“I thought this was a home. It was a superstition. What is a home without a child?”
In 1907, at the age of seventy-two, lonely and widowed, Samuel Clemens began “collecting” surrogate granddaughters — young girls between the ages of ten and sixteen. Some of the girls were those he met aboard ships that carried him back and forth to England or on his travels to the island of Bermuda. Clemens maintained correspondences with the girls — most were from prominent and wealthy families who traveled in the same social circles with Clemens. They and their parents often visited him in his homes in New York.
In 1906, Clemens had purchased 248 acres in Redding, Connecticut, and with proceeds obtained from publishing portions of his autobiography in the North American Review between September 1906 through December 1907, he began construction of a large two-story country home. He originally intended to call the home “Autobiography House”. The idea later occurred to him to dedicate the home to his surrogate granddaughters. In 1908, Clemens had begun calling his surrogate granddaughters “angel-fish” after the brilliant species of fish he saw on a visit to Bermuda. He nicknamed his group of girls the “Aquarium Club” and presented members with angel-fish pins. At least one such pin survives and is currently owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Connecticut.
In an autobiographical dictation of 12 February 1908, Clemens explained his attachment to his collection of girls: “I suppose we are all collectors. As for me, I collect pets: young girls — girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent — dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears.”
On 17 April 1908 he elaborated: “After my wife’s death, June 5, 1904, I experienced a long period of unrest and loneliness. Clara and Jean were busy with their studies and their labors and I was washing about on a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking in high and holy causes…I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed was grandchildren.”
Isabel Lyon, Clemens’s secretary, often helped chaperone the young women and facilitated their visits. After accompanying Clemens to Bermuda in April 1908, she recorded in her journal: “He has his aquarium of little girls and they are all angel-fish, while he wears a flying fish scarf pin, though he says he is a shad. Off he goes with a flash when he sees a new pair of slim little legs appear and if the little girl wears butterfly bows of ribbon on the back of her head then his delirium is complete.”
In his autobiographical dictation for 17 April 1908, Clemens listed the names of his angel-fish: Dorothy Butes, Frances Nunnally, Dorothy Quick, Margaret Blackmer, Hellen Martin, Jean Spurr, Loraine Allen, Helen Allen, and Dorothy Sturgis.
“All the ten school girls in the above list are my angel-fishes, and constitute my Club, whose name is “The Aquarium”…The Bermudian angel-fish, with its splendid blue decorations, is easily the most beautiful fish that swims…The club’s badge is the angel-fish’s splendors reproduced in enamels and mounted for service as a lapel pin — at least that is where the girls wear it. I get these little pins in Bermuda; they are made in Norway.”
Regarding his plans for the new home he was building in Redding, Connecticut, Clemens dictated: “The billiard room will have the legend ‘The Aquarium’ over its door…I have good photographs of all my fishes, and these will be framed and hung around the walls. There is an angel-fish bedroom — double-bedded — and I will expect to have a fish and her mother in it as often as Providence will permit.”
By the time Clemens moved into the Redding, Connecticut home on June 18, 1908, he had decided to call the house “Innocence at Home” in honor of his young female acquaintances that he wished to host in an unending series of visits. By the summer of 1908, Clemens had drafted a sort of official constitution, rules and regulations for his “Aquarium”. And he added the names of Dorothy Harvey, Louise Paine, and Marjorie Breckenridge to the list. Also added to the list was the name Margaret Illington, a young woman in her late twenties and wife of Dan Frohman who was thirty years older than Illington. Dan Frohman was listed as “Legal Staff” for the group.
In September 1908, Clemens’s daughter Clara returned from a European singing tour. An angel-fish piece of jewelry from Clara’s estate indicates Clemens had also included his own daughter in the list of young women who received this special ornament.
Angel-fish jewelry from the Clara Clemens estate — currently in the Kevin Mac Donnell collection
Angelfish pin given to Dorothy Sturgis signifying membership in Twain’s “Aquarium” Club
However, Clara was evidently not impressed with her father’s “club” for young girls. Shortly after her return home, the name of the Redding home was changed to “Stormfield”. Biographer John Cooley has observed that soon after Clara Clemens returned, the household stopped saving letters received from the “angel-fish.” Clara Clemens objected to her father’s relationship, however innocent, with teenage girls.
The Clemens home in Redding, Connecticut was known as “Innocence at Home” in honor of the angel-fish. It was later renamed “Stormfield”.