National Geographic just released the third edition of their best-selling book The 10 Best of Everything. In it they rank the 10 top historic houses in the world. The Mark Twain House in Hartford, CT is ranked #7. We visited this house and the adjacent museum on our way to Maine one year. My husband resisted adding the Mark Twain House as a stop for two reasons – 1: we were towing a camper and would have to navigate through downtown “Hat-fud” <– Dan break’s into his Maine accent as soon as we cross the New York state line – and 2: because he doesn’t much like Mark Twain. He’ll protest this, but if it was J.P. Donleavy’s House or Ernest Hemingway’s House or James Lee Burke’s House he’d have dragged a tractor trailer into Hartford.
We both loved the visit – even more than we thought we would. Visiting the Mark Twain House is like entering the context of a story – the story of a man who came from nothing, found his true love, honed his craft, became a legend, lived a dream, changed the world, suffered failures, lost his loves, and died empty. Entering his house makes you an image in that landscape, and being that engaged is thrilling. The rooms, especially the Library and the Billiard Room are charged with the author’s presence.
I first became interested in the Mark Twain House when I was looking for quotes about houses to put on my Christmas card. The cover of my homemade card featured our own Victorian home in the snow. I wanted a catchy quote that said “this is our home sweet home.” The quote I used was written by Mark Twain about this house in Hartford.
To us, our house was not insentient matter — it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome — and we could not enter it unmoved.
In the same letter, Twain wrote that he never felt so at home as he felt in this house.
Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain’s actual name. He married Livy Langdon who’s father was both wealthy and influential. Hartford was the hub of the publishing industry and in order to be connected to that world, one needed to be in close proximity to the publishers and agents. The couple built their dream home there (mostly with Livy’s money) and spared no expense. The cost of this Victorian Gothic Revival house after the renovations and furnishing, wasabout $92,000 in the late nineteenth century. That would be close to $2 million by today’s standard.
When the Clemens moved into the house in 1875 they had one child, Susy and another soon to be born (Clara). Jean was born a few years later. They ended raising all three daughters during their seventeen year stay in the house (a son, Langdon died in infancy). It was in this house that Samuel Clemens wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper and A Connecticut Yankee.
MARK TWAIN’S BILLIARD ROOM – STUDY
On the third floor of the mansion is Samuel Clemens’ study or man cave. Tucked into the very top of the house is a stunning area where the author entertained, played billiards, smoked cigars like fiend and … wrote. The study has been decorated to look much like it did when Clemens was using it. There are shelves for books, chairs for guest to sit in, the billiard table and three balconies that overlook the Hartford landscape. In Clemens’ day one of the balconies faced a lake popular for ice skating in the winter months. The glass over the doors isn’t glass at all. It’s sheer marble which is amazingly transparent.
An interesting feature in the study is the small writing desk in the corner where Samuel Clemens penned his greatest works. The amount of square footage he gave to the place where he practiced his craft is dwarfed by the space given to relaxation and enjoying the company of others. It reminds me of what Stephen King wrote about how he arranged his own writing space after his accident which was a turning point in his life. King wrote:
Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.
It’s an interesting coincidence that Stephen King also lives in a red, historic Victorian home.
I can remember reading in Mark Twain’s Letters that he would sit in his Library with his daughters gathered around him, and he’d make up stories based on objects they’d gather from around the room. A small picture of a kitten that sat on the Library mantle was ALWAYS one of the objects and thus had to be incorporated as a key character in the made-up story. That family space comes alive in his letters. He mentions the mantle, the windows, the objects. To walk into the library and see the mantle – a floor to ceiling, ornately carved mahogany structure purchased from a castle in Scotland – adorned with the kitten picture and various objects juxtaposed with a humble arrangement of simple chairs in a bay window was to see Samuel Clemens as he lived.
THE MASTER BEDROOM
The Clemens’ bedroom is dominated by a heavy wooden bed with a high headboard decorated with ornate angels. Livy purchased the bed in Venice and paid a small fortune for it, only to find out later that she’d been swindled. But the couple loved their bed and Samuel Clemens kept it all of his life. He was know to sleep in it backwards – with his head supported by pillows at the foot of the bed. When asked why he explained that he paid enough for those angels on the headboard so he might as well look at them. He died in the bed at age 88.
Clemens made a fortune with his writing and eventually became a publisher. A few bad business decisions caused him to lose the fortune and nearly put him into bankruptcy. The family could no longer afford the cost of living in their beautiful home. They were forced to live in Europe where Sam Clemens tried to rebuild his wealth with the hope of bringing his family back to their home. The Mark Twain House sat empty in their absence. The blow of losing their fortune, followed by leaving their home was difficult for the family and Samuel Clemence worked diligently giving to build the finances back up by giving lectures all over Europe. But in 1896, Susy died unexpectedly of meningitis. She was 24 years old. Grief consumed Sam. He entered a depression that lasted the rest of his life. He later wrote a gut-wrenching reflection in a letter to a friend articulating how it felt to lose Susy.
I did know that Susy was a part of us; I did not know that could go away; I did not know that she could go away, and take our lives with her, yet leave our dull bodies behind. And I did not know what she was. To me she was but treasure in the bank; the amount known, the to look at it daily, handle it, weigh it, count it, realize it, not necessary; and now that I would do it, it is too late; they tell me it is not there, has vanished away in the night, the bank is broken, my fortune is gone, I am a pauper.
Livy’s health deteriorated and she died abroad. The beautiful house in Hartford was sold and its contents auctioned. The Clemens’ returned to the States and Sam depended on his daughters for his care. In October of 1909 Clara got married. On Christmas Eve that same year, Jean drowned in the bathtub after having an epileptic seizure. The following April, Samuel Clemens died at 88. And four months after his death, Clara’s first and only child – Nina – was born. Nina led a hard life and died childless two years after her mother.
So the Samuel Clemens story in this world ended.
But the non-profit group that established the Mark Twain House and Museum was able to purchase the Hartford CT house, buy back many of the original Clemens family furnishings and create a legacy that allows the world to experience the presence of Mark Twain in the space that he loved so much.
THE MUSEUM – STORE – PARKING – HOURS
The Museum has a theater which plays the Ken Burns documentary on Mark Twain. It’s definitely worth watching, especially prior to touring the home. The Museum also has various memorabilia from Samuel Clemens life including the printing machine he purchased that sent him into bankruptcy. There is also a huge shop complete with everything “Mark Twain” and gifts ranging from chatchkes for kids to fine decor for the home.
Hours: Mon-Sat 9:30 A.M. – 5:30 P.M. Sun – Noon-5:30 P.M. Closed: Tuesdays, Jan-Mar.
Admission: Adults $16, Children (6-16) $10, Seniors (65+) $14
Servant’s Wing Tour $6 adults, $4 Children
Parking was a breeze. It was no trouble getting off the highway and into the parking lot, even towing a camper. The lot is wide with plenty of parking and FREE.
The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue
Hartford, CT 06105
SO WHAT WERE THE OTHER 10 BEST HISTORICAL HOUSES?
National Geographic rated 10 historical houses in it’s book The 10 Best of Everything. Dan and I have been to four of the ten, and I’ve written about Mount Vernon, which ranked #1 and about Thoor Ballylee, the house / castle of William Butler Yeats in the West of Ireland, which ranked #10. Here’s the list.