MARK TWAIN AS SEEN BY HIS HOUSEMAID
He Swore, but "His Bark Was Worse Than His Bite," Says Katy Leary
Mark Twain lives again in the simple and unsophisticated words of an old Irishwoman. Katy Leary, for forty years nurse and maid in the Clemens family, has told the story of their comings and goings, of their laughter and tears. Simple, homely, lovable is the picture she paints, full of such intimate detail as only one who shared their daily life could supply.
These reminiscences were locked away in her memory until, a short time ago, Miss Mary Lawton persuaded her to reveal them. Katy Leary began to talk. Pencil in hand, Miss Lawton recorded while the old servant poured forth the inimitable words in which she related many a chapter as yet unknown to those outside the family circle. It was when Clara and Susie [sic] were little girls and Jean scarcely more than a baby - Katy herself was barely 17 - that she first joined the Clemens household. Her service did not end until after Mr. Clemens's death.
Miss Lawton, who had for many years known Mr. and Mrs. Clemens and their daughters, Clara in particular, had many a time listened to Katy while she spun her yarns, always ending up with a bit of homely philosophy. "From the beginning of my intimacy with the Clemens household Katy and her sayings were an everlasting joy to me," said Miss Lawton, who long had hoped that some day she might write the story of Mark Twain and his family as told by the Irish maid.
At last the time came when, after considerable persuasion, the old woman unfolded the tale in the sitting room of her home in Elmira, where more than sixty years ago she was born. As a result Miss Lawton has written "Katy Leary's Story of Mark Twain" in the Irish nurse's own language, at times illiterate, at times full of native wit, and having here and there a touch of elegance acquired from long association with the great litterateur. The document is as rare as Mark Twain foresaw that it would be. The first installment of its publication is in the current issue of the Pictorial Review, thanks to which magazine the episodes quoted below are printed.
Her First Impressions
It was in Elmira that Katy Leary got her first glimpse of Mr. and Mrs. Clemens when she was hired to work for them. "So I went over to see her, Mrs. Clemens, I did. I was settin' in the library and this wonderful, wonderful woman appeared and she startled me with all her beauty; she was like an angle, almost. She wore a white silk dress and her hair was perfectly plain, you know, combed down plain and done in a coil; but her face and her manner was wonderful. 'Why, is this Katy?' she says. I told her, 'Yes.' Then she says to me, 'Would you like to come and live with me?' 'Oh!' I says, 'Yes I would.' 'Well, when could you come?' and I said, 'Well, I need about a week or ten days to get ready.'
"Of course, I never traveled anywhere. I was green as a monkey. Well, she said Mr. Langdon would give me the details, and then she called somebody in the hall, 'Youth, Youth, dear, will you come in here.' And he came in, and I looked at Mr. Clemens for the first time. But I didn't know who Mr. Clemens was, never knew that he wrote a book, nor didn't know anything about him. But she said: 'Now, this is Katy Leary that is coming to live with us in Hartford.' Well, then, he gave me the once-over pretty quick, looked at me pretty sharp, I can tell you.
" 'Have you got any money?' he said. 'How much will you need?' Of course I didn't know how much I needed, so he pulled out $5. 'If that isn't enough,' he said, 'you can charge it to us when you come to Hartford,' but, he says, 'I think maybe that will buy your ticket anyway.' So that was the end of that."
So she was installed in the Hartford home. In those early days "he never appeared in his famous white suit; that came afterward"; nor did he have red hair then. "He was married ten years when I went there, and he had gray hair then." Katy tells us that he "had a horror of being bald-headed." Once she went to Boston with "Miss Clara" and "studied massaging the head, because, said she, 'Father'll like this, Katy, when we get home, because then you can massage his head.' So I used to massage his head every morning. He'd ring for me at a certain time to massage is head, even up to the time he died. He used to think it helped his hair to stay in, and it did. And nobody had more beautiful hair than he had.
"Dusting" the Manuscripts.
"Now I must tell you all about them precious manuscripts. Mr. Clemens did all his writing in the billiard room. He had a table there, you know, and Mrs. Clemens used to go up and dust that table every morning and arrange his manuscripts, and writing if he didn't arrange it himself, which sometimes he used to do. He took good care of it (he thought he did anyway). He was very particular. Nobody was allowed to touch them manuscripts besides Mrs. Clemens. But one day I was up there and I says, 'Oh, Mrs. Clemens, I don't see why you have to come way up these stairs every morning just to dust that table; I could do that, I think.' She said, 'I know you could, Katy, but Mr. Clemens is so fussy about his manuscripts.' 'Well,' I says, 'you just tell him I don't actually dust them, I just dust around them.' And so Mrs. Clemens said I might try.
"Well, I had been doing the dusting for a year, almost, when he caught me one morning. He come up quite sudden and said, 'Katy, what are you doing up here?' I was so startled I could hardly speak, because I never wanted him to catch me around that precious table. I said, 'I am dusting this table.' 'You don't dust that table,' he says. 'I have for about a year,' I said. 'Oh, no,' says Mr. Clemens, 'Mrs. Clemens takes care of that.' 'I thought it was kind of hard for her,' I says, 'I could help her that much, anyway, then she wouldn't have to walk up them three flights of stairs every morning.' That was enough for him, as he never wanted any trouble put on her because anything he thought would tire Mrs. Clemens or bother her he didn't want. But of course he didn't think of that at the time while she was doing it, you know, till I brought it to his mind.
"Well, after that, of course, if there was anything missing I was called and he'd say, very fierce, 'Katy, what did you do with all that manuscript I left on the table last night?' 'I didn't do anything with it. I didn't touch it. Isn't it where you left it?' 'No,' he'd answer, 'I suppose it's burned. You burned it this morning.' 'Well,' I said, 'I'll look on the table. It wasn't there this morning when I came up. There was no manuscript on that table, only them few letters.' 'Well, it was on that table when I left last night, Katy!' 'It wasn't there this morning, anyway,' I said. And after that I'd get so worried over us contradicting each other, well, I'd kind of start to go away and he'd call out, 'Well, you burned it - I know you did. It's gone, anyway. It's lost - burned!' "
Then just prior to the dinner hour when Katy was brushing Mrs. Clemens's hair, he came in from the bathroom wiping his hands - for "he always washed his hands before dinner!" - and with a sly wink which the maid caught in the mirror he would inform her that the manuscript had been found, "found in a pigeonhole," he admitted and took himself off before anything more could be said.
"Shortly he came back all smoothed down, and then Mrs. Clemens said: 'I suppose I'll have to go up there again and dust that table myself.' 'No, no,' he said, 'that's all right. Katy's all right as long as she doesn't touch anything.' So he used to mark with his foot how near I could go to that precious table and he'd put a mark about a foot away from it. 'Do you see that? Don't you dare to go inside that mark, Katy, never!' 'All right,' I says, but I'd go there just the same! But that precious manuscript was always a trouble between us, and sometimes he used swear words when he thought anything was lost, but I don't want to say the words he used. He always found the manuscript in the end, after all the swearing and fighting.
Good Many Fights
"Well, for course, we had a good many tough fights, but after a while he didn't say anything more tome. He had to trust me and I can prove it, too, because when he wrote 'Tom Sawyer' (he wrote part of it a Quarry Farm) he sent it home in a trunk, back to Hartford, sent it to me and wrote me that he was sending this precious trunk in my name and I didn't need to open it because there was manuscript in it. Well, by that time manuscript was something wonderful to me.
"And always there, near him, was Mrs. Clemens. She who read and criticised every word he wrote. He always listened to everything she said. She always made every plan and did everything, you know. He would often say to her, 'Well, I think it would be nice maybe if we give a dinner party, (there were so many wonderful gentlemen he liked to invite, and their wives, too); and so she planned it and fixed it all up, and made it a very elegant dinner for him. Oh, she was a wonderful, wonderful woman to get up anything like that, you know.
"Wonderful people come, like Mr. and Mrs. Charles D. Warner, also there was W. D. Howells and his wife come up from Boston and Mr. and Mrs. Cheney, and Dr. and Mrs. Twitchell - he was a minister; the children called him Uncle Joe.
It was shortly after the telephone invention that I went to Hartford. They had just put it in about that time and it made Mr. Clemens mad, 'just to hear the damned thing ring,' he said. Yes, that telephone used to make Mr. Clemens wild, because he would hear all right but he couldn't give his message out good. It wasn't very good service those days, and he used to fight the telephone girls all the time. He'd say, 'Are you all asleep down there? If you don't give me better service you can send somebody right up here and pull this thing out. I won't have this old thing in the house, it's a nuisance!'
"One night Mrs. Taft, the wife of Dr. Taft (lovely people that lived in Hartford) she called him up and George answered the telephone first and then he went and called Mr. Clemens. So Mr. Clemens went out to speak to her, but he didn't know who was at the telephone, so he said, 'Hello! Hello!' He thought it was one of them hello girls. Mrs. Taft didn't answer him quick enough, so he says, 'What the devil's the matter with you down there? Are you all asleep?' And then she said, 'Hello,' and then he said, 'Hello,' and then she says, 'Hello,' and finally he says, 'Dammit, how many times more have I got to say hello?'
"Why he was so mad by then he didn't even hear Mrs. Taft, and he kept shouting, "If I don't get better service than this I am going to have this old thing pulled right out of my house, if I don't get better service from you hello girls down there!' He was swearing and carrying on something awful. So Mrs. Clemens heard him and opened the dining-room door and put her finger up to her lips, then he stopped swearing and poor Mrs. Taft had a chance to be heard at last. And she says very polite, 'Good evening, Mr. Clemens.' 'Oh,' he says, 'is this you, Mrs. Taft? 'Well,' he says, 'I just this minute come tot he telephone! George has been here trying to talk and he's been having such a bad time with this telephone, I had to come and help him and see what I could do."
Thought Telephone a Nuisance.
"It took him a long while to get used to the telephone. He was always mad at it and always thought it was a nuisance. One time, just before New Year's it was, he was wishing everybody in the whole world a Happy New Year everybody, whether he knew them or not (except Mr. Bell, the inventor of the telephone). Because he says, "The telephone's a damned nuisance and so I won't wish him a Happy New Year. Mr. Bell wrote to him to have him take it back, but Mr. Clemens didn't want to. He did take it back later, though.
"When Mrs. Clemens's mother, Mrs. Langdon, died in Elmira and Mr. Beecher was going to preach a wonderful sermon about her (he wasn't going to preach it at the funeral, but several months later, then Mr. Bell wrote Mr. Clemens and asked him if he couldn't do something for him about listening to that sermon without having to leave his house. Mrs. Clemens was sick and couldn't go to Elmira, and Mr. Bell said he would put wires in at the Park Church right under Mr. Beecher's pulpit, and he would connect them up in the library, so Mr. Clemens could sit in the library with his family and be comfortable and hear the sermon. Mr. Bell said he would put in seven or eight receivers and they could all sit down and listen to the sermon. Then Mr. Clemens wrote him and thanked him, and asked him what his charge was, and Mr. Bell wrote back: 'Nothing, nothing at all, but just please to wish me a Happy New Year!' So Mr. Clemens said, 'You can have all the Happy New Years now that you want.' So, you see, he did wish him a Happy New Year after all. That was Mr. Clemens's way - his bark was worse than his bite."
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search