Walt Disney, a Couple of Cocktails, and the Mark Twain
by Todd James Pierce
Bear with me for a moment.
Mark Twain was, of course, the pen name for the American author Samuel Clemens, a man who wrote novels about Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. But Mark Twain wasn’t the only pen name that Clemens used. He had others, including Sergeant Fathom and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. He invented them for himself when he was a young man, living a wooly life out west, and working as a journalist. Thankfully it was the name “Mark Twain” that stuck. Later in life, when he was a respectable literary figure, he offered an explanation as to the origins of his famous pen name.
In Life on the Mississippi, Clemens explained that he’d first seen the pen name used by a steamboat captain named Isaiah Sellers. Captain Sellers wrote down practical information about the Mississippi for the New Orleans newspaper and signed his entries Mark Twain. In Clemens’ own words: “At the time that the telegraph brought the news of his death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre.” And so Clemens simply took the captain’s old pen name.
It is this story that is commemorated at Disneyland. On the Disney paddleboat, the recorded narration still calls out: “Ledge man, sound off.” To which the recorded Disneyland ledge man belts out a baritone reply: “Mark one.” Then: “Mark Twain.” These calls are for readings on a depth stick. The historically accurate line would be “by the mark twain,” but regardless: one mark equals one fathom (or six feet); two marks equals two fathoms (or safe water). Remember: “twain” is simply an old fashioned way of saying “two.”
Now here’s where things get interesting: a handful of historians think that this explanation about Clemens’ pen name is utter baloney.
To start with, Captain Isaiah Sellers wasn’t dead when Samuel Clemens began to use the pen name Mark Twain. This part is pure fabrication—or the effects of a faulty memory. And then there were Clemens’ friends from Nevada who recalled a different story about how their old friend Samuel came up with that particular name: According to these friends, “Mark Twain” was a phrase that Clemens used in a bar to order drinks, specifically to ask the bartender to make two chalk marks next to his tab: “We knew Clemens in the early days and know exactly how he came to be dubbed ‘Mark Twain.’ John Piper’s saloon on B Street… Piper conducted a cash business and refused to keep any books. As a special favor, however, he would occasionally chalk down drinks to the boys, on the wall back of the bar. Sam Clemens, when localizing for the Enterprise, always had an account…Occasionally [Clemens] would invite Dan De Quille, Charley Parker, Bob Lowery, or Al Doten, never more than one of them, however, at a time, and whenever he did, his invariable parting injunction to Piper was to ‘Mark Twain,’ meaning two chalkmarks, of course.”
Now I should point out that the older, more respectable Samuel Clemens denied that the B Street saloon was the origin of his pen name. But to me this drinking story sounds more accurate and honest than the one that Clemens later told.
So the next time you’re floating around the Rivers of America, you can tell your friends that the pen name Mark Twain might actually have little to do with riverboats and more with the way one famous writer use to order a pair of whiskeys.
And this, of course, reminds me of one last story to pull it all together. In the final years of his life, I interviewed Art Linkletter twice about his experiences at Disneyland. Linkletter was the master-of-ceremonies for the grand opening of Disneyland in 1955 and the “second opening” of Disneyland in 1959. He was also a personal friend of Walt Disney. A few months before his death, I went over to Linkletter’s house to record his memories. I spent the better part of the day there, a beautiful estate not far from Walt’s Carolwood home in Holmby Hills. One story he told concerned the Mark Twain riverboat. Linkletter recalled a few evenings that he spent with Walt at Disneyland, sipping cocktails in the firehouse and riding the riverboat with a couple glasses of scotch under his belt. “Once [Walt] climbed up in the rigging of the Mark Twain ship. I thought he was going to dive off.” He smiled at this, Linkletter did, the memory of Walt up there, leaning out over the river.
And for me, that’s an image of Walt I like—an image of a man who seems vibrant and real, riding a wave of good luck as his amusement park slowly becomes a success.
(A quick note about the photos: each image today comes from the summer of 1955. These images are all new, never-before-published. In each you can see the original bunting used to decorate the Mark Twain during its inaugural summer. In the bottom photo, beneath the bandstand, you can also see the sandbags that were used to shore up part of the river, as the river had water seepage issues during its first summer. The sandy soil in Anaheim wasn’t ideal for holding water. But that, of course, is another story entirely.)