History

When Mark Twain Needed the First Lady to Reassure His Wife

Mark Twain has a well-deserved reputation for not being intimidated by those in high authority. His self-assurance and disregard for the opinion of others allowed him to rub elbows with the most influential members of society and remain unaffected.

That’s not to say he was unconcerned about everyone in his life. This fact came to light when he was invited to a White House reception for authors. The event was hosted by President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland. Twain was speaking with the President, and just as Cleveland was about to speak, the author remembered something important. He said, “If your Excellency will excuse me, I will come back in a moment; but now I have a very important matter to attend to, and it must be attended to at once.”

Although surprised and unaccustomed to having anything take importance over a conversation with him, the President excused Twain to tend to this pressing business. Twain stepped away, thankful that he had remembered the solemn instructions from his wife. Olivia Clemens (referred to by her husband as “Livy”) told him before he departed for Washington, “I have written a small warning and put it in a pocket of your dress-vest. When you are dressing to go to the Authors’ Reception at the White House you will naturally put your fingers in your vest pockets, according to your custom, and you will find that little note there. Read it carefully, and do as it tells you. I cannot be with you, and so I delegate my sentry duties to this little note. If I should give you the warning by word of mouth, now, it would pass from your head and be forgotten in a few minutes.”

Abashed at having forgotten to look at the note before going to the reception, Twain reached into his vest pocket, withdrew the note, read it, and burst out laughing. Writing of the event, he said, “Livy’s gentle gravities often produced that effect upon me, where the expert humorist’s best joke would have failed, for I do not laugh easily.”

After regaining his composure, Twain returned to the President and First Lady. He withdrew his card and wrote on the back of it, “He didn’t” and asked Mrs. Cleveland to sign her name below those words.

She said: “He didn’t? He didn’t what?”

Twain said, “Oh, never mind. We cannot stop to discuss that now. This is urgent. Won’t you please sign your name?”

“Why,” she said, “I cannot commit myself in that way. Who is it that didn’t? And what is it that he didn’t?”

Twain replied, “Time is flying, flying, flying. Won’t you take me out of my distress and sign your name to it? It’s all right. I give you my word it’s all right.”

After several moments of serious consideration, the First Lady took a pen and said, “I will sign it. I will take the risk. But you must tell me all about it, right afterward, so that you can be arrested before you get out of the house in case there should be anything criminal about this.”

She signed her name as requested. Only then did Twain hand her the note that his wife had written. It was brief and to the point: “Don’t wear your arctics [thick waterproof overshoes] in the White House.”

Mrs. Cleveland erupted in laughter and immediately summoned a messenger to send the written assurance to the famous author’s wife.

Mark Twain had no problem interrupting the President or imposing a strange request on the First Lady, but there was no way he was going to run the risk of getting crossways with his wife.


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