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The Day Mark Twain Wore Black

He thought the world of Tom,
but hated Lillian and Portsmouth

Mark Twain The tawny-haired young man in the sealskin coat and cap was stinking drunk. He stumbled and slurred and Lillian Aldrich wasn't about to have some scruffy rum-dum off the Boston streets stay for dinner, even if her husband was a famous writer and editor. So she booted the boozer out.

"How could you have brought a man like that to your home?" she screamed at her husband.

"Why dear, did you not know who he was?" responded Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and told her. There was silence, according to Mrs. Aldrich's own account, and then she screamed the name repeatedly like a riverboat pilot measuring the depth of the Mississippi.

"Mark Twain!" she sobbed hysterically. "Mark Twain!"

As members of the Boston and New York literati, the Aldriches had entertained them all -- from Harriet Beecher Stowe (whom Lillian also could not stand), to favorites like actor Edwin Booth, author Bret Harte, painter James McNeil Whistler, even poet Longfellow. Despite being kicked out of the Aldrich house, Samuel Longhorn Clemens, aka Mark Twain and Aldrich became fast friends. Twain described his friend as endlessly witty. "When he speaks," Twain once remarked, "the diamonds flash... He was always brilliant, he will always be brilliant, he will be brilliant in hell -- you will see."

Twain often noted that Thomas Bailey Aldrich's most famous book "Story of a Bad Boy (1869) helped inspire him to his own great account of a boy named Tom Sawyer. Aldrich's book tells the story of his own mischievous childhood in Portsmouth. After his death in 1907, Mrs. Aldrich spearheaded a plan to turn her husband's boyhood house on Court Street into the Aldrich Memorial. Today it is part of Strawbery Banke Museum. Among those who spoke at the dedication, held at the Portsmouth Music Hall in July 1908, was Mark Twain himself.

A thousand people turned out on a hot day for the star-studded event, thick with eulogies from writers and politicians whose names are unfamiliar today. Then Mayor Hackett introduced the one man who needed no introduction. At 73, still sharp and sarcastic, Twain who had been toasted by kings and presidents, was internationally known for his shock-white mane of hair, his white hat and white suit. But today, hot as it was, Twain was dressed in a dark coat and hat. He had been told by his family, he said, to wear black and act respectful.

"They seemed to think this was a funeral I was coming to, when in point of fact it is a resurrection and an occasion of joy," Twain told those gathered. "Aldrich's life was cheerful and happy. I knew him 40 years. He was one of the brightest men it has ever been my pleasure to know."

In an anecdote that is pure Twain, he told his version of their first meeting.

"He looked pained," Twain said borrowing a joke from Aldrich's own writing, "looked as if somebody had died -- and it wasn't the right person."

Aldrich responded that he was sad for Mr. Twain, who had once been the most popular author in the country, but now his popularity was all gone. Surprised, Twain asked how that was possible, and Aldrich led him to a local bookstore. Aldrich asked the bookseller if he had any books by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and the bookseller replied "no." Then Aldrich asked if he had any volumes by a Mr. Mark Twain. The bookseller said the store was full of them.

"You see," Aldrich said, turning sadly to Mark Twain, "your popularity is all gone. I'm popular now. He's sold out ALL of my books!"

Twain loved sharp wit, his own in particular, but Aldrich's too, especially when it was used to slash at pompous conventions, Victorian rigidity or political deceit. One of the sharpest public tongues in America, Twain bowed to Aldrich's hidden dark side.

Twain later wrote: "When it came to making fun of a folly, a silliness, a windy pretense, a wild absurdity, Aldrich the brilliant, Aldrich the sarcastic, Aldrich the ironical, Aldrich the merciless, was a master."

Aldrich, above all, he wrote later, would have hated the pretensions of his own memorial ceremony. Twain certainly did, sweating in the stifling opera house in his black suit waiting for the "riff-raff" ahead of him to drone on. Later he toured the Aldrich Memorial, a shrine to a not-very-famous writer that Twain thought would appeal to one in ten thousand readers. It was a shrine, more correctly, Twain thought, to Aldirch's impossible wife Lillian who rode smiling in a carriage between the top-hatted state Governor Curtis Guild and NH Adjutant General Cilley, a man aptly named and festooned in epaulets, ropes and clusters.

Aldrich House We know some of what was going on in Twain's mind because he told us, in notes left behind -- to be suppressed at the author's request for 75 years from the date of the Aldrich ceremony. Twain's eager biographers could not wait that long, however, and the first of what would be many volumes of Twain biographies appeared in 1922, just a dozen years after his death. The book was called "Mark Twain in Eruption," and it must have seemed that to Lillian Aldrich, whose own chatty book about her husband's literary circle, "Crowding Memories", had arrived on the shelves in 1920.

In his private writing Twain described Mrs. Aldrich as: "A strange and vanity-devoured, detestable woman! I do not believe I could ever learn to like her except on a raft at sea with no other provisions in sight."

Mr. Clemens, it seems, had also not forgotten their first encounter. According to Lillian Aldich's memoirs, the Aldrich's and Twains had a number of joyous encounters -- in Boston, in New York and while travelling in Europe. The more Twain's fame grew, the more she seemed to appreciate him, although not his "moody" wife. Twain recalled things differently.

"I conceived an aversion for her the first time I ever saw her," Twain wrote in his secret journal, "which was thirty-nine years ago, and that aversion has remained with me ever since. She is one of those people who are effusively affectionate, and whose demonstrations disorder your stomach. You never believe in them; you always regard them as fictions, artificialities, with a selfish motive back of them. Aldrich was delightful company, but we never saw a great deal of him because we couldn't have him by himself."

Twain didn't harbor much more love for his first vision of Portsmouth either. He hated the train ride on the smoke-belching Boston and Maine railroad where passengers were offered water from a battered tin cup in a bucket. The railroad cars, he suspected, were left over from the Civil War era. Instead of the venerable "Old Town by the Sea" that Aldrich had written of so lovingly, Twain saw a run-down sweltering whistle-stop on his own personal tour of the world.

"A memorial museum of George Washington relics could not excite any considerable interest if it were located in that decayed town and the devotee had to get to it over the Boston and Maine," Twain grumbled into his diary after his 1908 visit.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich Apologists may dismiss Twain's nasty remarks to crankiness and an often unhappy old age, but his slashing wit always revealed a bone of truth. In 1908, two years before his own demise, Twain was certainly sour, still suffering from the loss of his wife and a daughter. He had squandered his fortune on a failed business investment and preferred to spend his time in bed, reading and writing. Twain's surviving daughter Clara Clemens drolly told a New York Times reporter that her celebrated father dressed all in white because it reminded him of being in bed and that his hair was white because it had changed to match the color of his pillow.

Although Twain had little good to say about Aldrich the writer, it was his enduring admiration for Aldrich the man that required he leave his comfortable Connecticut bed and make the final pilgrimage, enduring outdated trains, heat and his nemesis Lillian.

On second thought, Twain wrote in his journal, Aldrich might actually have enjoyed this stiff, pandering memorial ceremony because, above all, Aldrich was vain. He liked anything about himself. He might almost have thought, Twain wrote, that the sun rose for the sole purpose of shedding light on his writing, a belief his wife Lillian seemed to share. Bundled together, man and wife, Twain concluded, Mr. And Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich came perilously close to being as vain as Mark Twain himself. To say any more on that topic, Twain concluded, might be considered "extravagant".

By J. Dennis Robinson

SOURCES: Crowing Memories by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich (1920), Mark Twain in Eruption (1922) and articles from 1908 Portsmouth newspapers. Photos of Twain and Aldrich from Crowding Memories.

For MORE on Twain see ABOUT.com
For more on Thomas Bailey Aldrich click here

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Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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