Fact Check

Mark Twain on Coldest Winter

A ridiculous number of jokes, witty retorts, and words of wisdom have been falsely attributed to America's most famous humorist.

Published Oct. 5, 2002

 (Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com)
Image Via Everett Historical / Shutterstock.com
Mark Twain once asserted "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco."

San Francisco's weather patterns have confounded those who live there and those who visit for as long as there's been a San Francisco. It may be California, and it may be lovely, but the wind can be vicious, and those summertime temperatures can be disappointing bordering on "in danger of freezing if one doesn't keep moving."

Twain's droll comment is widely repeated to the point that you can't read a news story that makes mention of the cold of San Franciscan summers and not trip over it. It's a great quote. It's a wonderfully crafted quote. And it's a darned shame Twain never said it.

Searches of Twain writings, private letters, and other publications fail to locate this witticism. The closest resemblance to it appears in an 1879 letter in which Twain quoted a wag who, when asked if he'd ever seen such a cold winter, replied, "Yes, last summer." Twain then added his own comment, "I judge he spent his summer in Paris." (Twain's rejoinder is an example of treppenwitz — the wit of the stairway, those brilliant comebacks one thinks of only long after the moment has passed.)

Mark Twain uttered a great many memorable lines during his lifetime, but he has also had many a saying attributed to him that he never gave voice to. Another weather-related quote wrongly credited to Twain is the quip that "Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." (However, Twain did say "If you don't like the weather in New England, just wait a few minutes.")

Other apocryphal Twainisms include:

  • "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics."   (When Twain mentioned this pithy saying in his autobiography, he credited it to Benjamin Disraeli.)
  • "To cease smoking is the easiest thing I ever did. I ought to know because I've done it a thousand times."
  • "Wagner's music is better than it sounds."   (Twain was fond of using this quote, but he appropriately credited it to Edgar Wilson Nye, a fellow humorist.)
  • "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
  • "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."   (Actually, in 1897, when reports of the illness of James Ross Clemens, a cousin, were somehow misconstrued to mean that Twain himself was lying at death's door in London, he cleared up matters by telling the reporter who'd stopped by to check on him that "The report of my death was an exaggeration." The 'greatly' was added by Twain himself years after the fact in preparing an account of this incident. In his first draft he has himself directing the reporter to "Say the report is exaggerated," but in a later draft he scribbled "greatly" in front of "exaggerated." And there was never a wire sent to a London paper, as the anecdote now has it.)
  • "So I became a newspaperman. I hated to do it, but I couldn't find honest employment."
  • "The only way for a newspaperman to look at a politician is down."
  • "For every problem there is always a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong."
  • "The finest Congress money can buy."
  • "Whenever I feel the urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away."

Why does Twain attract so many misattributed witticisms? According to Ralph Keyes in Nice Guys Finish Seventh, his compendium of misattributed and false quotes, "Any orphan line with even a hint of drollness is subject to being put in his [Twain's] mouth." Robert Hirst, General Editor of the University of California's Mark Twain Project, says: "It's like an insurance policy. Attributing something to Mark Twain adds to the joke. When they first hear his name, people are disposed to laugh; they're ready to laugh. That's the chief reason he's saddled with so much stuff that isn't his."

Good lines become great ones when presented as the utterances of those whom we already hold in high esteem for their wit.


Boller. Paul F. and John George.   They Never Said It.     New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1989   ISBN 0-19-506469-0   (pp. 123-124).

Keyes, Ralph.   Nice Guys Finish Seventh.     New York: Harper Collins, 1992   ISBN 0-06-270020-0   (pp. 109-113).

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