"Our Famous Guest":
Mark Twain in Vienna

by Carl Dolmetsch

Review by
Billie Ann Lopez
University of Georgia Press: Athens & London, 1992
xviii + 362 pages; illustrated

Unser berühmter Gast: Mark Twain in Wien
Edition Atelier Verlag: Wien, 1994

300 pages


Surprised by the news of his recent death in late 1897, Mark Twain, the great American humorist, responded with humor, telling Viennese journalists that "The report of my death (is) grossly exaggerated". Evidently, the New York World telegraphed a Viennese journalist to verify Twain's status: "If Mark Twain very ill, 500 words, if dead 1,000".

Mark Twain and his family began their stay in a suite at Vienna's Hotel Metropol, on Franz-Josefs-Kai near the Danube in the First District on September 28, 1897. In May 1898, the family changed residence to a villa in Kaltenleutgeben in the Vienna Woods where they remained until October 1898, only breaking their stay there for an August holiday in Hallstatt in the Salzkammergut. When the family returned to the First District for the rest of their stay, they lived in the Hotel Krantz (now the Hotel Ambassador) on Neuer Markt until their departure from Austria in May 1899.

From the beginning of his stay, Mark Twain was appreciative of the life of the Viennese, albeit with one or the other bushy eyebrow raised to accommodate their many paradoxes. And his presence in Vienna was certainly appreciated by the Viennese. Bookstores sold out their stocks of his books even before his arrival. Viennese newspaper reporters wrote innumerable articles referring to him with affection or, in some cases, disparagement as "Our Famous Guest".

A month after Twain's arrival in Vienna, he visited the Imperial Diet on the day that the proposal to give the Czech language precedence over German in the Habsburg possessions of Bohemia and Moravia ended in a wholesale brawl amongst the deputies. The incident reflected the growing political strains that would eventually result in World War I and the end of the Habsburg Monarchy. Twain wrote about it all in his essay "Stirring Times in Austria", published in Harper's Magazine in February 1898.

During his stay in Vienna and Kaltenleutgeben, Mark Twain, a prolific writer, continued writing stories, essays, and articles, some of which he never finished (not an unknown phenomenon for writers in Vienna). Amongst the work Twain started and did finish were: "What is Man?", "How to Tell a Story and other Essays", "Concerning the Jews", "The Chronicle of Young Satan" and the memorable "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg". His unfinished but eventually published Mysterious Stranger stories were set in old Austria.

Twain met and mingled comfortably with many if not most of the prominent Viennese figures of the day, not only journalists, writers, and politicians, but those in the arts, medicine, science, and business as well. Twain's appetite for people was always enormous. He was friendly with Baroness Bertha Kinsky von Suttner, founder of the Austrian Society of Friends of Peace who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, Countess Misa Wydenbruck-Esterházy, who opened doors to the Viennese aristocracy, and Theodor Leschetizky, his daughter Clara's teacher, who introduced Twain to the Viennese world of music which included meeting Johann Strauss Jr.. the Waltz King, on several occasions.

Twain also met Sigmund Freud who was 42 years old at the time, and Jan Szczepanik, a Pole who invented a primitive form of closed-circuit television he called the telelectroscope or "Fernseher", the German word for television still used today. Twain wrote about Szczepanik and his inventions in "The Austrian Edison Keeping School Again" and patterned a character after Szczepanik in a short story called "From the 'London Times' of 1904".

Amongst Twain's detractors was the then 25 year old Viennese writer and thinker Karl Kraus. Kraus, a self-appointed guardian of the German language, was a caustic critic of the Viennese press and a crusader for basic human rights and a civil society. He produced the extremely influential journal Die Fackel (The Torch) single-handedly for about 35 years. In the third issue of his journal, Kraus devoted six pages to criticizing Twain for his willingness to be lionized by the press and for his many readings of his essay "The Awful German Language". When Twain read the essay in front of the Concordia, a press club, Kraus wrote that he thought Twain's success there was probably due to the Viennese reporters having a lot of problems with their German too. Still, even though the two weren't friends or even acquaintances, it is probable they were more alike than not.

However, most of Twain's detractors were journalists writing for the many anti-Semitic newspapers and magazines in Vienna. Carl Dolmetsch in his book, "Our Famous Guest": Mark Twain in Vienna, suggests that amongst a number of reasons for their attacks was Twain's first name "Samuel" which contributed to their belief he was Jewish. In Catholic Vienna, Old Testament names such as Abraham, Aaron, Samuel, and so on were considered Jewish names while gentile names were taken from the New Testament or Saints, distinctions unknown in Protestant America. Troubled by the virulency of the anti-Semitic press and sentiments, not just in Vienna but in the world at large, Twain wrote his thoughts about Jews and Christians in his article "Concerning the Jews".

Twain was amongst the mourners at the funeral of Empress Elizabeth, assassinated by an Italian anarchist, on September 17, 1898. His new landlord of the Hotel Krantz, where Twain would move in October, invited Twain and his family to view the funeral procession from a hotel balcony directly across from the Capuchin Church which houses the Habsburg crypt. Twain later wrote and published "The Memorable Assassination".

On May 25, 1899, two days before Twain and his family left Austria to continue their travels, "Our Famous Guest" spent a little over 15 minutes with the Emperor Franz Joseph I in a private audience.

(An aside: Clara Clemens met her future husband, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, in Vienna. Gabrilowitsch was a Russian pianist and orchestra conductor, who had also been a student of Leschetizky. At his own request, Gabrilowitsch was buried at the foot of Mark Twain's grave in Elmira, New York in 1936. He and his famous father-in-law share a monument erected by Clara.)


Other print references —

Kraus, Karl, Die Fackel, Wien. Band 1, Nr. 3. Ende April 1899

Nics, Peter, Kaltenleutgeben von Damals bis Heute, Ein nasskalter Sommer oder Mark Twain in Kaltenleutgeben. 14. Folge

Rasmussen, R. Kent, Mark Twain, A-Z, Oxford University Press, 1995

© 2003 VirtualVienna.net

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