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The following review appeared 24 June 2014 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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I wonder which publishers declined the opportunity to work on this project and sell a film option? Possibly they felt it was 'wildcat speculation', as Mark Twain did in 1877 when he refused a chance to invest in Alexander Graham Bell's new invention.
The Twain Shall Meet is the most amazing event in Twainiana since the discovery of the first half of the manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in a Hollywood attic in 1991 after it had been missing for more than a century. Mark Twain's last descendant has long been thought to have been his only grandchild, Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, who died in 1966. Now, 77-year-old Susan Bailey of South Carolina has stepped forward with a convincing claim that she is Nina's daughter, delivered secretly in Europe around January 1937.
DNA tests to date have been promising, and conclusive results are within reach. Kevin Mac Donnell -- the generous Mark Twain scholar and collector, who has items from Clara Clemens' estate, including letters and photographs -- stepped forward this week with an offer to donate envelope flaps and postage stamps for additional DNA testing. Susan Bailey has accepted the offer, and they are hoping that a specialized lab that analyzes such items will be able to resolve this important historical question.
Even if a revised edition of The Twain Shall Meet is never prepared, a complementary article in a journal of genetic science would put Bailey and Gosselin's claim on a pedestal that could not be toppled, which in turn would make the authors' research all the more remarkable, in that they would have ascertained an unexpected conclusion by inference from brilliant research.
The possibility that Samuel Clemens may have descendants alive today will understandably annoy many Twain enthusiasts who are regularly beset by acquaintances claiming to be 'descendants of Mark Twain,' just as they are assailed by quotations wrongly attributed to him. Since 1966, granddaughter Nina was sole, incomparable, the terminus of the descendants of Samuel Clemens, and for all the troubles she may have faced in her own life, she made ours easier in being able to dismiss such claims quickly.
Anyone who writes a book like this had better be brave -- and right. Co-authors Susan Bailey and Deborah Gosselin know they face a hard audience, and they have met the challenge well.
The Twain Shall Meet comprises distinct parts that can be evaluated separately. Its strongest contribution is the biography of Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, which has never been given in such detail. The main sources of information are Nina's diaries from 1921-1941, which are held by Brigham Young University; correspondence and photos from a box of Nina's personal effects held by the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford; as well as correspondence that the authors have tracked down among descendants of friends of Nina. While Caroline Harnsberger's Mark Twain's Clara (1982) solidified the stereotype of Nina as a failure, in which Twainians have been lazily complicit -- unable to achieve success as an actor, and hospitalized regularly for mental illness and alcoholism -- Bailey and Gosselin use their sources to humanize Nina, explaining why the granddaughter of America's most famous author ended up the way she did.
Considering how accustomed we have become over almost half a century to regard Nina as Mark Twain's last descendant, the most shocking revelation of The Twain Shall Meet may be that Nina was sexually active, likely becoming pregnant on more than one occasion, and probably delivering at least one child. Chapters 39-40 are the most important in making the case that her first pregnancy occurred shortly after cancer struck her father, Ossip Gabrilowitsch, pianist and conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Nina apparently had a brief relationship with author Bailey's father, Elwood, an already married friend of a friend who was acquainted with the Clemens/Gabrilowitsch family, visiting Detroit from Tampa, and who himself was facing the imminent death of his mother. Just as Clara Clemens had been pregnant with Nina for about five months at the time of her father's death in 1910, Bailey and Gosselin argue persuasively that so too was Nina, then 26, pregnant when her father Ossip died in September 1936.
Clara and Nina apparently did not attend the funeral service for Ossip in Detroit nor his burial in Elmira. This behaviour was distinctly out of character for socially conscious Clara. When her father had died in 1910, for example, Clara attended both the service in New York City and the burial in Elmira.
Unfortunately for Nina, her child had been conceived outside of marriage, which at that time was considered to be a dishonour for the woman's family -- magnified a hundred times for the daughter of Mark Twain, whose image his late-Victorian daughter Clara had spent her entire life protecting, refusing to publish Letters from the Earth, for example, until more than half a century after her father had died. My own genealogical research of ordinary families in the 1920s and 1930s has uncovered more than one young unwed mother being quickly married to a man who was not the biological father.
The Twain Shall Meet proposes events that are well reasoned, credible, and have precedents. But skeptical readers who, perhaps like Clara, prefer not to imagine how Nina could have allowed it to happen, should adopt a form of counterfactual questioning that Niall Ferguson advocates for historians wanting "to recapture the uncertainty of decision-makers in the past" and to assess whether they made the best decisions.
The first question obviously has an affirmative answer: "Is it possible that a young woman in her 20s, who attended late-night bohemian parties with alcohol during her college years in New York during an era of increasing freedom for single women but inadequate birth control, might become pregnant?"
The Twain Shall Meet is essentially a masterful answer to the more interesting question: "What would happen if someone like Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, the unwed, only daughter of socially prominent parents in the 1930s and the granddaughter of a famous author, were to become pregnant by a married man who had since returned to his own city, when she herself was emotionally and financially unable to look after the child?" Even if one only considers the question hypothetically, the explanations offered by Bailey and Gosselin are not only highly plausible, but they render far less puzzling the unusual real-life actions of Clara and Nina following the death of Ossip.
Only five days after Ossip's death, they were en route for Chicago, the beginning of a month-long trip that took them to St. Louis, San Antonio, Mexico City, and ultimately to Europe a month later, after they had requested "emergency" passports. Letters written by both Clara and Nina during this period are filled with cryptic and ominous comments. Nina had "no conception of what really lay ahead" (p. 276), while her mother writes to Ossip's siblings in Europe that "it was difficult to delay our coming at this point" (p. 277). One of Nina's friends tells her "he was afraid this trip of ours was going to be an ordeal, and it was all wrong....Take care of yourself and keep your soul" (p. 279). In December, Nina stated in her diary that she had "wrote letter to child" with quotes from a letter she had received from a boyfriend. While such a statement does not reveal Nina's meaning literally, the astute reader will guess its meaning not from unlimited possibilities but rather from a narrower range of reasonable options.
Equally revealing is not only what was said, but what was omitted. Having kept her diary almost every day since she was eleven years old, its early pages especially are filled with details. Bailey and Gosselin themselves describe such early pages as 'boring'. But Nina also admitted in her diary to a practice of revising or destroying passages that concerned troubling periods of her life. Intriguingly, Nina's diary, so diligently kept even for mundane details, appears to be silent and/or missing during the exact periods of the possible conception (April 1936) and birth (January 1937) of a child.
Among Nina's effects preserved at Hartford is a late-1930s photo of Nina in a dark, unusual pose with a man whom co-author Bailey says is her father. Another photo shows a woman, apparently Nina, with a baby. The photo shows the woman only from behind (her face is not visible) leaning toward a baby on the couch, whose face is visible. Whoever the baby may be, Nina apparently kept the photo until she died, suggesting that the child had importance to Nina.
Many more arguments are cited by Bailey and Gosselin, but this review does not want to give everything away and spoil your pleasure in reading the book. Considered singly, any oddity can be dismissed, but there are so many that, taken together, they demonstrate powerfully that Clara and Nina were hiding something scandalous after Ossip's death.
If one accepts the possibility that Nina had a child during this time, her later behaviour also becomes less puzzling. While many Mark Twain enthusiasts have satisfied themselves with the easy answer that Nina was simply alcoholic or mentally ill, whether by personal failing or by an unfortunate quirk of nature (or by the stress of having to live as an only child with famous and busy parents, raised by a governess and chauffeur), the likelihood that Nina had been forced by her mother to give up a baby would have been a sufficiently traumatic event to trigger her extreme behaviours (excessive drinking and sexual relations with inappropriate partners) and the episodes of institutionalization that followed this period. The son of Nina's last companion, George Wrentmore, also confirmed to Bailey and Gosselin that he was aware of a rumour that the loss of a child of Nina "supposedly was why she drank."
By 1953, a psychiatrist at Camarillo State Mental Hospital stated that "Nina's hatred for her mother was well-established" (Harnsberger 222). There is ample evidence from Nina's diary that although Clara may have seemed a distant mother due to her and Ossip's busy schedules, their relationship was relatively good. An extreme emotion like 'hatred' may have emerged after a trauma. Had the event been as simple as Clara withholding money, it would have been stated clearly for posterity, just as such dirty laundry was aired when Nina contested Clara's will, which bequeathed most of her estate to second husband Jacques Samossoud.
Whatever triggered the hatred had happened years earlier -- before Clara disinherited Nina in 1958 in favour of Samossoud's friend William Seiler as contingent beneficiary -- and was never stated. The Twain Shall Meet is therefore a shocking but persuasive answer to the question that has to arise: "Given these people and the period in which they lived, what kind of unspoken action(s) could have triggered intense hatred and mental illness?"
The claim that Nina had at least one child is well argued. The related, but separate, assertion of The Twain Shall Meet that must be evaluated is whether Susan Bailey is Nina's biological child.
In her favour, Bailey is unlike everyone else who claims to be descended from Mark Twain. Bailey recalls reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a child and being told that she was related to its author, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, which meant nothing to the nine-year-old. She was actually disappointed, remembering "I would have been far more thrilled had we been related to Tom Sawyer." Everyone who sees Bailey immediately recognizes her similarity to Clara. Bailey's son resembles Ossip Gabrilowitsch, while her grandson resembles Nina. Taken individually, these similarities can be coincidences, but taken together, they raise eyebrows. Also ironic is that Bailey came late to her comprehension of how exactly she might be related to the Clemens family, in a twist that she herself had not expected.
Bailey's co-author Deborah Gosselin had also grown up being told that her family was related to Mark Twain via her great-grandfather Ira Clemens Lucia, who had told his family that he was the son of Cynthia Clemens, a sister of John Marshall Clemens, who was the father of Sam. As an adult, Gosselin -- an engineer and professional genealogist -- wanted to prove the connection and soon discovered that John Marshall Clemens never had a sister Cynthia. Thinking that perhaps her great-grandfather had not understood the relationship well himself, Gosselin pushed on in her research, locating second and third cousins who had independently carried forward the same yarn as spun a century earlier by Ira Clemens Lucia.
Prepared to put the family legend to rest, Gosselin was intrigued by an atypical response in 2007 from an apparent half-cousin of multiple degrees, Susan Bailey. Unlike other cousins who had written to Gosselin with the same old story from Ira Lucia, Bailey mentioned casually that she thought there must indeed be a relation to Mark Twain "because I knew Clara Clemens when I was a child. I visited with her a few times in Detroit" (p. 14).
Bailey had never known who her real mother was, and she was more interested in finding that information rather than trying to prove a distant kinship to Mark Twain. Bailey's journey in writing The Twain Shall Meet has been her own attempt to reconstruct the facts from sketchy childhood memories about leaving Europe near the beginning of World War 2, to live with new parents in the United States. Incidentally, Clara Clemens had experience spiriting family members away from risky situations, as her husband Ossip had been taken hostage by Germans at the start of World War 1, and in 1921 she and Ossip had paid bribes to help Ossip's brothers escape from Russia (which would have created a family debt to Clara).
Bailey was brought to Tampa, where she would inexplicably dream in French. One day in 1944, when she was seven-years-old, Bailey was called to the principal's office to meet her 'Aunt Nina,' a well-dressed lady who Bailey agreed must be her relative, because Nina knew Bailey's middle name: Madeline. Aunt Nina took the child for ice cream, telling her that Bailey was "a little French girl" and "I named you." They went to a movie theatre, where soon the police arrived to separate the pair. To avoid a repeat of this intrusion into the young girl's life by someone who even then was described as an alcoholic, Bailey was moved to Chicago to be raised by an older cousin, and the man whom she had known as her father died shortly after.
If we believe Bailey that the incident happened as she relates, surely the adult most likely to have taken the trouble to find young Susan and tell her such curious things would have been her mother.
Family trips between Tampa and Chicago were punctuated for Bailey by occasional visits to cousins in Detroit. I will not give away more details than you may already have read in the media because, if you are willing to go along for the ride, you will enjoy a few goosebumps yourself reading about Bailey's few remembered trips to dinner and the symphony, as a nine-year-old, with an older couple she had known only vaguely as 'Aunt Clara' and 'Uncle Jacques'.
Skeptical readers will understandably disregard the remote memories of childhood. I am admittedly more sympathetic, as my own research on other families during the same interwar period has proven to me how a woman in her 80s can recall details, including names, from when she was only five or nine years old. Co-author Gosselin herself knows that the absence of a European birth certificate for Bailey is problematic. Bailey believes that a powerful family friend helped to create her American birth certificate, but we are not told what birth date is stated for her. It is possible that the stated birth date is her actual birth date, in which case it could help narrow in on potential births in Europe, possibly using names from Gabrilowitsch's family, and in places where they lived, or where Clara had been known to visit. Similarly, if Bailey indeed accompanied Clara Clemens to the Detroit Symphony where, as she writes, Clara attracted a lot of attention in her front-row seat as the widow of former conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch and daughter of Mark Twain, a Detroit newspaper possibly would have mentioned Clara and the little girl with her. These documents may well exist, but perhaps the records have not been digitized to the extent that would make the searches easy.
A weakness of The Twain Shall Meet is that we are not always told the details about what searches have been made. It is unfortunate that we do not learn more about the dead ends that were encountered -- not only so that we can assess how thorough of a search was made, but how likely it is that certain supporting documents may turn up in the future.
For example, if Nina was taken into custody by police after removing seven-year-old Bailey from school, might there be a written record? Also, when she attended Stetson University, Bailey's tuition was paid -- something that Bailey did not think much about, as she had grown up being told to maintain good grades because there would be money for her to go to a university. If Clara had indeed arranged for an annuity before her second husband began to draw on the Clemens wealth, might there be a record somewhere? (Recall that Clara's father had paid quietly for Warner T. McGuinn's law school tuition.) Perhaps too much time has passed and such documents have been destroyed -- but we are not informed if at least a search was made.
In the absence of supporting documents, the reader is ultimately asked to believe Bailey's memories. Fortunately, she does not try to overstep the reader's tolerance, but rather states where her memories may be unclear. The narrative is well presented from the perspective of the child, supplemented occasionally by the adult's reassessment of what must actually have occurred. For example, seven-year-old Bailey's trip to the ice cream parlour with Nina is a short but unexpected adventure with someone she has never before seen, whereas the adult Bailey surmises that Nina may have chosen that time to visit because of a falling-out with her mother pertaining to her marriage to Samossoud that year (1944). Bailey and Gosselin do not pretend to know the truth any better than we do, but they assemble the many parts of this complex puzzle in a way that explains the motivations and actions of the players very well. The narrative is believable exactly for its uncertainty.
Will this evidence suffice to prove that Bailey is Nina's daughter? Lineage societies such as Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, or the United Empire Loyalists, accept 'preponderance of evidence' in proving descent from the relevant ancestor. Because obligatory birth registration in the Americas is relatively recent (coinciding with industrialization and urbanization), in lieu of a birth certificate, lineage societies will accept a well-reasoned argument that shows that the right ancestors could only have been where they need to have been, and those organizations would accept The Twain Shall Meet without blinking (other than to acknowledge that rarely do they receive anything so well presented).
Twainians are not so easy to convince.
DNA testing offers the promise of settling the question with certainty, although it requires a good understanding of where one's ancestors appear in the family tree. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed from mother to child. To consider one's ancestors as far back as the second great-grandparents (which for many people today would mean around 1850, when paper trails in the Americas are patchy), there would be 30 ancestors, of which readily available DNA tests are only able to 'see' eight. Unfortunately there is very little mtDNA in this line in the last century or so against which Bailey may test. While three of Samuel Clemens' four children were daughters, only one survived (Clara), who herself had only one child (Nina). Turning to Livy herself, she did have one sister (Susan) who lived a long life, but she was adopted, and so did not carry the same mtDNA as Livy. One has to move to the next higher generation (Jervis Langdon and Olivia Lewis, married in 1832) to look for sisters (who would have been Livy's aunts) who had children that survived to the present day -- in other words, long enough to submit their DNA for testing against Bailey.
Although the paper trail is slim, Bailey has many matches along this mtDNA line, but they are necessarily distant, partly because, as explained above, there are not enough closer surviving mtDNA carriers (indeed, that is part of the very excitement of Bailey's claim), and partly because only a slender segment of people from the overall population (regardless of family) have submitted their DNA for testing. There are different ways of interpreting Bailey's matches. If someone like Bailey has the 'Langdon' mtDNA from Samuel Clemens' family, and if we believe her account of an 'Aunt Nina' and a wealthy 'Aunt Clara' in Detroit, there are surely not many candidates for those roles who could be other than Mark Twain's descendants. On the other hand, there remains a possibility that, biologically, Bailey may be one of those more numerous distant cousins of Nina, rather than a descendant, if the degree of mtDNA matching does not adequately distinguish between such genealogically close descendants.
A weakness of The Twain Shall Meet is that it provides few details about the specific mutations along which Bailey is matching (even such broad classifications as HVR1 and HVR2 are not mentioned) nor does it provide much in the way of expert guidance. The mtDNA of such historical figures as the Romanovs, Marie Antoinette, and Jesse James, have been reviewed by experts in journals of forensic science (http://www.isogg.org/famousdna.htm) but Mark Twain has not received the same treatment, precisely because Nina was thought to be his last descendant. Until Bailey and Gosselin's book, there was no need to give much thought to Mark Twain's DNA, but now that such a time has arrived, The Twain Shall Meet, as it stands, does not yet deliver the 100% certainty that some readers will want. However, as mentioned earlier, there is a good possibility that it may arrive in the future.
The final aspect of the book is its biography of Susan Madeline Bailey. Interspersed among the chapters about Nina, and the authors' efforts to discover how their families are related to Mark Twain, are chapters by Bailey describing her own extraordinary life. To the extent that you believe she is Mark Twain's great-granddaughter, you may feel that you are reading a Prince and Pauperish tale that Mark Twain himself might have written. Nina, like her mother, lived in Mark Twain's large shadow, whereas Bailey was able to live outside it, which surely contributed to her greater resilience in the face of difficult events. While the entire book is clear and well written, the only improvement that could have been made to supplement these chapters would be a genealogical tree of Bailey's and Gosselin's families, to assist some readers who otherwise may end up having to draw their own.
Scholars will want to have certain other things that Bailey and Gosselin have not delivered. For example, there is no index, and not every point or letter is referenced in as orderly a way as we have been fortunate to have grown accustomed to from editions prepared by the Mark Twain Project. There are no references at all, in fact, until chapter 12. Unfortunately, the authors tried but were not able to learn more about Nina's incipient 65-page autobiography, A Life Alone, but perhaps it is lost.
Aside from bibliographical quibbles, and even if the reader cannot go along with Bailey's claim that she is the great-granddaughter of Mark Twain, The Twain Shall Meet stands untouched as the best biography to date of Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch, a result of which Bailey and Gosselin can be proud, as Bailey began her project to learn who her mother was, and it led her to a place that neither she nor anyone expected. Mark Twain is, in fact, surprisingly missing from most of the book.
It will be revealing to compare readers' reactions to The Twain Shall Meet to the strong reaction incited seventeen years ago by a book that had equivalent shock value, Andrew Hoffman's Inventing Mark Twain, which speculated that Clemens may have engaged in homosexuality as a young man on the Western frontier. The Twain Shall Meet differs from Inventing Mark Twain in that -- even in the current absence of DNA certainty -- its premise is so plausible because there are antecedents for these events in unrelated families, and its claims are well supported from a variety of unpublished primary sources connected to the Clemens family (diaries, photos, letters, and interviews). Bailey and Gosselin do not hold back anything that could shed light on Nina's life -- or death: the book even provides autopsy details, and reprints Nina's death certificate, which shows the coroner's uncertainty as to whether her death was accidental or suicide.
In contrast to the skeptics mentioned at the start of this review, some people will want Bailey's claim to be true, for the hope it gives that Mark Twain may live on not only in his remarkable work, but in live descendants who themselves may one day produce art. But humans are more alike than they are different, and we should not forget that, even if Halley's Comet may not have been responsible for Mark Twain's genius, he was nevertheless born in a unique time and place that was a long time coming, and that created a set of coincidences (most of which were not genetic) that we likely will never see again.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Taylor Roberts founded the Mark Twain Forum in 1992. He has written about Mark Twain's travels in Canada, as well as the discovery in 1997 of the author's annotated copy of Morte Darthur (the inspiration for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court), which had been sold to an unknown buyer at an auction in 1951 by the aforenamed Clara Clemens.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT: Kevin Mac Donnell and Barbara Schmidt kindly
provided comments on an earlier draft of this review.