Thursday, May 31, 2012

The cat you rescue may rescue you

"When a man loves cats, I am his friend and comrade, without further introduction."  Mark Twain

Few people in history loved cats as much as Mark Twain.  And if he were alive today, he'd probably be delighted to discover that June is "Adopt-a-Cat Month."  While a boy growing up in Hannibal, MO, and known by his given name, Samuel Clemens, he watched his mother adopt cats in June...July...August, as well as the remaining 9 months of the year.  While the Clemens family were of modest means, they were rich in cats.  Any neglected, homeless, hungry feline would find food and shelter with Jane Clemens. "Some people scorn a cat and think it not an essential; but the Clemens tribe are not of these," Sam would write later.  

When Sam became the world-famous author Mark Twain, he filled his fanciful   Connecticut mansion with enough cats to delight his daughters and provide inspiration for his pen.  Then, as an old man grieving over the death of his wife, he adopted his daughter's black cat, Bambino, as solace for his grief and loneliness.  From his guardianship of Clara's cat, Mark Twain would learn how much he meant to his fans and readers.   

It was this last story about Mark Twain that intrigued me. I started to consider it as a subject for a children's story, exploring the concepts of loss, grief, friendship, and consolation.  I had been asked by my editor at Charlesbridge (Randi Rivers) if I would consider writing another children's story about a famous person and their pet.  Picasso and Minou had been released and it was time to think of a follow-up story.    

As a cat enthusiast myself, it was easy to list several people who could fit this topic.  But Mark Twain seemed to be the ideal candidate.  He was my favorite author as a child and I continued to study his life and writings through high school and college.

At first I thought of a story about young Sam Clemens, who lived in Hannibal, Missouri with all those cats.  Did he really give patent medicine to one of his mother's darlings, providing the basis for the "Peter and the Painkiller" episode in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer?   But a quick search through cyberspace uncovered the Bambino chapter in Mark Twain's life.  

In November 1904, a few months after the death of his wife, Olivia, Mark Twain moved into a  townhouse on New York City's bustling 5th Avenue.  With him were his youngest daughter Jean, their housekeeper Katy Leary, and "Bambino," a black cat that belonged to Mark Twain's older daughter, Clara.  But Clara was away in a sanitarium, trying to recover her health and strength after the death of her mother.  Until Clara was strong enough to return to her family, Twain would care for Bambino.  

Photo of Bambino by Mark Twain's daughter, Jean Clemens
from the archives of the Mark Twain Papers, University of California, Berkeley.
Shut up in his townhouse, Twain cut himself off from society, especially the press.  For years he had been one of the leading celebrities of the time and the darling of the media.  Anything he did or said could generate a news story and "Sam" loved being in the limelight.  But in the Fall/Winter of 1904-1905, he remained secluded inside 21 Fifth Avenue and refused to see anyone.  

Then in the Spring of 1904, Bambino disappeared!  It was assumed that he jumped out of one an open window during spring cleaning, when rooms were routinely "aired out."  Where he went and why is the subject of speculation.  However, we do know that Mark Twain placed an ad in all the New York newspapers offering a reward for Bambino's safe return.  Immediately the story of Mark Twain's missing cat was picked up by newspapers all over the country.  For three days in April 1905 it was the human interest story everyone followed.    

And while he waited for Bambino's return, Twain became the target of what amounted to something of a flash mob event.  Fans young and old brought their cats and kittens to their favorite author to comfort him until Bambino's return.  Now Mark Twain was willing to meet the world and thank his admirers for their concern.  And when Bambino did return home, there was a change in Mark Twain.  He would soon adopt the white "summer suit" as his signature attire and return to his public platform.  

Did Bambino's mysterious disappearance and re-appearance really cause Mark Twain to re-connect with his public?  I would like to think so.  The good wishes of so many of his admirers had to lift his depression enough so he could return to the world again.  

If animals could speak the dog would be a a blundering outspoken fellow, but the cat would have the rare grace of never saying a word too much." - Mark Twain

P.I. Maltbie is the author of Picasso and Minou and Bambino and Mr. Twain. She lives in Long Beach, California. Click here to watch a video book review of Bambino!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great idea for a picture book, Priscilla. Kudos!