Michael shelden, p.1

Michael Shelden, page 1


Michael Shelden

Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

Michael Shelden

  Also by Michael Shelden







  To Sue, Sarah, Vanessa, and June

  Don’t part with your illusions.

  When they are gone you may still exist,

  but you have ceased to live.



  List of Illustrations

  Prologue: How the Man in Black Became the Man in White


  One: Ragtime on Tap

  Two: Domestic Circle

  Three: Pirates of Broadway

  Four: Body and Soul

  Five: Autobiography House


  Six: College of One

  Seven: A Yank at Oxford

  Eight: Young and Old


  Nine: Princes and Paupers

  Ten: To Heaven and Back

  Eleven: Manhattan Melodrama

  Twelve: Tourist Trade

  Thirteen: Farewell, Fifth Avenue

  Fourteen: Connecticut Yankee

  Fifteen: Breaking and Entering

  Sixteen: The Mark Twain Company


  Seventeen: Hannibal-on-Avon

  Eighteen: End of the Line

  Nineteen: Crime and Punishment

  Twenty: Letters from the Earth

  Twenty-one: Revels Ended



  Sources and Bibliography


  Illustration Credits


  Mark Twain relaxing at Tuxedo Park, New York, 1907

  Mark Twain in white at his home in Manhattan

  Mark Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens in Italy

  Mark Twain and Clara Clemens sailing home from Europe, 1904

  Mark Twain admiring a kitten at Tuxedo Park, New York, 1907

  Mark Twain playing the piano, with Clara Clemens and Marie Nichols, 1907

  Mark Twain’s friends, Broadway stars Ethel Barrymore and Billie Burke

  Mark Twain’s wife, Olivia (“Livy”) Clemens

  Mark Twain’s youngest child, Jean Clemens

  Mark Twain and Standard Oil millionaire H. H. Rogers, 1908

  H. H. Rogers’s yacht Kanawha

  Mark Twain sailing in Bermuda, 1908

  The founder of the Christian Science movement, Mary Baker Eddy (or “Eddypus,” as Twain called her)

  Albert Bigelow Paine’s farm in Redding, Connecticut

  Concert pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Mark Twain’s son-in-law

  Mark Twain in an Oxford gown in Tuxedo Park, New York, 1907

  Philadelphia Inquirer cartoon of Mark Twain’s triumphant tour of England, 1907

  Mark Twain and Lord Curzon at Oxford University, 1907

  Mark Twain with his young friend Dorothy Quick, 1907

  Mark Twain at his new home in Connecticut, 1908

  Mark Twain’s troubled bank, the Knickerbocker Trust Company, New York

  Andrew Carnegie

  Mark Twain’s fictional Captain Stormfield sailing the heavens

  Controversial beauties Evelyn Nesbit and Elinor Glyn

  Mark Twain’s friend and neighbor Martin Littleton with murderer Harry K. Thaw

  Mark Twain and Mary Peck (Woodrow Wilson’s great love) with friends in Bermuda, 1908

  Mark Twain and Professor Elizabeth Wallace in Bermuda, 1908

  Mark Twain and his young friend Helen Allen swimming in Bermuda, 1908

  Mark Twain and Cardinal Logue watching a police parade in New York, 1908

  Broadway star Margaret Illington, Mark Twain’s friend

  Mark Twain playing cards with girls at his home in Connecticut, 1908

  Mark Twain aiming a pistol at an imaginary foe, 1908

  “Mark Twain Robbed; Bandits Shoot at Sheriff on Train,” New York Evening World, 1908

  Stormfield, Mark Twain’s home in Redding, Connecticut

  Mark Twain in bed

  Mark Twain and Helen Keller, 1909

  Mark Twain at his billiards table

  Mark Twain with his secretary, Isabel Lyon, and his business adviser, Ralph Ashcroft, 1908

  Mark Twain at the funeral of H. H. Rogers, 1909

  Ossip Gabrilowitsch and Clara Clemens, 1909

  Jean Clemens on horseback

  Last photographs of Mark Twain in Bermuda, 1910

  Mark Twain seated in white

  Clothes make the man.

  Naked people have little or no influence in society.




  How the Man in Black

  Became the Man in White


  ON A BLUSTERY Friday afternoon in December 1906, Mark Twain arrived for a special appearance at the Library of Congress, trailing smoke from his usual brand of cheap cigar. The temperature hovered at freezing and the skies were gloomy, but he was dressed warmly in a long dark overcoat and a derby from which thick curls of white hair protruded on either side. At the main doors, facing the Capitol, he entered the Great Hall of the Library and made his way down a long marble corridor to the Senate Reading Room, where a hearing was in progress on copyright legislation. The Librarian of Congress—a dapper middle-aged man named Herbert Putnam—was expecting him and emerged from the hearing to escort Twain inside.

  All heads turned as the famous guest strode to the front of the chamber, which was full of lobbyists, lawyers, authors, and publishers. Normally used as a private study for senators, the high-ceilinged room had the look and feel of an elegant club, with oak paneling, mahogany desks, black leather chairs, and a big marble fireplace. At a long conference table facing the gathering were the dozen or so members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Patents, chaired by a jowly Republican lawyer from South Dakota, Senator Alfred Beard Kittredge.

  A representative of the player piano industry, a Mr. Low, was droning on about copyright protection for perforated music rolls—“May I suggest an addition to clause (b) of section 1”—when Twain reached his seat and paused to remove his overcoat. By this simple gesture he caused—as one observer later put it—“a perceptible stir.” That was an understatement. Against the fading light of the afternoon Twain emerged as a figure clothed all in white. His outfit perfectly matched his hair, from his white collar and cravat—held in place by a “creamy moonstone”—to his white shoes. Among so many soberly dressed fellows in black and gray, he stood out as a gleaming apparition, impossible to ignore.2

  “Mark Twain Bids Winter Defiance,” said the headline in the New York Herald the next day. “Resplendent in a White Flannel Suit, Author Creates a Sensation.” The New York World called his costume “the most remarkable suit” of the season, and another paper said he was a “vision from the equator” who warmed the hearts of his audience while “the wintry wind whistled around the dome of the Capitol.” The best comment came from the Boston Herald: “Oh, that all lobbyists could enter the congressional corridors in raiment as spotless as Mark Twain’s.”3

  All day long, Senator Kittredge and his colleagues had been listening to various experts explain the fine points of the nation’s copyright laws, and much of the discussion had been dry and tedious. The committee members had grown restless and bored as they listened to yet another lobbyist argue his case with statistics and legal precedents. But the moment Twain removed his overcoat, the room came to life, and the legislators stared wid
e-eyed at the man in white as he waited his turn to speak.

  Twain’s good friend and fellow novelist William Dean Howells, who was sitting nearby, was so taken aback by this unconventional outfit that the first words from his mouth were “What in the world did he wear that white suit for?” Appearing in such clothing at a formal gathering was a shocking breach of etiquette. In summer months, Washington was full of people in white suits, but in December nobody dared to dress that way.4

  Twain’s suit is now so famous that modern depictions of the author rarely show him in any other garb. The common assumption is that it was his signature look for much of his career. In fact, Senator Kittredge’s otherwise dull committee hearing marked not only the public debut of Twain’s uniform, but the beginning of an extraordinary period in which the author—who had just turned seventy-one—fashioned much of the image by which he is still known a century afterward.

  He planned this debut carefully, and knew how the world would react. As a man who had spent years bedazzling audiences at lectures and banquets, he had a keen appreciation for the power of theatrical effects, and was sure that no one would forget the way he looked in white. Only two months earlier he had confessed privately, “I hope to get together courage enough to wear white clothes all through the winter. … It will be a great satisfaction to me to show off in this way.” He wasn’t ashamed to seek attention, explaining, “The desire for fame is only the desire to be continuously conspicuous and attract attention and be talked about.” Indeed, his debut in white provoked comment on front pages everywhere. For several days it was all anyone could talk about.5

  It wasn’t by chance that he chose to reveal his new look in one of the most conspicuous places in America—the nation’s greatest library. Though the building was only ten years old, it was already regarded as a monument for the ages. Built in the style of the Paris Opera House, it had the kind of splendor usually associated with great landmarks of the Old World—with soaring columns, grand arches, and a massive dome. Admirers boasted that it was “the largest, the costliest, and the safest” library in the world. For a literary man wanting to stage a sensational event, there wasn’t a better backdrop.6

  Though the extensive press coverage pleased him, Twain wasn’t merely showing off. He had serious business to conduct at the hearing, where he wanted to urge legislators to change the system of copyright law, which he considered archaic and unjust. It was a subject close to his heart. For years he had been fighting to improve the system, but now he regarded the problem with a greater sense of urgency. His long career was nearing its end, and the future of his life’s work was at stake.

  When he stood up to speak, he knew that he would command complete attention. Like a good showman, he understood that his words would seem all the more impressive coming after so many lackluster speeches by ordinary men in conventional attire. For almost half an hour, he held the floor, addressing the room directly instead of speaking only to the legislators. Though he had composed a few rough notes earlier in the afternoon, he didn’t bother to refer to them. He preferred to speak from the heart, and did so without hesitation, employing sound reasoning and amusing anecdotes, and making an occasional sardonic swipe at the glacial pace of reform. His real audience was not the men in the room, but the larger American public who would read of his appearance in their newspapers the next day.

  Many writers, unaccustomed to addressing such a gathering, would have felt intimidated. But not Twain, whose confidence in his own rhetorical powers was as high as his opinion of most congressmen was low. He once said that America had “no native criminal class except Congress.” Two weeks before coming to the hearing he had remarked privately, “All Congresses and Parliaments have a kindly feeling for idiots, and a compassion for them, on account of personal experience and heredity.” For the benefit of his case, however, he treated the committee as though they were a group of thoroughly upright and thoughtful men and spoke to them as politely as possible.7

  At the time, copyrighted works enjoyed protection for a period of forty-two years following the date of publication. Senator Kittredge was sponsoring a bill with a new limit—one that began with the death of the author and continued for fifty years. He considered this provision more than generous, and Twain was willing to accept it. But what America’s most famous writer really wanted was something that most authors were too modest to suggest—copyright in perpetuity for all literary works.

  Why should the rights of someone possessing literary property, he asked, be any different from those of a landowner? “I am quite unable to guess why there should be a limit at all to the possession of the product of a man’s labor. There is no limit to real estate. … You might just as well, after you had discovered a coal mine and worked it for forty-two years, have the government step in and take it away.”

  What was worse, he went on, the current system didn’t benefit anyone except publishers. “It merely takes the author’s property, merely takes from his children the bread and profit of that book, and gives the publisher double profit. … And they continue the enjoyment of these ill-gotten gains generation after generation, for they never die. They live forever, publishers do.”8

  He was the last speaker of the day, and there was a general feeling among the audience “that they were being rewarded for the long waiting.” Their faces softened, and they leaned forward to catch every word. As one reporter noted, “He made a speech the serious parts of which created a strong impression, and the humorous parts set the Senators and Representatives in roars of laughter.”9

  Though he was one of the oldest men in the room, he didn’t act it. His mind was as sharp as ever, his eyes full of life, his figure straight and trim. His long speech was—in the words of the New York Times—“a star performance,” and the response couldn’t have been better. “When the last sentence was spoken,” an eyewitness wrote, “the applause came like an explosion.”10

  As much as his audience enjoyed the speech, it was what he wore that made the strongest impression. There were a few dissenting voices. The Washington Post made fun of him for “wearing a linen duster in the middle of winter,” and a Chicago paper joked that he was parading through the capital in “last summer’s yachting clothes.” But the author was oblivious to such criticism, and—as he expected—his new look as the Man in White quickly became fixed in the popular imagination. William Dean Howells revised his initial opinion that the outfit was inappropriate and admitted that his friend’s appearance at the hearing was “a magnificent coup.” (He would later joke that he always felt underdressed when Twain wore white, “as if I had come in my nighty.”)11

  As soon as the news of his appearance at the Library of Congress became widely known, everyone wanted to see the new costume, and he obliged by wearing it often, and by posing in it for photographers again and again. He asked his tailor to produce a set of six identical suits in both serge and flannel with matching shirts, ties, and waistcoats. More were added later, while a few gray suits were reserved for travel and ordinary wear.

  In the twilight of his career Twain was making visual what his friends had long accepted as factual—that he was one of a kind, an American original who would be talked about long after he was gone, and whose works would surely last as long as the Library of Congress itself. He could dress in white and get away with it because he was Mark Twain, and that was the only excuse he needed. As he had explained to a New York audience earlier in the year, “I was born modest, but it didn’t last.”12


  I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else.13


  It is easy to understand why Mark Twain’s new look made such a powerful and enduring impression on the world.* There isn’t much agreement, however, on why he suddenly wanted to wear white for the rest of his life. Some have said that he was obsessed in old age with cleanliness. It’s true that he once told an audience he could wear one
of his suits “for three days without a blemish.” But as an old man who tended to scatter cigar ash wherever he went, he didn’t mean for this boast of immaculate grooming to be taken any more seriously than his occasional claim that he didn’t like “to attract too much attention” when he wore white.14

  He was having fun with reporters when he informed them that his suit was “the uniform of the American Association of Purity and Perfection, of which I am president, secretary, and treasurer, and the only man in the United States eligible to membership.” In his bright new clothes there was a mock suggestion of the virginal, which appealed to his sense of the absurd while at the same time suggesting a real spirit of innocence and freshness that reinforced his reputation for boyish high jinks and recalled his youth in the Mississippi Valley, where—in Huck Finn’s words—successful men often appeared in “linen so white it hurt your eyes to look at it.”15

  There was also a hint of rebellion against adult conformity by one who had never wanted to grow old. As Howells once said of him, “He was a youth to the end of his days, the heart of a boy with the head of a sage; the heart of a good boy, or a bad boy, but always a willful boy.” Sounding like an overgrown Huck Finn among fancy Easterners, Twain once referred to his white outfit as “my dontcareadam suit.” To a reporter for the New York Tribune, he declared, “When you are seventy-one years old you may at least be pardoned for dressing as you please. … When I look around at the men in their black evening clothes I am disagreeably impressed with the fact that they are no more cheerful and no more pleasant to look at than a lot of crows.”16

  Though he was inclined to say amusing things about his new look whenever he spoke of it to the press, the uniform signaled more than a simple defiance of winter’s gloom and the tyranny of fashion. There was something more significant behind his choice of such an unconventional outfit. Wearing white at his age was a kind of joke on death—a playful way of pretending that it had little power over him, and that he wouldn’t submit to it until he was good and ready. Determined not to waste his last years in a dreary shuffle toward extinction, he wanted to go out in the grand fashion of a man who had made a deep impression on the world, and who was convinced that nothing about him—including the manner of his passing—would be forgotten.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up

Other author's books:

Comments 0