proprietor of the pool hall said he would play me left-handed. It hurt my
pride, but I played him. We banked for first shot, and he won it. Then he
commenced to play, and I commenced to chalk my cue to get ready to play, and he
went on playing, and I went on chalking my cue; and he played and I chalked all
through that game. When he had run his string out I said: 'That's wonderful!,
perfectly wonderful! If you can play that way left-handed, what could you do
do anything,' he said. 'I'm a left-handed man.' "
The pigeon in
this anecdote was Mark Twain, whose professed naivet� belied his intimate
knowledge of billiards. Twain was watching a series of championship billiard
matches at Madison Square Garden in 1906 when he told the tale. One of the
contenders on the floor of the arena was the youthful champion of the game,
Willie Hoppe. When later asked for his recollection of Twain, Hoppe said he was
"one of the most enthusiastic billiard fans I ever knew."
Testimony of this
sort, though illustrative, is misleading, for Mark Twain was not content merely
to watch the game. He had a billiard room in his home in which he played
billiards and pocket billiards as often as he could (right). Friends visiting
his home on Fifth Avenue in New York sometimes complained of the author's pleas
for "just one more game." The billiard sessions, convened three or four
nights a week, always lasted until 3 or 4 in the morning, and would find Twain
as "fresh, buoyant and eager for the game" as when they began. One by
one his opponents would desert him, pleading exhaustion, and the tireless
writer would be left to knock the balls about alone.
for the game of billiards led to many humorous situations about the Clemens
home. Katy Leary, the Clemenses' loyal housekeeper, described one such incident
in this fashion: "Mr. Clemens spent most of his time up in the billiard
room, writing or playing billiards. One day when I went in, and he was shooting
the balls around the table, I noticed smoke coming up from the hearth. I called
John O'Neill, the gardener, and Patrick, and we began taking up the hearth to
see what was the matter. Mr. Clemens kept on playing billiards right along and
paid no attention to what we were doing. Finally, when we got the hearth up,
flame and smoke came out into the room. The house was on fire. Mr. Clemens
noticed then what we were about, and went over to the corner where there were
some bottle fire extinguishers. He took one down and threw it into the flames.
This put them out a good deal, and he took up his cue, went back to the table
and began to shoot the balls around again as if nothing had happened. Mrs.
Clemens came in just then and said, 'Why the house is afire!' "
" 'Yes, I
know it,' he replied, but went on playing."
remarkably indifferent to most of the homes he occupied, other than to
stipulate that there be a "proper billiard room." His ideas of what was
"proper" in the way of a billiard room must have caused many raised
eyebrows. He insisted, for example, that they all be done in bright red tones.
The scarlet billiard room in the Clemens house became the focal point of each
day's routine. Twain did most of his writing, dictated his correspondence and
usually received his callers there.
As the years
passed, Twain became increasingly reclusive. He told the servants to admit only
his close business acquaintances and friends. The exceptions to the rule were
billiard players. The door was always open to the neighbor, business
acquaintance or even chance caller who could wield a respectable cue. His
biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, attributes a great measure of his success in
gathering material for Twain's biography to his status as a "resident
billiardist" in the Clemens household.
But it was a
frustrating experience for Paine. He patiently courted his subject's attention
only to be rebuffed by Twain's passion for billiards. The biographer tells us
that after the arrival of a new billiard table at the house in New York, his
"morning dictations became a secondary interest." Twain would hurry
these morning chores along, and conclude with: "Now we'll proceed to more
serious matters—it's your shot."