Michael Shelden's recently published biography, Mark Twain: Man in White. The Grand Adventure of His Final Years (2010), is a tightly crafted and well-focused critical study that reads like a novel. Colorful, captivating, and informative, it is stocked with over forty black-and-white photos and illustrations, an extensive “Sources and Bibliography” section, a handy index, and ample and useful notes that serve to inform and, at times, offer tactful corrections to Twain's late-life “adventures.” Complementing Ron Powers's 2005 biography, Mark Twain: a Life, Shelden's Man in White is a welcome and valuable addition to the ever-growing collection of works on Twain's life, particularly his last few years as a writer.
Man in White contains twenty-one chapters, a 23-page prologue, an epilogue, and four main sections: “Blithe Spirit”; “American Idol”; “The World According to Mark”; and “Tempest.” Each section is abundantly filled with Twain's family matters, personal habits and proclivities, and his business dealings, and each introduces readers to a cast of colorful characters whom Twain knew, admired, loved and/or hated in his old age.
Intertwined among the pages describing Twain's dealings with his family members, including his two surviving daughters, Clara and Jean, are Twain's various late-life excursions, changes of address, and his many encounters with some of the most famous and notorious characters of his day: writer Rudyard Kipling; steel mogul Andrew Carnegie; Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy, “Eddypus,” whom Twain chastised for her religious views, bad prose, but more for her arrogance; Helen Keller and her “miracle worker,” Annie Sullivan; actresses Ethel Barrymore and Billie Burke; the sensational author Elinor Glyn; the Crime of the Century's leading lady, Evelyn Nesbit—Twain came tantalizingly close to serving as a juror for the trial of murderer Harry Thaw, who killed Nesbit's husband, architect supreme, Stanford White—cutting-edge photographer, Alvin Coburn; publisher and friend Robert Collier; President Woodrow Wilson (and his mistress, Mary Peck), and Twain's stand-in granddaughters, his “Angelfish”: Helen Allen, Margaret Blackmer, Dorothy Quick, Frances Nunally, Dorothy Harvey, as well as Albert Bigelow Paine's daughters, and others.
Shelden distinguishes his approach by emphasizing Twain's later-life decision to buck convention by regularly wearing his now-trademark white suit, and by focusing exclusively on Twain's last four years, 1906 to 1910, a time of personal success and failure, and emotional, financial, and familial turmoil; it is a period in Twain's life that has been both critically controversial and historically underwritten. While some might question whether a study of only four years of an author's life is necessary, or whether such a narrowly focused study runs the risk of being marred by minutiae, Shelden's book proves otherwise; in it, he breaks new ground, adds to (and challenges) previous scholarship, and neatly explicates the significance of Twain's important final years with skill, clarity, and depth.
Twain's last few years were filled with many twists and turns, successes and failures, travel and travail, and turmoil, as well as much happiness and even more sadness. It is a bitter-sweet tale. According to Shelden, these years were some of “the most eventful of … [Twain's] life” (xxv), a time in which the author was “never more alive—never more perceptive” (xxx), and they constituted a kind of “second bachelorhood” (9) for Twain who had lost Livy (Olivia Langdon Clemens), his beloved wife who had battled illness for most of her life and who died in 1904 from heart disease.
After a robust prologue, Shelden begins by describing Twain's 1906 appearance at the Library of Congress's Senate Reading Room. Shelden recreates this important moment in which Twain, clad in white, would make a deliberate and purposeful statement; he would create a “perceptible stir” (xix), and he would bring to life his modern persona and his most dominant pop-cultural legacy—the “man in white.” In Congress on that snowy December day Twain would advocate in person for stricter American copyright laws. Three years later, he and other writers would reap the benefits of his “theatrical” (xix) appearance. In 1909 Congress passed new copyright legislation that assured authors that their copyrights would stay with them for 56 years beyond a work's publication. The fate of Huck Finn and Twain's financial future were secured—or so it seemed at the time.
Unfortunately, Twain's personal fortunes and financial health were always somewhat precarious and potentially volatile. His financial history was marred by two indelible and persistent traits: his unwavering trust in others when it came to his financial matters (oil magnate H. H. Rogers being the one notable exception); and his chronic inability to bet on a winning horse, a flaw most notoriously revealed in his sour investment (totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars) in the ill-fated, malfunctioning, impractical, and immediately obsolete-upon-its-completion Paige typesetter.
Shelden writes at length about Twain's financial pitfalls—and recoveries. And he tells the story of the close relationship Twain shared with Standard Oil executive and millionaire, Henry Huttleson Rogers, a savvy yet cut-throat businessman who was a true friend and mentor to Twain. Shelden portrays Rogers as a larger-than-life character, a man's man and swashbuckling hero who was more like “Twain's brother” (355) than his friend. In fact, Twain would rely on Rogers's advice to save or recoup his personal fortune countless times, and it was Rogers to whom Twain would owe a huge debt when in 1894 creditors were seeking to recoup $160,000 from Twain. The creditors sought Twain's most valuable possession, his copyrights. However, Rogers had an answer. Because, argued Rogers, Twain had borrowed more money from his wife's estate than he had from his predatory creditors, Livy, not the creditors, was Twain's de facto “chief creditor.” Shelden writes, “In due course all the copyrights were assigned to Livy. Single-handedly, Rogers saved his friend's most valuable assets” (50).
Man in White reads like a Who's Who: its cast of characters is wide-ranging and includes various stakeholders in Twain's life: family members, business associates, celebrities, presidents, and heroes and villains—including two bumbling yet dangerous New York thugs, Henry Williams and Charles Hoffman, who burglarized Twain's Redding, Connecticut, home in the fall of 1908, and in the process irrevocably stripped it of its country charm and peacefulness. The two were arrested only after engaging in a gunfight with local authorities.
As with the burglary episode, Shelden skillfully weaves together facts, details, and narration to create chapters that have a narrative-like quality; they are intriguing in themselves yet together act as connected set-pieces that introduce us to various characters, good and bad, who would wrestle for the author's attention and affection, and who would positively and negatively affect his personal and financial well-being.
Shelden adeptly weaves into Twain's daily doings a massive supporting cast. Chief among Twain's most important late-life ancillary characters is Albert Bigelow Paine, who is portrayed in Shelden's work in the role of the eager, hard-working, fawning, controlling and perhaps misunderstood but ultimately effective first Twain biographer. Later, Paine would become Twain's first literary executor. After Twain's death, Paine would spend his remaining days wrestling with Clara (Gabrilowitsch Samossoud) Clemens and Twain scholars for control of Twain's papers, image, and cultural legacy.
Chosen personally by Twain to write his memoirs after Twain had read his “damn good” (36) biography of the famous political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, Paine ingratiated himself into the Twain household at Redding, an 18-room, two–story Italianate villa that sat on 248 acres overlooking the Saugatuck Valley that Twain had bought sight-unseen based upon Paine's recommendation. Paine spent countless hours playing billiards with Twain and assembling notes for his massive biography, published in four volumes in 1912 as Mark Twain: A Biography.
Despite Paine's tainted academic legacy, including his later editorial transgressions and misguided intentions in altering Twain's works, including overtly egregious and unethical editing to some of Twain's most important incomplete works like his Mysterious Stranger manuscripts, Shelden is conciliatory and forthright in regard to Paine's obvious contributions to Twain scholars: “But despite his faults as a ‘keeper of the flame’ in his later years, his biography still stands as an indispensable portrait of the man he knew so well” (414).
Paine's foils were Isabel Lyon, Twain's secretary, and Ralph Ashcroft, Twain's business manager, both of whom play the parts of villains in Shelden's account of Twain's final years. Lyon was entrusted with overseeing the construction and move to Twain's Redding estate, first named “Autobiography Home,” then renamed “Innocence at Home,” then, finally, (after the burglary), “Stormfield,” a name based on one of Twain's most memorable late-life characters, Captain Stormfield, who makes a cosmic journey. The home was designed by William Dean Howells's son, John Mead Howells. With Lyons's input and Twain's financial backing, Stormfield was begun in May of 1907 and completed the following year. On June 18, 1908, Twain took up residence in his not-quite-completed mansion—his last home. Soon, Stormfield would become both a well-loved and emotion-laden country retreat for Twain. (Sadly, on July 25, 1923, Stormfield burned to the ground during renovation work for its new owners, James and Margaret Givens of New York.)
While scholars have sided variously for and against Twain in his dealings with Lyon and Aschroft—see, for example, Hamlin Hill's Mark Twain, God's Fool (1973); and Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years (2004)—no one, including Shelden, disputes that both Ashcroft and Lyon had by Twain's final years gained control of his domestic and financial worlds. Shelden's study makes it clear that Lyon and Ashcroft were duplicitous and conniving in their relationship with Twain, and, especially, Clara and Jean, whom Isabel feared and, in the case of Clara, resented. At home, Lyon, who affectionately called Twain “King”—Livy preferred a more humble appellation, “Youth”—would over time have full control over Twain's checkbook and his decision-making, particularly as that decision-making affected the fate of Jean, who suffered as an adult from epilepsy. After much deliberate stalling and deviousness on the part of Lyon, Jean would finally return home to Redding, much to Twain's delight. Sadly, Jean would be found dead in her bath on Christmas Eve day in 1909. To help ease his grief, Twain would write one of his last and most emotionally moving works, titled, “The Death of Jean.”
To his credit, Shelden is tactful in discussing the consequences leading up to Jean's death after her return to Stormfield: “[Jean] pushed herself in ways that would have been discouraged at a sanitarium or even in her own home under the supervision of qualified attendants. No doubt this overexertion contributed to her death” (392). And Shelden takes a similar diplomatic tact in explaining Lyon's financial improprieties: “Is is true that the money Isabel Lyon spent on herself without asking permission was relatively small in comparison with Twain's wealth, and that she had never received a salary commensurate with her considerable duties. And it was only because of her hard work that Twain was able to enjoy a life of comfort at his new house … But it was precisely because Isabel had been so close to him that Twain considered her betrayal to be so serious” (362).
Much of the emotional tension and stress at Stormfield was created by Clara's strained relationship with her father and Lyon. Shelden depicts this tension in great detail, and he convincingly shows that the Ashcrofts, who married in 1909, were undermining Twain—and that Clara knew of their financial indiscretions. While Lyon was living on Twain's property in a house designed for her called the Lobster Pot, she also spent much of her time in the main house itself, using her close proximity to Twain to gain his confidence and ultimately his blind trust—a trust that would allow her to misappropriate his funds, rationalizing her spending as earned income or necessary expenditures on Twain's behalf. Ashcroft, the ringleader, likely stole large sums of money from Twain that he explained as stock losses. Worse, he deliberately manipulated Twain in gaining control over his estate and finances, using his Twain-approved power of attorney status to do so. Not until Clara finally convinced her father of the pair's malicious intent did Twain act, relying once again on his old friend H.H. Rogers to thwart Ashcroft's power play. In another stroke of misfortune, Rogers would die of a massive stroke within days of hearing Clara's complaint and in her presence vowing to “take up the matter” and to “straighten it out” (353).
An angered, aging, and somewhat disillusioned Twain would dismiss and bring suit against both associates. And while he would over time regain control of his finances, he would do so at a cost to his physical and his mental health, as his Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript suggests. Written in the summer of 1909, the unpublished manuscript is Twain's diatribe against the two, a four-hundred-plus page rant in which he has the last word on Ashcroft and Lyon, a “pair of rotten eggs” (361).
Clara, who had been courted by and proposed to on three occasions by Ossip Gabrilowitsch, finally married the pianist in October of 1909. In between her off-and-on relationship with Gabrilowitsch, Clara would have an affair with a married man, Charles Wark. Shelden uses a gloves-off approach in explaining Clara's actions with the men in her life, including Wark: “Her relationship with men tended to be more emotional than physical” (91). According to Shelden's account, Clara would abruptly end her relationship with Wark in November or December of 1908. Gabrilowitsch, always overshadowing Clara's own significant musical talents, would later become the renowned Director of the Detroit Symphony.
After Ossip's death, Clara, who had unfortunately inherited her father's blind trust when it came to financial matters, moved to California and married Jacques Samossoud, a minor musician and feckless gambler who would personally drain Clara's inheritance, dollar by dollar. In his epilogue, Shelden describes Clara's willful compliance in this sad turn of events: “By 1951, Clara's annual trust income couldn't keep up with her husband's needs, and she was forced to do something desperate. She agreed to sell her [Hollywood Hills] home and many of her prized possessions. In April Jacques organized an auction that took place on the lawn, offering the public the chance to buy letters and manuscripts in Twain's hand… . At the edge of the property Jacques set up a hot dog stand to make a few extra dollars … ” (415).
Twain would continue to “quarrel” with his Clara well past his death. In 1939 Clara would stop Harper & Brother's planned publication of “Letters from the Earth,” a satiric indictment of mankind that would not be published until 1962, four years before the death of the Clemens line when Twain's granddaughter, Nina Gabrilowitsch, Clara's only child, died alone in a Hollywood hotel room from an overdose at age 55.
While in places in Man in White some of Shelden's many examples of Twain's numerous dealing with friends, associates, and business partners may seem arbitrarily chosen, he adeptly ties these encounters to his analysis of Twain's works and thought processes. For example, in chapter one Shelden describes Twain's invitation to dine at the home of the corrupt U.S. senator, William Andrew Clark; it was a dinner Twain hoped to avoid since he greatly disliked the arrogant senator and feared being “trapped” (16) in a drawn-out affair. Twain considered Clark “rotten” (16) to the core, and Shelden uses this dinner party to demonstrate how Twain's memories of such events would often inform his organic autobiographical composing process. Upon recollection, Twain would often embellish past events, a process of autobiography which he believed “allowed him to speak his mind without regard to consequence” (18). Of this particular dinner, Shelden writes, “Much as the experience that night pained him, he took his revenge a little later when he called in his stenographer and rained insults on Clark in an autobiographical dictation … It was enjoyable to let loose and say what he really thought of an event that courtesy had prevented him from assailing on the spot. … He was satisfied that sooner or later the world would read his remarks on Clark … ” (18).
In chapter ten, “To Heaven and Back,” Shelden uses Twain's encounter with the steel magnate, millionaire, and noted philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie, for similar purposes. Shelden reveals Twain's deep distain for Carnegie, and his own financial anxiety—Twain “was still worried about his earning power, not only because he was so bad at managing the money he had, but also because it was impossible to make an accurate assessment” (165). When in 1907 Carnegie failed to become a patron of Twain's pet cause, the Educational Alliance, “a beacon of hope” (156) that provided educational outreach for the mostly immigrant poor living on the Lower East Side, Twain's temper got the best of him when it came time to write about Carnegie: “After years of suppressing his irritation with Carnegie's highly selective generosity and overblown pride, he seized the occasion of this dictation to launch a wholescale attack on everything he didn't like about the man, including his diminutive frame. ‘In truth Mr. Carnegie is no smaller than was Napoleon; he is no smaller than were several other men supremely renowned in history but for some reason or other he looks smaller than he really is. He looks incredibly small, almost unthinkably small’” (162).
As Shelden convincingly shows, the incident with Carnegie fueled Twain's creative juices, in this case as Twain further imagined “Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven,” a science-fiction sketch which, according to Shelden, Twain had been thinking about for over forty years: “Perhaps what kept his interest in the story alive for so long was an awareness that the title character had the potential to become one of his more memorable creations” (167). Based on the renowned, outspoken, and capable steamboat pilot, Ned Wakeman, Captain Stormfield undertakes a journey to the cosmos, a life's voyage that for Twain may have resonated with his own long journey from printer's apprentice, to riverboat pilot, to failed prospector, to tall-tale teller, to husband and father, to America's leading humorist and writer, to the “man in white,” the nation's first twentieth-century Rock Star—a journey that to Twain must have seemed like something truly out of this world.
In the end, as Shelden's final chapter and necessary and useful epilogue show, Twain's journey is one that ultimately evokes our admiration and pathos. Not living to see the birth of his only grandchild, Mark Twain died in his bed at Stormfield on Thursday, April 21, 1910. The always-attentive Paine recorded the author's final breaths: “‘there was a fluttering sigh, and the breath that had been unceasing through seventy-four tumultuous years had stopped forever’” (409). Better that Twain never learned of the fate of Stormfield, Clara, or Nina.
Skillfully and engagingly depicting Twain's truly human failings and his many brilliant successes, Man in White reminds us that Mark Twain's enduring cultural and literary legacy remains to trouble us and to teach us—well into the 21st century and beyond.