Contributing to the stress of family illness in the early 1890s, Clemens’s publishing business, Webster & Company, which produced, among other works, the successful Memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant, went under. Clemens also lost a $300,000 investment in a typesetting machine that never worked. That machine and Webster’s collapse bankrupted Clemens in 1894 and forced the family to leave their Hartford home.
Clemens undertook an around-the-world lecture tour to pay his debts, leaving with Livy and Clara, while Susy and Jean stayed behind. A year later, the tour ended in England when word reached them that Susy had contracted a fever and requested to be treated not by a doctor but by a spiritualist. Susy’s maid put a stop to this request and sent for a doctor, who found advanced spinal meningitis. She died within a few days. Clemens, the first to learn of the loss, lashed out at himself in a letter to Livy, who was, with Clara, aboard a steamer bound for America. “I have spent the day…reproaching myself for a million things whereby I have brought misfortune and sorrow to this family.” He added, “I neglected her [Susy] as I neglect everybody in my selfishness.”
One knows such self-reproach keeps pace with grief. But the gloomy view Clemens held of himself, from then on, marked his view of the world. Susy’s death and the “deadness which invaded” him meant, in his writing, he would sermonize more and satirize less. In a series of works, he hammered away at “the damned human race”: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” in which he exposed the hypocrisies of a town’s so-called best citizens; “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” in which he denounced the white man’s yoke of the Congo; No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, in which the protagonist, in the guise of a trickster Satan, enjoyed terrorizing the ignorant young men of a medieval village. One chronicle of Clemens’s life stated that after 1898, he was “strongly moved to write ‘seriously,’ to set down what he deem[ed] unprintable truths about God, religious institutions, man, politicians, tycoons, business associates, friends, and relatives.”
Clemens lashed out at God, writing a friend that “we were robbed of our greatest treasure, our lovely Susy in the midst of her blooming talents and personal graces. You want me to believe it is a judicious, a charitable God that runs this world. Why, I could run it better myself.” Elsewhere he wrote that God was vindictive: “He gives you a wife and children whom you adore, only that through the…miseries which He will inflict upon them He may tear the palpitating heart out of your breast and slap you in the face with it.”
With Susy’s death, Clara took on more of the caring for her mother; the loss of her daughter now intensified the pain of a congenitally weak heart. Clara’s studies in Europe, which had been accelerating, now stopped. During one two-year period, the bedridden Livy was nursed by Clara, who carried in notes and oral instructions from her excitable father. Clemens longed for Livy’s companionship but was allowed to see her each day either briefly or not at all. It was easier for Clara to boss her father than to argue with him. In 1902, when Clemens hired a secretary and gave her the control of his finances, which included Clara’s allowance, Clara’s resentment boiled over into rage.
By late 1903, doctors were advising Livy, whose heart disease was worse, to go to Italy. Apparently the dry air in Florence would help her breathe more easily. But the weather that winter was foggy and wet. Clara, who had returned to her voice lessons and now planned a career-launching recital, agreed to pitch in. But she was quickly overwhelmed with the stress and soon had another fight with her father. Evidence of this came to light recently in correspondence between Clara and a friend. In a letter, postmarked February 5, 1904, Florence, Italy, Clara describes her outburst: “I was seized by something & began to scream & curse & knocked down the furniture…till everyone of course came running & in my father’s presence I said I hated him, hated my mother, hoped they would all die & if they didn’t succeed soon I would kill them.” (When this letter was made public in 2000 — why it was kept “hidden” for 96 years remains a mystery — Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of the Oxford Mark Twain, wrote that Clara’s “regret for having been out of control herself may have helped prompt her to maintain the rigid control that she tried to retain over her father’s posthumous image.”) From her room, Livy heard Clara’s explosion and suffered a heart attack. This strain, along with other ailments, led to her death in four months.
Following Livy’s death, Clara locked herself away for four days, lying “motionless and wordless.” She later wrote, “I had been taken to a doctor’s house…for examination, for my health had completely broken down under the strain of Mother’s long illness and the shock of her death. It was determined that I must resort to a life of rest and inactivity, avoiding all forms of excitement or worry, as I was considered to be seriously ill.” During her “restorative treatment,” her father, as he wrote to a friend, was not “allowed to have any communication with her, even telephone, for a year.”
This time Clara was slow to revive. Finally released, she was told that she had to care for Jean, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy. Clara did her best, but Jean’s attacks required aides full-time. Her exasperated father eventually put Jean in a sanatorium; she remained there for more than two years. Clara then escaped to Europe, where she left behind a father who was now all but living in the past and where she could woo and be wooed by the Russian-born musician Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Back in the States, Ossip and Clara were married in October 1909, and the pair returned to Europe. Within two months Jean, at home with her father, suffered an epileptic fit in the bathtub and drowned.