Mark Twain, America's first celebrity, traveled the globe speaking in the 19th century when recording machines were being invented and marketed. But no Twain voice recording is known to survive. There's an unknown reward for the one who discovers it.
Mark Twain's voice is missing.
"Unless there is an amazing discovery somewhere on earth some time soon, no one will ever hear Mark Twain speak," said Rod Rawlings, a voice and stage actor who portrays the iconic author, speaker and best-known American of his era.
Scholars and devotees of America's first celebrity would think it sensational if a recording of Twain's voice were found, he said, but most have abandoned or suppressed that hope.
If the discovery should happen, it could be almost anywhere on earth, he said -- in the United States or Canada where the literary giant traveled and spoke most extensively, in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria or England where he lived for years, or in other parts of the world he visited, including Europe, Sweden, Russia, Australia, Fiji, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Bermuda and the Caribbean.
Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, lived 1835 to 1910. While he was enchanting 19th century audiences with stories and speeches, Rawlings said, sound recording devices were being invented, improved and marketed widely.
Twain was known to personally make use of recording machines for dictation, and to have been recorded by others, but nothing containing his voice is known to survive.
"No institutional collection now claims a Twain recording," Rawlings said, "so if one is to be found, it lies elsewhere, unknown or unrecognized, and time is surely running out."
The dominant audio technology of his time employed non-electrical, wind-up devices to inscribe grooves of sound vibrations on rotating wax cylinders, a nearly simultaneous triumph of invention by Alexander Graham Bell and Twain's friend, Thomas Edison.
Wax cylinders are susceptible to degradation over time, primarily from temperature changes and the growth of mold. They can be damaged or destroyed if improperly played. Many thousands still exist around the world. Some are housed in museum collections. Others, Rawlings is certain, are stored in forgotten containers on dark shelves of attics, basements and back rooms.
He believes there is a credible chance that someone, somewhere not only captured Mark Twain's voice over a century ago but also safely stored it away for posterity.
In 1957, for example, an unlabeled box of wax cylinders was discovered behind Edison's desk in Menlo Park, New Jersey. To avoid damage, the cylinders were left unplayed until better technology could be developed.
"In 2011," Rawlings said, "a device called an Archeophone safely played the cylinders and converted the sound to digital audio. It was astonishing that one of Edison's wax cylinders revealed the voice of Otto von Bismark, Germany's first Chancellor, as he spoke and sang in 1889."
At the time an Edison technician was recording Bismark, Mark Twain was already admired world-wide, Rawlings pointed out, having published four of his more eminent books, Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and his undisputed masterwork, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
"His voice would have been the most famous on earth in that day," Rawlings said.
"Twain was the international rock star of his era. He was the subject of numerous interviews, features, sketches, paintings, advertisements, caricatures and busts. Long before there were professional paparazzi, it seemed that every amateur with Kodak's new Brownie camera stopped him to take a picture."
In 1909 Edison visited his aging friend at Stormfield, Twain's estate in Connecticut, and brought his recent invention of a motion picture camera. The result was a silent film of less than two minutes. It is the only known film of Twain, and shows two scenes of the white-haired and white-suited celebrity, first as he vigorously walks around the home while smoking a cigar, next as he sits at a veranda table to take tea with his two adult daughters, Clara and Jean.
Did Edison record Twain's voice? It is purported that he did, but no one has verified it or produced the result.
Did others record Twain's voice? Yes. One noted collector claims to have found twice as many occasions of Twain being recorded as are generally known, but that research is not published.
In line with his own profession, Rawlings credits Twain's polished stage presentations for elevating the art of solo performance. "William Dean Howells, a writer and editor, wrote in a note to his friend, Twain, after seeing a performance -- You simply straddled down to the footlights and took that house up in the hollow of your hand and tickled it.
"And there was Twain's remarkable oratory, which always refreshed an audience," Rawlings said. "He couldn't be boring or ordinary, and his talks became essential for the most important banquets, dedications, testimonials and commemorations."
Scholars credit Twain's writing with liberating American literature from stilted grammatical perfection and moving it toward the freer expression of daily speech, Rawlings said, adding "His writing opened doors to science fiction, to historical fiction and, above all, to timeless humor and sharp satire.
"He was the most conspicuous person on the planet, by his own account. He was heard live around the world. It's a shame and a great loss that today, after all his appearances on stage and his lasting influence on global cultures, no one can hear the tone or timbre of his voice, the distinctive drawling style of speaking, or what Twain himself called his long talk.
"To read the several descriptions of Twain's voice is perplexing," Rawlings continued. "They report different, even opposing vocal characteristics. They don't fit any recognizable model.
"They say his voice is strong and clear but also mumbling; that it carries a southern twang, a western lilt and a Yankee clip; that the slowness of it is annoying, yet charming; that it is deep, but rises to sing soprano. How can you assemble all that into one voice?"
Lacking an actual recording, Rawlings said that many Twain fans consider the voice of Hal Holbrook, the acclaimed actor who has portrayed Twain on stage for 58 years, to be nearest to Twain's. Early in his career, Holbrook met with the author's only surviving daughter, Clara Clemens (1874-1962), who approved his characterization.
Other "Twainiacs" content themselves with the tantalizing recording of William Gillette, an actor who had lived next to Twain as a boy, and who had performed his imitation in front of Twain as an adult, receiving the master's approval.
Gillette was recorded in 1934 near the end of his life when he was a guest of an English professor at Harvard University. In the recording, he portrays Twain narrating the introduction to the story of The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.
"So what we really hear," Rawlings said, "is a monologue of Gillette imitating Twain in the manner that Twain would imitate the speech of a fictional character in his story. That is three times removed from a true Twain voice, and just not close enough.
"I've posted a video with Gillette's recording on my website, but with a disclaimer."
Could Twain's voice be recognized if a recording were found?
Twain collectors believe it is likely that a recording could be authenticated, Rawlings said.
How much would a true recording of Twain's voice be worth?
"It's been called a Holy Grail, so depending on the recording's length, subject matter and audibility, it could be worth a great deal," said Rawlings. "Until it's found, the only certainty is that there would be an unknown reward.
"We are the posterity it may have been saved for, so who will find it, when and where?
"More questions than answers," he said, "just the kind of mystery Twain would relish."