In 1940, the recently widowed and wealthy Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch bought a small estate in the Hollywood hills and sought counsel from a medium named Sardoney about her love life. Known also by his epithet the Human Radio, Sardoney channeled news that a fresh husband was in transit and that Clara could not “escape this appointment with Destiny.”
The irrepressible Clara opened herself to the possibility. Soon she met and started dating a dashing Russian émigré musician, who claimed to have conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras and to be well acquainted with several U.S. presidents. Jacques Samossoud was the man and Clara was smitten. In 1944, the pair were married. In a nod to the New Age, she wrote of their union as “positively miraculous in its multifarious strata of rainbowism.” He was 50 and she was 70.
Clara was in love and Jacques was in clover. He began borrowing from Clara’s ample assets — valued in the hundreds of thousands — for a few investment schemes of his own. (His conducting career had apparently ended without fanfare.) First there was $30,000 for a foray into movie production, which failed. Then there were gambling trips to Las Vegas that Clara financed and from which Jacques came home empty. Then there were the three promissory notes, totaling $350,000, that Jacques signed to Clara. This money he used to wager and to pay off debts from an addiction that Clara had no idea was consuming him — betting on horses.
By 1951, Jacques’s horse-track debt had become so large that he insisted they auction off their Hollywood home and much of Clara’s reserve, the papers and belongings of America’s greatest author. Clara agreed readily, for she was devoted to the men in her life — to her first husband, pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch; to her second husband, Samossoud; and to her father, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known everywhere as Mark Twain.
Clara Clemens Samossoud was Samuel Clemens’s middle daughter, the only one of his four children to survive him. She was born in 1874, was present at her father’s death in 1910, and died in San Diego in 1962. As his heir, she received a sizable income from the Twain estate every year. She would also receive income when her father’s new, unpublished works appeared: to her delight — and dismay — there were a number of such books.
Following the 1951 auction, Clara and Jacques relocated to San Diego, first to the Casa de Mañana Hotel in La Jolla and, in 1954, to the newly opened Bahia Hotel on West Mission Bay Drive. One item that Clara could not part with and brought to San Diego was a 24-volume edition, The Collected Works of Mark Twain, published in 1904. She had the Becker Bindery on Market Street encase every volume in new buckram. Each book was signed by her father.
According to a November 1951 story in the San Diego Union, one of the “pithy precepts penned on the flyleaf” of one volume read, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you & the other to hurry the news to you.” Another volume contained this oft-quoted pearl: “Be good and you will be lonesome — like me.” Still another had the prophetic gem: “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Why prophetic? The dark side of Sam Clemens, much like the darkness of her marriage to Jacques, was something Clara refused to make public — perhaps even to realize.
Arriving in La Jolla, a giddy Clara told the Union reporter that “we are in love with this place.” For a photo, she posed beneath an oil portrait of her father, which, she said, caught an expression he often wore, “a sort of half wistful look.” In 1960, Life magazine published a similar photo of Clara, seated at the Bahia below this same portrait. At 86, she looked radiant — she had her father’s wiry thatch of hair (the dark brunette now white), his furry eyebrows, his rascally black eyes. Life reported that Clara and Jacques had lived “comfortably” the previous year on $38,000 income from Twain’s estate. The couple’s money worries and shady financials were a buried problem.
Evidence of just how deep in debt the Samossouds were came in a 1958 letter Clara wrote when the Mark Twain Memorial solicited her for a donation. She spoke of her and her husband’s “feverish embarrassment, because of our greatly limited financial circumstances. About ten years ago most unexpected financial reverses fell to our lot. Otherwise I would long ago have sent a contribution worthy of my relationship to the man whose memory you are honouring.”
This careful statement masked their financial sinkhole. With the estate income eaten up by tax bills and Jacques’s racetrack debts, Clara had to borrow from her personal secretary, Phyllis Harrington, and her biographer, Caroline Harnsberger, to pay for stylish clothes and club memberships and to keep her middle-aged daughter Nina afloat. Nina, Samuel Clemens’s only grandchild, who had followed her mother west in the 1940s, was severely addicted to alcohol and drugs. In 1958, she spent a year in detox at the California State Psychiatric Hospital in Camarillo.
Clara’s financial travail and her daughter’s affliction were not her only crosses. For a half-century she felt she had had to censor Clemens’s antireligious writings. She believed her father’s negative views misrepresented the Mark Twain she wanted the public to treasure. A Christian Scientist, she also felt such pieces insulted her beliefs as much as they fed the views of the Soviet communists. The anti-God Soviets loved Twain: he championed the poor and criticized imperialism. They had heard about Clara’s “suppression” of his articles and taken this outrage on as a cause célèbre. In the late 1950s, protests by scholars in both the United States and the Soviet Union grew, until Clara, confined to her bungalow, would make a surprising decision about whether to publish her father’s most pointed barbs against the church and its doctrines.