A Telegram From Mark Twain to My Great-Grandfather


A Telegram From Mark Twain to My Great-Grandfather

We have some written history and some oral history. Do they tell the same story?

Photo by author — one of my most favorite books

One of my cousins is very interested in genealogy. He has a lot of fun with it, perhaps because he often visits or has extensive phone contact with cousins he finds through his research.

I’m not disinterested in my ancestors and living relatives. Still, I also realize that we are all cousins; for every famous person we might find a close connection with, dozens of rapscallions and worse are just as closely related.

I also tend to question family lore. For example, my paternal great grandfather was an artist of some minor renown. The history passed down to me has him involved with many things, including:

From Wikitree https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Lawrence-5332

.. an interior designer for the White House under McKinley, the Toronto Parliament Building, the Boston Public Library (ceilings), the Rhode Island State Capitol Building, ceilings for the Pennsylvania Railroad Station, the Lincoln Memorial, the Bank of Montreal, the Samuel Clemens house in Hartford, and many large homes in Newport, Rhode Island. He was in charge of all design and decoration for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, 1915.

That’s all lovely, but I can’t find anything on the internet to corroborate any of it. Certainly, some of it must be true, but often even truth has twists and turns in it.

For example, I mentioned Mark Twain in my title, and he’s mentioned again by my cousin at Wikitree. I assume that my cousin researched the things he said and may have access to things I don’t know about. Or, he may have only passed on things other family members told him.


A few days ago, another cousin, Ted Baldwin, found me through my Wikitree profile. My sister and I had a ninety-minute phone conversation with him; after that, he sent several pictures, two of which I have posted here (with permission).

Ted is the grandson of my grandfather’s sister, Marianna Lawrence Baldwin. Therefore, he is also the great-grandson of my great-grandfather, Herbert Myron Lawrence. Let’s call my great-grand-dad HML going forward.

One of Ted’s pictures was this telegram sent by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) asking HML when he could decorate Twain’s home. Ted gave the telegram and HML’s reply to the Mark Twain Home and Museum in Hartford CT some years ago.

Photo by Ted Baldwin, used by permission
Photo by Ted Baldwin, used by permission

I could not find any information about the hotel where HML was staying; it has changed its name if it still exists.

I can read the date of the telegram: it is 5/9 of eighteen-eighty something. That hasty scrawl might be a 1, or might not.

Here’s something easy to research: Twain didn’t start work on his Hartford home until 1873 and lived there from 1874–1891. The telegram from eighteen-eighty-something doesn’t make sense unless this was a redecoration. Was it?

Wikipedia says: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Twain_House

In 1881, an adjoining strip of land was purchased, the grounds re-landscaped, and the home was renovated. The driveway was redrawn, the kitchen rebuilt and its size doubled, and the front hall was enlarged. The family also installed new plumbing and heating and a burglar alarm.

So, mystery solved. Or would have been had Ted not informed me that HML begged off in the return telegram to Twain.

Update: Turns out it was not a telegram. I now have copies of two letters sent to Twain by HML. One is from July 1881, HML telling Twain that he has no availability. The second, in August, apparently in response to another telegram or letter from Twain, elaborates and suggests McKim Mead & White “does very good work” , Geo. Fletcher Babb(?) “also is good” and Louis Tiffany & John LaForge “will do as well.”

Part of the second letter to Twain — terrible handwriting for an artis!

Mr. Lawrence was too busy for Mr. Twain

HML said he was too busy with a Mister White and suggested that Twain contact Tiffany. I don’t know who Mr. White was. I assume Tiffany was Tiffany & Co.

When you can’t get the best, you can settle for Tiffany?

I’m thinking now that “Mr. White” almost certainly was Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White. I think that much of the work attributed to H.M. Lawrence by family lore was things he worked on while in the employ of McKim, Mead & White.

Though obviously, he freelanced too as otherwise, Twain would not have sent the telegram to him.

So it seems that unless HML did work on the original decoration years earlier, this family lore has only a seed of potential truth, and it is a seed that never germinated. Still, as genealogical feathers in ones cap go, this isn’t all that shabby: HML was ASKED to redecorate Twain’s Hartford home, so he has that at the least.

I’ve ordered a book (“The Loveliest Home That Ever Was” by Steve Courtney) that promises all the details of Sam Clemen’s home. I’ll update this piece if I find anything interesting and relevant therein. Also, Ted is trying to get hold of a picture of the telegraphed reply; I’d like to add that here when we get it.

Isn’t family history fun?

More about HML here:


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