by Rebecca Floyd‚ Manager of Interpretive Services | firstname.lastname@example.org
Olivia Langdon Clemens was born Olivia Louise Langdon on Nov. 27‚ 1845‚ in Elmira‚ N.Y.‚ the daughter of Jervis and Olivia Langdon. She had a younger brother‚ Charles‚ and an adopted older sister‚ Susan. Olivia was called “Livy” by her friends and family‚ and by her husband‚ Samuel L. Clemens‚ whom she married on Feb. 2‚ 1870.
Elmira’s location near the intersection of the Chemung and Erie canals and later a major railroad depot made it a center of commerce‚ industry and culture in which Jervis Langdon was very successful. His business was timber and coal‚ and the Langdons were one of the leading families of the community‚ both financially and in terms of their idealism. Olivia’s intellectual and progressive upbringing would be a major influence on Samuel Clemens and his writing. Olivia was raised in Elmira’s hotbed of reform. Her father participated in the Underground Railroad; they socialized with leading doctors‚ theologians and suffragists of the time.
There is evidence to support the idea that Olivia’s parents often worked as equals in a time when women were rarely accepted in the public sphere. Olivia’s mother was able to be socially active through charities and women’s social organizations. She was an active supporter of abolition and temperance. Olivia’s aunt was a pioneering itinerant teacher at a time when women were just beginning to be allowed to graduate with college degrees considered to be equal to those of men.
As a child‚ Olivia attended Miss Clarissa Thurston’s Female Seminary. Thurston’s school sought to provide a “scientific education” and aid in the “formation of character” of its students. At 12‚ Olivia began studies at the Elmira Female College where she studied Latin‚ arithmetic‚ English‚ grammar‚ U.S. history‚ music and philosophy. She was 14 when her health became so fragile that she had to stop attending school. Even during the ensuing years of treatment‚ Olivia sought to educate herself with determination. She had tutors; she put together study groups and for a time a professor from the college came to the Langdon home for her lessons. One of Olivia’s close friends‚ Alice Hooker of Hartford‚ wrote: “[Livy] is so much more thoughtful‚ original‚ deep‚ than most girls and so is constantly making me go to the foundations of things.” Sam Clemens wrote about his future wife to his sister in 1869: “I take as much pride in her brains as I do in her beauty‚ & as much pride in her happy & equable disposition as I do in her brains.”
From 1862-64 Olivia was in and out of treatment centers and sanitariums in Elmira‚ Washington D.C. and New York City. It is commonly accepted today that Olivia was suffering from Pott’s disease‚ or tuberculosis of the spine‚ which may or may not have been caused by a fall on the ice. Her husband tells a much more romantic story of her fall‚ paralysis and cure by a faith healer‚ but the fact is that she received treatment from the country’s leading physicians on diseases of the spine in New York City. This version of the story is generally thought to be just that – a story – and his own notes show that he made changes to enhance the dramatic effect.
Sam Clemens entered Olivia’s life in the time not long after her health began to improve. Olivia’s younger brother‚ Charles‚ was a fellow passenger with Clemens on the Quaker City in 1867. According to legend‚ Charles showed Clemens a miniature painting of his older sister on ivory‚ and Clemens fell in love with her on the spot. After they returned from the tour‚ Charles invited Clemens to dine with the Langdon family in New York City. Little is known of that first meeting. A few days later‚ New Year’s Day‚ Clemens called on Livy at the house where she was staying. Rather than stay the socially acceptable 15 minutes‚ he stayed for 12 hours. During the summer of 1868 the Langdons invited Clemens to visit their home in Elmira‚ during which time Clemens’ feelings for Olivia deepened. Although it took some time‚ eventually Olivia reciprocated Sam’s devotions. Their courtship‚ marriage and love for one another are much documented in the correspondence they exchanged throughout their marriage.
Like the relationship between her own parents‚ Livy’s and Sam’s marriage was very much one of equals. Deeds to their house and land in Hartford were in Olivia’s name. For a time Mark Twain’s copyrights were transferred to her to preserve the family income from creditors. Olivia was also an active participant in her husband’s writing. He left pages of manuscript by her bedside for her to read and review. He often‚ though not always‚ accepted her suggestions. Visitors in the Mark Twain House today hear the story of how the children would sit by Mama as she read Papa’s writing‚ and how she would turn down the pages when she saw something that needed more work. Susy and Clara would cry out because Mama wanted to cut out some of the parts the girls thought were most “delectable.” Clemens remembered in his autobiography how he liked to insert phrases and incidents which he knew Olivia would not approve – just to see her reaction.
Since Sam did not enjoy the details of domestic life‚ he was more than happy to have Olivia take a leading role in the workings of the household. Though she suffered numerous bouts of illness she remained the emotional center and strength of the family. It was Olivia who worked on details of managing the house; it was Olivia who was the primary caregiver (along with the servants) of the couple’s three daughters; and she was indisputably held in high esteem by everyone she met. Both Clemens and the children described her as being the firm‚ yet gentle‚ moral center of the household. That being said‚ spanking was not unheard of in the Clemens household. It was a means of discipline both Sam and Livy used as a last resort.
After Susy’s death in 1896 it was Olivia who refused to live in the Hartford home where they had raised their children. The family’s grief was intensified by Jean’s struggle with epilepsy. In her 1931 memoir My Father: Mark Twain‚ Clara reminisced that no one in the family smiled for a long time. In the years after Susy’s death‚ the family lived a somewhat nomadic existence’ mostly in Europe. The perpetual travel and Jean ’s need for ongoing care took its toll on Olivia’s health. Clemens described it as “five years of constant anxiety’ and periodical shocks and frights.” In August 1902‚ Olivia suffered what was probably a heart attack. She had chest pain and difficulty breathing. Her health continued to deteriorate.
Late in 1903 the family decided to travel to Florence‚ Italy‚ where they thought the pleasant climate would improve Olivia’s health. Sam was kept separate from her for much of her last months: She was supposed to be kept quiet and unexcited‚ so he would send little love notes to her twice a day. He would break the rules and make brief visits to sit with her and give her kisses. Clara and their longtime maid‚ Katy Leary‚ spent the most time with Livy. Clara would make sure that no news of Jean’s illness was shared with their mother‚ to keep her from worrying. Jean‚ in turn‚ was not allowed to hear about her mother’s failing health. Clara suffered terribly as this intermediary.
Livy died on June 5‚ 1904. Her death would leave a hole in the family that neither of his daughters or friends could fill. In their memoirs and letters‚ Clara‚ Katy – and particularly the stricken Sam Clemens himself – comment on their inability to take part in everyday life‚ travel‚ and writing after Livy’s death.
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