The Man Who Was Twain’s Mysterious Stranger

A newly discovered letter reveals Mark Twain’s biographer and literary executor as a charmer who was either a liar or a bigamist.


CAPTION: Albert Bigelow Paine left his home—and his story—behind in Kansas. PHOTO COURTESY MAX MCCOY


When Albert Bigelow Paine came at Mark Twain’s invitation to the author’s Fifth Avenue apartment, his life’s ambition to escape the humdrum of the Midwest was nearly sealed. Twain, 71, was propped in a bed salvaged from an Italian palace, and he perused “Huckleberry Finn” over cigars and small talk.

But Paine was there on a mission, and when a lull ensued, he pounced. The 46-year-old Kansan-turned-New-Yorker praised the author’s work, admitted pride in a compliment the author had paid him, and made a request that would frame America’s memory of one of its greatest authors.

“I suddenly found myself saying that out of his encouragement had grown a hope…that I might some day undertake a book about himself,” Paine wrote in 1915’s The Boy’s Life of Mark Twain. “His silence seemed long and ominous.”

Twain opened up. It was 1906, less than two years since his wife’s death and four years before his own. He admitted a full-fledged biography would tell his life’s story much better than letters he would otherwise leave behind. Yet, he told Paine, he tired of writing it himself. “Then all at once, turning upon me those piercing agate-blue eyes, he said:

‘When would you like to begin?’

There was a dresser, with a large mirror, at the end of the room. I happened to catch my reflection in it, and I vividly recollect saying to it, mentally ‘This is not true; it is only one of many similar dreams.’

   But even in a dream one must answer, and I said:

   ‘Whenever you like. I can begin now.’”

That is the essence of Paine: staring dreamlike and mentally addressing his own mirror reflection when the world’s greatest living author asks him to help write his life story. In the three 2010-2015 volumes of Twain’s autobiography, Paine’s first-person interludes are gone. As Twain’s third act of life unfolds, Paine portrays himself not just as a biographer, but as a sounding board and friend, responsible for protecting Twain’s reputation from the author himself. Comparing early records to the authoritative version is a little like watching the Cheshire Cat disappear, leaving only his grin.

Should Twain have trusted him? Should we?

The one phrase used to describe Paine, more than any other, is “proper Victorian.” Paper trails say otherwise. I’ve been hunting the truth behind his early life and his meteoric association with Mark Twain for two decades, sifting through stenographic records and steeping in family secrets. I gained a partner in his oldest daughter, Louise, and a scandal strange as fiction.


This is a preview. Purchase the issue or subscribe to read more independent journalism from the Lower Midwest.



Issue 03 Sponsor: True/False Film Fest

Comments are closed.