home fires (Rare Clemens family photos)

By the time I had rounded up all of these images from just one source and researched them, I had become immersed, lost in a world that existed mostly in my mind, propped up by a mountain of historical facts, but of which I only knew a tiny fraction. So far so good! But there was a ton of work involved to bring it to you.

The Mark Twain connection was intriguing... and so I began to dig deep into the available imagery surrounding his family. Then I found what appeared to be his brother Orion. Then more children... still I had no photograph in the batch of HIM. Perhaps there had been one, or many, and they had been cherry picked early in the auction. Those kinds of easily identified images, especially of someone so famous, would not last long on the Internet. But I looked anyway... really opening up mind.

  L@L   Isabel Lyons, Samuel Clemens and Jean Clemens

Soon I found it, and no wonder it was still there. Sam's hair was gone! That was just what I did not need, an atypical image, that would only cause doubt and controversy. Still, there it was. I had seen it perhaps a hundred times and never recognized the man in the middle of two beautiful women. The girl on the right could easily be his youngest daughter Jean. But who in the world was the very handsome woman on the left? She was very confident and comfortable on Sam's knee!

Research soon unveiled the worst association in Sam Clemens life, and probably his most painful. Isabel Lyons had come to work for the family as a governess and ultimately became Samuel Clemens's right arm after Livy died. Attractive, professional and ambitious, she took over his operations and eventually squeezed out his daughters. She probably thought that she would someday become Mrs. Sam Clemens... and she feathered her nest quite bravely. She called Sam "the King." She made him happy for years. But she got greedy.

Lyons helped design and build and decorate a new house, and she brought in a new business adviser, Ralph Ashcroft, and collaborated with him on building her inner fiefdom, as she bought herself all kinds of beautiful things... sending poor epileptic Jean off to various sanitariums because of fear of her seizures. Jean was considered too dangerous to be near the King.  It got pretty ugly before Clemens got rid of her. Then he utterly destroyed her. The woman on the left is undoubtedly Isabel Lyons.

 The various photographs of the three were obtained from the Internet, allowing a comparison with my photograph in the middle (shown in its entirety on the upper left). The quotation along the bottom is from Mark Twain, who had been known to blur the line between truth and fiction. It seemed to fit this bizarre photograph.

 A detail of the photograph.

Lyons was hired in mid-1903, to help take care of the family, with Olivia bedridden and Jean having very bad spells with her epilepsy. They were planning a trip to Florence to see if better climate would help Livy's health. She had known the Clemens socially since around 1890. Sam Clemens loved to partner with her in various party games when they played with friends. When it became known she was available, the family heartily embraced her. Mark Twain was 68 years old. He later remembered that Lyons, who was 38, looked 17 when she was hired. Olivia died in Italy the next year. Photographs of Clemens taken just a few years before show him to be quite virile, his hair still gray, and his mustache dark, probably still red. At 70 he looked 60.

I believe the photo may have been made in 1904 right after Olivia Clemens died. Sam is wearing a boutonniere, as if he has just been to a funeral of a close relative. And, he has shaved his head. I cannot explain this, but people, especially right-brained people, do crazy things sometimes. They deal with the crossroads in life differently than expected. We know from Clara Clemens's biography of her father that Sam had done this before at Christmas time, when they were living in Florence, Italy...

"That morning I was sitting in one of the bedrooms with Suzie, when I heard her give a little stifled cry. Turning to look, I observed she had blushed up to the roots of her hair and way down her neck. Following the direction of her eyes, I saw father standing in the door, with his head clipped like billiard ball. No wonder Suzie blushed. He looked more like a gatepost than himself. I hated to leave on an absence of several months with this picture in my memory..." 

"He looked  more like a gatepost..."
 Clara had no concrete explanation this time, other than mere shock value, about what had prompted the most famous American in Europe to suddenly shear himself... "It has often occurred to me that he must have consented to all this shorn beauty for the fun of seeing horror expressed not only in our faces, but also in the face of the artist who was painting his portrait at the time..."

But in this photograph, Clemens may have cut off his hair as a kind of mourning statement. Then later they may have made the picture as a souvenir, to cheer themselves up. But there could easily have been other reasons.

As a lefty, it was fairly easy for me to accept this image as Mark Twain, even before I found the proof. Sure I could recognize the likeness... of a gatepost, but I had done a similar thing one Thanksgiving... right before my house filled up with hungry relatives. My daughter had never seen me without a mustache... which disappeared right before our festive Thanksgiving dinner. I still cannot tell you what prompted me to shave it off. If it was to get attention, it did not work among my family of extroverts, who barely noticed or cared. But I think my daughter was quite upset with me... As Clara and Suzie were with their father.

Twain's curls had been an International passport, throughout the Pacific and Europe. Shaving off his curls would make Mark Twain vanish in thin air. Being one of the most famous, easily recognizable people on earth, Sam and his family had a great deal of personal arrangements to make immediately after Livy's death, such as undertaking arrangements and returning to the States. For once he did not welcome public attention, and without his hair he could move freely in society, as this photo proves.  This is the kind of thing a lefty does instinctively.  

Not long after Livy's death and with Isabel's counsel, Sam  began to wear white suits year round, which became his trademark.  Young women can convince old men to do all kinds of silly things. Perhaps the burr haircut was short-lived and only the first experiment in the series. In the end he went the other direction, letting his hair grow wild like a wisteria bush.

True, this is the only known photo of Mark Twain without his hair. That does not help my argument any. But I contend that the likenesses of Jean and Isabel on either side should reassure anyone who in fact it has to be with that glaring squint and mustache. Of course, if he had his hair, this tintype would have been long gone before I ever discovered the related tintypes which inspired this whole story. The missing hair is the reason this image was running through that auction, week after week and nobody wanted it. And I would have passed on it forever had I not been looking for Mark Twain in the list of hundreds of images, because I knew, based on the rest of the images I had discovered,  that there had to have been some at one time. Later I found an even better image of Clemens, (with hair!) with Olivia and his brother in law, Charles Langdon...

 L@   Ralph Ashcroft

L@L  Orion Clemens

Then I found several other family members. I found his close friend and adviser W. D. Howells and his wife, and Ralph Ashcroft who did not stay around after Isabel was dismissed. Once I knew who and what I was dealing with, I could hunt for friends and family that were “missing.” There was a delightful surprise to find Clara Clemens posing with her fiance, world famous Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch...

 AND THEN!  And then I found the crowning jewel. There staring at me all the time was the girl who had been Sam's boyhood flame, Laura Hawkins, who inspired his beloved character Becky Thatcher.

L@L  Laura Hawkins Frazer ( 1837-1928) I am so excited!

This is the only photograph I know of Laura Hawkins
 in her youth, just a few years from when she was
 the apple of Samuel Clemens's eye.

Finding Huckleberry Finn's boyhood sweetheart has to be the greatest find of my life. I even found Ella Creel, Clemens's distant cousin and girlfriend in Iowa in the 1850's where he worked on his first job as a printer's helper. This group of tintypes HAD to be a collection that at one time belonged to Mark Twain's immediate family. 

L@L  Ella Creel (1841-1894)

It is a house of cards... and the various likenesses lend credence to one another; obscure faces, but dead ringer look-alikes, of scores of related individuals, that fit the times and places and ages of the real life players. Obviously I am convinced... Or I would not have presented this elaborate photo-essay. And now it is a month later after my heart attack, and I have to get back to work.

Note: The last chapters will have photo comparisons so you can see the similarities which convinced me to bring this blog into existence.

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