Three years ago, Caroline Thomas Harnsberger was the special guest of honor at Mark Twain's 150th birthday party at Delmonico's in New York City. A re-creation of his 70th birthday party held there in 1905, the affair featured Chicago actor Richard Henzel as Mark Twain. Guests paid $150 a plate to celebrate the birth of America's most representative author and to honor Caroline, his foremost scholar and authority.
At 86, this Villager retains the important quality she has always shared with Twain: humor. Hilarious quotes appear on her door in the Healthcare Center, where she lives, and Dr. Harold Burtt's daily morning broadcasts to the units are often punctuated by her contributed material.
"My dad had a whole set of Mark Twain books," she remembers when explaining how she became interested in Twain, " and I read everything of his I could get my hands on. I indexed all his subject matter, because it was hard to remember where all the quotes came from, and the card file led to my first book, 'Mark Twain at Your Fingertips.'"
To further research Twain, she followed his trail from Hawaii to Austria and later wrote a letter to Twain's daughter Clara, resulting in a 20-year correspondence of 800 letters, a close friendship and her latest book, "Mark Twain's Clara," published in 1982. In between were three additional volumes and three miniature books about Twain.
Prominent Twain impersonators Richard Henzel, who has performed twice at the Village, and Hal Holbrook, whom Caroline has known for 29 years, consider her card file of Mark Twain quotes and anecdotes a treasure trove and value Caroline as a script consultant. Although Twain has been her main focus, she has also written books on Lincoln, Robert A. Taft and George Bernard Shaw, among others.
Beginning life in the Thomas farmhouse in Grandview, which still stands above Northwest Blvd. and Goodale St., Caroline grew up in a musical family and began playing the violin as a child. (A typical family joke Caroline shares: "I play the piano by ear." "That's nothing, I had an uncle who fiddled with his whiskers!")
After graduation from Grandview High School in a class of about 13, Caroline attended the Juilliard School of Music for three years, then finished up as an exchange student studying violin at the Conservatory de Paris for a year. "I had met my future husband in Upper Arlington before I left," she recalls, "and we decided to marry in Paris."
Audley Harnsberger was a Virginian with the Pure Oil Co., which moved its headquarters to Chicago, where they lived in suburban Winnetka for about 50 years until his death in 1981.
During these years, Caroline found time to raise three children, play the violin in the Women's Symphony Orchestra for seven years and the Evanston Symphony for 37 years, open a music store where she also repaired violins, lecture, write 13 books, and learn to fly when she was 59. Audley had a plane, and both sons received licenses as soon as they turned 16. When Audley's blood pressure became high, Caroline learned to fly so she could be his copilot. She assembled the data she needed at her fingertips into a "Pilot's Ready Reference" manual which sold 30,000 copies over the next 20 years.
Caroline "returned to her roots" in the Tri-Village area when it was time to retire, moving to the Village seven years ago. "My mother lived in Hillside House (at the Village) when it first opened," she recalls.
Enjoying the Village programs, especially the concerts, Caroline continues to pursue her interest in oil painting and in sharing information about Twain. She is a prime example of her own philosophy that we are all given potential talents that are intended to be used.