Saturday, March 29, 2008

Twain down; 999 to go

On the way to the Hartford airport yesterday, I managed to get out to the Mark Twain house and take a tour. It is one hell of a fancy Gilded Age house, let me tell you. The outside is impressive enough, as you can see, with its painted brickwork, whimsical gables, and considerable balconies (as well as a gorgeous porch that bows in and out rather than just putting a six-foot rim on the house). Just about everyone on the tour with me gasped when they stepped inside, though. The restoration has been long, expensive, and entirely successful; the walls and ceilings are all hand-stenciled. In the entryway, it's done with a silver paint meant to look like mother-of-pearl inlay in the gaslight.

The rest of the house is equally ornate, with tons of heavily carved wooden furniture, tiled fireplaces, and the various Victorian knickknacks that a connoisseur might expect (stuffed birds, always charming). But there are definitely Twainian touches, including a billiards room with billiards sticks and balls, as well as cigars and pipes, stenciled on the ceiling. It was in the corner of that room that he wrote his most famous novels.

The living room was a very fancy, well-designed Victorian room, formerly with a view of a small river now buried underground, but the tour guide told us that the pieces on the mantel were part of a storytelling game Twain played with his daughters. He would have to tell a story using all the pieces, from a picture of a cat in a ruff to a painting of an unknown girl who they named Emmeline (like the dead Grangerford daughter and bad poetess in Huck Finn) . If he left anything out, he had to begin again.

At the far end of the living room was a small greenhouse, which you can see in this photo of the back of the house. I can only imagine how expensive such a feature was back then, but it added a lot of light to the otherwise typically dark house.

The museum, in a separate building, featured several memorabilia from Twain's life, including two printing presses that he used/bought, a couple of pipes, steamer trunks, spears from South Africa, etc. There was also an exhibit of Tiffany glass. Louis Comfort Tiffany's firm, Associated Artists, did the interior design of the house, and so the museum used to get a lot of gifts of glass; unfortunately, the glassware was made at a slightly later period, so they couldn't faithfully use any of it in the restoration. But it's all still gorgeous. I remember seeing a quote from Brad Pitt in a book about Tiffany, saying that he didn't care much for fancy cars, but if he could get a Tiffany window for $50,000, he'd snap it up.

We were informed at the end of the tour that the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (or something equally cheerful) included the Twain House. I have to go look at what the other 999 are now. I mean, I've been to a lot of authors' houses (so many that I decided to add a new label for this post and others to come), and most are fantastic; the Balzac and Dickens houses were highlights. I think the few that make your 1,000 depend on your reading taste. But I do strenuously recommend this to anyone in the Hartford area, especially if you have even a passing interest in Twain and his work. It's also right next door to the Stowe house, about which more another day.


maccabee said...

If you ever visited Jodi and me while we were living at 83rd street in Manhattan, you came within a block of an Edgar Allen Poe residence. In fact we probably would have passed it walking a block up Broadway. 998 to go! :)

P.S. Jodi says she might have taken you to Edgar's Cafe on that block.

Heidi said...

I went to the Poe house in the Bronx, but didn't know about the 83rd one. Hm, yet more to do in NYC.

Anonymous said...

Dear Heidi:

Thank you for visiting our museum and for the wonderful comments about your expereince. I hope you'll return to see us again soon.


Jeffrey Nichols
Executive Director
The Mark Twain House & Museum