Mark Twain’s last years remain brooding, confusing, misanthropic.
But one thing seems clear: Twain played billiards. Lots and lots of billiards.
In 1906, a wealthy friend, knowing that Twain had been
without a billiards table for years, decided to buy him one for Christmas.
Twain heard about the present and demanded it early. So, together, they
selected a top-end table, and Twain installed it in his bedroom, which, in the
four-story townhouse he was renting at 21 Fifth Avenue, he considered the best
spot for playing. Twain took to sleeping in the study. The table’s green cloth
set off the (now former) bedroom’s walls, which were painted, in Albert Paine’s
words, "a deep, unreflecting red"—perfect for Christmas in November.
Most readers locate Twain in the world of Tom Sawyer and
Huckleberry Finn, but he lived all over. In fact, when Twain first left
Hannibal, Mo., in 1853, he ended up at a Manhattan boardinghouse. In a letter
home, he admitted that "I have taken a liking to the abominable
place," and Twain would frequently return to New York, making friends (Helen Keller knew him by touch) and, as he
grew older, losing them (he spent five hours watching Ulysses Grant’s funeral
procession pass by Union Square). "Make
your mark in New York," Twain affirmed, "and you are a made
man." He would know: his breakthrough story, "The Celebrated Jumping
Frog of Calaveras County," was first published in a New York newspaper.
Twain’s longest layover came when,
as the white suit-wearing don of American letters, he lived in the Fifth Avenue
house from 1904 to 1908. Twain gave lectures, attended luncheons, ambled around
Greenwich Village, received so many visitors he had to hire a secretary
to turn them away.
One visitor Twain did see was Paine. At their first meeting,
Paine found the author in his enormous oak bed, propped up by pillows and
wrapped in a Persian dressing gown, his feet pointed toward the headboard,
"the atmosphere semi-opaque with cigar smoke." Paine, clearly
nervous, managed to ask if he might write a biography of Twain. "Turning
those piercing agate-blue eyes directly upon me," Paine remembered,
"he said: ‘When would you like to begin?’"
That was a Saturday. By Tuesday, Paine was back at 21 Fifth Avenue and
interviewing Twain, the first of 242 such sessions. Twain, with a wife and
three daughters dead, quickly welcomed Paine into his inner circle, giving him
a key to the house and access to his personal papers. Paine eventually moved
in, though it’s not clear whether this was to facilitate the biography or the billiards.
After each morning’s interview, the two men started playing and didn’t stop
until past midnight. Clara, Twain’s only surviving daughter, put a sign in the
room: NO BILLIARDS AFTER 10 P.M.
In 1908, Twain left New York for the Connecticut countryside.
He made sure his new house included a red billiards room, too, and it was there
that Mark Twain died, 100 years ago this week.
New Yorkers referred to 21 Fifth Avenue as the Mark Twain
House even while he lived there, but it didn’t become official until 1925. That
year, at the corner of Fifth and Ninth, the Greenwich
Village Historical Society unveiled a bronze plaque commemorating Twain
and Washington Irving. Irving—whose first book, A History of New York,
is an unacknowledged classic in the city’s literary canon—had shared a close
friendship with James Renwick. When Renwick built the house in 1840, he made
sure his son, the architect behind the Grace Church and St. Patrick’s
Cathedral, among others, designed it with a room for Irving, and Irving made
use of it until his death in 1859.
New Yorkers referred to 21 Fifth Avenue as the Mark Twain
1925 was also the year that the Mark Twain House was first
parceled into apartments, a sign of the pressures to come. No one was surprised
when a major construction firm finalized a deal to demolish the block
encompassing the old Brevoort Hotel, the Twain House, and nine other townhouses
and to replace them with, in the New York Times‘ description, "a
tall ultramodern apartment building."
What did surprise was the frenetic reaction to the Times‘
January 15, 1954 story on the efforts to save the Twain House. Stanley
Josephson, a 24-year-old law student at NYU, emerged as a spokesman for the
resistance. Along with the Greenwich Village Chamber
of Commerce, where he was also executive secretary, Josephson developed
a plan to move the House off Fifth Avenue and turn it into a Greenwich Village
Historical Museum. The Associated Press did a short item on Josephson and the
Twain House, and it was reprinted around the world. A few days later, Moscow
Radio chose to highlight only the House’s impending destruction—and to suggest
that it was all part of a "sinister plot" to erase Twain from American
history. (Twain’s political books, it’s worth noting, found a huge audience in
Cold War Russia.)
The Times‘ continuing coverage of the battle over the
Twain House—six more stories from January to April 1954—marks an important
moment in the history of real estate porn. Josephson needed $70,000 to save the
House, and he had only two weeks to get it—until, as the Times breathlessly
reported, the House’s lone remaining tenant sued to extend his lease to March
1. Casty Palmieri, a car salesman and occupant of the second floor, also
donated $100 to Josephson’s group. Palmieri even offered another $500,
providing the building could be saved—and that he could keep his apartment.
Despite the initial optimism of Josephson and the others,
though, the relief efforts stalled by mid February. They’d drummed up only a
few hundred dollars—and, even worse, the only New York donations, outside of
Palmieri’s, had come from three women, all of whom worked at Time magazine,
all of whom had given one dollar each. The rest of the House’s block had
already been razed. Someone had even stolen the Twain-Irving plaque.
On Feb. 19, however, hope revived via telegram. Ronald
Neame, a British film director who’d just adapted one of Twain’s short stories
into The Million Pound Note, sent word from London that he had
instructed his New York office to donate $100 to the Twain House and that he
would "solicit British authors to join the cause."
No one heard anything else from Neame until Feb. 28—the
night before Palmieri had to move out—when a second telegram arrived. Neame, it
seemed, was now on board the RMS Queen Elizabeth and would arrive in New York
on March 2. Neame also offered to give the Twain House the first $10,000 in
sales from The Million Pound Note, and Josephson used the telegram to
convince the salvage company to hold off for another 48 hours. He then headed
to the docks to wait for the Queen Elizabeth, his faith renewed by Neame’s
latest promise: "The necessary money will be raised in the nick of time,
as it would be in a Twain story."
Ronald Neame had always enjoyed impeccable timing. His very
first job was as an assistant cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail
(1928), which was itself the first talking picture made in England. The
Poseidon Adventure (1972), Neame’s biggest commercial success in more than
fifty years in film, inaugurated the disaster movie genre.
Neame, in short, lived a life as
incredible as you might expect: his memoir, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth,
which he wrote in 2003 for the Scarecrow Press’s Filmmakers series, includes
chapter titles like "Alec Guinness" and "Judy Garland." But
Neame’s book never mentions the Mark Twain House. So, with the help of
his publisher, I tracked down Neame, who now lives in Beverly Hills and happens
to be celebrating his 99th birthday this week.
Neame answered the phone on the third ring and spoke in a
great, gravely accent. He seemed more than a little surprised that someone was
asking about The Million Pound Note, which, even in his own estimate, was
"a reasonably good picture at the time, though not exceptional." Not
even Gregory Peck, who possessed enough star power to earn $350,000 for his
leading role, could save the film from critics and audiences. (At least Pauline Kael liked it.)
I started by asking Neame if he
was a lifelong reader of Twain. "No, I wouldn’t say that," he
replied. "The Twain story was sent to me as a good idea for a
The myth of the Twain House and its British knight quickly
unraveled from there. It turns out that, in early 1954, MGM had asked Neame to
direct Spencer Tracy’s next film. (The working title: Digby’s Highland Fling.)
Neame scheduled a trip to Los Angeles for this reason, and only then did United
Artists decide to set up a press screening of The Million Pound Note in
Neame did travel on the Queen Elizabeth, where he enjoyed "huge tins of caviar" and a fast friendship with newlyweds Michael Wilding and Elizabeth Taylor. "When I was half way across the Atlantic," Neame told me, "I had a telegram from United Artists in New York saying they were helping to save a Mark Twain house, and would I cooperate with them in trying to save it?"
Neame agreed to help, then returned to Liz and the luxury
grub. "When I arrived in New York," Neame said, "we went
straight to the site of the house, but the whole thing was too late. They had
scaffolding and all the other equipment set up and were going to knock it down
the next day. There was nothing we could do."
Slightly bewildered, I decided to read Neame some of the
Times‘ obsessive coverage of him. What about that "nick of time"
quip? "That must have been given by United Artists. I was in the middle of
the Atlantic, and all I said—and I meant it—was that I’d cooperate on my
arrival." What about the earlier telegram sent while he was still in
London? "I don’t know anything about that." Well, did he at least get
his $100 back? "I never wired anyone any money. The studio must have done
After we’d managed to reconcile our respective versions of
history, Neame became more reflective. "It’s a shame. Where I live in
California, when a house is more than 20 years old, it shouldn’t be there any
more. Unfortunately, in this part of the world there’s no sense of
Neame sighed. "Where I come from, a 500-year-old house
is only just old."
The Twain House finally fell on April 9, 1954, at the barely
pubescent age of 114. Josephson and the Chamber had raised only $15,756—hardly
enough to stop the rise of an eighteen-story apartment building with air
conditioning, basement garage parking, and monthly rents of $152.50.
But the battle over the Twain House was far an isolated
incident. As early as 1929, a local bank had tried to lease the House, with
residents blocking it through a lawsuit. By the 1950s, Greenwich Village had devolved into a
three-way spat between developers, NYU, and cultural
atavists. Casualties included landmarks like the Brevoort Hotel, which had
hosted everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Annie Oakley, and the "House of
Genius," where Catherine Blanchard had been less of a landlord than a
patron to Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, John Dos Passos, and
many more. By the end of the decade, NYU had poured well over $20,000,000 into
developing Washington Square, and there were more than 20 apartment complexes
in the works.
None of this was lost on residents, who protested with
enough frequency that Jane Kramer, then a young reporter for The Village
Voice, filed them under "A Cause A Day Keeps the Ennui Away." And
yet the Mark Twain House, in large part because of the Mark Twain brand, was
always different. One measure of this was how the House’s destruction
reverberated beyond the city limits. An Oregon contractor politely requested
its 150 feet of iron fence; a group calling itself "Authentic
Americana" salvaged the wooden ceiling beams. Even within the city, NYU
nabbed the House’s front door for a planned Mark Twain Room in its library, and
the Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce saved a marble fireplace and an
ornate mirror for its proposed museum. (Neither project actually happened.)
The Twain House also became a call to action. A week after the House’s demise, the Greenwich Village Association organized a special town meeting, which the Association’s president promised would be "the opening gun in the campaign for adequate laws to safeguard the Village for the future." Those laws wouldn’t arrive for another fifteen years, but, already, the Mark Twain House had become the latest twist in the "Village isn’t what it used to be" plot.
On the (very) rare occasion that the Twain House gets
mentioned today, it’s in this capacity. But it seems clear that the most
high-profile attempts to save the House were as driven by late capitalism as
the attempts to destroy it. There’s no way to verify Neame’s story since, as he
puts it, "I’m the only one still alive." But there’s also no reason
to doubt it. Throughout our conversation, Neame remained incredibly lucid and
charming. The only parts of the story that confused him were the ones he was
hearing for the first time. Certainly, he seemed convinced on the issue of
motivations: "It brought a certain amount of publicity to the film. United
Artists must have known that it was too late, but saw it as a bit of publicity.
You know what film distributors are like."
The developers of that tall ultramodern apartment building
decided to name it The Brevoort, and it still stands at Fifth and Ninth, looking
terribly dated. Most of the surrounding blocks have been scrubbed of their
historical charm. At least the bronze plaque of Twain and Irving has returned,
though you have to look for it. Much easier to spot is a sign for The
Brevoort’s Fifth Avenue Service Entrance.
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. You can find more of his writing at www.craigfehrman.com