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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
"Henry A. Feldman" <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 13 Jan 1997 09:43:47 EST
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
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  This company may be amused by a small (and possibly rose-tinted) window
  on Mark Twain's late life, which I stumbled across in my reading.  The
  source is a memoir by Billie Burke, in 1907 a popular comedienne on the
  New York stage, later known to us all as Glinda the Good Witch in the
  1939 movie of The Wizard of Oz.

  I would appreciate hearing, from those with better knowledge than mine of
  Mark Twain's late New York years, whether her anecdotes seem reliable.

  --Henry Feldman

          When I saw Mark Twain, just three years before his death on the
      night that Halley's comet rose again, our greatest novelist was in
      the turmoil of spirit and mind which followed the death of his wife,
      the beloved "Livy," and the death of his favorite daughter. ...

          But with me, in 1907 and 1908 he was gay and amusing.  I did not
      understand his tragedy until years later.

          He loved the theater, often occupying a box with friends to see
      our play ["My Wife," starring John Drew], and he enjoyed coming
      backstage to visit Mr. Drew and me.  It was always exciting and
      enjoyable to see him.  He would shake that beautiful shock of snowy
      white hair and lean his wonderful head against mine to say, "Billie,
      we redheads have to stick together."

          I thought nothing of making a trip to New York from either Boston
      or Philadelphia after the show if he had invited me to one of his
      charming little Sunday night dinners.  He used to give these at that
      dear old house on lower Fifth Avenue, about Ninth Street, which had a
      quaint dining room of the period with sliding doors which pushed back
      into the walls after dinner; then one found oneself rustling with the
      ladies into the drawing room which looked out on the Avenue.  ...

          Both Frohmans, Dan and C.F. [theatrical producers], used to play
      billiards with Mark Twain at the Players and although Dr. Clemens had
      been a billiard player all his life and considered himself an expert
      he was not good enough to compete with these Broadway masters.  But
      they were kind.

          "He doesn't win enough, he's unhappy," Dan told C.F.  "Let's let
      him win every third game."  And they did just that, in spite of the
      fact that Mark Twain was meeting them every day in a court in a
      bitterly contested lawsuit.

  [The subject of the lawsuit is not specified, but it may be related to
  this earlier passage:]

          According to Dixon Wecter, who is now [1949] at the Huntington
      Library studying a vast collection of unpublished stories and letters
      by Mark Twain during this period, ... he spent hours composing the
      most scathing kind of complaints to theater managers and traction
      [streetcar] companies whose employees, he claimed, had not shown
      proper courtesy to his daughters.  He threatened to use all his
      influence to hound and destroy offending street car conductors and
      theater ushers.  He complained violently against bank presidents --
      but, having got the venom out of his system, he filed these letters
      and never mailed them.

      -- Billie Burke, "With a Feather on My Nose," with Cameron Shipp,
  Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949

  The illustrations include an autographed souvenir photo of Mark Twain
  seated in an armchair with a briar pipe, dated Dec., 1907.  The
  inscription reads, "To Billie Burke with the affectionate regards of her
  friend Mark Twain," followed by one of his stock witticisms:  "Truth is
  the most valuable thing we have -- let us economise it.  M.T."  Miss
  Burke recalls that he recited the line to her personally and then
  inscribed it on the photo.