The Last Time I Saw Mark Twain
Willis C. Pratt, as told to Gertrude Valliere King
It was during one of Mark Twain’s frequent bouts with bronchitis that I went to interview him. There had been a dearth of live news for several days. That happens sometimes in newspaper offices. It was two o’clock in the afternoon, and more than half the members of the Herald’s news staff were sitting around waiting for possible assignments. Paul Drane, who ran the “day desk,” was searching through a pile of clippings taken from his “future book” in the hope that he might find something worth following up….Then, as I was passing his decks:
“How long since you have seen an interview with Mark Twain?”
“Don’t remember any; at least, not for several years.”
“Do you suppose you could get him to talk about anything?”
“Maybe, for about a dollar a word.
Otherwise, the betting is a hundred to one he won’t stand for an interview.”
Let’s try, anyway. How bout a subject? Got an idea?” ….
“How about politics? There’s the municipal election coming on soon.”
“Fine. See if he will discuss the possibility of the elimination of the boss in politics.”
I rang the bell of Mr. Clemens’s house, the one with the diamond-paned windows, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighth Street. The door was opened by the author’s eldest daughter. Yes…Mr. Clemens was at home, but had been quite ill. She would see whether he would receive me….
Miss Clemens led me up the stairs to the door of a room on the second floor, on the Eighth Street side. She knocked, and discreetly retired. A voice, with the familiar drawl which had fascinated Mark Twain audiences all over the world, bid me enter.
The room was very large, high ceilinged, and not too well lighted by narrow windows with diamond panes. The author was in bed. He lay, bolstered up by two great pillows against the mahogany head board. He wore a night shirt, and only a sheet covered his slender legs. A bedside table, within easy reach, bore a tobacco jar, two pipes, one larger than the other, matches, a bottle of Scotch whiskey, a siphon of carbonated water, and a tall glass.
“Well, what entitles me to the honor of a visit from the Herald?” The greeting was hearty and encouraging. “Sit down and tell me all about it.”
I thought it best to plump it right at him: “The Herald wants to know if you believe it possible to stop political bossism, and if so, how can it be done?”
The bright eyes, under the great bushy brows, glanced at me keenly for a moment, and then turned their gaze to the ceiling. It was a full minute before the humorist looked at me again, and then his only reply was:
Just then my chances for getting an interview didn’t look good. I waited. Mr. Clemens drew up his knees, tucked the sheet under them, and reached for the biggest pipe. He jammed it full of tobacco, lighted it, and blew several clouds of smoke, into which he gazed thoughtfully.
“It could be done, but it would be a mighty hard job.”
(The odds were better now. Even money I would get a story.)
[Twain discussed the issue while Pratt refrained from taking notes after receiving a frown when he pulled out a pad and pencil. Afterward:]
“Did you take notes while I was talking?” he asked.
“You know that I did not. I was afraid you would quit on me.”
He chuckled at that.
“Well, your story is all right. Here, let me have it.” And taking the sheaf of copy and my pencil, he wrote at the top of the first page:
“There, show ‘em that.” And then, giving me an affectionate pat on the shoulder: “Do you know, my boy, I think we’d get along first rate together.”
The little man with the bushy white hair, the broad, high forehead, and shaggy brows stood in his dinner coat on the steps of his home and waved me a good-bye. I never saw him again.
It may be unnecessary to add that my story, watermelon cure and all [for dysentery], went upstairs early that evening, marked:
“MUST. RUN FULL. FIRST PAGE.”
[Mark Twain Journal 11.2 (Summer 1960): 6-8, 23].