The Lost Legacy of Mark Twain : How a Boxful of Letters Worth Half a Million Dollars Ended Up in a Los Angeles Hobby Shop
‘I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was
writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.’
--FROM THE PREFACE TO’THEAUTOBIOGRAPHY OFMARKTWAIN’
LAST SPRING,a retiree whose hobby is stamp collecting paid $100 for a boxful of stamped envelopes at a Los Angeles hobby shop. Many of the letters inside the envelopes were signed by someone he’d never heard of--Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Monday about half of these letters will be sold by Christie’s at an auction in New York City. The boxful has been appraised at nearly $500,000.
In the unpredictable market for autograph letters, appraisals can be as meaningless as they are in the world of fine art; Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers,” evaluated at $16 million, just sold for $39.5 million. Recent sales of Mark Twain’s correspondence provide a more accurate touchstone of what these letters may be worth. According to Louis Weinstein of the Heritage Book Shop, one of the nation’s most active Twain dealers, his post cards sell for as little as $300, while one- or two-page letters retail for $750 to $2,000, even if they have nothing to recommend them but the signature. For a letter of unusual interest--one illuminating his work or providing new biographical insights--you could be talking $20,000.
One thing is certain: The price of Twain letters is not determined by the law of supply and demand. Letters by Poe may bring the highest price of any American author’s simply because they are so rare. But while their rarity drives up the price, it also depresses demand by discouraging potential collectors, according to Charles Sachs, owner of a Beverly Hills manuscript gallery called the Scriptorium. Sachs cultivates a long list of Twain collectors, on the other hand, including a novelist, a songwriter, a minister, a Montana rancher and Bill Cosby. “One of the major reasons Twain has so many collectors,” says Sachs, “is that there’s so much Twain to collect.”
How much is there? According to Robert Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, Twain may have written as many as 30,000 letters. Roughly 10,000 have been catalogued; the rest are part of a so-called ghost list--scholars know they must have existed, by virtue of having a reply. They don’t know what these ghosts say, or if they have survived. Still, even if all of them were perfunctory notes, the wonder of it is that Twain found the time to write anything but letters.
Whatever these newly discovered letters fetch, the retiree who found them is assured of turning a tidy profit since he paid just a dollar each for them. No doubt Twain, who worried about money all his life, would savor the absurdity of such a windfall. But a major part of this find’s value lies in what it may contribute to the fund of knowledge about a well-loved writer whose masterpiece, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” Ernest Hemingway said marks the start of all modern American literature. Although partial transcriptions of most of the letters already exist at one Twain archive or another, transcriptions are notoriously unreliable. And the text of seven of these letters is completely new, magnifying their value to scholars.
“Probably the most important letter (in this collection) is the one he wrote to his sister-in-law Susan Crane in July, 1904, not long after his wife’s death,” says Laura Skandera, a doctoral candidate in English literature at USC and the only scholar so far who has examined the new letters. “In all the previously discovered letters on this subject, the way Twain expressed his grief has been criticized as distressingly contrived, stilted, formal, platitudinous--not what one would expect of him.”
Now we have this:
“Yes, she did love me; & nothing that I did, no hurt that I inflicted upon her, no tears that I caused those dear eyes to shed, could ever chill it. It always rose again, it always burned, as warm & bright as ever. Nothing could wreck it, nothing could extinguish it. Never a day passed that she did not say, with emphasis & enthusiasm, ‘I love you so. I just worship you.’ They were always undeserved, they were always a rebuke, but (she) stopped my mouth whenever I said it, though she knew I said it honestly.
“I know one thing & I get some small comfort out of it: that what little good was in me, I gave to the utmost--the full measure & last ounce & poor as it was it was my very best & far beyond anything I could have given to any other person that ever lived. It was poverty, but it was all I had; & so it stood for wealth, & she so accounted it.
“I try not to think of the hurts I gave her but, oh, there are so many, so many!” *
STILL, IT’S NOT the literary significance of the find but its sheer improbability that has set Twain scholars, dealers and collectors buzzing. “It’s quite exceptional to find a cache of this many Twain letters,” says Christopher Coover, a manuscript specialist in Christie’s book department. Every so often stray letters turn up in somebody’s attic. Alert browsers in secondhand bookstores are sometimes rewarded with a fugitive manuscript page. But to find so many letters by so famous a writer almost a century after he wrote them is not just unusual. It’s strange.
Judging from these letters’ pristine condition, they were not just floating around all these years, unrecognized and unappreciated. Then how did they wind up being sold for their stamps in Los Angeles, a city Twain never visited?
The mystery was solved by Skandera, whose account of her literary sleuthing, “Letters From Hollywood,” was published recently by the Mark Twain Journal. The lucky stamp collector called her for advice after his wife alerted him to the possible significance of the letters. “The first thing I did was urge him to put the originals in a safe deposit box,” says Skandera. The second thing she did was visit the shop where he’d bought them. The owner remembered the box had come with a truckload of other “junk” but couldn’t remember its origin. So Skandera searched for clues in Twain’s life.
What she learned suggests that the distance between Mark Twain, master of comedy, and Samuel Clemens was great, and that Clemens’ personal legacy was tragic. Through his success as a humorist, Twain managed to spare his descendants the curse of prospective wealth that he complained had dogged him all his life--the oppressive expectation that one day he would be rich. But his success spawned a curse of its own. Twain’s last descendant did not live in the belief that the best was yet to come, but with the awful certainty that the best was gone forever.
“THE PIER was crowded with people for two hours before we left--finely dressed people waving & shouting & laughing good-bye to their friends, & poor & dirty people crying good-bye to theirs; for those others would see their friends again someday, but these never anymore in this life. I have never seen so many tears shed, or found the view of it so hard to bear. If you and Mamma & Susy were to cry me good-bye from a pier, I could not endure it.” *
Mark Twain had three daughters: Susy, Clara and Jean. Most of the letters found in the box were written to them. Among the most interesting, according to Skandera, is this one, written to his youngest daughter, Jean, on March 22, 1893, as he sailed from Genoa, Italy. In it, Twain seems to anticipate the death of his eldest and favorite daughter, Susy, who waved him goodby from a train station three years later, then died of meningitis at age 24. By all accounts, Twain never recovered from her death. He had already lost his father, his younger brother and an infant son. His wife would be the next to go, then Jean, an epileptic who had a fatal seizure in the bathtub one Christmas Eve. “The milestones have become gravestones,” he said.
Twain’s omission of his middle daughter, Clara, from the list of those he fears he won’t see again is also interesting, as she was the only one whose death he would not have to bear. The omission may be a reflection of the strain between them; Clara was not only the only daughter to outlive him, but also the only one to defy him. Charles Neider, the editor of several books by and about Twain, suggests a possible reason for her attitude. “Clara lived under a terrible cloud,” he says, “the knowledge that her father preferred Susy.” Defiance was the way Clara paid her father back for calling her dead sister “incomparable.” Twain had once praised Susy’s singing, for example, so Clara insisted on pursuing a career as a vocalist, despite her father’s predictable discouragement.
But it was over the subject of men that their relationship was the stormiest. Twain, notes Neider, despite having spent his youth on Mississippi river boats and in Western mining camps, had a rather Victorian attitude. When Clara was nearly 30, her father wouldn’t allow her to travel unchaperoned. Once Clara and Twain were strolling down a street in Florence, according to Twain biographer Justin Kaplan, and when they stopped at a sidewalk cafe, a group of young men began ogling her. Furious, Twain marched Clara back to their villa. Convinced that her elaborate hat was what had attracted attention, he told her to take it off, then sheared off the provocative decorations, mainly flowers and fruits. Late in his life, Twain wanted to call the house they were building in Redding, Conn., Innocence at Home. Clara suggested Stormfield.
Even when Clara won, her battles with her father were costly. For the last six years of Twain’s life, she was in and out of sanitariums, suffering from the same mysterious “nervous prostration” that had afflicted her mother. Also like her mother, she was able to tolerate visits from everyone she knew except Twain. Finally, at 35, Clara found the strength to break out of her father’s powerful orbit, marrying a musician she had known for a decade. His name was Ossip Gabrilowitsch; her father called him “Gossip.” Right after the wedding the couple sailed for Europe. A few months later a cable brought them back. They arrived at Stormfield four days before Twain died in the spring of 1910. That summer Twain’s only grandchild, Nina, was born in the house where he died.
FOR A LONG TIME,Twain’s fears about Clara’s fate with men seemed groundless. After living the high life in Europe, the Gabrilowitsch family returned to America during World War I. A gifted pianist and composer whose music is still played, Ossip became the conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, settling Clara and Nina into a mansion that cost $125,000 in 1919. Nina went to private schools, traveled overseas, giggled at the pranks of Leopold Stokowski, one of many family friends.
At 15, Nina displayed some of her grandfather’s spirit as well as the peculiarly intense self-absorption of an adolescent with famous parents. “A strange couple must have talked enough about us to fill a book,” she wrote in her diary, “because they are always staring at us and making remarks or smiling. It didn’t bother me in the least, because I had a great time changing the expression on my face, so they’d get something out of looking at me.”
Clara, meanwhile, was busy preparing to make what she regarded as her professional debut as an actress in a production of Mark Twain’s “Joan of Arc,” a work most critics dismiss as pompous and mawkish. “For the historical record” Nina recorded her mother’s performance in her diary, remarking on Clara’s beauty. They did not look alike. Nina considered her nose bulbous and thought the beauty of her bright black eyes was marred by their slight Oriental slant. “She seemed to enjoy sitting in the shadows behind her parents’ spotlights,” an old friend of the family said.
In 1929, Nina left home to attend Barnard College. After graduating, she stayed in New York City to study acting. She also started drinking.
When Ossip died in 1936, Clara sought comfort in Christian Science. “Her father wrote a devastating attack on Mary Baker Eddy,” says Neider. “So it’s ironic that Clara embraced the very dogma that he found not only funny but dangerous.” The daughter of one famous man, now the widow of another, Clara busied herself writing books about both of them. At 62, she was still attractive, and the money Ossip had left her, along with the income from royalties on her father’s books, did not detract from her charm. A little giddily, she reported to friends that a soothsayer known as the Human Radio had told her that she was destined to marry again. One of her suitors was a Tibetan lama.
In 1939, Clara decided to move to Los Angeles, to be closer to friends and farther from memories. From movie producer Jesse Lasky, she bought a Spanish-style house on five wooded Hollywood acres. Flanked by a hillside, fronted by an iron fence with a remote-controlled gate, the place was a vine-covered fortress. Along with her furniture, she brought a cat, a secretary, a chauffeur, the chauffeur’s wife and their six children. She also brought hundreds of books from Mark Twain’s library, hand-written manuscripts and family letters. Clara urged Nina to join her, pointing out the advantages of Los Angeles for an aspiring actress. “If I do try to get into movies,” Nina worried, “my nose would have to be fixed, otherwise I’ll be stamped as a character actress. That will cost between $200 and $300. But if I go to New York for stage work, I don’t have to get it fixed immediately. Or should I get my nose fixed anyway?” Finally Nina moved in with her mother. She had her nose fixed, then began worrying that the doctor had taken too much off the end.
Soon both mother and daughter realized that the mansion wasn’t big enough for both of them. Nina, nearly 30, moved into a house of her own on El Contento Drive. A trust from her father’s estate gave her about $1,500 a month, enough for independence. According to Caroline Harnsberger, an old family friend and author of “Mark Twain’s Clara (or What Became of the Clemens Family),” Clara thought Nina smoked and drank too much. She “filled the cracks in the floors” with actors and writers who couldn’t hold a candle to her grandfather, stayed up all night talking and drinking and dancing, then was too tired to get up in the morning.
While Clara was criticizing Nina’s friends, she met a White Russian who played the clarinet and sometimes worked as a second-string opera conductor. Jacques Samossoud was eloquent, unemployed and a few years younger than Clara. At the age of 70 she married him, citing his “vivid soul” and the prediction made by the Human Radio.
“After you and Jacques drove off, I went with X. to dinner and to see ‘The Adventures of Mark Twain’ movie,” Nina wrote to her newlywed mother. “The most pathetic of all is when at the very end Twain says he feels like a lonely corn stalk left in the field, and then says, turning his head slightly: ‘I have no one left to play with.’ ”
Clara’s mood was considerably brighter. Two months after her wedding, she described her marriage as “positively miraculous in its multifarious strata of rainbowism.”
By 1947, Jacques’ gambling debts were making the papers. He was reported to have written bad checks totaling $25,000 at a Las Vegas casino. While friends called up to cancel dinner invitations, Jacques insisted to Clara that the newspaper stories were wrong. Coincidentally he needed something in the neighborhood of $30,000 to finance an independent motion picture company he had formed with a few close associates. On location in Nevada they planned to shoot Twain’s “Roughing It,” a high-spirited account of his time in the West, filled with desperadoes and four-flushers. At that time, Clara’s income from the Twain royalties was only about $10,000 a year. Her mind clouded with the codeine she had been taking for the excruciating pain of shingles, she gave Jacques the money Gabrilowitsch had left her. “Roughing It” wasn’t made.
Four years later Jacques needed more money than Clara had. Clara announced to the press that she and her husband had decided to move south, away from the smog. They would sell their home and all their possessions in order to be as free as gypsies. At their Hollywood estate on Tuesday, April 10, 1951, they auctioned off Mark Twain’s desk, more than 300 books from his personal library and some family letters. According to one person who attended, the event had a carnival atmosphere, complete with floodlights, soft drinks and a hot-dog stand.
“The sale is a legend, it was so hasty,” says Alan Gribben, a professor at the University of Texas who spent more than a decade reconstructing Mark Twain’s 2,800-volume personal library, shattering the myth of Twain as an unlettered genius who may have written books but couldn’t be accused of having read them. “Clara didn’t notify Twain collectors and scholars around the country, so the buyers were almost all local people, many of whom just happened to drive by. That’s why Los Angeles is so well-stocked with Twain material.”
But the Twain letters being auctioned Monday at Christie’s were not part of this sale, according to both Gribben and USC’s Skandera. After selling the house to a couple who worked in the movie industry, Clara and Jacques moved to La Jolla, then to Mission Beach where they lived at the Bahia Hotel. While Clara wrote a book about Christian Science, “Awake to the Perfect Day,” Jacques played the horses at Del Mar and Agua Caliente. His luck must not have been good, because on May 23, 1952, Clara signed a power of attorney giving him permission to “dispose of my father’s property consisting of books, manuscripts, letters, etc.” This document was in the box with Twain’s letters, along with an envelope whose return address forged the link with Clara’s Hollywood home.
After visiting the estate and talking to a friend of the couple who bought it from Clara in 1951, Skandera had the final piece of the puzzle. Needing cash again a year after the sale of their house and most of their possessions, Jacques sold the letters Clara still had to the people who had bought the house. The wife locked the letters in a closet to let them appreciate; but then she and her husband grew increasingly eccentric and reclusive, rarely leaving the grounds of the estate. And the Twain letters weren’t the only things they saved. Most of what came into the house never left it. Like Seymour and Randall Holt in “My Brother’s Keeper,” they eventually filled up most of the rooms with newspapers dating back 50 years, furniture, and other odds and ends. When the wife died a few years ago, a friend of the aged widower went through part of the accumulated junk, selling a truckload to some local stamp and coin dealers. The letters being sold Monday were in that truckload.
After disinheriting Nina and naming her “archangelic husband” Jacques and a friend of his, a medical doctor, as sole beneficiaries, Clara died at the Bahia Hotel in 1962 at the age of 88.
Nina contested the will, charging that Jacques and the doctor had exerted undue influence over Clara, who was emotionally dependent on the one and physically dependent on the other for pain-relievers. “Of course, they denied it,” says Myron Harpole, Nina’s attorney. “But the issue was never decided because we never went to trial.” Instead Jacques and the doctor agreed to give Nina 35% of the income from the Clemens’ estate. That income was mainly the interest on royalties then approaching $1 million a year.
While waiting for the settlement, Nina sold her home on El Contento Drive and moved to an apartment on Highland Avenue. After years of struggle and several voluntary hospitalizations, she gave up her fight to stop drinking. “Nina was handicapped by being the descendant of brilliant people on both sides--her father and her grandfather,” says Harpole. “She was bright and had abilities, but she suffered because she felt she didn’t measure up to her ancestors.”
On Jan. 16, 1966, Nina checked into a hotel across the street from her apartment. The next day she was found dead at the age of 55 in a room strewn with pill and liquor bottles, dressed in blue leotards and a matching jumper.
According to her obituary, Mark Twain’s last descendant was the author of an autobiographical manuscript, “A Life Alone.” Describing this work as “generally confused” and “the wanderings of an alcoholic mind,” friends conceded that it showed flashes of the Clemens genius. The manuscript, never published, has disappeared. Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch left no note explaining why she killed herself. Her grandfather had already written, “I have never greatly envied anyone but the dead.”
All previously unpublished words by Mark Twain quoted in this article are copyright 1987 by Edward J. Willi and Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. as Trustees of the Mark Twain Foundation, which reserves all reproduction or dramatization rights in every medium. They are published here with the permission of the University of California Press and Robert H. Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley. All citations of such material are identified by the following symbol: * .