Twain: “The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent…”

Samuel Clemons, aka Mark Twain. (Image: Public Domain)

For generations people have quoted Mark Twain as having said, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in Duluth.”

As far as anyone can tell, he never said nor wrote the statement.

According to Quote Investigator, the quotation may go back to 18th-century London. In 1879 England’s Horace Walpole quotes
1 8th-century British actor James Quin who had been asked if he had “ever seen so bad a winter?”
Quin allegedly replied “Yes, just such a one last summer!”

While in Paris in 1880, Twain himself quoted Quin using the statement, but said nothing of Duluth: “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.”

But others did use the quotation in regards to Duluth, and more have made the same claim regarding other cities, including Milwaukee, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and more. But the first documentation crediting Twain with the saying and Duluth as the location comes in 1928.

The notorious bon mot is referenced by the Duluth News Tribune on June 17, 1900, with no mention of Twain:

One of these days someone will tell that mouldy old chestnut about the finest winter he ever spent being the summer he spent in Duluth,and one of these husky commercial travelers, who have been here and know all about our climate, will smite him with an uppercut and break his slanderous jaw. The truth shall come out in time.

The Duluth Herald referenced the quote several months before, responding to a Life Magazine article calling Duluth the “Meanest City n the World.” The piece supposedly quoted “a Swede” who allegedly said, ‘Da vorst vinter a effe spen en may life bean von sommor vat a leve en Dulute, Manasouta,” [The worst winter I ever spent in my life was one summer that I lived in Duluth, Minnesota.] The Herald said the statement was “unworthy of comment, for it is stale and decayed. Every new [Duluth] resident has heard that joke before he learned the streets.”

Twain never did spend a summer in Duluth. The first time Twain visited the Zenith City was in June 1886. He arrived on the steamer Empress of India from Buffalo, accompanied by his daughters. He was on his way to visit his mother in Keokuk, Iowa. He stayed at the St. Louis Hotel, but evaded Duluth reporters. Only one story ran about his visit, with the reporter complaining that he may have to “black his face and sling hash at the Hotel St. Louis for a day” in order to catch Twain, who was, “too old a bird to get caught in the chaff.”

Twain also visited Duluth for over a week (but hardly a summer) in July of 1895 and gave some lectures at First Methodist Church. None of the newspaper coverage of his visit referenced the quote.

Story by Tony Dierckins. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Tony Dierckins.