The Housekeeper’s Dance

Lizzy WillsIt’s 1887, and Lizzie Wills has offered to take us through the house.  Miss Lizzie is a maid in the Mark Twain House, and boy, does she have stories to tell!  She always seem to have been conveniently hiding in a closet or cleaning in the next room…well, you get the idea.

Nobody is allowed to touch the piano, except the five family members.  But when the family’s away, Lizzie has no qualms about running her fingers along its keys.  She’s happy to take a break from her work and dream of romance when one of the girls plays “The Sweet By and By,” the song Sam Clemens (Twain was his alias) and his wife Livy sparked to.  Lizzie read to us from a letter that just happened to fall to the floor while she was dusting.  It tells us just how romantic Sam and Livy are.

Three to five formal dinners are held in the house every week.  Dinners with many more courses than our largest meals today.  And the cook has to start at 5 a.m. making the servant’s breakfasts.  The long days, plus Clemens’ was notoriously crotchety about food.  No wonder the average tenure for a cook is only a month.

But Lizzie sticks around, listening in on the jokes told by Twain at these dinner parties and equally happy to gossip away with us.  Believe me, she’s less than happy that the china cost $150, as much as she makes in a year!

So she feels more than justified in telling tales.

Twain travels a lot, and once staying with the cartoonist Thomas Nast, a Twain quirk came out.  He hates a ticking clock, and as Nast’s guest, he went around the house and carried all the ticking clocks to the front lawn.  When he missed his train the next day because his own alarm clock was on the lawn, Nast made this cartoon.

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Miss Lizzie is proud of her employer though.  She shows off his inventions in this very modern house.  The annunciator is the call-system for servants, working off push buttons.  Annunciator, as in annunciate.  Lizzie had us touch the pages of the self-pasting scrapbook, Twain’s most successful invention, which earned him $50,000.  Clever, right?  (He later would bankrupt the family by investing all their money in a failure that also cost them this house.)

The burglar alarm of his invention was the source of many a story.  Controlled from the master bedroom, once Sam and Livy were awakened by the cellar’s alarm.  Livy was worried a burglar had broken in.  Sam replied, “Well, I don’t think it was the Sunday School Superintendent!”  Funny, even in the middle of the night.

Lizzie has Clemens to thank for that burglar alarm doing its job.  Her gentleman caller Willy Taylor was supposed to leave the house before 10 p.m., when the alarm was set.  When he triggered it, Sam forced him to marry Lizzy that very night.

The house and the Clemens family’s Hartford years were happy times, and Miss Lizzie tells us many stories of the 3 daughters and their adventures in the house.  Clemens had the girls home schooled.  Their German governess Rosa Hay taught them in her native language.  Although Rosa was beloved, Suzy complained she didn’t understand anything the teacher said.  Lilly Foote, neighbor Harriet Beecher Stowe’s cousin, soon took Rosa’s place.

The girls would study in the morning, but then the afternoon, they teamed up with neighbor children, playing piano and singing and putting on plays.  Miss Lizzie’s favorite was the Shakespeare Club, particularly the Balcony Scene (side note: Happy 400th-death-day, Shakespeare!).  At one point, the girls tried public school, but Clara racked up 13 detentions.  They were spoiled for conventionality.

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Girls will be girls, and these daughters fought so continually, that a reward system was devised.  For every day they didn’t argue, they earned a piece of candy.  A piece for peace, I say.  Lizzie tried it for the quarreling servants, with a shot of whisky.  That idea didn’t fly.

Yes, the servants squabbled a lot.  Clemens commented that the staff had “all the makings for warfare,” with their different countries of origin, languages, backgrounds, and religions.  They could insult each other in Russian, Polish, Irish, and Southern English.

Only George, the butler, seemed to get on with all the girls.  Get handsy with all the girls, we could say.  Sam said he’d have to hire girls “who were strong enough and wide enough to withstand his affections.”

2016-04-23 12.09.27Lizzie seemed much more interested in telling stories than complaining about her tiny room off the servants’ stairwell, the four flights she regularly had to run up and down, the 12 fireplaces she had to stoke, or the 7 bathrooms that needed cleaning.

She was also happy to show us something most people don’t get to see–the basement, her own private, if grim, workspace.  Since the house had no electricity, the space is woefully dark, she says.  But Miss Lizzie?  She’s anything but woebegone.  She even taught us a little dance she favors.  And if you’re willing to listen, she has a story to tell!

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One thought on “The Housekeeper’s Dance

  1. It was delightful reading this, including your own comments, so it must have been especially delightful being their with Lizzie.

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