Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Himby Resa Willis
Olivia Langdon Clemens was not only the love of Mark Twain's life and the mother of his children, she was also his editor, muse, critic and trusted advisor. She read his letters and speeches. He relied on her judgment on his writing, and readily admitted that she not only edited his work, but also edited his public persona.Until now, little has been known about Livy's crucial place in Twain's life. In Resa Willis's affecting and fascinating biography, we meet a dignified, optimistic women who married young, raised three sons and a daughter, endured myriad health problems and money woes and who faithfully traipsed all over the world with Twain--Africa, Europe, Asia--while battling his moodiness and her frailty.Twain adored her. A hard-drinking dreamer with an insatiable wanderlust, he needed someone to tame him. It was Livy who encouraged him to finish his autobiography even through the last stages of her illness. When she died in 1904, Twain's zest for life and writing was gone. He died six years later.
A triumph of the biographer's art, Mark and Livy presents the fullest picture yet of one of the most influential women in American letters.
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"I feel so frightfully banished."
A death reflects the pattern of a life. It is one more daily incident, even if it is the last one. And so it was also for Olivia Langdon Clemens. Her death mirrored her life and her relationship with her husband, Samuel Clemens. As in all the events of her life, it was characterized by what she allowed her husband to see, what he wanted to see, and what really happened. As Mark Twain's greatest literary creation, the Livy he envisioned and the Livy that really existed lived together in an accepted tension in one very human woman.
Olivia Clemens spent the final day of her fifty-eight years, Sunday, June 5, 1904, at the Villa di Quarto, three miles from Florence, Italy. The villa had been her home since November 9, 1903 when her husband, her daughtersClara, aged twenty-nine and Jean, aged twenty-threemoved her there from Riverdale, New York with the hope that her health would improve in a warmer, drier climate.
Clemens described Livy in her final illness as "being smitten helpless by nervous prostration complicated with an affection of the heart of several years' standing."
It was the "affection of the heart," the complications from hyperthyroidism, that ended her life. Livy had suffered intermittently all of her life from the elusive nervous disorders that struck the upper-class nineteenth-century woman. It was called by a number of names: nervous prostration, neurasthenia, hysteria. Diaries, letters, journals of this time record women and their invalidism. Thedisease was elusive, for it tended to strike only the upper class. Poor women simply could not afford to be delicate and frail. Illness was one way of not dealing with a world that did not know what to do with an intelligent woman who was not allowed to achieve on her own, let alone compete with men. Whether real or imagined, the symptoms were painful enough to the women who suffered from this malaise. The wealthy could literally afford to be idle; being sick just legitimized itOlivia Clemens included.
Mysteriously paralyzed as a young woman, Livy spent two years on her back in a darkened room. She was eventually "cured" enough to marry Clemens, bear four children, and run an elaborate household as well as serve as literary editor for her husband. But she remained frail in the mind of her husband, despite his own words that "For from that day that she was eighteen until she was fifty-six she was always able to walk a quarter of a mile without stopping to rest; and more than once I saw her walk a quarter of a mile without serious fatigue."
A Countess Massiglia owned the villa that the Clemens family hoped would restore Livy as wife and mother to them. Clemens's private secretary Isabel Lyon remembered this countess as a pretentious American: "The Countess is none other than a vicious woman of whom I knew a little in Philadelphia about 15 years ago." Then her name was Mrs. Barney Campan. She was later divorced by her husband when she was found "tampering with the affections of her mother's boarder." Miss Lyon's dislike for the woman is obvious: "Count Massiglia is far away serving his country as Consul, in Persia or Siam, and he is likely to stay there too; and it seems to me that for the sake of peace or freedom, he has left this Villa in the hands of the Countess.... Here she remains, a menace to the peace of the Clemens household, with her painted hair, her great coarse voice, her slitlike vicious eyes, her dirty clothes, and her terrible manners."
The stormy atmosphere between the countess and Clemens proved worse than the damp and chill of Riverdale. The battle between them began the moment the Clemens family reached Florence. The countess forced the family to stay in a hotel because she would not allow anyone in the villa until the Clemens family occupied it. So an old friend and neighbor, Mrs. Janet Ross, could not prepare the villa as had been planned for their arrival. Mrs. Ross had found the Clemenses a Florentine villa twelve years before, and the fond memories of their stay at Villa Viviani had led the Clemens family to want to return to Italy.
His nerves no doubt frayed from Livy's ill health, Clemens saw the countess as determined to make him and his family as miserable as possible. Her actions seemed to confirm his beliefs. The lease stated a sick person could not be placed in the very room that had been chosen as the best one for Livy. He accused the countess of removing furnishings that were to go with the villa, smearing her dogs with kerosene so that they would rub against his daughters and visitors, cutting the telephone wires, shutting off the water, and locking the gates so Livy's doctors could not attend her. As Isabel Lyon stated, "Her viciousness seems to grow, as she realizes that she cannot make a tool of Mr. Clemens, nor use the lovely Clemens daughters as tools of another kind to give a place in society." The situation was aggravated by the fact that the countess and her mother lived nearby in a house on the villa's grounds. Clemens would seek restitution from this "excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene" woman through a series of lawsuits that were to drag on after Livy's death.
Clemens described the three-storied villa as "built for fuss & show ... not for a home." It was a "huge confusion of rooms and halls and corridors and cells and wasted spaces." Miss Lyon felt the more than sixty rooms had been "tortured into hideousness by the atrocious taste of the present owner."
Even if the villa was not the best location for a frail woman, in the spring of 1904 Livy was able to enjoy some of the beauty of the Italian countryside. Her bedroom and private parlor were at the southern end of the house. This location allowed the sun to pour "its light in through the thirty-three glass doors or windows which pierce the side of the house." From mid-May when she had the strength, for she could rarely stand for more than five minutes at a time, and when it was not raining as it did a great deal that spring, she could sit in her wheelchair on the veranda. She could see Dante's city of Florence on the plain below, often shrouded in a mist. The hills were dotted with other villas and the domes of distant churches. Snowcapped mountains peaked beyond. Olive trees that provided the aromatic wood for the fireplaces in the villa draped their branches over the high iron fence that surrounded the villa and the high stone walls on either side of the road. Sheep and donkeys traversed this narrow road that meandered down into Florence. Clemens described the scenery as a "persistent inspiration ... when the afternoon arrives there will be a new picture every hour till dark, and each of them divineor progressing from divine to diviner and divinest."
Katy Leary, the Clemenses' faithful servant for twenty-four years, remembered the bounty of roses that grew in the garden. Even in December a person could "cut the roses by the bushel." Blossoms from the orange trees and the roses filled the house in the evening with smells while nightingales, owls, and church bells filled the nights with sound. Don Raffaello Stiattisi, a neighboring priest who became a friend of the family and who housed Miss Lyon and her mother when the countess had them evicted from a cottage on the villa grounds, had the bell ringing stopped when he learned it disturbed Livy. Although he could not silence the owls, he informed the family that they regularly nested at the villa. Despite the priest's reassurances about the hooting, Livy told Katy, "I know that's a sign of death."
Clemens was optimistic about his wife's recovery. On Livy's last day, Sunday, June 5, 1904, he and Jean had gone out looking for another villa. As a young wife in Hartford, Connecticut, Livy had written her husband, "I believe there is nothing that sooner ruins the happiness of a family than a worrying woman." After thirty-four years of marriage, Clemens was still sensitive to his wife's worries. He had written in January that Livy worried about the problems with the countess and about her mounting medical expenses so much that she often couldn't sleep. Both Clemens and the countess wanted to be rid of each other; now he felt that Livy was well enough to be moved.
Livy had seemed better to him and "the girls," as she had always called her daughters. After twenty months of watching her waste away, Clemens reported his wife "ceases to be a pallid, shrunken shadow, & looks bright & young & pretty. She remains what she always was, the most wonderful creature of fortitude, patience, endurance, and recuperative power that ever was." His constant fear was always of her "retrogression"; that "pathetic something in the eye which betrays the secret of a waning hope would return."
The heart problems, the rheumatism, an attack of tonsilitis in January had all taken their toll. Clemens wanted to believe his wife was getting better, would recover as she had done in the past, that she would live, but Livy had given up. The choking sessions left her "white, haggard, exhausted, & quivering with fright." She was terrified and told her husband that she didn't want to die. Fear of strangulation forced her to sit up in bed both day and night, getting very little sleep. She often had to have oxygen to make her breathing easier or an injection of brandy to relax her tense body. She frightened her husband by asking, "You don't think I am going to die, do you? Oh, I don't want to die." Yet she conceded to Katy that she knew she was dying.
A week before her death she asked Katy to dress her when she died in a certain lavender satin gown trimmed with lace. The dress was a particular favorite by Madame Fogarty of New York. Mrs. Fogarty had made most of Livy's dresses including her wedding dress and trousseau when she was a young bride. Despite Katy's Irish insistence not to speak of such things, Livy said, "I don't think I can live much longer." Although very weak and seldom strong enough to speak, Livy whispered that she missed America and desired to see her sister, Sue Crane, again before she died. Katy admitted later, "I'm sure Mrs. Clemens knew she was going to die, but she didn't let the family know how she felt."
Her fear of exciting the family and worrying them to excess and their mutual fears for Livy had been the basis of their family life. During her most serious illnesses, Livy's doctors limited Clemens to restricted visits at his wife's bedside for fear that in his anxiety and dependence on her he would overexcite her and bring on the one thing the doctors hoped to minimize by keeping him from hera worsened condition.
In these last, lingering months of illness in Riverdale and now in Villa di Quarto, Clemens was permitted to see his wife only once a day to tell her good night. He was only to see her for five minutes, but Katy recounted, "He broke the rules pretty often and he'd slip in sometimes during the day, just for a glimpse of her. She'd put her arms around his neck the first thing, and he'd hold her soft, and give her one of them [sic] tender kisses.... It was a love that was more than earthly loveit was heavenly."
During much of their earthly married life, the Clemenses were often separated by the necessity of Clemens's lecture tours to earn money or his absence due to various other publishing or business ventures. In 1885 Livy had written her husband while he was away from home, "My wish now is that we might live yet together twenty or thirty-five years and never be one night seperated [sic]." She did not get her wish, but often had to communicate with her husband throughout their marriage in writing.
Clemens had first won Livy's heart through love letters. Now in the end of their life together, they again had to express their love on paper. Clemens's room was next to hers so they could hear each other's every move. He occupied his time by dictating, at Livy's suggestion, his autobiography to Isabel Lyon. When her health permitted, Livy still acted as her husband's editor by listening to portions of his autobiography during his brief visits. "Mrs. Clemens is an exacting critic," Clemens wrote Howells, "but I have not talked a sentence yet that she has wanted altered."
Livy felt their separation as keenly as her husband did. On a note folded in half and addressed to "S. L. Clemens Esq.," she expressed her love and loneliness:
Youth my own precious Darling:
I feel so frightfully banished. Couldn't you write in my boudoir? then I could hear you clear your throat & it would be such a joy to feel you so near.
I miss you sadly sadly. Your note in the morning gave me support for the day, the one at night peace for the night. With the deepest love of my heart your Livy.
The last afternoon Clemens spent with his wife he thought her health to be much better. When he and Jean returned from looking for another villa, Clara, who usually sat with her mother in the afternoons, greeted them with the news that she thought her mother was much more animated than she had been in a long time. The three of them then repeated, "Unberufen," the German word the Clemens family used for good luck, so as not to jinx Clara's observation and all their hopes.
Clemens described his wife in her illness as "the most wonderful creature of fortitude, patience, endurance, and recuperative power that ever was." In the last few hours of her life Livy presented a bright face to her husband, although she had been ill all afternoon and the nurse had felt it necessary to give her oxygen.
Clemens was confident he had found the perfect villa for them. In his grief a few days following Livy's death he described to his old friend Joseph Twichell how she had wanted to hear all the details. Clemens wrote, "She wanted a homea home of her own; that she was tired & wanted rest, & could not rest & be in comfort & peace while she was homeless." Clemens had spent much of his life blaming himself for often uncontrollable incidents that took place in his life. He condemned himself for their firstborn son Langdon's death at nineteen months of diphtheria and of their favorite daughter Susy's death at twenty-four of spinal meningitis. Now he added his wife's homelessness and death to his list of self-recriminations. After her death, in an attempt to expiate his self-induced guilt that he had made his wife homeless, he wrote her brother Charles Langdon to assure him that he had not spared any expense or consideration in caring for her.
At Livy's insistence about hearing of the new villa, Clemens remained in her room from 7:30 until 8:00 that evening although he was acutely aware that he was breaking the rules. "She was bright and cheerfula rare thing these last weeksand she would talk, although it was a forbidden privilege, because she was so easily exhausted. She was full of interest in the calls which Jean and I had been making, and asked all about the people, and was like her old self. And smiled!" He feared he would tire her. But she said no that he must come back and see her at his appointed time of 9:30 to say good night. Her interest, her smile, "It lifted me up and made me believe the impossiblethat she would walk again, be our comrade again!"
As he left her room, they threw kisses to each other. He gloried in her expression, "her face all bright with that new-found smileI not dreaming that I was looking upon that dear face for the last time in life." He left her room happy at the prospect of a future with his wife. In his "deep contentment," he did something he had rarely done since Susy's death eight years earlier, "whose death made a wound in her mother's heart which never healed"; he sat down at the piano to play and sing the Negro spirituals that Susy and Livy had so loved.
When Katy returned from church that evening, she went to attend Livy, as was her practice. Livy admitted to her, "Oh, I have been awful sick all the afternoon, Katy." She heard her husband playing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "My Lord He Calls Me," and "Go Chain the Lion Down" on the piano. Her last words were, "He is singing a good-night carol to me."
The end came not by strangulation as she had feared but by heart failure. She died sitting up in bed. Katy recalled, "I was fanning her and thenshe fell right over on my shoulder. She died right then in my arms. She drew a little short breath ... just once, and was gone! She died so peaceful and a smile was on her face." The oxygen pipe to her mouth was no longer needed.
In writing the sad news to his friend Howells, Clemens placed himself in Livy's room at her death. "Last night at 9.20 I entered Mrs. Clemens's room to say the usual good-night& she was dead! tho' no one knew it." Livy's obituary in the Elmira Telegram perpetuated the story that she died in his arms. Clemens placed himself with her at her death because he wished he had been. In reality, he had finished playing the piano, pausing only in surprise to find Jean listening to him. "She asked me to go on, only the astonishment remained, and it was a pleasant one and inspiring." When he finished, he went to his room. He pondered how he might tell Livy that Jean had enjoyed his playing and singing but decided not to for fear it would remind her of Susy. As Clemens was thinking of saying good night to his wife, Isabel Lyon came to him. Lyon recorded in her diary, "'Is it an alarm?' he saidbut I didn't know, they only told me to run and get him."
What Clemens found when he entered Livy's room, he set down in words a few hours later:
Livy was sitting up in bed, with her head bent forwardshe had not been able to lie down for seven monthsand Katy was on one side of the bed and the nurse on the other, supporting her; Clara and Jean were standing near the foot of the bed, looking dazed. I went around and bent over and looked into Livy's face, and I think I spoke to her, I do not know; but she did not speak to me, and that seemed strange, I could not understand it. I kept looking at her and wonderingand never dreaming of what had happened! Then Clara said, "But is it true? Katy, is it true? it can't be true." Katy burst into sobbings, and then for the first time I knew.
The remaining family members clung to each other and cried. Clemens held Livy in his arms for the last time. He remarked how beautiful, "young and sweet" she looked. In informing friends of her death, each time he repeated how death had seemed to rejuvenate her. "How sweet she was in death, how young, how beautiful, how like her dear girlish self of thirty years ago." To all, Sue Crane, Reverend Joseph Twichell, William Dean Howells, Clemens remarked how odd it was that Livy did not notice him touching her. She was "unresponsive to my reverent caressesa new thing to me and a new thing to her; that had not happened before in five and thirty years." He also insisted that her death was a surprise. "I was not expecting this. In the last few days I was beginning to hope and half-believe, she would get well."
As a writer, the bereaved husband tried to find some solace in words. At 11:15 that same evening he wrote, "She has been dead two hours. It is impossible. The words have no meaning. But they are true; I know it, without realizing it. She was my life, and she is gone; she was my riches, and I am a pauper. How sudden it was, how wholly unexpected." He spent the night pacingwandering from his room to gaze at her face.
Although Clemens insisted to friends and family that her death was unexpected, as all deaths are no matter how long the person lingers, he admitted in the passage he wrote a few hours after Livy's death that his desire for her recovery was only that, a wish.
Poor tired child, how she loved her life, how longingly and eagerly she clung to it through all these twenty-two months of captivity and loneliness and bodily suffering, and how pathetically she searched our eyes for hope! And how these bitter months we lied to her loyally and said she would get well sure, when we knew in our hearts it would never be! Only four hours agoand now there she lies, white and still!
Throughout Livy's final illness, husband and wife had "loyally" lied and put up a brave front to each other about her surviving. Eventually he would be able to admit to Twichell and others, "Deep down in our hearts we believed she would never get out of her bed again."
Only two years before, Livy had written a letter of consolation to a friend whose mother had died in which she had stated, "One of the hard things is that we go one at a time." In going one at a time others are left behind to cope. The importance of Olivia Clemens to her family can be seen in their reactions to her death. One of Clemens's pet names for her was "my dear little gravity" and for the Clemens family the name was appropriate. She was the center that held them together. At her death each drew into himself or herself with grief.
In his notebook Clemens chided himself, "I was full of remorse for the things done & said in these 34 years of married life that hurt Livy's heart." He blamed himself for staying too long in her room the night she died and for all the hurtful things, real or imagined, he said to her over the years. He was thankful for her release. He wrote Howells, "But how thankful I am that her persecutions are ended. I would not call her back if I could." The words "I wish I were with Livy" reverberate through his letters to friends. Clemens readily admitted that he felt tired and old.
He was not the only member of the family to feel tired and old. In the hours following her mother's death, Jean had her first epileptic seizure in thirteen months. Clemens paced until he was exhausted, yet he said of Clara, "It would break Livy's heart to see Clara." Clara lay sobbing under her mother's casket. When Katy could get her to go to bed, Clara insisted on lying in the bed her mother had died in. In a strange repetition of the ritual with Livy, Clemens was allowed to see Clara, who "keeps her bed & says nothing," only twice a day. As Clara's despair grew worse, "nervously wrecked by her mother's death," she would eventually have a breakdown and be "in the hands of a specialist" in New York. Clemens would not be able to contact her even by phone for a year. A year later Isabel Lyon accurately described Livy's death as "the great tragedy of this family."
The tributes to Olivia Langdon Clemens following her death give testament to a well-loved and respected woman. Howells declared, "She hallowed what she touched, far beyond priests." Clemens agreed with his adoration. "The family's relation to her was peculiar & unusual, & could not exist toward another. Our love for her was the ordinary love, but added to it was a reverent & quite conscious worship."
In his tribute, Twichell described Livy as "one of the loveliest and best of women. To an extraordinary grace of person and of manners she added an equal grace of universal kindliness and gentle good will.... A more right-minded woman could not be. In her domestic relations she was everything that is excellent; a perfect wife and mother. To her distinguished husband she was ever a good angel, and his intellectual companion and helpmate as well."
Sentiments expressed on the death of a loved one are often exaggerated, but for the life of Olivia Langdon Clemens enough superlatives could not seem to be found, nor were they mere outpourings of bereavement. Friends and family readily agreed with her husband that "she was the most beautiful spirit, and the highest and the noblest I have known. And now she is dead."
Yet every death begins with a life, and Livy's began in Elmira, New York.
Meet the Author
Resa Willis is Professor of English and chair of the English Department at Drury University, in Springfield, Missouri. She has lectured on Twain and Livy in the United States and abroad.
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