A Parade of Cats: How a Black Kitten Rescued Mark Twain
Updated: Mar 19
It began with a small painting.
As legend tells it, Samuel Clemens saw a miniature of Olivia Langdon when he met her brother, Charles, aboard ship in 1867. Samuel instantly fell in love with Olivia's likeness in the tiny painting.
Seeing the "real" Olivia for the first time made him sure he'd found his future wife. It took Olivia a little longer to decide she'd found her future husband. But Samuel was persistent. He stayed for 12 hours the next time he called on the family. The couple married in 1870 and had four children.
Olivia was highly educated and intelligent, and Samuel relied on her not only to run the household, but to edit his manuscripts. I loved learning at the Mark Twain House & Museum that Livy and Samuel enjoyed a marriage of equals at a time when that was not always, or often, the case.
Olivia (Livy) and Samuel Clemens
Through lean times, joyful times, and times of tragedy, Samuel and Livy supported each other emotionally. Their firstborn, a son named Langdon, died as a toddler. Of their three daughters, Susy passed away in 1896 and Jean suffered from epilepsy.
Livy was Samuel's ballast and anchor throughout their married years.
Samuel's world came crashing down in 1904 when Livy died. He became depressed and barricaded himself in his New York apartment. His daughter, Clara, also had a very difficult time from the stress of her mother's illness and death. She went to a sanatorium for a year to recover her health.
Although animals were not allowed there, Clara slipped a black kitten into her room. She named the cat Bambino, and he became a great comfort in a very lonely place. Clara wrote about that time in her book, My Father, Mark Twain:
During the first months of my cure I was completely cut off from friends and family, with no one to speak to but the doctor and nurse. I must modify this statement, however, for I had smuggled a black kitten into my bedroom, although it was against the rules of the sanatorium to have any animals in the place. I called the cat Bambino and it was permitted to remain with me until the unfortunate day when it entered one of the patient’s rooms who hated cats. Bambino came near giving the good lady a cataleptic fit, so I was invited to dispose of my pet after that. I made a present of it to Father, knowing he would love it, and he did.
Clara's trust in her father was well-placed. Samuel came from a family who loved cats, and showed it by their actions. His mother had taken in and cared for strays from his earliest memories. As an adult, Samuel might have had as many as 19 cats at a time in the family home.
Bambino fit right in, and soon became a beloved comfort for Samuel as well in his struggles with an overwhelming grief. He spent his days inside with trusted family and servants...and Bambino.
And then, Bambino disappeared, perhaps through an open window. Samuel was devastated and took out a beguiling advertisement in the New York papers.
The New York American ran this headline and introduction in 1905:
Mark Twain Has Lost a Black Cat
"Have you seen a distinguished looking black cat that looks as if it might be lost? If you have take it to Mark Twain, for it may be his. The following advertisement was received at the American office Saturday night:
Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light."
Samuel used his pen name in the advertisement and offered a $5.00 reward to the person who would restore Bambino to No. 21, Fifth Avenue.
Soon a parade of cats and their people showed up at Mark Twain's home. Each one came for his or her own reason, but many wanted to see the famous author, as well as offer him the company and comfort of their own cat until Bambino returned home.
The family's long-time servant, Katy Leary, recounted what happened in the book, A Lifetime with Mark Twain:
We looked high and low but couldn’t find him. Mr. Clemens felt so bad that he advertised in all the papers for him. He offered a reward for anybody that would bring the cat back. My goodness! The people that came bringing cats to that house! A perfect stream! They all wanted to see Mr. Clemens, of course.
Two or three nights after, Katherine heard a cat meowing across the street in General Sickles’ back yard, and there was Bambino — large as life! So she brought him right home. Mr. Clemens was delighted and then he advertised that his cat was found! But the people kept coming just the same with all kinds of cats for him — anything to get a glimpse of Mr. Clemens!
Perhaps because of the outpouring of well-meaning cats and people, Mark Twain began to emerge from his depression and go out into the world again. It began with thanking his well-wishers for their concern. Soon he began appearing in public once more. He still faced difficulties and heartache, but he was restored to more of his writing and public appearances.
Not only by his presence, but from his disappearance, Bambino helped a famous writer find a kind of healing again.
When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade without further introduction.
Find out more about Mark Twain and Bambino in this children's book:
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