Anchor Brewing historian Dave Burkhart uncovers the truth behind one of the most famous quotes about San Francisco that Mark Twain didn’t say.
Mark Twain is what Fred Shapiro, author of the Yale Book of Quotations, calls “the great American quotation magnet.” If it’s clever, witty, or ironic, it simply must have been Twain (AKA Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910)) who said it. Shapiro’s favorite Twain remark that Twain never said was “quoted” in Evan Esar’s Dictionary of Humorous Quotations in 1949: “Twenty-four years ago I was strangely handsome; in San Francisco in the rainy season I was often mistaken for fair weather.”
Twain’s most well-known remark about the weather is also something he never said: “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” What native San Franciscan hasn’t heard this clever quip served up by a shivering, Bermuda-shorted sightseer on a fogbound Golden Gate Bridge?
The first clue to the origins of this famous non-quote lies with Mark Twain himself. It is contained in a letter he wrote in 1880 to Lucius Fairchild, a Civil War general who served as Wisconsin’s governor from 1866 to 1872. The Clemenses and the Fairchilds spent time together in Paris while Twain was writing A Tramp Abroad and Fairchild was the American consul. The weather in Paris in June 1879 was miserable, unlike the weather in San Francisco in June 1864, which Twain described in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise:
“The birds, and the flowers, and the Chinamen, and the winds, and the sunshine, and all things that go to make life happy, are present in San Francisco to-day, just as they are all days of the year. Therefore, one would expect to hear these things spoken of, and gratefully, and disagreeable matters of little consequence allowed to pass without comment. I say, one would suppose that. But don’t deceive yourself—any one who supposes anything of the kind, supposes an absurdity. The multitude of pleasant things by which all people of San Francisco are surrounded are not talked of at all. No—they damn the wind, and they damn the dust, and they give all their attention to damning them well, and to all eternity. The blasted winds and the infernal dust—these alone form the eternal topics of conversation, and a mighty absurd topic it seems to one just out of Washoe (Twain had just arrived in San Francisco from what is now Virginia City, Nevada. It was the creation of the Nevada Territory, from the western part of the Utah Territory known as Washoe, that brought Samuel Clemens and his brother Orion west.). There isn’t enough wind here to keep breath in my body, or dust enough to keep sand in my craw. But it is human nature to find fault—to overlook that which is pleasant to the eye, and seek after that which is distasteful to it.”
Twain’s human nature was severely tested by France’s nature. His distaste for Parisian weather that spring and summer grows more palpable with each entry in his notebook:
May 7: “I wish this eternal winter would come to an end. Snow flakes fell to-day, & also about a week ago. Have had rain almost without intermission for 2 months and one week. Have had a fire [in the fireplace] every day since Sept. 10, & have now just lighted one.”
May 28: “This is one of the coldest days of this most damnable & interminable winter.”
June 1: “Still this vindictive winter continues. Had a raw cold rain to-day; to-night we sit around a rousing wood fire.”
A week later, Twain became so exasperated with the wintry Parisian summer that he decided to shop for firewood—at least metaphorically—at Tiffany’s.
“Thinking Tiffany would give honest measure, went there & ordered 15 sticks of wood. He said he had none in stock—said his license allowed him to deal only in such jewelry as comes under the head of ‘wearing apparel.’ Said a great jeweler here once attempted to evade or ignore this, but the moment he displayed a wood-pile in his showcase the regular wood dealers mutinied in a body & began to sell diamonds in their woodyards at ruinous rates. This brought about an immediate compromise, & the two trades have never encroached upon each other’s domains since.”
Twain had clearly had enough. A few lines down he made this pithily humorous entry:
“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals—apart from those drawbacks it is a fine country.”
By September 1879, the Clemenses were back in the good old U.S. of A., where Twain finally completed A Tramp Abroad the following January. On April 28, 1880, from his home in Hartford, he wrote Lucius Fairchild a letter congratulating him on his appointment four months earlier to the post of Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Spain. Twain began:
“For this long time I have been intending to congratulate you fervently upon your translation to—to—anywhere—for anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the Damnable. More than a hundred years ago, somebody asked Quin, ‘Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?’ ‘Yes,’ said he, ‘last summer.’ I judge he spent his summer in Paris. Let us change the proverb; let us say all bad Americans go to Paris when they die. No let us not say it; for this adds a new horror to immortality.”
Unlike our Bermuda-shorted tourist, Twain at least gave credit where credit was due. But who was Quin, this obscure, eighteenth-century wit with one name?
As it turns out, he was the famous Drury Lane and Covent Garden actor and epicure James Quin (1693–1766), renowned for his portrayal of the stage’s greatest characters, from Falstaff to Cato. Coincidentally, both of these characters have a beer connection.
Falstaff is not just the star of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and its operatic spinoff, Verdi’s Falstaff. He also inspired one of America’s favorite beers, a beer once brewed in San Francisco and a beer that no one ever thought Anchor Steam would outlive! Falstaff (like Lucky Lager) was once made in San Francisco by General Brewing. On March 31, 1978, when General shut down, it left a tiny, little enterprise (and its relatively unknown beer, Anchor Steam) as San Francisco’s sole surviving brewery!
Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato. A Tragedy was a George Washington favorite, and with good reason. Its protagonist is the great Roman politician and orator Cato the Younger (95–46 B.C.E.). If Mark Twain is the quote magnet, then Cato, thanks to Addison (1672–1719), might best be described as the quote mother lode. Many of our founding fathers’ most famous quotes, from Nathan Hale’s “I only regret, that I have but one life to lose for my country” (Cato: “What Pity is it That we can die but Once to serve our Country!”) to a line frequently delivered in our Anchor taproom, Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty, or give me death” (Cato: “It is now a time to talk of aught But Chains, or Conquest; Liberty, or Death.”), may be traced directly to lines from Addison’s play.
A trip to the San Francisco Public Library afforded me the opportunity to examine firsthand two fascinating little books about James Quin. The first, Quin’s Jests; or the Facetious Man’s Pocket–Companion. Containing every Species of Wit, Humour, and Repartee, with a Compleat Collection of Epigrams, Bon-mots, etc., etc., was published in London in 1766, the year of Quin’s death. It is moderately entertaining (Twain’s humor is universal and eternal, Quin’s—with a few exceptions—is unfortunately neither), but regrettably devoid of the seasonal wit I was seeking.
But the library had another short book about Quin, with an even longer long title, The Life of Mr. James Quin Comedian, with the History of the Stage from his Commencing Actor to his Retreat to Bath. Illustrated with Many Curious and Interesting Anecdotes of Several Persons of Distinction, Literature, and Gallantry to Which is Added a Supplement of Original Facts and Anecdotes, Arranged from Authentic Sources, together with his Trial for the Murder of M. Bowen, published in London in 1887. It contains a detailed account of Quin’s life and his trial for the murder of a fellow actor, William Bowen, who took umbrage at Quin’s opinion of his acting. Here, at last, was the Quin quote in question:
“BON MOT OF QUIN.—One summer, when the month of July happened to be extremely cold, some person asked Quin if he ever remembered such a summer. ‘Oh yes,’ replied the wag, ‘last winter.’”
Eureka! But wait a minute. Although the first part of this tiny tome contains a reprint of a book published, like Quin’s Jests, in 1766, Quin’s bon mot was in the second part, not published until 1887. And Twain’s letter was written seven years before that. I had my source, but what was Twain’s? Assuming he had read it rather than heard it, he must have seen it in the only other known pre-1880 mention of Quin’s quote, which, I was relieved to learn, was also at the SFPL.
Published in 1840, it is The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford: Including Numerous Letters now Published from the Original Manuscripts, Vol. VI, which contains letters by Walpole written from 1778 until the year of his death, 1797.
In a letter from Strawberry Hill dated July 29, 1789, Walpole writes Miss Berry in Italy about the “detestable weather… not one hot day; and, if a morning shines, the evening closes with a heavy shower.” Walpole continues this letter on July 31 with an allusion to St. Swithin (also spelled Swithun). The ninth-century Bishop of Winchester’s request to buried outside rather than inside Winchester Cathedral was un-granted 109 years after his death when, in 971, he was moved inside, whereupon, according to legend, it rained for forty days. So, tradition has it that if it rains on St. Smithun’s feast day, July 15, you’re in for a wet summer.
“To-day I have dined at Fulham along with Mrs. Boscawen; but St. Swithin played the devil so, that we could not sit out of doors, and had fires to chase the watery spirits. Quin, being once asked if he had ever seen so bad a winter, replied, ‘Yes, just such an one as last summer!’—and here is its younger brother!”
At last, here was Twain’s source for Quin’s quip. To Twain’s credit, he never took credit for the greatest quote never written about summer in San Francisco.
If the mighty Quin lived in San Francisco today, of course, the British bon vivant would certainly have much to say about the arts, the food, the beer, and, no doubt, the weather. And perhaps he would give us this:
“The coldest beer you’ll ever drink is a Summer in San Francisco!”