_The Twain Shall Meet: The Mysterious Legacy of Samuel L. Clemens'
Granddaughter, Nina Clemens Gabrilowitsch_. By Susan Madeline Bailey and
Deborah Lynn Gosselin. Self-published, 2014. Pp. 352. Paperback. $14.99.
ISBN-10: 1499799497. ISBN-13: 978-1499799491.
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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
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
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
_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 historian 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
_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
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," while her mother writes to Ossip's
siblings in Europe that "it was difficult to delay our coming at this
point." 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." 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 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 is
unusual because it 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" (p. 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--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
independently 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 daughter 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
relation 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."
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
briefly 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
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
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 suddenly 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
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 can be proud, as she 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
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.