Mark Twain's Daughters Focus of New Exhibit

Mark Twain idolized his daughters.A new exhibit at the Twain House focuses on their relationship

When his daughters were small, Mark Twain kept a journal of their silly sayings, called "A Record of Small Foolishnesses."

One entry: "Once when Bay [Clara] was 3 or 4 years old, she said, 'Mamma, I brang you these flowers' — paused, then corrected herself — 'No, I brung them.'"

Another: "The other day [Jean] asked if she might go and swing herself in 'the big swing.' Mamma denied the petition, and suggested that Jean was too small. Jean responded, 'I can if I could, mamma.'"

Still another: "Susie (being ordered to bed) — said, thoughtfully — 'I wish I could sit up all night, as God does.'"

Twain idolized his daughters, each of whom had a distinct personality. Susy — the spelling of her nickname was changed when she got older — was imaginative, a writer like her father. Jean was sickly but warm-hearted, an animal-rights activist. Clara was iron-willed, a match for her stubborn dad, who strictly monitored his literary legacy after being the only one to outlive him.

A new exhibit at the Mark Twain House & Museum focuses on the girls. "In Their Father's Image" tells stories from their childhoods and adulthoods, two of them cut tragically short by ill health, Susy from spinal meningitis at age 24 and Jean of complications from epilepsy at age 29.

The exhibit, which will be up until early next year, also touches on the brief life of Langdon Clemens, the Clemenses' only son, who died at 18 months of diphtheria. The exhibit features little Langdon's death mask, which Samuel and Livy kept under their bed.

The most charming elements of the childhood portion of the exhibit are two paintings that hung over the Clemens' mantle for years, one of a cat wearing an Elizabethan ruff and the other of a beautiful young woman. "Each night they would play a game. They would tell a story that started with the cat in the ruff and would end with the girl, who they called Emmeline," said Mallory Howard, who co-curated the exhibit with Tracy Brindle. As the story was told, other decorative items in the room would be used as narrative embellishments. "The girls would go and switch them around to hopefully throw him off, so then their bedtime would be pushed back."

Some Hartford Public High School records show that Susy and Clara "got OK grades, but they were absent a lot and there are demerits in there," Brindle said. At one point, Clara got 13 demerits in one month, reflecting Twain's observation about her: "A very dear little ash-cat, but has claws."

The exhibit also features children's books in English and German — they were encouraged to speak German, taught to them by their governess, Rosa Hay — and christening items owned by the family, as well as items that reflect what the family might have owned, such as a girl's dress, a steam atomizer used to treat ill children and a stereo viewer to see postcards in 3-D.

'Personal Recollections...'

Susy's interest in playwriting is the focus of the adult portion of her story, as is her brief attendance at Bryn Mawr. After one semester, Susy withdrew from the school, after developing an unusually close attachment to a classmate, Louise Brownell. "Susy wrote very affectionate letters to her," Brindle said. "There are claims that Susy's parents thought this wasn't good, that she was getting too attached to her."

Speculation that Susy and Louise's relationship was a lesbian love affair has never been confirmed, but the Clemenses decided at that point to bring Susy with them when they moved to Europe for financial reasons. Susy died in 1896 in Hartford. Twain was in Europe when she died, and Livy and Clara were on a boat back home to see Susy.

The whole family was devastated by Susy's death. Twain wrote the worshipful, fictionalized "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc" based on how he remembered Susy as a teen.

Jean had a somewhat sad life. She suffered from her first epileptic seizure at age 15 and spent time at a convalescent facility in Katonah, N.Y. She had crushes on a few men, but nothing came of them. "Because of her epilepsy, she knew she couldn't have romantic relationships or marry or have children because she might pass the disease on. That was very hard for her," Howard said.

Brindle added that Jean "didn't feel she had a purpose in life because of her disease." She gave herself purpose by joining movements to protect animals from abuse. She often exasperated her father by berating carriage drivers for their treatment of the horses, which caused them travel delays. Jean also enjoyed outdoor activities — the exhibit features a pair of her skis, each of them 10 feet long — and wood carving.

Jean died four months before her father, on Christmas Eve 1909, at their home in Redding. She drowned in a bathtub after suffering a heart attack believed connected with a seizure.

Clara clashed with her father frequently, but took good care of his legacy even though she knew she'd never emerge from his shadow. "Everywhere she went, she was 'Mark Twain's daughter,'" Brindle said. This is seen in an item in the exhibit, a program from an appearance she gave. Her name is mentioned once on the program cover, but Twain is referred to three times.

That didn't stop her from trying. She became an accomplished singer and pianist and performed in concerts. She married symphony conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch, and after his death to another symphony conductor, Jacques Samossoud. She published three books — one about her father, one about her first husband, and one about her adopted Christian Scientist faith — and died in 1962.

Twain had one grandchild. Clara and Gabrilowitsch had a daughter, Nina. Nina was born in Redding in 1910, just four months after her grandfather died, and died in 1966.

"IN THEIR FATHER'S IMAGE: SUSY, CLARA AND JEAN CLEMENS" will be at Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave. in Hartford, from Thursday, March 24, to Jan. 24, 2017. The opening reception will be Thursday, March 24, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Editor's note: This has been edited from a previous version of the story to correct the spelling of Tracy Brindle's name and the location of Susy Clemens' death.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now