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The Very Brief Friendship of Maxim Gorky and Mark Twain

In April 1906, Czar Nicholas caved in to protests from around the world, and released Maxim Gorky from the prison into which he had thrown him. Mark Twain and other writers, hearing that the celebrated author of “The Lower Depths” had been freed, invited him to New York City, and Gorky, still harassed by the secret police, accepted. With him on the voyage was the actress Maria Andreyeva.

Docking in Hoboken, Gorky was cheered by thousands of Russian immigrants, and a day later he was the guest of honor at a white-tie dinner arranged by Twain. Gorky, who spoke no English, came with an interpreter. Through him, he implored the guests to donate money to aid his Bolshevik comrades in overthrowing the czar. His fund-raising was helped along by William Randolph Hearst, publisher of The New York American, which featured Gorky’s articles on its front page. The news that Theodore Roosevelt had invited Gorky to the White House also helped.

That invitation, however, was soon withdrawn, after Hearst’s archrival, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The New York World, printed a scandalous story under the headline: “Gorky Brings Actress Here as Mme. Gorky.” It revealed that the Russian had left his wife and children in Moscow, then lied to customs officials, telling them that his companion was his wife — a scoop offered by an agent for the czar, who also supplied photographs of the Gorky family.

Gorky was now an outcast. Ordered to leave the Hotel Belleclaire with the explanation from the owner that “my hotel is a family hotel,” he and Maria fled to the Lafayette-Brevoort, but were told that while they could take their meals there, they could not sleep there. Twain, at home at 21 Fifth Avenue, now worried that his association with this branded libertine was going to cost him the love of his readers. He insisted to reporters that he was still a revolutionist, but he feared that “Mr. Gorky had seriously impaired his efficiency as a persuader.” Twain then resigned from the anti-czarist committee that he himself had founded.

When Gorky lambasted New York City as a “monstrous metropolis” that boiled people alive, Twain retorted: “He hits the public in the face with his hat and then holds it out for contributions.”

Edward Sorel, a caricaturist and muralist, is the author and illustrator of “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary.”

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