Mark Twain was deeply interested during the autumn of 1907 in the Children’s Theater of the Jewish Educational Alliance, on the lower East Side — a most worthy institution which ought to have survived. A Miss Alice M. Herts, who developed and directed it, gave her strength and health to build up an institution through which the interest of the children could be diverted from less fortunate amusements. She had interested a great body of Jewish children in the plays of Shakespeare, and of more modern dramatists, and these they had performed from time to time with great success. The admission fee to the performance was ten cents, and the theater was always crowded with other children — certainly a better diversion for them than the amusements of the street, though of course, as a business enterprise, the theater could not pay. It required patrons. Miss Herts obtained permission to play “The Prince and the Pauper,” and Mark Twain agreed to become a sort of chief patron in using his influence to bring together an audience who might be willing to assist financially in this worthy work.
“The Prince and the Pauper” evening turned out a distinguished affair. On the night of November 19, 1907, the hall of the Educational Alliance was crowded with such an audience as perhaps never before assembled on the East Side; the finance and the fashion of New York were there. It was a gala night for the little East Side performers. Behind the curtain they whispered to each other that they were to play before queens. The performance they gave was an astonishing one. So fully did they enter into the spirit of Tom Canty’s rise to royalty that they seemed absolutely to forget that they were lowly-born children of the Ghetto. They had become little princesses and lords and maids-in-waiting, and they moved through their pretty tinsel parts as if all their ornaments were gems and their raiment cloth of gold. There was no hesitation, no awkwardness of speech or gesture, and they rose really to sublime heights in the barn scene where the little Prince is in the hands of the mob. Never in the history of the stage has there been assembled a mob more wonderful than that. These children knew mobs! A mob to them was a daily sight, and their reproduction of it was a thing to startle you with its realism. Never was it absurd; never was there a single note of artificiality in it. It was Hogarthian in its bigness.
Both Mark Twain and Miss Herts made brief addresses, and the audience shouted approval of their words. It seems a pity that such a project as that must fail, and I do not know why it happened. Wealthy men and women manifested an interest; but there was some hitch somewhere, and the Children’s Theater exists to-day only as history.183
183 [In a letter to a Mrs. Amelia Dunne Hookway, who had conducted some children’s plays at the Howland School, Chicago, Mark Twain once wrote: “If I were going to begin life over again I would have a children’s theater and watch it, and work for it, and see it grow and blossom and bear its rich moral and intellectual fruitage; and I should get more pleasure and a saner and healthier profit out of my vocation than I should ever be able to get out of any other, constituted as I am. Yes, you are easily the most fortunate of women, I think.”]
It was at a dinner at The Players — a small, private dinner given by Mr. George C. Riggs-that I saw Edward L. Burlingame and Mark Twain for the only time together. They had often met during the forty-two years that had passed since their long-ago Sandwich Island friendship; but only incidentally, for Mr. Burlingame cared not much for great public occasions, and as editor of Scribner’s Magazine he had been somewhat out of the line of Mark Twain’s literary doings.
Howells was there, and Gen. Stewart L. Woodford, and David Bispham, John Finley, Evan Shipman, Nicholas Biddle, and David Munro. Clemens told that night, for the first time, the story of General Miles and the three-dollar dog, inventing it, I believe, as he went along, though for the moment it certainly did sound like history. He told it often after that, and it has been included in his book of speeches.
Later, in the cab, he said:
“That was a mighty good dinner. Riggs knows how to do that sort of thing. I enjoyed it ever so much. Now we’ll go home and play billiards.”
We began about eleven o’clock, and played until after midnight. I happened to be too strong for him, and he swore amazingly. He vowed that it was not a gentleman’s game at all, that Riggs’s wine had demoralized the play. But at the end, when we were putting up the cues, he said:
“Well, those were good games. There is nothing like billiards after all.”
We did not play billiards on his birthday that year. He went to the theater in the afternoon; and it happened that, with Jesse Lynch Williams, I attended the same performance — the “Toy-Maker of Nuremberg”— written by Austin Strong. It proved to be a charming play, and I could see that Clemens was enjoying it. He sat in a box next to the stage, and the actors clearly were doing their very prettiest for his benefit.
When later I mentioned having seen him at the play, he spoke freely of his pleasure in it.
“It is a fine, delicate piece of work,” he said. “I wish I could do such things as that.”
“I believe you are too literary for play-writing.”
“Yes, no doubt. There was never any question with the managers about my plays. They always said they wouldn’t act. Howells has come pretty near to something once or twice. I judge the trouble is that the literary man is thinking of the style and quality of the thing, while the playwright thinks only of how it will play. One is thinking of how it will sound, the other of how it will look.”
“I suppose,” I said, “the literary man should have a collaborator with a genius for stage mechanism. John Luther Long’s exquisite plays would hardly have been successful without David Belasco to stage them. Belasco cannot write a play himself, but in the matter of acting construction his genius is supreme.”
“Yes, so it is; it was Belasco who made it possible to play “The Prince and the Pauper”— a collection of literary garbage before he got hold of it.”
Clemens attended few public functions now. He was beset with invitations, but he declined most of them. He told the dog story one night to the Pleiades Club, assembled at the Brevoort; but that was only a step away, and we went in after the dining was ended and came away before the exercises were concluded.
He also spoke at a banquet given to Andrew Carnegie — Saint Andrew, as he called him — by the Engineers Club, and had his usual fun at the chief guest’s expense.
I have been chief guest at a good many banquets myself, and I know what brother Andrew is feeling like now. He has been receiving compliments and nothing but compliments, but he knows that there is another side to him that needs censure.
I am going to vary the complimentary monotony. While we have all been listening to the complimentary talk Mr. Carnegie’s face has scintillated with fictitious innocence. You’d think he never committed a crime in his life. But he has.
Look at his pestiferous simplified spelling. Imagine the calamity on two sides of the ocean when he foisted his simplified spelling on the whole human race. We’ve got it all now so that nobody could spell . . . .
If Mr. Carnegie had left spelling alone we wouldn’t have had any spots on the sun, or any San Francisco quake, or any business depression.
There, I trust he feels better now and that he has enjoyed my abuse more than he did his compliments. And now that I think I have him smoothed down and feeling comfortable I just want to say one thing more — that his simplified spelling is all right enough, but, like chastity, you can carry it too far.
As he was about to go, Carnegie called his attention to the beautiful souvenir bronze and gold-plated goblets that stood at each guest’s plate. Carnegie said:
“The club had those especially made at Tiffany’s for this occasion. They cost ten dollars apiece.”
Clemens sand: “Is that so? Well, I only meant to take my own; but if that’s the case I’ll load my cab with them.”
We made an attempt to reform on the matter of billiards. The continued strain of late hours was doing neither of us any particular good. More than once I journeyed into the country on one errand and another, mainly for rest; but a card saying that he was lonely and upset, for lack of his evening games, quickly brought me back again. It was my wish only to serve him; it was a privilege and an honor to give him happiness.
Billiards, however, was not his only recreation just then. He walked out a good deal, and especially of a pleasant Sunday morning he liked the stroll up Fifth Avenue. Sometimes we went as high as Carnegie’s, on Ninety-second Street, and rode home on top of the electric stage — always one of Mark Twain’s favorite diversions.
From that high seat he liked to look down on the panorama of the streets, and in that free, open air he could smoke without interference. Oftener, however, we turned at Fifty-ninth Street, walking both ways.
When it was pleasant we sometimes sat on a bench in Central Park; and once he must have left a handkerchief there, for a few days later one of his handkerchiefs came to him accompanied by a note. Its finder, a Mr. Lockwood, received a reward, for Mark Twain wrote him:
There is more rejoicing in this house over that one handkerchief that was lost and is found again than over the ninety and nine that never went to the wash at all. Heaven will reward you, I know it will.
On Sunday mornings the return walk would be timed for about the hour that the churches would be dismissed. On the first Sunday morning we had started a little early, and I thoughtlessly suggested, when we reached Fifty-ninth Street, that if we returned at once we would avoid the throng. He said, quietly:
“I like the throng.”
So we rested in the Plaza Hotel until the appointed hour. Men and women noticed him, and came over to shake his hand. The gigantic man in uniform; in charge of the carriages at the door, came in for a word. He had opened carriages for Mr. Clemens at the Twenty-third Street station, and now wanted to claim that honor. I think he received the most cordial welcome of any one who came. I am sure he did. It was Mark Twain’s way to warm to the man of the lower social rank. He was never too busy, never too preoccupied, to grasp the hand of such a man; to listen to his story, and to say just the words that would make that man happy remembering them.
We left the Plaza Hotel and presently were amid the throng of outpouring congregations. Of course he was the object on which every passing eye turned; the presence to which every hat was lifted. I realized that this open and eagerly paid homage of the multitude was still dear to him, not in any small and petty way, but as the tribute of a nation, the expression of that affection which in his London and Liverpool speeches he had declared to be the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win, whether by character or achievement. It was his final harvest, and he had the courage to claim it — the aftermath of all his years of honorable labor and noble living.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00