Laura Skandera Trombley


On her book Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years

Cover Interview of March 14, 2010

A close-up

The beginning of Chapter Two sets the stage for understanding what an unusual position Twain occupied at the end of his life.

Due to his longevity, Twain had almost become a lost figure, caught between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—comfortable in neither.  This tension contributed to the stresses and strains that surfaced in his family.  Born two months prematurely on November 30, 1835, Twain’s birthplace was the hamlet of Florida, Missouri, located at the fork of the Salt River.  Red-haired Samuel Langhorne Clemens arrived to his parents in a tiny two-bedroom, rented cabin with an outdoor lean-to kitchen.  By the fall of 1905, at age sixty-nine, he had become a wealthy resident of lower Manhattan, New York City.

New York City in 1905 boasted the world’s busiest harbor, the biggest ships and longest bridges, the worst slums and overwhelming prosperity.  There were elevated trains that crossed rivers and twenty miles of newly completed New York subway with the fare costing just a nickel.  Traffic was thick with people, pushcarts, horses, cars and trolleys all jostling for a place in the crowded streets. The largest conglomeration of millionaires in history, who had accumulated gigantic tax-free fortunes, lived in massive homes on tree-lined boulevards.  An enormous wave of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy was passing through Ellis Island, changing the city’s ethnic make-up and culture and creating tremendous social and political stresses.  New York was the largest Jewish city in the world, the largest Irish city, one of the largest German cities, and home to more than 700,000 Russians.  This was Mark Twain’s city and he was its most celebrated citizen, popularly recognized as the “Belle of New York.”

Twain belonged to the world and was the first global celebrity.  On December 6, 1905 he celebrated his seventieth birthday at Delmonico’s Restaurant with 170 of his friends and fellow writers.  President Theodore Roosevelt sent a speech to be read in his absence, pointing out that Twain “is one of the citizens whom all Americans should delight to honor, for he has rendered a great and peculiar service to America, and his writings, though such as no one but an American could have written, yet emphatically come within that small list which are written for no particular country, but for all countries, and which are not merely written for the time being, but have an abiding and permanent value.”  After a banquet lasting five hours, with fifteen speeches given and nine poems read, those in attendance were given a foot-high plaster bust of the honoree.  By the close of the evening, there were 171 Mark Twains in the room.  This unschooled son of Missouri had become as big as New York City.