Clara seemed to avoid the dusky natures of the men in her life. She refrained from publicizing her father’s contentiousness with Christianity and never talked about the many difficulties she had with him when she was young. She also found nothing unseemly about Jacques, whose lies about his professional credentials she may have never known. She would take her private affairs and her spiritual confidences to the grave, but not before she disinherited her daughter Nina and bequeathed the estate’s income to Jacques. After his death, that income would be given to Jacques’s horse-racing pal, Dr. William Seiler of Pacific Beach, who, as a “stranger in blood,” would collect on Mark Twain’s estate for another decade.
The Mark Twain that Clara insisted on and that Albert Bigelow Paine, Clemens’s handpicked biographer, agreed to preserve in 1910, was the white-suited, humorous public persona whose novels and essays had been read and revered by millions. But that Mark Twain is not the man we recognize today. Our Twain is the consequence of a century of conflicting and refashioned canonizations: Saint Mark has been the silver-mining raconteur, the tall-tale teller, the lecturer, the children’s book author, the war-for-glory refuter, the existential pessimist, and, in our age, the complicated father and family man. This latter persona is epitomized in Ken Burns’s recent documentary, Mark Twain, aired on PBS. Burns, best known for his series The Civil War, presents us with two Mark Twains — the incredibly gifted writer whose books have changed human history and the shattered father who was besieged by business and personal losses. Underpinning all his success and sorrow is his wife Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal baron from Elmira, New York. Samuel Clemens was deeply in love with Livy, as she was called; their marriage lasted 34 years.
Clara promoted her father only as the gifted writer. If she revealed anything of his private life, it was always centered on the family’s rosy togetherness. Some of this togetherness was true. Clara spent her childhood and adolescence with her older sister Susy and younger sister Jean, in the 19-room mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, that Clemens called “the loveliest home that ever was.” (The Clemenses’ first child was a son, Langdon; born in late 1870, he died of diphtheria 18 months later.) The menagerie of the Hartford estate consisted of magical Christmases overseen by Clemens as Santa; seven full-time servants; readings of new material that Clemens shared first with the family; plays that Clara and her sisters put on of their father’s historical romances; a German governess, private tutors, piano lessons. As a girl, Clara wrote to her father of his largesse: “Don’t speak to me or think of presents — you are crazy! Just think of all you give one every day.” Another epistle ends, “Do you realize you are as great as Shakespeare?” Such adoration at home was crucial to Clemens, writes Twain scholar Leland Krauth. The family “was the stabilizing center without which Clemens was less and less able to control his personal disorders…and without which Mark Twain was less and less likely to write.”
In constructing her Mark Twain, Clara knew she would have to muzzle those personal disorders, not only to protect his legacy but also to avoid bad memories. (Clara almost never wrote of these memories, though most who knew her testify to their veracity.) Clemens’s favorite of his daughters was Susy, whom he called “incomparable.” Her soprano singing voice was one of “almost unexampled power and volume.” At 13, she penned a haloed biography of her father, which was largely responsible for how later generations regarded Clemens at home. He, in turn, wrote that her writing talent and gift for elocution were undeniable. But Susy couldn’t keep up with Papa. She was moody, shy, and frail, subject to stress and nerves like her mother. In 1891 she enrolled at Bryn Mawr but soon returned, homesick and physically ill. To help her, Sam and Livy turned to mental healing like many 19th-century families.
Livy had already practiced the art: at 16, she had been cured of a two-year neurasthenic “paralysis” by a faith healer. But no one in the Clemens family applied mind over matter more earnestly than Susy. Under the influence of spiritualists and Christian Scientists, Susy used the “mind cure” to get rid of negative feelings. She claimed to heal her friends’ headaches. Clemens wrote to Susy that his “exasperating colds and carbuncles came from a diseased mind and that your mental science could drive them away.”
Despite Clemens’s preferring one daughter over the others, all three sisters experienced the frequently tyrannical side of their father. Caroline Harnsberger, Clara’s biographer, has written that Clemens’s daughters were afraid to be alone with him: “His fits of irritation, with their accompanying fireworks, terrified the impressionable young girls and made them wonder how a person could be sweet one minute and a demon the next.” Even Clemens, in a letter to William Dean Howells, said, “I found that all their lives my children have been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp tongue and uncertain temper.… All the concentrated griefs of fifty years seemed colorless by the side of that pathetic revelation.”
As each sister neared a marriageable age, her independence was checked, her desire for romantic attachment undermined. Visiting the sociable Clara in Vienna, where she was studying voice in the early 1890s, Clemens would insist that his flirtatious daughter be chaperoned whenever she went out. As Clara became an adult, she often stood up to him. She quarreled with his incessant talk of the “incorrigible human race” and his disapproval of her singing career. (Sam and Livy were right that the stress of rehearsing for public performances caused Clara nothing but anguish.) Angry at her parents, she’d leave in a huff but would return soon because her father not only financed her music lessons in Europe but, eventually, paid all her career expenses, including manager and accompanist. Clemens got Clara to come back also by reminding her that a daughter was obliged to nurse her sickly mother and older sister. Though Clara complained, she took care of her father too — and routinely collapsed from the strain. Her bouts of “nervous prostration” required months of rest.