Always the Twain shall meet

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2010; 3:04 PM

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, alias Mark Twain, last visited Elmira, his summer retreat in Upstate New York, 103 years ago. But now he has good reason to return: the 175th anniversary of his birth on Nov. 30, 1835, and the 125th anniversary of the publication of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." He also has significant cause for not coming back: the 100th anniversary of his death on April 21, 1910.

Despite that not-so-minor fact, I still hoped that the famously mustachioed author would make an appearance at a Victorian seance held at the Chemung Valley History Museum in downtown Elmira. Twain, I learned before the lights dimmed, had attended sessions with a medium after the death of his daughter Susy, and had written a short story about spiritualism. Plus, the timing was right: three days before Halloween and about a month shy of his birthday.

"We're not trying to contact Twain," said education coordinator Kerry Lippincott when I asked about the possibility of a surprise guest. "But we do know that Twain attended a few seances."

As expected, Twain was a no-show. But I realized that I didn't need a copy of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" to course through the air to sense his presence. His spirit dominates this riverside town.

"Elmira played a central role in his life," said Lippincott. "Something does come over you when you are in the place where he wrote."

Twain penned "Roughing It" in the parlor of his sister-in-law's home, Quarry Farm, on nearby East Hill. However, you won't feel much of a frisson there: The house is closed to the public. More encouragingly, the study where Twain created some of his famous masterworks, including most of "Huck Finn" and "Tom Sawyer," sits like a solemn temple on the leafy campus of Elmira College. Inside the building, which was relocated from Quarry Farm, the air smells faintly of smoke, perhaps a remnant of Twain's 30-cigars-a-day habit.

"This was a pretty important spot for him in the summertime," said Barbara Snedecor, director of Elmira College's Center for Mark Twain Studies. "He came to Elmira to be productive. He found his muse here, no doubt about it."

The center oversees the octagonal study, as well as a three-room museum across the street in Hamilton Hall. A concise collection of photos and memorabilia helps narrate significant events in the writer's life, such as his courtship of Olivia Langdon, daughter of a prominent Elmira family; their marriage at the Langdon mansion; the birth of their three girls; and their summers of work and frolic at Quarry Farm.

Down the hill from the study, a bronze statue of Olivia that is true to height (5-foot-6) and dress (the original frock hangs in the Chemung Valley museum) gazes toward a chiseled Twain, who stands atop a tiered pedestal etched with the titles of his masterpieces. In the library, a bronze Twain lounges on a bench, his arm slung casually across the back. You can cozy up with him as if on a date, then drop a few pennies in his pocket for the honor.

The Langdon family gave Quarry Farm to the school in 1982, tacking on a proviso: The house, two miles from town, is open only to Twain scholars. However, the public is invited to the spring and fall lecture series held in the adjacent red barn. And throughout the year, visitors can drive up to the property and regard the same rolling valley views that Twain soaked up for two decades.

"This is a sacred space," Snedecor said in a hushed voice.

A sense of reverence also falls over Woodlawn Cemetery, where Twain was laid to rest in the Langdon plot. The double row of gravestones will surely test your knowledge of their family tree: Now, who was Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch? Granddaughter. And Langdon Clemens? The son who died of diptheria at 19 months. A granite monument soars 12 feet heavenward, the height representing two fathoms, or as the old Mississippi riverboaters called it, "Mark twain! Safe passage!" The visages of Twain and his son-in-law, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, watch over the brood.

For the casual visitor, the center has created a map of the main attractions around town. But for the hard-core pilgrim, you need to meet Samuel Draper, tour guide and, from a distance, Twain look-alike.

Draper arrived for our nearly two-hour tour dressed in a white jacket and a jaunty hat, a mustache above his lip and a cane in his hand. The longtime resident has been leading walking tours of Elmira for 25 years, holding forth on the city's Victorian homes (it claims the highest concentration in the state) and the interesting people who lived in them.

We started at Park Church, where the author forged a close friendship with the minister, Thomas Beecher, and played billiards in a basement rec room. In a cramped side room, Draper pointed out the pool table of Twain fame; now used as a boardroom table, it was covered with items to be sold at an upcoming rummage sale. He then shifted my gaze to a rack of pool cues that could, if someone were in haste, inadvertently end up on the for-sale table.

Back outside, we cut through the small commercial center, quiet on a weekday morning, and hooked a right to the Near Westside Historic District. Ninety percent of the houses in this quadrant predate 1900, including an ivy-laced Italianate home once inhabited by Ida Langdon, a niece of Twain's. We also roamed around a restored 1870 carriage house that had been owned by the town's richest man, a bootmaker named Jackson Richardson - Twain's kind of guy.

"Twain would have been associated with Richardson," Draper noted. "He hung around wealthy people."

On First Street, Draper evoked the image of the dashing couple in the first blush of love: "When Twain was courting Olivia, he would have walked down this street. He would've wanted to show her off." Another incentive: a cigarmaker at the end of the street.

The tour ended at Barb's Soup's On Cafe, where we warmed up within eyeshot of the house that Olivia's father bought for a friend of Twain's from his Buffalo newspaper days. As I said: The man's spirit is inescapable.

Twain, in fact, stayed with me until my final moments. Driving out of town, I passed a large welcome sign displaying the famous faces of Elmira. In my rear-view mirror, I saw the legendary writer front and center, his image squeezing out Tommy Hilfiger and Brian Williams.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company