MARK TWAIN'S FORMER HOME STILL REMAINS A LANDMARK
Famous Fifth Avenue House Will Be Preserved by Present Owner - Property in Same Family for Two Centuries - Irving Stayed There
By Howard A. Lamb
There is one landmark of Little Old New York that may still laugh at the assaults of time - and apartment house builders. It has been finally decided that the residence at 21 Fifth Avenue, corner of Ninth Street, of world-wide interest because it has been the home of both Washington Irving and Mark Twain, is not going to be torn down - not as long as the present owner, Edward Renwick Whittingham, lawyer, of 2 Rector Street, is alive, and he is still a very young man.
Sentiment is regarded as a rare thing these days, and getting rarer, especially along Fifth Avenue, but it is nothing else but sentiment and family pride that have made Mr. Whittingham cold to the entreaties of hotel and apartment house operators and resolved to make the quaint house his home as long as he lives.
Other old houses in the neighborhood are vanishing almost overnight to make room for towering apartment buildings, but there are enough left to give the Washington Square neighborhood an atmosphere of its own, and Mr. Whittingham would like to see it perpetuated.
Diagonally across the street from Mr. Whittingham's property, for instance, is the house built by Henry Brevoort. On Feb. 24, 1840, the first masked ball ever given in New York was held there. It was marked by the elopement of Matilda Barclay, daughter of the British Consul, with a South Carolina youth - regarded as a great scandal in that day. The house is now owned by Mrs. George F. Baker Jr., herself a descendant of the Breevorts.
Adjacent to 21 Fifth Avenue is the old home of Dr. E. L. Partridge, with the line of the old Randall farm going through it, from which an underground passage used to lead to the Brevoort Hotel, the first hotel on Fifth Avenue. A block away is the former home of Charles A. Dana of The Sun.
Mr. Whittingham's property, a part of the old Brevoort farm, has been longer in the hands of one family than any other in New York - 250 years. The young lawyer feels that it would be almost a sacrilege to let it go. He is unmarried, however, and is not occupying it at the present time.
The Brevoort farm belonged originally to Bastian Elliss, who received it Dec. 18, 1667, from Richard Nicolls, first English Governor of New York. It passed from Elliss to his son-in-law, John Hendrik Brevoort, in 1701, and has been in the Brevoort family ever since.
The original owner of the present house was James Renwick, great-grandfather of Mr. Whittingham, for thirty years head of the Natural Science Department of King's College. He died in 1862. To the Renwick family belongs the honor of establishing the first line of regular sailing vessels between this country and England. William Renwick was interested with Alexander Hamilton and others in founding the Bank of New York in 1784.
Spare Room for Irving
Mrs. James Renwick was Margaret Ann Breevort, daughter of Hendrik Brevoort, the stubborn old Knickerbocker who "put the bend in Broadway" because he would not let it go through his cherry orchard. He also prevented the opening of Eleventh Street through his property because it would run too close to his house, which stood on the present site of Grace Church.
Professor Renwick was a close friend of Washington Irving. He traveled with Irving in England when Irving was writing "Bracebridge Hall," and also accompanied him on trips over the Continent. It was because of this comradeship that Professor Renwick set aside the middle room on the second floor as a spare bedroom for the author of "Rip Van Winkle" to use whenever he came to town from his home at Sunnyside, up the Hudson.
James A. Renwick, Professor Renwick's grandson, and his cousin, Mrs. Bessie Whittingham, held the property between them until last August, when Mrs. Whittingham's son, Edward, obtained sole possession.
The apartment in the basement is now occupied by Dr. Robert H. Kahn, who moved into the building when Mark Twain and his family left, and for many years used the entire premises. He had known the Clemens family for years. At his country home he still keeps the orchestrelle with which Twain entertained himself in the Fifth Avenue house, playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and other compositions of which he was fond.
The house itself, now almost a century old, was designed by the original owner's son, James Renwick Jr., the architect who drew the plans for several churches n the same neighborhood - the Church of the Ascension, the First Presbyterian Church and Grace Church - as well as some of the buildings at Vassar College and the Smithsonian Institution. There is an ecclesiastical suggestion about the windows of the house, which are gracefully rounded at the top, and the rooms are of stately proportions. It was built shortly after the opening of Fifth Avenue, and was the first one on the block.
Mark Twain moved in during the Fall of 1904 and remained until the Summer of 1908, when he occupied Stormfield, just built for him at Redding, Conn. There he died April 21, 1910, aged 74.
Dictated in Bed
Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain's biographer, lived in the house for a while to help carry on his work. Mark continued to indulge a weakness for doing his literary work in bed, dictating his biographical notes to Paine's stenographer as he lay voluptuously under the blankets garbed in "a handsome silk dressing gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against the snowy pillows."
Clemens was passionately fond of billiards, and when Mrs. H. H. Rogers presented him with a handsome billiard table he converted one of the bedrooms into a billiard room. With Paine he played the game at every opportunity. George Harvey and Peter Finley Dunne were occasional opponents, and Mr. and Mrs. Martin W. Littleton, who lived near by, came over for an occasional three-handed game in the evening. Littleton was then engaged in the defense of Harry Thaw, on trial for the murder of Stanford White, and used to entertain Clemens with interesting sidelights of the day's developments in court.
Occasionally Clemens was the centre of interest at small dinners given at the Brevoort Hotel, a step from his own door, and his home became the meeting place of some of the shining literary lights of the day. To his dinners came, in addition to George Harvey and Peter Finley Dunne, William Dean Howells, Augustus Thomas, whose play, "The Witching Hour" was then at the height of its success, and Brander Matthews.
Mark Twain was a conspicuous figure in the Washington Square neighborhood. He was a man whose personality naturally dominated the crowd about him. The white suit he always wore and his bushy crown of silver hair would have attracted attention even if he were not famous for other things.
At times he went out for a stroll with General Dan Sickles, then in his eighties and handicapped by a wooden leg, who lived in a mansion across the street. He bought his cigars from Joe Isaacs, who died in New York this Summer. Isaacs kept his store in a corner of Alexander McClelland's roadhouse at the southeast corner of Sixth Avenue and Eleventh Street, torn down in 1912. Here the braw Scot served fine old musty ale and mutton pies that won him a steady reputation for forty-two years.
Liked Cheap Cigars
McClelland's was the resort of gentlemen, where men like Chester A. Arthur and William Travers Jerome, out for a cutter ride on a frosty night, might drop in for a nip of spiced rum. Even Theodore Roosevelt, then Police Commissioner and at grips with the saloon power, was obliged to tell "Old Aleck" - who is still hale and hearty, by the way - that he conducted a model drinking place.
Clemens's taste ran to strong, black cigars, rather than to liquid refreshments, so that he seldom stopped at Aleck's hospitable place. The cheaper the cigars the better he liked them, but he probably bought so many that Isaacs considered him a welcome customer. It must have been Clemens himself who remarked that he "smoked constantly, loathed exercise and had no other regularity of habits." He often received presents of the most expensive imported cigars, but never smoked them. He handed them out to his friends and callers. Once he passed an English brier root pipe to Paine and said:
"I'd like to have you smoke that a year or two, and when it gets so you can't stand it, maybe it will suite me."
On pleasant days Mark Twain liked to stroll up Fifth Avenue, sometimes as far as he Carnegie home, on Ninety-second Street, and come back on the "electric stage," from which he could enjoy the panorama while he smoked without interference. At time he turned at Fifty-ninth Street, rested at the Plaza Hotel or sat on a bench in Central Park.
On Sunday mornings he would time his return to se the crowds leaving the churches. He liked the throng. The homage of the multitude was dear to him, not because he loved adulation for its own sake, but because his heart was big enough to fully appreciate the tribute of a people's affection.
Children Loved Him
"It was the most precious reward of his life, the final harvest," says Paine, "and he had the courage to claim it."
Children were as fond of Clemens as he was of them. Frequently on his walks he got no further than Madison Square Park, then the centre of a fine residence section, because the youngsters, sometimes accompanied by their nurses, would beg him to sit down on a bench and tell them stories. This he would do for an hour or two, reading from "Tom Sawyer" or "Huckleberry Finn" or making up tales as he went along. On of the little girls who loved to listen was Margaret McClelland, who is now grown up.
"As I remember Mr. Clemens," she said the other day, " he was a strange man, always alone, always thoughtful. We children adored him. The stories he told me became the subject of my dreams. One of them was about a bad little girl named Polly, and he would end it by saying, 'Are you ever a naughty Polly?' "
But in spite of brilliant dinners, hosts of friends, material prosperity and the love of people all over the world, the four years Mark Twin lived at 21 Fifth Avenue were some of the loneliest and most miserable of his life. The loss of his wife was an unconsolable sorrow. Bernard Shaw had linked him with Edgar Allan Poe as one of the two outstanding literary geniuses of America and had compared his works from a historical standpoint with those of Voltaire, but Clemens felt that he had accomplished little except to amuse people. He was submerged in a pessimistic philosophy and died a disappointed man.
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