Enter Robert Louis Stevenson
By 1887, Andrew and Mary Baker were blessed with five children but not too blessed after the first two died. Surviving were twin girls, Blanche and Bertha, age 10, and Ralph, 15. In later years, Bertha recalled how that most unusual winter began with an “accidental meeting. Papa was on his way to town and on reaching the village, he saw one of his neighbors standing in the street talking to Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson. It seems this gentleman had just given directions to Mrs. S. as to finding our house. He then said that she could speak with Papa since he was coming. She did so and arrangements were made for rental of [half] the house.”
By 1887, Robert Louis Stevenson was already a household name in the U.S., where pirated editions of his books were pervasive. The American reading public was his biggest audience from which, being a foreigner, he got nothing for lack of copyright protection. However, that state of affairs had terminated without warning just 26 days before the author checked into Baker’s for the winter.
On that fateful Sept. 7, 1887, Stevenson’s ship literally and figuratively came in when the steamer S.S. Ludgate Hill approached a New York City skyline much different from today’s. On board, Mr. and Mrs. R.L. Stevenson observed crowd activity on the pier ahead. Drawing closer, the unsuspecting storyteller spied the face of an old friend in the crunch. It was Will H. Low, an American artist he had met in France long ago, to whom he had dedicated his poem “Youth.” Next to Low was a total stranger who RLS would get to know in a few days, while he posed in bed for the noted sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens.
Upon seeing his friend and sensing the vibes, Stevenson quickly realized that everybody was there to see him, the creator of the current international blockbuster hit, “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” less than a year in print.
The serendipitous timing of Stevenson’s presence in New York was remarkable. Imagine his surprise to learn that the first-ever stage production of “Jekyll & Hyde” was only five days out and a few blocks away at Madison Square Theatre. Starring Richard Mansfield, it had premiered the week before in Boston to sensational reviews.
What a difference 11 days at sea can make, like leaving one life and stepping into another. The excess of American adulation about to be heaped on Stevenson came out of the blue. Here was an unplanned, one-man British invasion to judge from his letters: “Nearly died of interviews and visitors during twenty-four hours in New York,” and, “If Jesus Christ came, they would make less fuss.” To Henry James, he contrasted his U.S. reception to “the cool obscurity” he left behind in Bournemouth, England.
This diminutive skeleton of a man had made it big in the Big Apple! But fame and fortune couldn’t give RLS what he wanted most. Heck, he couldn’t even stick around to see “Jekyll & Hyde” at the theater because, for him, the urban pollution would be lethal.
The journey of Stevenson and company into the Adirondack wilderness had not been in their plans. The Bakers had less than a week to make ready for the unexpected tenants. That entailed turning over their own part of the house and making temporary quarters for themselves in another section. Between the two families was a kitchen they shared. Water was hauled in buckets from a nearby spring.
The Bakers’ account book indicated that their celebrity occupant paid $50 a month for seven rooms and $2 a cord for firewood. The Stevensons arrived with only their baggage and required a furnished apartment. Most of the furniture on exhibit today in the museum was authenticated by the Bakers in 1916, to be “the same furniture that was used by Robert Louis Stevenson.”