The Clemens family, 1885.
Widowhood was hard on humorist Samuel Clemens, better known by his penname, Mark Twain. When Olivia (“Livy”) died at age 58, Samuel, at 68, had also outlived two of their four children. He had no grandchildren. Samuel said, “I am tired and old; I wish I were with Livy.”
He describes that time of his life as “washing about in a forlorn sea of banquets and speechmaking.” He began wearing white suits believing that light colored clothes lift the spirit.
The famous American writer knew grief and hardship at an early age. Born the sixth of seven children on November 30‚ 1835, the Hannibal‚ Missouri‚ resident left school after fifth grade to earn a living after his father died. He worked as a printer’s apprentice and later wrote articles for newspapers. Other careers included riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, a volunteer in the Confederate Army, silver prospector and travel writer. While on a steamship tour of Europe and the Holy Land, he met Charles Langdon who showed him a picture of his sister Olivia. Sam thought she was just beautiful and when he later visited their home in Elmira, New York, he proposed to Olivia a few days later. She said no, but he was welcome to write letters.
So Sam did what he did best—write. He wrote about the mundane, such as his trip to Mystic, Connecticut, in November 1869: “I had to submit to the customary & exasperating drive around town in a freezing open buggy this morning to see the wonders of the village. They always consist of the mayor’s house; the ex-mayor’s house…the public school with its infernal architecture…& I must sit and shiver & stare at a melancholy grove of skeleton trees & listen while my friend gushes enthusiastic statistics & dimensions…”
He also wrote: “Livy, you are so interwoven with the very fibres of my being that if I were to lose you it seems to me that to lose memory & reason at the same time would be a blessing to me.”
After two years of courting, 25-year-old Olivia married 35-year-old Samuel in her family’s living room on February 2, 1870. Sam couldn’t believe his good fortune – he got to sleep in the same bed with the “only sweetheart I have ever loved.”
The couple moved to Buffalo‚ New York, where their son, Langdon, was born. In 1871, Sam moved his family to Hartford‚ Connecticut‚ the most prosperous city in the country. In 1872, Olivia gave birth to their second child Susy, but nine weeks later, their happiness was shattered when Langdon died at the age of two from diphtheria. Two more daughters followed: Clara in 1874 and Jean in 1880. From 1874-1891, they lived in their exquisitely designed home on Farmington Avenue. Those were Sam’s happy years of encouraging his daughters to present plays and creating new stories for them every night by incorporating every item on their mantel piece. He also wrote some of his best-loved novels during that time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
Sam’s downfall was his lavish spending style and a series of bad investments, which put him into bankruptcy. Determined to pay off everyone he owed, he went on a worldwide lecture tour, taking Olivia and daughter Clara with him. Daughters Jean and Susy, who was herself a writer and considered Sam’s favorite, stayed behind in the U.S. with friends. In 1896, tragedy struck the family again when they learned Susy died from meningitis while visiting their Hartford home. They would never again live in that house—Olivia couldn’t bear the thought of it.
In 1903‚ Olivia became ill with asthma and suffered a heart condition. Doctors felt Samuel would exhaust her so limited his time with her to two minutes a day. Sam wrote notes to her, pushing them under the door: “Good morning, dear heart, and thank you for your dear greeting. I think of you all the time…”
When Sam took Olivia to Italy in October 1903 to winter there, the Italian doctors also enforced a two-minute bedside rule. Sometimes Sam snuck in anyway. Their servant, Katy Leary, recalled: “She’d put her arms around his neck the first thing and he’d hold her soft, and give her one of them tender kisses…It was a love that was more than early love—it was heavenly.”
On the Sunday evening of June 5, 1904, when Sam went in to say goodnight, Olivia was gone. That evening Sam wrote, “She has been dead two hours…She was my life, and she is gone; she was my riches, and I am a pauper.”
So began Sam’s season of “washing about in a forlorn sea…” While living in Redding‚ Connecticut, the answer to Samuel’s loneliness finally came to him when the mother of a 14-year old girl insisted on meeting him when they traveled to America. The teenage girl reminded him of his joy in raising his own daughters when they were young. Sam later referred to that meeting as a “fortunate day, a golden day, and my heart has never been empty of grandchildren since.”
While on a trip to Bermuda, Samuel met several more girls. It occurred to him to “adopt” them and form a literary and arts club. He called these girls the “Bermudian angelfish” and their club, the “Aquarium.” More than 300 letters were exchanged, with the correspondence becoming Sam’s “chief occupation and delight.” He invited the girls (along with their mothers) to visit his home.
In one letter to teenager Dorothy Sturgis on August 3, 1908, Sam included a recent photograph. He wrote “... The cat is Tammany, the pride of the place. You will notice that I have become extraordinarily hump-shouldered. The doctors say it will never diminish, but will increase. They say it is due to bad circulation, lack of exercise, and excessive smoking. I do not care. It is good enough shape, and I like it.”
After Dorothy visited in September of 1908, Clemens encouraged her to compose a sign to burglars as his house had been robbed recently. The sign read, “…If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise — it disturbs the family. ... Please close the door when you go away.”
Sam’s health declined in 1909 and his letters to the girls dwindled. He didn’t like when they grew older and became interested in boys. He finally found satisfying companionship when his daughter Jean, who had been living in an epilepsy colony as a result of her seizures, moved back home. But even that delight was grabbed from him when she was found dead Christmas Eve morning in the bathroom, having died during a seizure. She had been so happy the night before preparing their home for Christmas and buying presents. On December 24, 1909, at 11 a.m., Sam wrote, “I lost Susy thirteen years ago; I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich! …and I sit here—writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking.”
Sam felt pity for Jean’s dog. On December 26, he wrote: “The dog came to see me at eight o’clock this morning. He was very affectionate poor orphan! My room will be his quarters hereafter.”
Sam had spent his last years in his bed and now, even more so. His bed had become his true home. He and Livy had purchased it in Venice for their Hartford home. They would prop their pillows up at the foot of the bed so they could admire the carved cherubs at the head.
Sam was weary of living and waited for his time to come. Four months after Jean’s death, Sam died on April 21‚ 1910, at the age of 74. Beside him on his bed lay his glasses and the book, French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. He finally had his wish to join Livy, along with their three children who predeceased him, at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. He missed the birth of his biological granddaughter, Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, on August 19, 1910.
To learn more about Samuel Clemens, visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, marktwainmuseum.org, and the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, marktwainhouse.org.
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