Olivia Langdon Clemens: Wife to Mark Twain

Olivia Langdon Clemens, often called “Livy” by her husband, was born on 27 November 1845 to Jervis Langdon, a wealthy businessman, and his wife, Olivia Lewis Langdon, in Elmira, New York. The family was religious, reformist, and abolitionist. Olivia was tutored at home and attended the Thurston’s Female Seminary and Elmira Female College, a school founded by a group of men on April 11, 1851, in Albany, New York.

Olivia Langdon Clemens statue

Olivia Langdon Clemens statue at the Elmira College. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

From childhood Olivia was plagued by poor health. She was also an invalid through part of her teenage years and some historians believe that she suffered from tuberculosis myelitis or Pott’s disease, named after Percivall Pott, an English surgeon who died in 1788, the same year that Anton Hinkel painted his famous portrait of princesse de Lamballe. The disease was named for him as Pott was the first to describe the rare infectious disease that was a kind of tuberculous arthritis of the spine. However, others maintain that Olivia Langdon Clemens did not have Pott’s disease but rather scoliosis, a spinal deformity that has no cure and can be painful and disabling.

No matter what she suffered from Olivia Langdon Clemens continued to experience various health problems throughout her life. However, there are also claims that she encountered a “marvelous cure” of her youthful disease after coming in contact with a “traveling doctor who healed by magnetic manipulations.”[1]

While young, Olivia also met and befriended Isabella Beecher Hooker, a leader, lecturer and social activist in the American suffragist movement and half-sister to author and anti-slavery activist Harriet Beecher Stowe. Fourteen-year-old Olivia met the older Isabella at the Gleason Water Cure in Elmira, a spot that both visited for their health. Isabella then introduced Olivia to her daughter Alice and the two girls quickly formed a friendship and spent time at each other’s homes during their adolescent and early adult years.

Isabella Beecher Hooker. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

In 1868, Oliva’s brother Charles, called “Charley” took a trip to the Holy Land. At the time Samuel Clemens, an American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer better known by his pen name of Mark Twain, was working as a correspondent for the nineteenth-century San Francisco newspaper, the Alta. He was writing “serio-comic” articles about New York and requested permission to go on the Holy Land excursion to provide more reports on points interest that were to be visited and that he would later compile into The Innocents Abroad. The paper granted his request and he boarded the steamship named the Quaker City. According to the Saint Paul Globe:

“To the moral and religious who made up this party his presence was undesirable, for he still carried his mining manners with him, and spoke the Washoe vernacular. It happened that among the passengers … was [Charlie] … This boy conceived a sort of friendship for Mr. Clemens, and associated with him almost constantly.”[2]

Samuel Clemens in 1871. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After the trip Charley stayed in touch with Samuel. In December of 1867 they met again in New York City when Samuel was there on business and Charley was with his family for their annual Christmas sojourn to that city. Charley invited Samuel to visit him at the St. Nicholas Hotel and introduced his friend to his parents, his sister Olivia, and her friend Alice. As they were heading to a reading given by author Charles Dickens, they invited Samuel to join them.

Besides the Dickens reading, Samuel enjoyed the company of Olivia and her friend another time while in New York City. He noted it in a letter to his mother and sister dated 8 January 1868:

“I started to make calls, New Year’s Day, but I anchored for the day at the first house I came to — Charlie Langdon’s sister was there (beautiful girl,) and Miss Alice Hooker, another beautiful girl, a niece of Henry Ward Beecher’s. We sent the old folks home early, with instructions not to send the carriage till midnight, and then I just staid there & deviled the life out of those girls. I am going to spend a few days with the Langdon’s, in Elmira, New York, as soon as I get time, & a few days at Mrs. Hooker’s, in Hartford, Conn., shortly.”[3]

Eventually Samuel decided Olivia was the girl for him. He had earned a Bohemian reputation that was not necessarily good for a prospective husband and so when he came and stayed for two weeks and then asked Langdon for his daughter’s hand in marriage, he received a “chilled” response from her father. Moreover, Olivia gave him a resounding “no” when he proposed marriage.

Olivia Langdon Clemens

Olivia Langdon Clemens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The refusal by Olivia did not dishearten Samuel. He began a vibrant epistolary courtship writing 184 courtship letters. Their letters discussed their opinions of authors and books and they also expressed their ideas about what they thought a perfect marriage entailed. Relationships between the sexes and the elements that composed a perfect husband or wife were also among the things Olivia and Samuel debated at length. Interestingly, their opinions were often radically different, and yet despite these differences Samuel became determined to marry Olivia.

To accomplish his goal, Samuel realized that he would have to give up his less than Christian ways that he partly learned while living in the rough and tumble town of Virginia City, Nevada. He had embraced the bad habits of cursing, smoking, and drinking, and he knew that he would not win Langdon’s approval or Olivia’s hand unless he changed his ways. He thus began to reform and put his best foot forward but in doing so he also suffered Olivia’s rejection of marriage two more times.

“[W]hile all the world was talking about him … he [went] to Elmira, accompanied by an editorial friend from Cleveland, and again renewed his suit. … This time the old gentleman listened with more complacency. The young lady’s brother pleaded for Clemens, and his Cleveland friend … also advocated … but more powerful pleaders than either of these was the young lady’s own heart, and for her father, the evidence of capacity Mr. Clemens had given, and also of reformation of life. A family meeting was held, and into its charmed circle the expectant bridegroom gladly stepped, changing Bohemianism for respectability, poverty for wealth, the loneliness of bachelorhood for the society of married life. He intended the change should be complete, for one some of the envelopes containing wedding cards sent to former friends in California and Nevada, he added to the address the significant words, ‘good-by.’”[4]

Samuel and Olivia became engaged in November 1868 and was officially announced in February 1869. A year after that, on the evening of 2 February 1870, they were married in the parlor of Oliva’s parent’s house. The ceremony was performed by the Congregational ministers Rev. Joseph Twichell and Rev. Thomas K. Beecher, brother to Hooker. It was a private but impressive ceremony attended by friends and family that numbered around 100.

Thomas K. Hooker. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One story that came to light after the wedding was that Olivia’s father had decided to give the couple a home but wanted to surprise his new son-in-law. Samuel had found steady employment by buying into the Buffalo Express and so it was to Buffalo, New York, that he and his bride would be moving after their marriage. Because of his limited income Samuel was expected to purchase a modest home in that city but in the meantime, he planned that he and his wife would initially live in a boarding house. Thus, being the helpful father-in-law Langdon suggested that Samuel allow his agent, a Mr. J.D.F. Slee to conduct all the arrangements for their lodgings in Buffalo.

In the meantime, however, Langdon secretly got busy. He planned the purchase of a house suitable for his daughter and Samuel. Then according to the Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express:

“Mr. Langdon bought a house in the finest part of Delaware Avenue, and had it handsomely furnished. … The wedding came, and Mark had not yet been able to find out what Mr. Slee had done [to find him lodgings]. When his mother and sister arrived in Elmira for the marriage, he was bursting with wrath against the nefarious Slee. ‘That Slee!’ he said. ‘When I went to Buffalo to find out what he had done, I found a note from him saying that he had gone to New York!’”[5]

As his mother and sister knew nothing of the secret purchase, they of course sided with him about how terrible Slee was and how he had failed Samuel and Olivia. After the wedding when Samuel and his new bride arrived in Buffalo, he was beside himself as he had no idea where he and his new wife were going to live. In the meantime, Samuel’s mother and sister were among the first taken from the station to the house to be let in on the surprise. Not being the first picked up and transported was another slight to Samuel and he “provoked new anathemas against the offending Mr. Slee for such gross and unparalleled mismanagement of the bridal party.”[6]

Eventually, the bride and groom were driven in a “roundabout way” to the new house located at 472 Delaware Avenue, on the west side of the street, just above Virginia. Samuel could not understand why they were touring the home when he thought they were supposed to be taken to the boarding house where they were to live. However, after he and Olivia Langdon Clemens toured the house from top to bottom his wife let him in on the surprise. She declared that her father had purchased the house for them as a wedding gift.

It did not take long after the wedding for Olivia Langdon Clemens to become pregnant with the couple’s first child, Langdon. He was born prematurely in November 1870 and soon after his birth Oliva contracted typhoid fever. Samuel was overwhelmed and finding it impossible to help take care of his sickly wife and newborn son, he moved his family to Elmira to be nearer to Olivia’s family.

In 1871, the family moved again. This time from Elmira to Hartford, Connecticut. There they rented a beautiful house in the historical neighborhood known as Nook Farm. By this time, Samuel and Olivia Langdon Clemens were living lavishly. Part of their wealth came from Samuel’s earnings that he was now receiving from his lectures and books and another portion of their wealth was because Olivia had received a substantial inheritance after her father’s death in August of 1870.

Unfortunately, difficult times soon befell the couple. Samuel went back on his vows and began cursing, smoking, and drinking. Olivia fortunately learned to deal with these bad habits and although she remained a Christian, the fervor she had once embraced for God was never the same. Moreover, despite being wealthy, there was nothing the couple could do to save their 1-½-year-old son Langdon, who died in 1872.

Fortunately, not everything was going badly. The same year their son died, Oliva Langdon Clemens gave birth in March to her first daughter, Olivia Susan, called Susy. Around the same time, the Clemens purchased a plot of land and began building a house in Hartford. It was a distinctive American High Gothic style house designed by architect Edward Tuckerman Potter. Legend has it that it was designed to look like a riverboat.

Located at number 351 Farmington Avenue, the house was later described by Justin Kaplan, a biographer of Samuel:

“Outside and inside it defied all categories. It presented to the dazzled eye three turrets, the tallest of which was octagonal and about fifty feet high, five balconies, innumerable embrasures, a huge shaded veranda that turned a corner, an elaborate porte-cochère, a forest of chimneys. Its dark brick walls were trimmed with brownstone and decorated with inlaid designs in scarlet-painted brick and black; the roof was patterned in colored tile. The house was permanent polychrome and gingerbread Gothic; it was part steamboat, part medieval stronghold, and part cuckoo clock.”[7]

Olivia Langdon Clemens house

Hartford house of Samuel and Olivia Langdon Clemens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Kaplan’s description seemed to be the consensus among nearly everyone who saw it. For instance, the Los Angeles Evening Express provided the following comments on the structure shortly after it was built:

“Mark Twain’s house at Hartford is described as outlandishly rakish, with unexpected balconies jutting out at every turn, and unprovoked staircases running irregularly up the outside. The whole structure brick and wood, is painted the darkest Indian red, and has a sort of drawbridge in the rear … and a moat for the children to be occasionally rescued from.”[8]

The Clemens family moved into their new place in 1874 and that same year Oliva Langdon Clemens gave birth to another daughter named Clara. Her birth was followed six years later by the arrival of their third daughter, Jane, whom they called Jean. Nonetheless, Olivia Langdon Clemens proved to be more than just a good mother to her children or a faithful wife to Samuel. This was noted by him when he wrote the following of her:

“In the beginning of our engagement the proofs of my first book, The Innocents Abroad, began to arrive and [Livy] read them with me. She also edited them. She was my faithful, judicious, and painstaking editor from that day forth until within three or four months of her death – a stretch of more than a third of a century.”[9]

Samuel also once remarked of his wife, “I take as much pride in her brains as I do in her beauty.”[10] This was because Olivia came from a household were repressive household roles were not the norm. What the Langdons valued was the education of women and the rights of women. This thus also resulted in Olivia being a feminist and surrounding herself with women who valued women’s rights such as such as Hooker and Anna Dickinson.

Samuel and Oliva Langdon Clemens remained in their High Gothic style Hartford home until 1891. That is when they left for Europe partly because Samuel was suffering financial difficulties because of poor investments and partly because they were continually overspending, a bad habit that had also plagued Eliza de Feuillide’s mother, Philadelphia. Ultimately, in 1894, Samuel was forced to declare bankruptcy but because Olivia was given “preferred creditor” status, she was able to protect their financial future.

Financial difficulties were also the reason Samuel decided to pay off his debts by undertaking an around-the-world tour, perhaps somewhat inspired by investigative journalist Nellie Bly‘s 1889 record-breaking around-the-world journey that she completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds. Samuel’s tour took much longer and began in 1895. Further, he was accompanied by his wife and their daughter Clara. While traipsing around the world, the Clemens received word that their daughter Suzy had suddenly became ill. Unbeknownst to her she was suffering from spinal meningitis.

Clara Clemens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Susy initially refused to see a doctor. Word reached the Clemens of Susy’s condition on 15 August 1896 when Oliva’s brother Charley sent a telegram across the Atlantic. He provided details and noted that her condition had worsened. Biographer and historian Karen Lysta described what happened next:

“Suzy was very ill but was expected to recover slowly. Livy immediately decided that she and Clara would cross the Atlantic … At about noon on August 16, 1896, Suzy went blind; an hour later she spoke her last word. Another cablegram … on August 18 informed Sam that ‘Suzy was peacefully released today.’ Clara and Livy had already set sail, and Sam could only send a heartbroken letter that Livy would not get until after she arrived: ‘If I were only with you ― to be near with my breast and my sheltering arms when the ship lands & Charley’s tears reveal all without his speaking. I love you, my darling, ― and I wish you could have been spared this unutterable sorrow.’”[11]

Susy Clemens in 1885. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Susy’s death, the Clemens lived abroad until 1902 living in Switzerland, Austria, and England before returning to Riverdale, New York. They then moved in a house in Tarrytown, New York. Olivia by this time was suffering health problems and to avoid over excitement, doctors advised her to keep her distance from her husband. This meant she went months without seeing him, although he often broke the rules and saw her to exchange kisses or love letters.

Samuel Clemens in 1907. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1903, doctors advise the Clemens family to move to Italy to aid Olivia because the weather was warmer there. This was standard advice at the time and guidance that had also been given years earlier to eighteenth century American socialite, Ann Bingham, when she was ill. The Clemens therefore found a place outside of Florence and it was there that Olivia Langdon Clemens died on 5 June 1904 from heart failure. She was cremated and her ashes were interred at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira. A heartbroken Samuel died six years later and was interred beside her.

Olivia Langdon Clemens and Samuel Clemens

Graves of Olivia Langdon Clemens and Samuel Clemens headstones at Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] The St. Albans Daily Messenger, “Mark Twain,” February 7, 1870, p. 3.
  • [2] The Saint Paul Globe, “Mark Twain’s Marriage,” January 26, 1879, p. 4.
  • [3] M. Twain, Mark Twain’s Letters, Mark Twain’s Letters (North Charleston: Harper, 1929), p. 72.
  • [4] The Saint Paul Globe, p. 4.
  • [5] Buffalo Morning Express and Illustrated Buffalo Express, “Some of the Men We Know,” May 16, 1897, p. 7.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] J. Kaplan, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (New York: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1966), Kindle version.
  • [8] Los Angeles Evening Express, August 3, 1874, p. 1.
  • [9] F. G. Robinson, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 53.
  • [10] M. Twain, p. 189.
  • [11] K. Lysta, Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 23.

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