were still other reasons for the Washington expedition. There was an important bill up for the extension of the book royalty period, and the forces of copyright were going down in a body to use every possible means to get the measure through.

Clemens, during Cleveland’s first administration, some nineteen years before, had accompanied such an expedition, and through S. S. (“Sunset”) Cox had obtained the “privileges of the floor” of the House, which had enabled him to canvass the members individually. Cox assured the doorkeeper that Clemens had received the thanks of Congress for national literary service, and was therefore entitled to that privilege. This was not strictly true; but regulations were not very severe in those days, and the ruse had been regarded as a good joke, which had yielded excellent results. Clemens had a similar scheme in mind now, and believed that his friendship with Speaker Cannon —” Uncle Joe”— would obtain for him a similar privilege. The Copyright Association working in its regular way was very well, he said, but he felt he could do more as an individual than by acting merely as a unit of that body.

“I canvassed the entire House personally that other time,” he said. “Cox introduced me to the Democrats, and John D. Long, afterward Secretary of the Navy, introduced me to the Republicans. I had a darling time converting those members, and I’d like to try the experiment again.”

I should have mentioned earlier, perhaps, that at this time he had begun to wear white clothing regularly, regardless of the weather and season. On the return from Dublin he had said:

“I can’t bear to put on black clothes again. I wish I could wear white all winter. I should prefer, of course, to wear colors, beautiful rainbow hues, such as the women have monopolized. Their clothing makes a great opera audience an enchanting spectacle, a delight to the eye and to the spirit — a garden of Eden for charm and color.

“The men, clothed in odious black, are scattered here and there over the garden like so many charred stumps. If we are going to be gay in spirit, why be clad in funeral garments? I should like to dress in a loose and flowing costume made all of silks and velvets resplendent with stunning dyes, and so would every man I have ever known; but none of us dares to venture it. If I should appear on Fifth Avenue on a Sunday morning clothed as I would like to be clothed the churches would all be vacant and the congregation would come tagging after me. They would scoff, of course, but they would envy me, too. When I put on black it reminds me of my funerals. I could be satisfied with white all the year round.”

It was not long after this that he said:

“I have made up my mind not to wear black any more, but white, and let the critics say what they will.”

So his tailor was sent for, and six creamy flannel and serge suits were ordered, made with the short coats, which he preferred, with a gray suit or two for travel, and he did not wear black again, except for evening dress and on special occasions. It was a gratifying change, and though the newspapers made much of it, there was no one who was not gladdened by the beauty of his garments and their general harmony with his person. He had never worn anything so appropriate or so impressive.

This departure of costume came along a week or two before the Washington trip, and when his bags were being packed for the excursion he was somewhat in doubt as to the propriety of bursting upon Washington in December in that snowy plumage. I ventured:

“This is a lobbying expedition of a peculiar kind, and does not seem to invite any half-way measures. I should vote in favor of the white suit.”

I think Miss Clemens was for it, too. She must have been or the vote wouldn’t have carried, though it was clear he strongly favored the idea. At all events, the white suits came along.

We were off the following afternoon: Howells, Robert Underwood Johnson, one of the Appletons, one of the Putnams, George Bowker, and others were on the train. On the trip down in the dining-car there was a discussion concerning the copyrighting of ideas, which finally resolved itself into the possibility of originating a new one. Clemens said:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

We put up at the Willard, and in the morning drove over to the Congressional Library, where the copyright hearing was in progress. There was a joint committee of the two Houses seated round a long table at work, and a number of spectators more or less interested in the bill, mainly, it would seem, men concerned with the protection of mechanical music-rolls. The fact that this feature was mixed up with literature was not viewed with favor by most of the writers. Clemens referred to the musical contingent as “those hand-organ men who ought to have a bill of their own.”

I should mention that early that morning Clemens had written this letter to Speaker Cannon:

December 7, 1906.

DEAR UNCLE JOSEPH — Please get me the thanks of the Congress — not next week, but right away. It is very necessary. Do accomplish this for your affectionate old friend right away; by persuasion, if you can; by violence, if you must, for it is imperatively necessary that I get on the floor for two or three hours and talk to the members, man by man, in behalf of the support, encouragement, and protection of one of the nation’s most valuable assets and industries — its literature. I have arguments with me, also a barrel with liquid in it.

Give me a chance. Get me the thanks of Congress. Don’t wait for others — there isn’t time. I have stayed away and let Congress alone for seventy-one years and I am entitled to thanks. Congress knows it perfectly well, and I have long felt hurt that this quite proper and earned expression of gratitude has been merely felt by the House and never publicly uttered. Send me an order on the Sergeant-at-Arms quick. When shall I come?

With love and a benediction; MARK TWAIN.

We went over to the Capitol now to deliver to “Uncle Joe” this characteristic letter. We had picked up Clemens’s nephew, Samuel E. Moffett, at the Library, and he came along and led the way to the Speaker’s room. Arriving there, Clemens laid off his dark overcoat and stood there, all in white, certainly a startling figure among those clerks, newspaper men, and incidental politicians. He had been noticed as he entered the Capitol, and a number of reporters had followed close behind. Within less than a minute word was being passed through the corridors that Mark Twain was at the Capitol in his white suit. The privileged ones began to gather, and a crowd assembled in the hall outside.

Speaker Cannon was not present at the moment; but a little later he “billowed” in — which seems to be the word to express it — he came with such a rush and tide of life. After greetings, Clemens produced the letter and read it to him solemnly, as if he were presenting a petition. Uncle Joe listened quite seriously, his head bowed a little, as if it were really a petition, as in fact it was. He smiled, but he said, quite seriously:

“That is a request that ought to be granted; but the time has gone by when I am permitted any such liberties. Tom Reed, when he was Speaker, inaugurated a strict precedent excluding all outsiders from the use of the floor of the House.”

“I got in the other time,” Clemens insisted.

“Yes,” said Uncle Joe; “but that ain’t now. Sunset Cox could let you in, but I can’t. They’d hang me.” He reflected a moment, and added: “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ve got a private room down-stairs that I never use. It’s all fitted up with table and desk, stationery, chinaware, and cutlery; you could keep house there, if you wanted to. I’ll let you have it as long as you want to stay here, and I’ll give you my private servant, Neal, who’s been here all his life and knows every official, every Senator and Representative, and they all know him. He’ll bring you whatever you want, and you can send in messages by him. You can have the members brought down singly or in bunches, and convert them as much as you please. I’d give you a key to the room, only I haven’t got one myself. I never can get in when I want to, but Neal can get in, and he’ll unlock it for you. You can have the room, and you can have Neal. Now, will that do you?”

Clemens said it would. It was, in fact, an offer without precedent. Probably never in the history of the country had a Speaker given up his private room to lobbyists. We went in to see the House open, and then went down with Neal and took possession of the room. The reporters had promptly seized upon the letter, and they now got hold of its author, led him to their own quarters, and, gathering around him, fired questions at him, and kept their note-books busy. He made a great figure, all in white there among them, and they didn’t fail to realize the value of it as “copy.” He talked about copyright, and about his white clothes, and about a silk hat which Howells wore.

Back in the Speaker’s room, at last, he began laying out the campaign, which would begin next day. By and by he said:

“Look here! I believe I’ve got to speak over there in that committee-room to-day or to-morrow. I ought to know just when it is.”

I had not heard of this before, and offered to go over and see about it, which I did at once. I hurried back faster than I had gone.

“Mr. Clemens, you are to speak in half an hour, and the room is crowded full; people waiting to hear you.”

“The devil!” he said. “Well, all right; I’ll just lie down here a few minutes and then we’ll go over. Take paper and pencil and make a few headings.”

There was a couch in the room. He lay down while I sat at the table with a pencil, making headings now and then, as he suggested, and presently he rose and, shoving the notes into his pocket, was ready. It was half past three when we entered the committee-room, which was packed with people and rather dimly lighted, for it was gloomy outside. Herbert Putnam, the librarian, led us to seats among the literary group, and Clemens, removing his overcoat, stood in that dim room clad as in white armor. There was a perceptible stir. Howells, startled for a moment, whispered:

“What in the world did he wear that white suit for?” though in his heart he admired it as much as the others.

I don’t remember who was speaking when we came in, but he was saying nothing important. Whoever it was, he was followed by Dr. Edward Everett Hale, whose age always commanded respect, and whose words always invited interest. Then it was Mark Twain’s turn. He did not stand by his chair, as the others had done, but walked over to the Speaker’s table, and, turning, faced his audience. I have never seen a more impressive sight than that snow-white figure in that dim-lit, crowded room. He never touched his notes; he didn’t even remember them. He began in that even, quiet, deliberate voice of his the most even, the most quiet, the most deliberate voice in the world — and, without a break or a hesitation for a word, he delivered a copyright argument, full of humor and serious reasoning, such a speech as no one in that room, I suppose, had ever heard. Certainly it was a fine and dramatic bit of impromptu pleading. The weary committee, which had been tortured all day with dull, statistical arguments made by the mechanical device fiends, and dreary platitudes unloaded by men whose chief ambition was to shine as copyright champions, suddenly realized that they were being rewarded for the long waiting. They began to brighten and freshen, and uplift and smile, like flowers that have been wilted by a drought when comes the refreshing shower that means renewed life and vigor. Every listener was as if standing on tiptoe. When the last sentence was spoken the applause came like an explosion.177

177 [Howells in his book My Mark Twain speaks of Clemens’s white clothing as “an inspiration which few men would have had the courage to act upon.” He adds: “The first time I saw him wear it was at the authors’ hearing before the Congressional Committee on Copyright in Washington. Nothing could have been more dramatic than the gesture with which he flung off his long, loose overcoat and stood forth in white from his feet to the crown of his silvery head. It was a magnificent coup, and he dearly loved a coup; but the magnificent speech which he made, tearing to shreds the venerable farrago of nonsense about nonproperty in ideas which had formed the basis of all copyright legislation, made you forget even his spectacularity.”]

There came a universal rush of men and women to get near enough for a word and to shake his hand. But he was anxious to get away. We drove to the Willard and talked and smoked, and got ready for dinner. He was elated, and said the occasion required full-dress. We started down at last, fronted and frocked like penguins.

I did not realize then the fullness of his love for theatrical effect. I supposed he would want to go down with as little ostentation as possible, so took him by the elevator which enters the dining-room without passing through the long corridor known as “Peacock Alley,” because of its being a favorite place for handsomely dressed fashionables of the national capital. When we reached the entrance of the dining-room he said:

“Isn’t there another entrance to this place?”

I said there was, but that it was very conspicuous. We should have to go down the long corridor.

“Oh, well,” he said, “I don’t mind that. Let’s go back and try it over.”

So we went back up the elevator, walked to the other end of the hotel, and came down to the F Street entrance. There is a fine, stately flight of steps — a really royal stair — leading from this entrance down into “Peacock Alley.” To slowly descend that flight is an impressive thing to do. It is like descending the steps of a throne-room, or to some royal landing-place where Cleopatra’s barge might lie. I confess that I was somewhat nervous at the awfulness of the occasion, but I reflected that I was powerfully protected; so side by side, both in full-dress, white ties, white-silk waistcoats, and all, we came down that regal flight.

Of course he was seized upon at once by a lot of feminine admirers, and the passage along the corridor was a perpetual gantlet. I realize now that this gave the dramatic finish to his day, and furnished him with proper appetite for his dinner. I did not again make the mistake of taking him around to the more secluded elevator. I aided and abetted him every evening in making that spectacular descent of the royal stairway, and in running that fair and frivolous gantlet the length of “Peacock Alley.” The dinner was a continuous reception. No sooner was he seated than this Congressman and that Senator came over to shake hands with Mark Twain. Governor Francis of Missouri also came. Eventually Howells drifted in, and Clemens reviewed the day, its humors and successes. Back in the rooms at last he summed up the progress thus far — smoked, laughed over “Uncle Joe’s” surrender to the “copyright bandits,” and turned in for the night.

We were at the Capitol headquarters in Speaker Cannon’s private room about eleven o’clock next morning. Clemens was not in the best humor because I had allowed him to oversleep. He was inclined to be discouraged at the prospect, and did not believe many of the members would come down to see him. He expressed a wish for some person of influence and wide acquaintance, and walked up and down, smoking gloomily. I slipped out and found the Speaker’s colored body-guard, Neal, and suggested that Mr. Clemens was ready now to receive the members.

That was enough. They began to arrive immediately. John Sharp Williams came first, then Boutell, from Illinois, Littlefield, of Maine, and after them a perfect procession, including all the leading lights — Dalzell, Champ Clark, McCall — one hundred and eighty or so in all during the next three or four hours.

Neal announced each name at the door, and in turn I announced it to Clemens when the press was not too great. He had provided boxes of cigars, and the room was presently blue with smoke, Clemens in his white suit in the midst of it, surrounded by those darker figures — shaking hands, dealing out copyright gospel and anecdotes — happy and wonderfully excited. There were chairs, but usually there was only standing room. He was on his feet for several hours and talked continually; but when at last it was over, and Champ Clark, who I believe remained longest and was most enthusiastic in the movement, had bade him good-by, he declared that he was not a particle tired, and added:

“I believe if our bill could be presented now it would pass.”

He was highly elated, and pronounced everything a perfect success. Neal, who was largely responsible for the triumph, received a ten-dollar bill.

We drove to the hotel and dined that night with the Dodges, who had been neighbors at Riverdale. Later, the usual crowd of admirers gathered around him, among them I remember the minister from Costa Rica, the Italian minister, and others of the diplomatic service, most of whom he had known during his European residence. Some one told of traveling in India and China, and how a certain Hindu “god” who had exchanged autographs with Mark Twain during his sojourn there was familiar with only two other American names — George Washington and Chicago; while the King of Siam had read but three English books — the Bible, Bryce’s American Commonwealth, and The Innocents Abroad.

We were at Thomas Nelson Page’s for dinner next evening — a wonderfully beautiful home, full of art treasures. A number of guests had been invited. Clemens naturally led the dinner-talk, which eventually drifted to reading. He told of Mrs. Clemens’s embarrassment when Stepniak had visited them and talked books, and asked her what her husband thought of Balzac, Thackeray, and the others. She had been obliged to say that he had not read them.

“‘How interesting!’ said Stepniak. But it wasn’t interesting to Mrs. Clemens. It was torture.”

He was light-spirited and gay; but recalling Mrs. Clemens saddened him, perhaps, for he was silent as we drove to the hotel, and after he was in bed he said, with a weary despair which even the words do not convey:

“If I had been there a minute earlier, it is possible — it is possible that she might have died in my arms. Sometimes I think that perhaps there was an instant — a single instant — when she realized that she was dying and that I was not there.”

In New York I had once brought him a print of the superb “Adams Memorial,” by Saint-Gaudens — the bronze woman who sits in the still court in the Rock Creek Cemetery at Washington.

On the morning following the Page dinner at breakfast, he said:

“Engage a carriage and we will drive out and see the Saint-Gaudens bronze.”

It was a bleak, dull December day, and as we walked down through the avenues of the dead there was a presence of realized sorrow that seemed exactly suited to such a visit. We entered the little inclosure of cedars where sits the dark figure which is art’s supreme expression of the great human mystery of life and death. Instinctively we removed our hats, and neither spoke until after we had come away. Then:

“What does he call it?” he asked.

I did not know, though I had heard applied to it that great line of Shakespeare’s —“the rest is silence.”

“But that figure is not silent,” he said.

And later, as we were driving home:

“It is in deep meditation on sorrowful things.”

When we returned to New York he had the little print framed, and kept it always on his mantelpiece.

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