There are three things visitors notice upon entering the bedroom of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known as “Mark Twain”) at the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut. The first and most immediate is the large, elaborately carved wooden bed hugging the far wall. The second, often observed with a furrowed brow, is how small the mattress seems in comparison. And the third, noted perhaps after gentle prodding, is the quirky placement of the pillows, which are nestled at the foot of the bed rather than against the headboard.
For Twain enthusiasts, the bed needs no introduction, thanks to a 1906 interview and photo shoot, orchestrated by the then-70-year-old author himself, that featured shots of him reading, smoking, and writing while tucked under the covers of his beloved bed. He called it “the most comfortable bedstead that ever was, with space enough in it for a family, and carved angels enough surmounting its twisted columns and its headboard and footboard to bring peace to the sleepers, and pleasant dreams.” By sleeping in the bed backwards, Twain gave himself the best view of the bed’s angelic guardians, or if you opt to listen to Twain lore, because “he wanted to see what he had paid for.”
Twain and his wife, Livy, purchased the bed on a trip to Venice in 1878 for $200 ($4,600 in today’s dollars). Carved in dark walnut, the scrollwork’s twists and turns do indeed lead to angels perched high and low across the bed and atop each of its four posts. These “post angels” were removable, and favorites of Twain’s three young daughters, who were allowed to bathe them in a small bathtub.
After 20 years in Hartford—17 of them in the Farmington Avenue house—the family moved to Europe in 1891. In their absence the house would eventually serve as a boys’ school and then an apartment building before being rescued in 1929 by the Friends of Hartford, which established the Mark Twain Memorial and Library Commission to restore the home to its appearance during the Twain years. Twain’s only surviving daughter, Clara, had inherited her father’s bed when he died in 1910, and she donated it to the house in 1940. It became an immediate showpiece and remains so today, commanding an awe of something that goes beyond merely the bed’s artistry.
For Twain, a man shrouded in legend, with hundreds of wry and often humorous quips attributed to him (some correctly, others not)—the writer who brought complex social themes into homes across the country through iconic characters like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn—the bed, simple even in its ornate elegance, endures as a poignant and personal symbol of “Sam Clemens the Man” during his happiest years in Hartford.
The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, CT. 860-247-0998; marktwainhouse.org