Mark Twain’s Cleveland: The Story of a Friendship and a City
By MG Louis, CleveItToUs
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American writer, humorist, and lecturer who captured the hearts of millions with his witty and irreverent style. Born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri, Twain spent his early years working as a printer's apprentice and then as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. These experiences would later inspire many of his most famous works.
Mark Twain is one of America’s most famous writers, renowned for his humorous tales and insightful commentary on the social issues of his time. He traveled extensively throughout his life, and one of the many cities he visited was Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, Cleveland played a pivotal role in Twain’s early career and personal life.
In the late 1800s, Cleveland was a booming, and extremely wealthy American city; home to many prominent families and cultural institutions. Twain visited the city several times and became friends with a society matron named Mary Mason Fairbanks, who would prove to be an influential figure in his life.
On a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land, Twain befriended Mary Fairbanks on the steamship "Quaker City". Mary Fairbanks was traveling under her pseudonym, Myra. Fairbanks was a teacher and a prominent socialite in Cleveland during this era. This was due to her work as a writer and her marriage to Abel Fairbanks, who was the co-owner and editor of the Cleveland Herald, Cleveland's first daily newspaper. Twain quickly dubbed Mary as "Mother Fairbanks" and trusted her to edit the letters he was sending back to the Alta California. The friendship would last until Fairbanks passed away at the age of 71 in 1898. Mary’s influence on Twain was extensive in the early years of their relationship.
When Twain was struggling with his writings about the Quaker City as well as trying to pursue Olivia (Livy) Langdon, who would eventually become his wife, he turned to Mother Fairbanks for help. She provided guidance on how to court a refined lady and conduct oneself in society. She also gave him guidance regarding his Quaker City stories, which would eventually become known as "The Innocents Abroad".
Twain also used Cleveland as a launching point for his career as a lecturer. He lined up an extensive 26-date tour that began right here in Cleveland. Given his newspaper connections through Mother Fairbanks, Twain felt he could earn good reviews throughout the city to help boost the tour.
He did, and not just from the Herald. The Plain Dealer raved, “The most popular American humorist since the death of poor Artemus (Ward), made his first bow in Cleveland Public…Mark Twain has reason to feel gratified pride at the pleasant and satisfactory impression he made upon the immense audience.”
Twain spent the better part of two months in Cleveland, preparing for his November lecture debut. Mother Fairbanks provided much guidance, toning down Twain’s baser instincts and impetuous tendencies.
Cleveland was just one of many scores of places in Twain’s life journey that are visited in the book, "Mark Twain’s America Then and Now," published in October 2019 by Cleveland historian and author Laura DeMarco. Together, these places tell the story of a man for whom a sense of place and home was of utmost importance.
While some of the most essential places in Twain’s life are fairly well documented, Cleveland is one that doesn't tend to get as much attention; however, it played a key role in his journey. It was a city that was ideal for manufacturing and transportation, and Twain’s relationship with Cleveland reflects the city’s prime location and importance during the Gilded Age.
Twain lived with friends for months at a time while in Cleveland, but during his engagement to Livy Langdon, it was his intention to make his home in Cleveland permanent. This decision was likely made due to his friendship with Fairbanks and a deal he hoped to strike with her husband Abel, to become co-owner of the Herald. Unfortunately, the cost to take on that role was too steep at the time and Twain had to walk away from the opportunity. He and his wife Livy eventually moved to Hartford, Connecticut after first becoming co-owner and editor of the Buffalo Express in August 1869, and their marriage in 1870. (side note, he purchased her wedding ring right here in Cleveland). Though he didn't decide to make Cleveland their permanent home, the city still meant a great deal to him. He returned quite often for multiple reasons, and along with Mother Fairbanks, he maintained close friendships with several other prominent figures of the time in Cleveland, including Solon and Emily Severance. Solon was a banker and philanthropist and Twain met both him and his wife Emily on his original voyage on the Quaker City Steamship. Emily and Solon are among many well-to-do and prominent figures buried in the historic Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland.
Twain was also a lover of technology and an inventor in his own right. He held patents for several inventions, including a self-pasting scrapbook and a game that he called "Memory Builder."
In addition to his literary and intellectual contributions, Twain was also known for his larger-than-life personality. He was a great storyteller and had a quick wit that earned him many fans and admirers. He was often seen smoking cigars and wearing a white suit, which became his trademark style.
Despite his many successes, Twain also faced personal tragedies. He lost two of his three daughters to illness and struggled with financial problems throughout his life. But he remained resilient and continued to produce great works until his death in 1910.
Twain's legacy lives on through his timeless works and his influence on American literature and culture. His impact can be seen in the works of writers and comedians who have followed in his footsteps, including David Sedaris, Tina Fey, and Jon Stewart.
Today, visitors to Cleveland can still see some of the city’s historic landmarks, including the Rockefeller Building and Millionaires' Row, which were once the stomping grounds of Twain and Mother Fairbanks. Twain's Cleveland connection serves as a reminder of the city’s rich history and its contributions to America’s cultural landscape. In addition to his timeless literature, there are numerous museums and statues dedicated to him.
One such statue is located in the American Garden of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens in Cleveland, Ohio. The statue features Twain's bust and can be visited throughout the year.
Relevant Resources To Explore (click links to learn more):
(Book) Mark Twain’s America Then and Now - By Laura DeMarco (2019)
(Book) Mark My Words: Mark Twain on Writing - By Mark Dawidziak (1996)
(Book) The Innocents Abroad - By Mark Twain (1869)
Wild To Move: Mark Twain in Cleveland – Center for Mark Twain Studies
Mark Twain in Ohio - Mark Dawidziak
Mark Twain was a Clevelander at heart, and almost moved to the city in 1869 - cleveland.com
Mark Twain Project :: Biographies :: Fairbanks, Mary Mason
SEVERANCE, SOLON LEWIS | Encyclopedia of Cleveland History | Case Western Reserve University
Aboard the Quaker City - Mark Twain at Sea - Mark Twain at Play - University of California, Berkeley
Mary Mason Fairbanks (1827-1898) - Find a Grave Memorial
Bust of Mark Twain in the American Cultural Garden in Cleveland (clevelandseniors.com)