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Twain's house: grandeur with a twinkle

Mention Mark Twain and most people think of the raucous, slang-slinging Southern eccentric, one who grew up in tiny Hannibal, Mo., on the banks of the Mississippi, passing his days rafting, fishing, and robbing orchards. Few know him as the established New England man of letters and commerce who, from respectable Hartford, Conn., would reach back into his summery Hannibal days and pull out some of America's most authentic literature, the likes of ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' and ``Adventures of Tom Sawyer.''

In fact, Samuel Clemens, who used the pen name Mark Twain, spent only about one-fourth of his 75 years in the South, and the rest in such places as New York, Europe, and New England.

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That the former Mississippi riverboat pilot had chosen Hartford surprised me. But then, in the gilded age of the 1870s, Hartford was a thriving publishing mecca with subscription houses, printers, binders, and paper mills. It was also a city of well-to-dos having what Twain characterized as ``that odor of sanctity that comes with cash.''

His house, built in 1874, is three floors of Gothic grandeur, considerably more stately than I had envisioned. And, like the man, the house is dignified but whimsical. It is covered in red and black brick and a dark red wood trim. The roof is crowded with a series of peaked roofs and towers looking like tiny A-frame sub-roofs, and there is a host of chimneys. An elaborate porte-cochere, a huge veranda, and five balconies create a sense of Victorian splendor with something slightly askew.

The home's 19 rooms, 18 fireplaces, and 5 bathrooms confirmed Twain's vault into upper middle-class life. And if his dearly loved wife, Olivia Langdon, could say of him: ``Mr. Clemens seems to glory in his sense of possession,'' it may have been because, for Twain, it had been a long climb to the top.

Justin Kaplan, in his biography ``Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain,'' calls the house ``the conspicuous symbol'' of Mark Twain's success and ``a reminder that it was possible to be born in a two-room clapboard house in Florida, Mo., a village of 100 inhabitants, and to become world-famous, marry a rich and beautiful woman, and live a life of domestic bliss in a house that was the marvel of Hartford.''

Sometimes Twain's sense of possession ran in tandem with his sense of humor. Take his Venetian bed. Since Twain had paid $200 for it in Italy (by comparison, his maid was making $125 a year), he decided he wanted to enjoy the intricate Italian carving of the headboard during his every waking moment. So he had the pillows placed at the foot of the bed so he could face the wall and marvel at the headboard.

It was in his billiard room that Twain could retreat with ``the boys,'' his male literary cronies, after dinner on Friday nights and play pool, tell stories of the Mississippi riverboat days, and indulge his bad habits: drinking scotch, smoking cigars, and swearing. It was also the room where he would later do some of his most successful writing.

But if he had free rein in the billiard room, in the dining room it was a different matter. Across the long, dark wood dinner table Twain sat a short leash away from his wife. She had worked out an ingenious system of predetermined color codes through which she could modify his behavior. And so at dinner parties, for instance, when Livy mentioned blue, she was telling her husband to stop paying so much attention to the pretty woman on his right, and pay some attention to the woman on his left.

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Twain had a terrible weakness for inventions and gadgetry that would cost him fortunes, such as a ``steam pulley'' that, as he said, ``pulled $32,000 out of my pocket,'' and a $200,000 printing machine that never worked. But his was the first private telephone in Hartford, and he was one of the first to adopt the novelty of indoor plumbing.

This year No. 351 Farmington Avenue in Hartford is celebrating a triple anniversary -- the 100th birthday of ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,'' the 150th anniversary of Twain's birth on Nov. 30, 1835, and the 75th year since his death on April, 21, 1910. Normal annual attendance of 50,000 is up by about 20 percent, due in part to some special anniversary programs.

Still to come this year in September will be a series of eight lectures on Halley's Comet (Twain was born with the comet's arrival in 1835 and passed on, as he had predicted, when the comet returned in 1910). There will also be a Halley's Comet watching party later in December, a lecture on Huckleberry Finn sometime in November or December, and a birthday party for Twain celebrated on Dec. 3 at his home.

So if you're planning a New England fall foliage trip, you might want to make an afternoon stopover at Hartford to see where America's most famous and loved humorist lived.

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