Just at the time that my bookselling career was taking life in 1980, I got married and had my only child, a daughter. And, as it turns out, my wife’s maiden name is Gillis. She is the great granddaughter of William R. Gillis, who, along with his brother Steve, were great friends of Sam Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain. Together they were newspapermen in Sonora, California, just east of what might be called the gold country part of California.
William R. Gillis lived for many years in what was known as the Mark Twain Cabin on Jackass Hill in Sonora, Tuolumne County, where he was happy to sign copies of his book, Memories of Mark Twain and Steve Gillis published in March 1924 by Sonora’s The Banner. It has a frontispiece photo of Twain, a photo of William R., and a photo of the Mark Twain Cabin on Jackass Hill.
Steve, William R., and other members of the Gillis clan knew Sam Clemens as just one of the boys. This was well before Clemens published his first book. In fact, it was the Gillis family who took ol’ Sam to the jumping frog competition in Calaveras County which resulted in the first book by the man now well known as Mark Twain.
Naturally, I asked my wife if her family had a collection of Mark Twain first editions. I was elated when she said yes, and that they were all inscribed by Mark Twain, but I was equally dejected when she reported that no one knew where the books were. Like so many items found in everyone’s garage, or like socks in the dryer, the books just disappeared.
I did manage to find a few copies of old William R. Gillis’s book, but those Mark Twains? They were among those that got away. They are the ones you always remember most.