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Fame

Robert Louis Stevenson

“Maggie’s Room” is the nickname used by the staff at the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage in Saranac Lake for the former private quarters of Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, also known as “Maggie.”

In this room, which overlooks a bend in the Saranac River, Margaret wrote letters to her sister Jane Balfour in Scotland, keeping her up to date about all the new adventures she was tolerating at 58 years of age, as the newest member of the Stevenson expedition which was in its eighth year of transporting her son, the now-famous invalid author, to any locale with a climate that suited him, meaning a place where the air was nice to his diseased lungs. Saranac Lake was such a place. Less than a week after arriving at Baker’s in a rainstorm, Maggie was telling sister Jane that Louis “has been none the worse of the journey and the long drive in the rain (25 miles by horse and buggy from Loon Lake), and says that he already feels the air of Saranac doing him good, so I trust we have hit on a place that will really suit him.”

Margaret Stevenson’s letters from this journey, which was precipitated by the recent death of her husband Thomas Stevenson, were edited and published by Scribners in 1903, the title being “From Saranac to the Marquesas — Some Letters Written to Jane W. Balfour.” The Stevensons were renting rooms from the Baker family, and Maggie’s room was normally the room of Andrew and Mary, their landlords. It opens onto the sitting room opposite the famous fireplace.

“When Lou writes in the sitting room, I keep up the fire in my stove and stay in my own room, which is very bright and cheery,” Maggie wrote.

Maggie liked to write about routine things. Chores got done in the morning, and “At 12:30 we all meet at lunch and work is pretty well over for the day; at two the buggy arrives and two of us go for a drive. Louis always takes his walks quite alone, and hates to meet anyone when he is out; so it is fortunate that we are some way from the village, and that there is a private pine-wood close behind the house.” According to Edmund Krumbholz, a photographer, the author did go for rides but at night: “He was very excentric and very shy on meeting strangers. In fact, so much so that he would go sleigh-riding only on moonlight nights.”

Was Louis really shy? Why did he hate to meet anyone when he was out? If you are old and grew up in Saranac Lake, you might recall an occasional negative remark about Robert Louis Stevenson brought on by the mention of the house he once lived in, still there, on Stevenson Lane. Unlike other communities around the world that can’t wait to stake a publicity claim on RLS because he lived there or did something there, his reputation here has suffered somewhat for over a century, thanks to misinformation and willful ignorance.

So here is an important fact: Robert Louis Stevenson took out his pen at Baker’s one day and wrote a letter to the New York Evening Post which appeared on March 8, 1888. It was a letter of praise for the works of Dr. E.L. Trudeau and of the benefits waiting here for the victims of tuberculosis. It was the single most desirable stroke of advertising in this town’s history, coming from a celebrity who knew a thing or two about sanatoriums and health resorts. The popularity of RLS at the time, especially in the USA, would have made his endorsement as effective then as a good word from someone like Oprah Winfrey would today.

But you have to be famous, in a good way, to have that kind of pull, and RLS was new to the game when he arrived in Saranac Lake toward evening on Oct. 3, 1887. He also didn’t like being famous and said so in letters to his friends back home. It was his writing that made Stevenson famous in his lifetime, and today it is something more than just his books that keeps him famous. But at the time, in the fall of 1887, it was the buzz over his blockbuster little horror story, the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” that had him in the spotlight, just when his health was at a low ebb, so that he couldn’t react to his stardom in typical fashion. It was all too much for him, in fact, and he was thankful to get to Saranac Lake.

In a letter from early October, Louis wrote to Sir Walter Simpson, better known as “Bart,” Stevenson’s canoeing companion from his first book, “An Inland Voyage”: “My dear Simpson … I have had a very curious experience here; being very much made of, and called upon, and all that; quite the famous party in fact. It is not so nice as people try to make out … There are nice bits of course; for you meet very pleasant and interesting people; but the thing at large is a bore and a fraud; and I am much happier up here, where I see no one and live my own life.”

Nevertheless, Louis was hounded here, too, and found himself making a new rule which must have seemed like a strange necessity — visitors allowed only on Saturdays, limited to a three-hour stretch in the afternoons. Bertha Baker and her twin sister Blanche were 10 when their father rented most of their house to the Stevensons. Five years later, when they were both students at Normal School, today’s SUNY Plattsburgh, Bertha wrote an essay about RLS in which she recalled that “The author cared little for company and made very few acquaintances. Many hearing of the presence of the famous novelist would call upon him but Mr. Stevenson always declined seeing them, giving stress of work as his reason for doing so. Even well known people would be turned down without an interview. He would often say ‘I should think people would know that I am here to rest and do not care to be troubled’ and to emphasize his statement he would don his reefer coat and fur cap and go off over the fields on his snow shoes.”

“He didn’t like Saranac Lake” they will say. “He was stuck up, thought he was too good for the likes of us; that’s why he kept to himself,” and that remains the favorite theme among the misinformed, repeating gossip until it solidifies into tradition. A man named Leo from Sugar Bush, who went to war in 1941 and whose favorite story from the war was getting to meet “Pappy” Boyington in the Solomon Islands, was overheard posing a question throughout the diner section of long-gone Newberry’s store in Saranac Lake in 1975: “Why do they bother with that place (the Stevenson Cottage)? After all, the man had syphilis.” Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, would return to Saranac Lake to address the issue when he posed this question to a crowd of people at the Saranac Lake Free Library on a cold afternoon in February 1917: “Is it true that Mr. Stevenson hated Saranac Lake?” And no! He did not have syphilis.

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