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Friday, March 30, 2012

Alice Fahs on how Kate Carew tricked Mark Twain into an interview

Guest blog post by Alice Fahs, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine and author of Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space

Kate Carew
To snare an interview with Mark Twain was already quite an achievement for an ambitious young newspaper woman at the turn of the century. But Kate Carew went one step farther: she interviewed the great author without his knowledge. How? First discovered by Ambrose Bierce in San Francisco, Carew (pen name for Mary Chambers) had already spent a decade developing a reputation as a witty caricaturist for the San Francisco Examiner, when, in 1900, she landed a job in New York working for Joseph Pulitzer's mighty New York World. She was one of the hundreds of women entering newspaper work at this time, with many of them creating fresh "human interest" features such as the new-fangled celebrity interview.

Assigned to do a profile of Twain that would feature her drawings, Carew joined the author—a "fresh, spotless little old man"—for breakfast at his hotel, the Hotel Earlington on Twenty-Seventh street. Unfortunately, however, her editor had failed to tell her one crucial fact: Twain was willing to be sketched but not to be interviewed. Under retainer to his publisher at the time, he was not free to give interviews without approval.

As they chatted, with Carew keeping her pencil and sketch book well out of sight under the table, Twain noticed her apparent "inertia" and asked with a "touch of fatherly reproof" whether she was getting what she wanted? "Only a few notes," she answered.

Carew recorded what happened next:

"Notes!" He half rose from his chair. "Notes!" There was a sudden drawing down of his shaggy eyebrows.

"An artist's notes, you know," I hastened to explain. "Just scratches on the paper—an eyebrow, a wrinkle, a coat collar."

He sank back, much relieved.

"Make all the notes—that kind of notes—you want to," he said. "So long as—you—don't interview me, I—don't care. I won't be interviewed. I don't—approve—of interviews; don't like them—on—principle."
As Carew wryly observed, "this was not a very good omen for further conversation."
Was the interview over? Hardly. Carew wrote about her difficulty in getting Twain to talk, so that her own struggles as an interviewer became a crucial part of her story. Twain had just returned to America after years in Europe. "If I could only get this most taciturn of humorists and philosophers to tell his impressions of America—not a whole budget of impressions, just one or two tiny ones that might escape his determination not to be interviewed!" she exclaimed. But Twain was a "master of the art of silence." "The skyscrapers? Not a word. The torn-up streets? Not a word. Rapid transit? Not a word. Politics? Not a word."

Twain did speak with waiters, however—and Carew secretly recorded these fleeting interactions as part of a portrait that still has a fresh and surprisingly in-the-moment feel.

Reading Carew's full interview, we can easily imagine the somewhat excruciating experience of eating breakfast with America's greatest—and at that moment most silent—humorist. "You can't imagine anything more solemn than the atmosphere he carries with him," Carew ruefully observed.

Yet Carew's October 21, 1900, interview overcame these obstacles to launch a career that over the next twenty years would come to include hundreds of interviews—with literary figures (Jack London, Bret Harte, W. B. Yeats, Emile Zola), theatrical and movie celebrities (Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, D. W. Griffith), artists and inventors (Picasso, Wilbur and Orville Wright ), sports heroes and politicians (Jack Johnson, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt—“De-lighted!” was apparently all he said)—all with sketches so distinctive they came to be called “carewcatures.” Quite an outcome from a breakfast interviewing a most stubborn and recalcitrant subject.

Illustrations from New York World, 1900. Used by permission from Christine Chambers

Also of interest:

Related LOA works: The Complete Mark Twain Library (7 books, plus a FREE volume)


  1. I would like to know if it was Kate Carew who did the art work for the Annie Pulitzer murder case of "The World's" Sept. 19, 1902's front page.

    Charles A. Young

  2. Charles: The image on the cover of the evening edition of The World for September 19 (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1902-09-19/ed-1/seq-1/#) appears to be a silhouetted photograph of Anna Pulitzer which, according to the caption, was provided by the family.

  3. I'm aware that Annie's image is a photograph, what I'm asking is who did the artwork surrounding the photo. There are two men standing next to the canal where Annie's body was found. This drawing and the sketches of Hooper Young in Jail look like they were done by Kate. I just need verification.

    Charles A. Young

    1. My apologies. I gave you the wrong date of the newspaper I was looking at. I'm trying to find out who the artist was who drew the artwork in the September 20, 1902 issue of "The World." There is a drawing of William Hooper Young on the front page, and artwork on page two that I believe was done by Kate Carew. If she didn't work on the Annie Pulitzer murder case, can you tell me who the artist was?

    2. Nobody on the LOA staff is an expert on newspaper illustrators, so we we’re a bit out of our league here. But it appears that the cover illustration on the cover the September 20 issue (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83030193/1902-09-20/ed-1/seq-1/) is an enlargement of a police sketch, a supposition supported by the caption (“Enlarged from the photograph by which Young was identified”) and the mention of the illustration in the article (“his picture, published to-day”).

      In addition, the same illustration appeared in a number of American newspapers, as far away as the Evening Bulletin in Hawaii (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016413/1902-10-18/ed-1/seq-9.pdf)

      As for the illustration on page 2, it seems highly doubtful that it is by Carew. She was predominantly a caricaturist, and the illustration doesn’t look like any of her other cartoons, nor is there any indication that she ever did sketches of crime scenes. (See http://www.katecarew.com/ for samples of her work.) Instead, the sketch of Young’s apartment could have been made by any of a number of Pulitzer’s staff illustrators.


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