Mark Twain: Man in White Part 11

Mark Twain: Man in White -

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IT ALL FELL APART so quickly. In just a year and a half Twain's seemingly charmed life as a proud new homeowner in Redding had turned tragic and left him alone and ill in a house far too large for his needs, and already haunted by sad memories. What had he done to deserve such misfortune? He asked himself that question over and over. Bewildered by his fate, he glanced through some of the condolence letters he was receiving and noticed that many contained variations on the sentiment "G.o.d does not willingly punish us."

Turning to Paine, he said, "Well, why does He do it then? We don't invite it. Why does He give Himself the trouble?"2 His losses weighed so heavily on him that he was beginning to wonder why he had bothered in the last few years to build his house or compose a single line. He vowed that his handwritten pages on Jean's death would mark the end of his writing career, and would form the final chapter of his autobiography. There was no point in continuing it, he said. Much of his motivation for acc.u.mulating new material, and for zealously protecting his copyrights, had come from his desire to provide income for his daughters after he was gone.

But now what good could all that literary property do for a family that seemed to have disappeared before his eyes in a flash?

"Poor Jean, has no use for it now," he told himself; "Clara is happily and prosperously married & has no use for it."3 So much time and effort had been spent to further Clara's career ambitions, and now she was completely absorbed in her new life as Mrs. Gabrilowitsch, and was living thousands of miles away. So much time and effort had also been spent to treat Jean's illness, and to make sure that her expenses were met for as long as she lived. At her death she was still a young woman-only twenty-nine-and Twain had always a.s.sumed that she would survive him by many years. Until the very last day of her life, he was worried about what would happen to her when he was gone.

In the aftermath of her death, he told Twich.e.l.l that his old habit of worrying about her future had, in her last days, become a "terror" that had cost him "much sleep." As he explained in a letter to Clara on December 29, "I was in such distress when I came to realize that you were gone far away & no one stood between her & danger but me-& I could die at any moment, & then-oh then what would become of her!"4 But now his future suddenly looked much different. For the first time in almost forty years, he was entirely on his own. And he didn't know what to do with himself. Lonely and restless, he felt that he couldn't stay at Stormfield. It was now a paradise lost. Writing to the actress Margaret Illington, he said the house "was desolation, its charm gone." Rather than linger there, enduring the cold weather and confronting sad reminders of better days, he decided to go back to Bermuda as soon as possible.5 Paine agreed to look after Stormfield while he was gone, and Claude was asked to accompany him on the trip, with the idea that once again Twain would stay at Bay House, and his a.s.sistant would stay at a hotel. On January 3 Paine sent an urgent letter telling the Allens that Twain would sail on the 5th, and that the author was looking forward to having his old room again if they approved. This time, however, Twain felt that it was only proper to pay for the privilege, and his biographer's letter made it clear that he wouldn't stay on any other terms.

"He feels that he could not take advantage of this generosity on your part for any length of time without some compensation. He would not feel comfortable, otherwise, and he would not be happy. He has suggested to me that you accept from him the sum of $25 per week during the period of his stay, and I sincerely hope you will not refuse to fall in with this arrangement."

Hoping to prevent any problems, Paine offered Mr. and Mrs. Allen some earnest tips on the proper care and maintenance of their famous guest. His advice was remarkably candid, and unintentionally funny. Be wary, he said, of creating too many social obligations for him. "Mr. Clemens is very impulsive, and likely to fall in with a suggestion, social or otherwise, and then be very sorry of it an hour or two later. We who have lived with and about him a long time have learned these things, and try to act accordingly."

Given the author's long history of mismanaging his business affairs, Paine was especially keen to warn the Allens not to let anyone talk their guest into making a financial investment. "He has never made an investment that brought him a return, however promising it may have seemed in the beginning. He does not wish ever to make an investment again. But, as I have said, he is impulsive, enthusiastic, and likely to fall in with the suggestion of a plan which would only mean discomfort, worry and nightmare for him later on, and he has had enough of such things. ... If he should seek your advice in any matter, advise him only to wait a few days and think it over himself, and write to me about it."6 Just before he sailed Twain came down with a cold, and at the pier his biographer had to remind him to b.u.t.ton his overcoat in the freezing weather. According to one report, his response was "that he never could remember b.u.t.tons anyway, and that he had a habit of forgetting that there was weather." Before he sailed, someone asked why he wasn't taking a friend with him to Bermuda, as he had in the past. He shrugged and held up his cigar. "This is my only companion and solace. It is about all I care for now, and I have been warned about making it too constant a companion. I detest the idea of shaking him though, for he and myself have been companions such a long time."7 When the Allens met him on his arrival, Marion was shocked at the change in his appearance. It wasn't simply that he looked worn and a little older. It was worse than that. To her eye, Jean's death had left a terrible mark on him: "It was pathetic and unreal to see Mark Twain crushed!"

She was particularly attentive during his first day back, and commiserated with him over the loss of his daughter. The next day, when they were alone, he came to her clutching the ma.n.u.script of his comments on Jean's death, and handed it to her with tears in his eyes. "I want you to know how it all happened," he said. "I have not been able to speak of it; this will tell you."8 Hoping to take his mind off his sorrows, she tried to keep him active, gently easing him out of the house and accompanying him to lectures, tea parties, picnics, and concerts. One day when the weather was especially ideal, she and Helen went with him on a long tour of the island by motor-boat, and Twain enjoyed himself, summing it up afterward as "several hours' swift skimming over ravis.h.i.+ng blue seas, a brilliant sun."9 His spirits picked up, and he began to smile and joke in his usual manner. To Paine, he wrote, "Again I am living the ideal life. ... There isn't a fault in it-good times, good home, tranquil contentment all day & every day without a break."10 On January 25 a front-page headline in the New York Sun declared, "Mark Twain's Health Good Again." That was supposedly the general impression on the island. "Pa.s.sengers on the Quebec Line steams.h.i.+p Bermudian, which arrived here yesterday ... brought word that Mark Twain has recovered his health. They said that Mr. Clemens has donned a white suit again and is taking an active part in the social life of the resort." As the only indication of his recent loss, he wore a black armband with his suit.

Reports of dreadful weather back home made him all the more grateful to be in sunny Bermuda. "I am glad you are out of this awful winter," Howells wrote him in February from frigid New York, "where one spell of weather follows another like the rows of words in McGuffey's spelling-book. We are just starting in for our third blizzard tonight."11 One night he ran into his old friend Woodrow Wilson, who had recently escaped the bad weather in Princeton to enjoy a brief holiday on the island, but without the company of Mrs. Peck. Apparently, Wilson's romance with her was already in decline, but the island had drawn him back on the strength of its tranquil atmosphere, and perhaps its a.s.sociations with better days. After a warm chat with the author, Wilson wrote home with the news that he was once again enjoying the company of "Mark Twain, who is staying here with such content that he says he does not see why he should ever leave Bermuda again. ... He seems weaker than when I last saw him, but very well. He speaks of the tragical death of his daughter with touching simplicity. He is certainly one of the most human of men. I can easily understand how men like [President] Cleveland and [the actor] Joseph Jefferson learned to love him."12 Near the end of Wilson's stay, Twain was able to coax him into paying a visit to Bay House for a friendly game on Mr. Allen's nine-hole putting green. The score was close for eight holes, but on the last one the septuagenarian author beat the future president of the United States by sinking a long putt. It didn't seem to matter that he wasn't a golfer. Marion understood the secret of his success, pointing out that his many years at the billiards table had given him a keen eye for knocking round objects into small holes.

Before he had come to Bermuda, Twain asked himself, "Shall I ever be cheerful again, happy again?" And, even then, he had answered yes, telling himself, "My temperament has never allowed my spirits to remain depressed long at a time." Now, after a few weeks on the island, he was demonstrating the truth of that statement, reveling in the pleasures of the isolated colony and becoming immersed in the lives of his new "make-believe" family, who seemed happy to play the part. To make "the illusion more perfect," as Marion put it, he urged the family to call him by the affectionate nickname his daughters had often used for him, "Marcus."13 Marion thought he was at his best when the family gathered around him on rainy days, and-"storm-bound"-they gave him their complete attention. "We were in his room all day long, talking, or he would read to us. We discussed everything, including equal suffrage, in which he was a firm believer, and said that women were excusable for any lengths they went in gaining their point."14 He made a show of employing Helen as his secretary, dictating letters that seemed intended to entertain multiple readers-first, his young a.s.sistant and her family, and then the actual recipient. On February 15 he sent a letter to one of his bankers in New York, a former postmaster general named Thomas L. James. It begins like an ordinary business letter. The author writes to complain about a delayed parcel sent from New York to Bermuda by Wells Fargo Express. Then he s.h.i.+fts gears: "I mention it mainly to put you on your guard against sending anything to Bermuda or elsewhere by any express company, because the persons connected with those companies have been dead 30 years. This often causes delay."

A little while later, when a cable arrived asking Twain to make an appearance in New York on a date that had already pa.s.sed, he replied, "I am very, very sorry, but all last week's dates are full. I will come week before last, if that will answer."

After Howells received one of the dictated letters, he jokingly complained in his response, "I have not got a Fairy Princess to take my profane and abusive dictation."15 All this dictating may have tempted Twain to write something for print, despite his vow not to do so again. He couldn't suppress his urge to tell a story or flesh out an idea, and he didn't want to be unprepared if a new work suddenly demanded to be written. In February he gave Paine a special request: "Please send me the Standard Unabridged that is on the table in my bedroom. I have no dictionary here."16 He was getting ready for a long stay, and even toyed with the notion of taking over Mr. Allen's largely honorary post as American vice consul. As always, his views were subject to change without notice. When he was feeling good, he would banish all thoughts of death and talk as if he had all the time in the world. To Elizabeth Wallace, he wrote, "I think I could live here always and be contented." And then he added, "You go to heaven if you want to-I'd druther stay here."17 Writing to Margaret Illington, he drew on his knowledge of Bermuda's history to portray himself as the latest in a long line of seafarers to wash up on its and to discover a perfect retreat. He also seemed to have in mind the example of Prospero in The Tempest, an exiled prince whose books are the source of his magical powers, and who was cast adrift on stormy seas until he reached his enchanted island. "My s.h.i.+p has gone down," he wrote Margaret, "but my raft has landed me in the Islands of the Blest, and I am as happy as any other s.h.i.+pwrecked sailor ever was."18 ...

THOUGH TWAIN SEEMED to be doing well, there were signs of trouble ahead. The chest pains had been mild of late, but they were always there. He tried to ignore them or to minimize their significance. If he happened to be around Helen when his angina or high blood pressure acted up, he would do his best to make a joke about it or to turn away and suffer in silence. But the problem wasn't going to disappear, especially because he refused to part company with his cigars and pipes.

"One morning," Marion was to recall, "he had a very serious bleeding of the nose in the garden, and the entire family were busy, maids, valet, and all bringing wet cloths for his relief. Amused at such a fuss being made over him, he said, with a quick chuckle, 'Helen, run quickly and get a pencil and paper, so that you can take down my last words. It is the only thing that has been forgotten.' "19 The family laughed off his request, even as they worried that his poor health was nothing to joke about. The nosebleed was a sign of his worsening hypertension, and it soon became obvious that he was suffering from a range of circulatory problems. His ankles began to swell, and the problem became so painful that he couldn't wear ordinary shoes. Instead he wore house slippers, shuffling around in them wherever he went, whether he was going for a walk on the lawn or to tea with some of the local dowagers.

His slippers caused Helen a great deal of embarra.s.sment, but only because he insisted at first on wearing them with pairs of brightly colored socks. He was quite a spectacle when he left the house in his white suit with a mourning band and pink or yellow socks. Marion dropped polite hints to Claude, who usually spent part of each day at the house attending to his boss's needs. The next day Marion saw that Twain had added to Claude's list of errands the comment, "Miss Helen says I must have black socks!"20 To make his discomfort even worse, he came down with a cold that turned into a bad case of bronchitis. It was difficult to shake, and gave him terrible coughing fits. One visitor to Bay House recalled him complaining to her that all he did was "bark, bark all the time," and then she watched as "he started to cough, a miserable, nerve-wracking cough that shook the whole of his slight frame and left him nervous and trembling." The only thing that seemed to help was a vaporizer that Woodrow Wilson had thoughtfully recommended to him.21 His determination not to surrender to sickness amazed the Allens, but living in the same house with an old man in declining health wasn't easy for Helen, who was going to turn sixteen in September, and who was beginning to look and act more like a woman than a girl. She had her own friends and interests, and wasn't always willing to listen patiently while Twain talked about subjects that didn't particularly excite her. He was disappointed when she showed no interest in discussing Halley's comet or Kipling, but preferred instead to talk about "clothes & dancing & the theater."22 The merry figure in white who had charmed her when she was thirteen was a different man now, and she was different, too. The longer he stayed at Bay House, the harder it became for her to humor him. Her long silences annoyed him, and he took it hard. "It is as if someone to whom you were offering a politeness, has slapped you in the face; you feel that somebody's got to speak-or make a noise of some kind or other, the silence is so uncomfortable." Her mood wasn't helped when she caught his cold and had to spend three days in bed.

On at least a couple of occasions they quarreled, and the experience left Twain feeling miserable and bewildered. Writing in one of his notebooks, he observed that although Helen had "a most winningly sweet nature," it was "tempered by outbursts resembling the wrath of G.o.d. She will break out in an amazing fury over any little disappointment." After one unpleasant outburst, Twain blamed himself, telling Marion-who tried to soothe hurt feelings on both sides-"That is always my way, I hurt those whom I love; now I suppose I must lose all three of you just when I need you the most."23 Illness and his difficulties with Helen dampened whatever enthusiasm he still had left for his Angelfish Club. During the turmoil of his feud with the Ashcrofts, he had neglected his correspondence with the girls, and had come to realize that Stormfield was no longer a cheerful place for entertaining them. Now Helen was making him feel that he had suddenly worn out his welcome at Bay House, and that he was getting too old and weak to hold the interest of the young-the one group to which he had always felt the closest affinity.

Feeling unappreciated, he left the house one day without telling anyone and went off to watch a cricket match with some friends he found at the Princess Hotel. "He ran away-just as a bad boy would when he saw his chance," Marion later remarked. When he came home late, he looked sheepish and was accompanied by one of his new friends, who offered apologies for him. Afterward, Twain was appropriately contrite and was forgiven. He confided to Marion that though he didn't know much about cricket, he liked what he had seen of it and figured "it must be a good game if an entire nation thought it so."24 In March another angelfish-Dorothy Quick-briefly appeared in Bermuda, traveling with her mother. They stayed at the Hamilton Hotel, and Twain promptly came to see them. Unlike Helen, she was as full of admiration and affection for Twain as ever, and he was glad to see her. But she couldn't help noticing that age had suddenly caught up with him, and that his manner with her seemed strangely distant at times. He spoke with his eyes half closed and cut short the one evening they were able to be together at the Hamilton Hotel, saying that he had to retire early. "I'm not as young as you, dear," he told her as they were parting, "and I have to keep my hours."25 On March 22, while he and Marion were visiting the aquarium at Agar's Island, he suffered one of his most severe angina attacks. "He was so ill," she would recall, "that we feared we might not get him home." After the pain pa.s.sed, he struggled to regain his composure and insisted that he could travel back to Bay House without a.s.sistance. When he made it back home, he tried to sleep but couldn't. "From this time on," wrote Marion, "he slept little, and the shortness of breath began."26 Fearing that he might not have much longer to live, Twain decided that he should go back to Stormfield in April and die in his own bed. On March 25 he wrote Paine that he had booked his return pa.s.sage for April 23. "But don't tell anybody," he said. "I don't want it known. I may have to go sooner if the pain in my breast does not mend its ways pretty considerable. I don't want to die here, for this is an unkind place for a person in that condition. I should have to lie in the undertaker's cellar until the s.h.i.+p would remove me & it is dark down there & unpleasant."27 When he was feeling strong and jaunty, he could scoff at death and laugh at the notion of an afterlife that was anything like this life. But when he stared extinction in the eye, all he saw was his poor dead body lying by itself in a dank, cold cellar, and he didn't like it. It wasn't right.

And then, without missing a beat, he began telling Paine some of his plans for the summer, as if another change of scenery might be all that was needed to keep him going. To Clara in Europe, he also wrote of plans that went far beyond spring, discussing the idea of spending the fall with her in Berlin. One way or the other, he knew it was time to say goodbye to Bermuda. After three months of living in close quarters with his "make-believe" family, he could see that he had stayed too long, and that his illness didn't make him an easy guest-not so much for Marion, whose patience with him seemed endless, but for Helen, a restless teenager who was clearly tired of being a full-time "make-believe" granddaughter.

But Twain's talk of death was enough to make his biographer come running. After checking with the Allens and learning that their guest was indeed seriously ill, he sailed for Bermuda on April 2. Before leaving, he sent a cable advising Clara and Ossip to come home, and he also took the precaution of supplying himself with hypodermic needles and "opiates" from Dr. Quintard, just in case the patient required them to survive a return voyage. He left so quickly, however, that he didn't even bother to tell Twain he was coming.

When he entered Bay House unannounced on April 4, he found Twain sitting calmly in the bedroom looking pale and thin, but not as ill as he had been led to believe.

After welcoming him, and finding out why he had come, Twain dismissed any talk of death, saying that he had not meant for his words to be taken so seriously. "You shouldn't have come on my account," he said.

But when Paine spoke to the Allens he heard a different story. The local doctor believed that Twain's condition was very serious, and Mr. Allen had already arranged for the author to sail home on the 12th. To make it easier to take him directly to the s.h.i.+p, a tugboat had been hired to pick him up at Bay House's small landing.

For a week Paine waited and worried, fearing that Twain would die before their date of departure. Some days he seemed to be doing better, and then in the night the pains would return and leave him exhausted and fighting for breath in the morning. "That breast pain stands watch all night and the short breath all day," he said. "I am losing enough sleep to supply a worn-out army."28 On the morning of the 12th, Twain was so weak he couldn't be dressed, and had to be carried to the tug in a canvas chair by some of the strong sailors. He was wearing his nightclothes under a long overcoat and nursing a pipe.

A day or so before departing Bay House, he had made a point of leaving behind a rather large reminder of his visit. He opened the two-thousand-page dictionary that Paine had sent earlier in the year and wrote on the front flyleaf, "Given by Mark Twain to Marion Schuyler Allen, Bermuda, April 1910." Under normal circ.u.mstances, leaving his dictionary behind would have meant that he intended to return. But he knew that wasn't going to happen. So he parted company with it. The gesture left no doubt that his long career with words was finally at an end.29 It was a Prospero-like farewell, both to the island and to art. He was familiar with the relevant speech in The Tempest, not least because it alluded to the process from which he had taken the name Mark Twain-the use of a plummet to sound the depth of the water. As Prospero says near the end of the play, "But this rough magic / I here abjure. ... And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I'll drown my book."30 ...

IT WAS h.e.l.l GOING HOME. For much of the voyage Twain was trying to fight off his angina, gasping for air. Paine tried to relieve his suffering with morphine injections-"hypnotic injunctions," as Twain called them-but they didn't do enough to help. At one point he was in so much agony that he begged Paine to kill him. "Can't you give me enough of the hypnotic injunction to put an end to me?" he asked.31 To keep him going, Paine reminded him that Ossip and Clara were also on the ocean and headed for New York, racing to be with him at Stormfield. He needed to hold on for their sake. But Twain wasn't sure he could do it. Every hour seemed to leave him weaker, and on at least one occasion he cried out that he thought he would die any minute. Yet when the s.h.i.+p approached New York, he was not only alive but sitting up and talking coherently.

While still at sea Paine wrote Mr. Allen, "It has been a ghastly trip for all of us, and I thank G.o.d we will soon be ash.o.r.e."32 Around ten in the morning on Thursday, April 14, the s.h.i.+p docked. Robert Collier was among the friends who showed up to offer their help. He brought his best automobile and was willing to drive Twain to Stormfield or anywhere else. But the author was in such bad shape that Dr. Quintard didn't want to move him right away. It was not until the early afternoon that the doctor thought it was safe to take him to an ambulance. Claude and a porter carried his chair down the gangway as he sat slumped under heavy blankets and looked out at the skyline with a forlorn expression.

At the train station a special compartment was waiting for him on the express that would take him home. Quintard and another doctor rode beside him the whole way, and Twain felt well enough to look through the afternoon papers as the cars groaned and rattled in their usual way. On the drive from Redding station he was disappointed to see that spring was coming along slowly, and that there were only a few spots of green on the landscape.

Paine's wife, Dora, and Katy Leary were waiting for him at the door of Stormfield. He insisted on standing up and walking into his home under his own power, but he made it only a few feet and had to sit down and be carried upstairs. Against all odds, he had made it home, and that night he was able to get some sleep in his own bed, more than three months after leaving it.

Late night Ossip and Clara arrived in New York, and the next morning they came to Stormfield. There was a warm reunion, and for most of the day Twain sat up in bed talking. He apologized to Clara for not having his financial affairs in better order, and shared doubts with her about the future of his work. "He appeared skeptical," she later wrote, "as to whether the sale of his books would continue for more than a brief period after his death."33 He was so far removed now from contemporary literary life that he had begun to doubt his own popularity. He didn't seem to be aware that the news of his failing health was being followed anxiously by millions of people around the world. Slowly, he was withdrawing from life, looking down on it from a great height and wondering what would happen, after he was gone, to all the things he had made. It had always been difficult for him to think of the world without him in it, hovering somewhere. He knew he was dying, yet he spoke in his last days as though dying was just a phase. As soon as it was over, he would go back to doing something fun again.

His main complaint in the very last stage of his illness wasn't about the pain. That seemed to be fading. What bothered him was that his disease lacked diversions. It was almost as if he wanted to trade it for something else more interesting. "This is a peculiar kind of disease," he told Paine. "It does not invite you to read; it does not invite you to be read to; it does not invite you to talk, nor to enjoy any of the usual sick-room methods of treatment. What kind of a disease is that?"34 After so many years of doing such a good job of entertaining himself and the world, he couldn't stop asking questions that were both funny and profound. And he tried to keep the old patter going right up to the end, even after his speech began to slur, and he thought no one could understand him but his foreign son-in-law, Gabrilowitsch, who may have captured his waning attention by telling him a secret. Clara was five months pregnant.

For some reason, Clara was reluctant to tell him the good news. But one of the last things he wrote may have been an attempt to question her on the subject. Written on Thursday, April 21, his one-sentence note to her is unfinished, but it seems plausible that he was trying to add to it some version of the phrase "are going to have a baby": "Dear-You did not tell me, but I have found out that you-"35 He wrote the note in the morning. By the afternoon he had dozed off, and his breathing became weaker. At half past six, as the sun was going down, he slipped away. "The n.o.ble head turned a little to one side," Paine wrote, "there was a fluttering sigh, and the breath that had been unceasing through seventy-four tumultuous years had stopped forever."36 ...

EARLIER THAT MORNING, before dawn, a scientific team at Harvard left their offices to go outside and look up at the sky. They were led by Professor O. C. Wendell, who had been in charge of the large telescope at the College Observatory for twenty years. For half an hour, they stared at the heavens, making notes as they watched in wonder at a spectacle no one had seen with the naked eye for almost seventy-five years.

"Harvard Observes Comet," said the headline the next day in the New York Tribune. The dateline was Cambridge, Ma.s.sachusetts, April 21. "Visible to the naked eye for almost half an hour," the article began, "Halley's comet was watched with great interest by members of the Harvard College Observatory early to-day. The comet appeared in plain view at 3:48 A.M., and disappeared from sight at 4:12 A.M. From observations taken by Lee F. Campbell, of the observatory staff, the comet was 15 degrees east of Venus, had a tail one and one-half degrees long, and was in the fourth magnitude."37 Dying man couldn't make up his mind which place to go-both have their advantages, "heaven for climate, h.e.l.l for company!"



AFTER A FUNERAL SERVICE on, April 23, at the Brick Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue, during which a long stream of mourners filed past the open casket where Twain lay in his white suit, the body was taken to Elmira. On Sunday afternoon he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery next to Livy, his son, Langdon, and his daughters Susy and Jean. During the graveside service, rain poured down and beat "fiercely against the canvas cover." Wearing a heavy black veil, Clara watched as her father was laid to rest.2 Life at Stormfield went on for a little while longer. Ossip and Clara lived there for most of the summer. And then in mid-August Nina Gabrilowitsch was born in Clara's room, with Katy Leary helping the doctor in the delivery. Only six weeks later the new parents and their baby girl moved to Europe. "I left behind me a home," Clara said, "which in two short years had seen a robbery, a wedding, two deaths, and a birth."3 In 1912, Paine's ma.s.sive biography of Twain was published and earned him both high praise and considerable royalties. For the rest of his life-he died in 1937 at the age of seventy-five-he was protective of Twain's legacy, but often to the point of annoying other writers who wanted access to important papers that he controlled. As an editor of Twain's work, he took unscholarly liberties, making unwarranted changes to some of the texts. But despite his faults as a "keeper of the flame" in his later years, his biography still stands as an indispensable portrait of the man he knew so well.

For the most part, Stormfield remained vacant-standing "like a deserted castle," said a local paper-until Clara sold it in December 1922 to a couple from New York named James and Margaret Givens for $30,000. On July 25, 1923, while the house was undergoing some renovations, a fire broke out, apparently as the result of a cigarette left burning by a house painter. The destruction was devastating. The house burned to the ground, with only a brick fireplace and the archways of the loggia still standing among the smoking rubble.4 At the time of the fire, Clara and Ossip were living in Michigan. In 1918, Gabrilowitsch had become the conductor of the Detroit Symphony. He enjoyed a long and successful career with the orchestra and remained its leader until his death from cancer in September 1936. By that point, strangely enough, Clara had become a great believer in the religion founded by Mary Baker Eddy, and even called on a Christian Science healer to attend Gabrilowitsch in his final days.

Money left her by Ossip, and income from her father's estate, provided Clara with the means to move to California in 1939 and to buy a large Spanish-style mansion at the foot of the Hollywood Hills. Her only child, who was then an aspiring twenty-nine-year-old actor, joined her and tried getting into films. Mother and daughter got along well in California until Clara made the mistake in 1944 of marrying again.

Her new husband-a minor musician named Jacques Samossoud-was fifty and she was seventy (though she told the Los Angeles Times she was fifty-one). A gambler who loved horse racing, Samossoud didn't take long to do what Clara had once feared the Ashcrofts would do-he fleeced her, emptying her bank accounts to pay his gambling debts. In just the first six years of their marriage he ran through $350,000 of her money. In the process he also helped to turn mother and daughter against each other, and Nina drifted away, living on her own in Hollywood and drinking too much.

By 1951, Clara's annual trust income couldn't keep up with her husband's needs, and she was forced to do something desperate. She agreed to sell her home and many of her prized possessions. In April Jacques organized an auction that took place on the lawn, offering the public the chance to buy letters and ma.n.u.scripts in Twain's hand, hundreds of books from the author's personal library, and various pieces of family furniture. At the edge of the property Jacques set up a hot dog stand to make a few extra dollars from the auction-goers, which prompted the Los Angeles Times to write, "At the five-acre estate, 2005 La Brea Terrace, there was the air of a circus, with none of a circus's gaiety."5 Clara pretended that she was tired of living in luxury and wanted to sell her things so that she and her husband wouldn't be tied down by possessions and could wander as they pleased. "Jacques and I are going to become gypsies," she declared.6 When Clara died eleven years later, she and Jacques were living at the Bahia Motor Hotel, where the neon sign advertised it as "San Diego's Finest Bay Resort." Her husband was continuing to spend the annual income from her father's estate as fast as it came in, and the amount was substantial. In April 1962-seven months before her death at the age of eighty-eight-the New York Times reported that Clara's trust fund earned $75,556 during the previous year.7 As Twain had fervently hoped would be the case, his work was still valuable property even fifty years after his death. Yet in spite of all his careful plans, there was one last swindler waiting to exploit his legacy. Instead of providing for the comfort of his daughter and grandchild, the estate was being used to bankroll a reckless gambler. In an odd reversal of the drama that had played out in 1909 between Twain and the Ashcrofts, Clara had become so dependent on her husband at the end of her life that she agreed to make him the beneficiary in her will, and to leave nothing to Nina. The will was contested, and under the pressure of expensive litigation, Jacques finally agreed to let Nina have a third of the trust income.8 But it was a hollow victory for Nina. After years of struggling to make a life of her own in California, and falling more and more under the influence of alcohol, she was living by herself in a small penthouse apartment overlooking Hollywood Boulevard, and was often depressed. "Nina was handicapped by being the descendant of brilliant people on both sides-her father and her grandfather," said one of her lawyers. "She was bright and had abilities, but she suffered because she felt she didn't measure up to her ancestors."9 One weekend in January 1966 she left her apartment at the Highland Towers and checked into a motel across the street. On Sunday night a friend went looking for her and found her lying facedown in the motel room, "which was strewn with bottles of pills and liquor." She was only fifty-five at the time of her death. As the obituaries noted, she was Mark Twain's last direct descendant.10 Jacques Samossoud, the inveterate gambler who spent twenty-two years wasting Mark Twain's money on bad bets, died only five months after Nina.

And what of the couple whom Twain banished for plotting to seize control of his estate in 1909? For years, Clara worried that they would resurface and try to lay claim to her inheritance or to sell some stolen ma.n.u.script, but she had little to fear from them. After only a few years of marriage the Ashcrofts went their separate ways and finally divorced in the early 1920s. To her deep dismay, Isabel discovered that Ralph was "fundamentally dishonest," as she put it, and "very unsatisfactory" as a husband.11 Moving to Canada, Ashcroft became an executive in advertising and broadcasting. He was the manager of the Trans-Canada Broadcasting Company and is frequently mentioned as a radio pioneer in a scholarly study of Canadian broadcasting by Mary Vipond, Listening In. He remarried and won respect in his new hometown of Toronto as a talented businessman. He died there in 1947.12 Isabel's life after her marriage was humdrum. She found a job as a purchasing agent at the Home t.i.tle Insurance Company in Brooklyn and worked there for a quarter of a century. But her heart was still drawn toward the area of Manhattan where she had enjoyed her best years as Twain's secretary. In the 1930s she found a small apartment at 7 Charles Street, only a few blocks away from 21 Fifth Avenue, and stayed there for the rest of her life. She was almost ninety-five when she died in 1958.

Shortly before her death, she was visited by a young actor who was working to refine his performance as Mark Twain in a one-man show, which he had been trying out at various small venues, including a Greenwich Village nightclub not far from her apartment. "She impressed me very strongly," Hal Holbrook would recall, "and the image of Mark Twain which she gave to me is the strongest one I have and, I believe, the truest one."13 In April 1959, five months after Isabel died, Holbrook made his debut at New York's Forty-first Street Theater in Mark Twain Tonight! It was an overnight sensation that brought the author to life in such a convincing fas.h.i.+on that critics lavished praise on Holbrook for bringing a new generation "close to Mark Twain and a roaring period in American life." The young actor was only thirty-four at the time, but with the proper makeup, a white wig and mustache, a convincing drawl, a well-paced delivery, a mischievous twinkle in the eye, a black cigar, and-of course-a white suit, he made it possible for New Yorkers to imagine for a moment that Mark Twain had never left.14


Every student of Twain's life must be thankful for the Mark Twain Project at the University of California's Bancroft Library in Berkeley, which holds the original or a copy of all known Mark Twain letters-more than ten thousand. The library also has an enormous archive of the author's unpublished tales, travel pieces, essays, notebooks, and family papers, as well as interviews and uncollected articles from hundreds of periodicals. The Berkeley collection is so vast that no visitor could begin to make sense of it without considerable help from the resident team of scholars who use it every day.

I owe my largest debt of thanks to the editor and curator of Twain's papers at the Mark Twain Project, Robert H. Hirst, who gave me unfettered access to the files, and who generously shared his encyclopedic knowledge of the man and the works. During my several visits to Berkeley he was always a kind host and frequently put aside his own business to help me navigate the vast sea of papers under his charge. His colleagues were also unfailingly supportive. I received expert guidance and encouragement from Robert Pack Browning, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Lin Salamo, Kenneth M. Sanderson, and Harriet Elinor Smith. In their labors as custodians of the archives, and as scrupulous editors of Twain's work, this scholarly group has made an invaluable contribution to American literature and has eased the burdens of every researcher who follows in their footsteps.

My understanding and appreciation of my subject have also been enhanced by the efforts of many other scholars and critics, beginning with the pioneering work of Twain's official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, who preserved hundreds of vital doc.u.ments and interviewed a number of crucial sources during the early 1900s. Above all, Paine had the advantage of intimate acquaintance with the author. Although his long, rambling biography may strike modern readers as old-fas.h.i.+oned and sentimental, it is indispensable for its vivid portrait of the literary lion in winter. The reader is given a strong sense of what it was like to be in Mark Twain's company-to observe his physical features and movements, to hear his jokes and opinions. Also of great usefulness are biographical and critical works by Howard Baetzhold, Louis J. Budd, Harold K. Bush, Jr., John Cooley, James M. c.o.x, Paul Fatout, Sh.e.l.ley Fisher Fishkin, Alan Gribben, Donald Hoffmann, Michael Kiskis, Edward Connery Lathem, Karen Lystra, Bruce Michelson, R. Kent Rasmussen, Gary Scharnhorst, Barbara Schmidt, Laura Skandera Trombley, and Dixon Wecter.

Several people helped me during my visits to locations a.s.sociated with Mark Twain and his family, including a number of friendly guides and residents who offered useful information in Bermuda, Elmira, Hannibal, Hartford, Redding, and Virginia City. I especially want to acknowledge Amanda Outerbridge-former director of the Bermuda National Trust-for her gracious a.s.sistance during one of my visits to the island; and Dr. Paul Rutkowski for giving me a tour of his farm in Redding, Connecticut, which once belonged to Albert Bigelow Paine, and for showing me the original location of Mark Twain's Stormfield. In Hollywood Robert Tymchuk and Brenda Mattox showed me the penthouse apartment where Nina Gabrilowitsch lived until just before her suicide brought the Clemens line to an end.

I also want to thank several of my former colleagues at the London Daily Telegraph and the Baltimore Sun who gave me encouragement and support during my work on this book: John Coldstream, Paul Davies, Sir Max Hastings, Charles Moore, Mike Ollove, Michael Pakenham, Richard Preston, George Thwaites, Melissa Whitworth, and especially Corinna Honan, an ideal editor whose help was indispensable.

For a.s.sistance of various kinds I want to acknowledge Brenda J. Bailey, Ronald Baker, Keith Byerman, Thomas Derrick, Mary Ann Duncan, Joe and Nancy Fisher, Kit Kincade, Julie Loehr, Dr. Lee McKinley, Maria McKinley, the late Charles M. Nelles, Robert Perrin, Mary Burch Ratliff, Dr. Wesley Ratliff, Nicole Remesnik, June Shelden, Dorothy Stowe, Judy Tribble, and Robert E. Van Est.

Special thanks are due to my agent and friend, Bill Hamilton, who has been a patient and steadfast supporter of this book from the very beginning.

Editorial suggestions from Kate Medina and Frankie Jones have done much to improve this book, and I am grateful to them for their expert help. I also want to thank Millicent Bennett for skillfully guiding me through the publication process. In the final production stage I am very fortunate to have benefited from the steady diligence of Steve Messina and his colleague Judy Eda.

For their love and unfailing encouragement, I am immeasurably indebted to Sue, Sarah, and Vanessa.


MICHAEL SHELDEN is the author of three previous biographies, including Orwell, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He was a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (London) and a fiction critic for the Baltimore Sun. He is currently a professor of English at Indiana State University.

Also by Michael Shelden.







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Mark Twain: Man in White Part 11 summary

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