Ragtime on Tap
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
On the final night of 1906 the fog was so heavy in Manhattan that even the powerful new searchlight shining over Times Square could barely penetrate it. Rain had been falling all day, and the sidewalks were full of frustrated revelers huddled under umbrellas. But as midnight approached, the air cleared a little, the moon came out, and the searchlight broke through the clouds, projecting a glowing "1907" against the black sky. In the distance, factory whistles blared as thousands of partygoers broke into cheers and the restaurants on Broadway dimmed their lights. Crowds poured into Times Square throwing confetti, shaking cowbells, and blowing toy horns.
A few blocks away—inside the cavernous hall of the New York Electric Music Company—the street celebrations were drowned out by the sound of "Auld Lang Syne" being played on an enormous new device called a Telharmonium. Weighing two hundred tons, and requiring more than two thousand electrical switches to amplify its notes, the organlike instrument was undergoing the first major test of its capability to transmit music through telephone lines to listening stations around town. Though it was a crude effort to do what radio broadcasts would later do much better, the invention was greeted as a great technological breakthrough, and there was talk that it would soon be available to anyone with ordinary telephone service. For its New Year's Eve demonstration, lines were connected to large megaphones at several cafés and hotels. The only private residence to receive the transmission was Mark Twain's tall corner house at 21 Fifth Avenue—near Washington Square—where twenty guests were invited to listen to the Telharmonium's music fill his parlor a few minutes before the stroke of twelve.
Just before the special equipment began to reverberate with sound, Twain gathered his audience around him, paused dramatically, and then commanded, "Listen." As if by magic, the music began to pour from the megaphone. The author's face lit up, and he stepped aside to allow his guests to appreciate this modern wonder. In a letter written the next day, he proudly described the moment: "At 11:55 there was a prepared surprise; lovely music—played on a silent piano of 300 keys at the corner of Broadway a mile and a half away, and sent over the telephone wire to our parlor—the first time this marvelous invention ever uttered its voice in a private house."
It seemed a dream come true to a man who counted among his most cherished possessions a massive player organ encased in an eight-foot-high mahogany frame. He was so fond of his "Aeolian Orchestrelle" that he used it almost every night—playing a simple melody on the keyboard himself or listening to something from his collection of sixty music rolls. His favorites were Beethoven sonatas and Chopin nocturnes, but he also liked popular songs and Scottish airs. Now he could look forward to having the wizards of the New York Electric Music Company supply him with tunes of all kinds on demand, making available—in the words of the Telharmonium's supporters—"opera, symphony and ragtime on tap."2
He had first heard of the Telharmonium only two weeks earlier when he came across a newspaper article about it. He was so thrilled by the report that he had gone straight to the company's headquarters at Thirty-ninth and Broadway—across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House—to see the device for himself.
A reporter had tagged along and watched as Twain sat near the keyboard dais of the massive instrument, swinging his legs while he listened contentedly to a private demonstration. The quality of the sound pleased him, but what really fascinated him was the sheer mechanical complexity of the device, whose workings seemed almost beyond comprehension. Eagerly, he agreed on the spot to take out the first individual subscription to the new service. Later, he proudly declared that this put him once again at the forefront of modern technological progress, noting that he had been among the first to use a fountain pen, a typewriter, and a home telephone.
The one regret he expressed was that the device had not been invented sooner. "The trouble about these beautiful, novel things," he remarked, "is that they interfere so with one's arrangements. Every time I see or hear a new wonder like this I have to postpone my death right off. I couldn't possibly leave the world until I have heard this again and again."3
For his New Year's Eve celebration, he allowed half a dozen reporters into his home to observe the festivities. In the front hall they gathered with notebooks in hand and listened politely as he explained the wonders of his new musical device. But everyone seemed to understand that the main attraction of the evening wasn't the workings of the new machine but the antics of the old man in white. He didn't disappoint the men of the press. Striking a pose, he declared, "This is the famous suit I wore when I went to interview the copyright committee of Congress in Washington. Yes, I insist that white is the best color for men's clothes. If men were not so near insane they would appreciate the fact."
One reporter teased him about his fame, suggesting that he run for governor. He pretended to take the idea seriously. "I am the real man," he shot back. "I am sure I would make a great Governor." While he was talking, a small wagon was wheeled into the parlor behind his back. It was carrying "a bewhiskered old gentleman" who was supposed to represent 1906. "There he comes butting in," Twain joked, looking behind him. "He doesn't know when to quit."4
The party had a circuslike atmosphere, with the host presiding over various games and comic skits throughout the evening. Twain wanted his guests to be in high spirits when they were treated to the first magical notes from the Telharmonium. At one point he wandered off for a short time, and then suddenly reappeared at the top of the stairs with a young man whose arm was tied to his by a pink ribbon. In identical white suits, they descended the stairs slowly, each trying to match the steps of the other but not quite succeeding. As they entered the parlor, Twain announced that they were Siamese twins and were going to enlighten the guests by presenting a lecture on the evils of strong drink. While the older "brother" explained the dangers of liquor, the younger stood silently and took furtive drinks from a flask of rum.
As some of the guests may have known, P. T. Barnum's famous conjoined twins—Chang and Eng—used to have violent arguments with each other over religion and alcohol. So Mark and his twin pretended that the drinking habits of one affected the sobriety of the other. The more Mark denounced rum, the more intoxicated he became, staggering and hiccupping and slurring his words as his other half finished off the contents of the flask.
Twain was in rare form, playing his part effortlessly and behaving like a much younger man. "We are so much to each other, my brother and I," he explained, as he pretended to succumb slowly to the effects of alcohol, "that what nourishes him and what he drinks—ahem!—nourishes me. . . . It has often been a source of considerable annoyance to me, when going about the country lecturing on temperance, to find myself at the head of a procession . . . so drunk I couldn't see."
His guests laughed so hard that he was forced to end his mock lecture because he couldn't be heard above the noise. In a front-page story the next day, the New York Times began its report of the party by going along with Twain's joke, declaring, "The last thing that Mark Twain did in 1906 was to get drunk and deliver a lecture on temperance. . . . [He] took all the glory for the lecture to himself while he blamed his Siamese brother for the jag. Those who have never heard that Mr. Clemens has a Siamese brother, must be told that he only had such a relative for one night."5
This "partially impromptu performance" was inspired by an idea that had been at the back of Twain's mind for years. In the 1890s he had written "Those Extraordinary Twins," which features conjoined brothers who are at odds over everything—one is a hard-drinking Democrat, the other a Whig champion of the Teetotalers' League. But his first treatment of such a farcical pairing goes all the way back to a short piece called "Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins," which was written in the late 1860s, when Chang and Eng were at the height of their fame.
Pretending to be an intimate friend of the famous pair, Twain claimed to know all their secrets. It was true that one brother was a temperance man and the other was not, but Twain added the outrageous charge that the two had been bitter enemies in the Civil War. "During the War they were strong partisans," he wrote, "and both fought gallantly all through the great struggle—Eng on the Union side and Chang on the Confederate. They took each other prisoners at Seven Oaks."6
This was the sort of comedy that played particularly well in the boom-and-bust culture of the frontier, and though Twain was now a New York gentleman with a house on Fifth Avenue, nothing made him happier than indulging in some of the old inspired nonsense that had fueled his rise as a Western humorist. By deciding to dress the "twins" at his party in white, and by inventing dialogue for the skit as he went along, he seemed eager to prove that he could still breathe fresh life into an old concept.
His partner in the skit was a young friend named Witter Bynner— a wealthy, Harvard-educated poet and editor. Blessed with neither acting ability nor a great sense of humor, Bynner nevertheless made a good sidekick. All that he needed to do was drink and look serious, for the funniest thing about him was the sharp contrast his age and size made to his twin's. According to one observer, Mark looked much shorter and older beside his "brother," who was "very tall, very slight and had black hair."
Bynner was delighted to help out and never forgot his starring moment opposite the great author. He had nothing but good memories of Twain, who acted as his mentor for a time, and who enjoyed exposing the young man's tender ears to coarse language that included—the poet fondly recalled—some moments of "sublime profanity."7
By the time Twain stepped forward to begin the Telharmonium's brief midnight demonstration, his guests were suitably primed to greet the new marvel with gasps of joy and admiration. One of the amazed reporters thought the sound from the device had "all the richness of a great orchestra." Many of the guests lingered long after the music ended, continuing to celebrate the occasion, but the newspapermen had to race off to file their stories for the morning papers. Twain was good copy, and everyone agreed that the author had given 1906 "a merry funeral." The proud host declared that he was pleased with the whole affair.*
"Next to the day I was put in trousers," he said with no small degree of hyperbole, "this is the happiest occasion of my life."8
Like his debut in white at the Library of Congress, Twain's party was a sign of his determination not only to liven up his old age, but to give his fame a good boost. One reason he wanted the publicity was to draw attention to his most important project of this period—his autobiography. Since September, the North American Review had been running excerpts from the work. Though much of his ever-expanding manuscript was not meant to be seen by his contemporaries, he had been allowing selected parts to appear in print under a lucrative agreement with the magazine's editor and owner—Colonel George Harvey, who was also president of Harper's. The work was being featured in twenty-five installments as "Chapters from My Autobiography," and was scheduled to continue appearing until the end of the year. The deal called for Twain to be paid $30,000. For that much money, white suits and funny parties were easy ways for the author to advertise himself and his autobiography-in-progress.
It was also a great pleasure for him to pretend that he could be an old reprobate and stay up late and get drunk if he wanted to. During the long years of his marriage to the very proper Olivia Langdon, he wouldn't have dared to throw a big New Year's Eve party in which he played an alcoholic. She would have been scandalized by the subheading in the New York Times, "Twin Gets Drunk and the Joy of It Penetrates to Twain While
* Unfortunately, the Telharmonium's transmissions proved so powerful that they affected ordinary telephone calls, interrupting conversations with blasts of music or deafening static. There were even reports that the navy's communications with its ships at sea were disrupted by interference from the device. Complaints poured in, the service was cut back, and subscriptions were canceled. By the end of the year, the Broadway headquarters was closed, and the gargantuan instrument was dismantled, its parts sold for scrap.
Lecturing on Temperance." But, much as he adored his wife's memory, he clearly relished the freedom to take new liberties with his public image. He was entering into his second bachelorhood, and was ready to return to some of the mischievous ways of his youth.
He was quick to share his new look and his new attitude with the rest of New York. For the next three months he brightened the winter by making frequent appearances in white at matinees, fund-raising events, and testimonial luncheons. He even wore his famous suit when he visited Police Headquarters one day to pay a social call on an old admirer, Commissioner Theodore Bingham. The press dutifully recorded such comings and goings, and Twain usually paused long enough to exchange a few pleasantries with the reporters and have his picture taken.
Reminiscing that winter about a public appearance he had made long ago in Boston, he explained to one journalist the first rule of entertaining an audience at a lecture or reading. Keep it short, he advised. According to his calculations, after twelve minutes every audience knows that the speaker "ought to be gagged." After fifteen minutes "they know that he ought to be shot."9
But nobody was in any danger of being bored by Twain. He was constantly in demand, and was overwhelmed with invitations. He particularly enjoyed being seen in the company of some of the rising young stars in the entertainment world. The Broadway actresses Ethel Barrymore and Billie Burke—both of whom were then in their twenties—were two of his favorites. He was especially close to Burke, whose warm manner and trilling voice he adored. (She would later use both to great advantage as the Good Witch in the 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz). He called her "Billie Burke, the young, the gifted, the beautiful, the charming," and liked to rave about the beauty of her red hair.
"It was always exciting and enjoyable to see him," she was to recall. "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.'?"10
He had met young Ethel Barrymore the previous summer at a garden party, where he watched in amazement as she frolicked in a fountain for the amusement of the guests. Whenever he saw her afterward, he liked to address her fondly as "the water sprite!" ("He was always very nice to me," she would later say.) One day in March he and Ethel joined forces to raise money for women college students at a performance of one-act plays. He served as master of ceremonies, and she played a boy of fifteen in a dramatic piece called Carrots.11
He sometimes sat next to her at dinner parties given by their mutual friend, Robert J. Collier, the young publisher of Collier's Weekly. Naturally, Twain was always the center of attention at these gatherings, and he loved every minute of them, especially when the ladies treated him to a few innocent gestures of affection. He once described an evening at Collier's large home in Gramercy Park as "a kissing bee."12
After basking in the limelight at one of his friend's Sunday night parties, he said he was reminded of a favorite saying by Mary Ann Cord, the former slave who used to cook for his family at their summer cottage in Livy's hometown of Elmira, New York. "Auntie Cord"—whose "vigorous eloquence" had often enchanted him—coined a phrase for social luminaries: "de queen o' de magazines." He thought her phrase fit him perfectly because his "full evening dress of white broadcloth" seemed to charm both men and women. "I dined with a dozen other guests," he boasted, "and was 'de queen o' de magazines.'?"13From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden. Copyright © 2010 by Michael Shelden. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.