"innocence" abroad

By the time Samuel Clemens arrived on the scene in Europe, French and British intellectuals, perhaps sensitized by Adah Menken, had begun to eagerly seek out American celebrities. Walt Whitman had made a ripple, and American pugilists like John Camel Heenan had come and earned a begrudging admiration. The Europeans were happy that business was back to usual after the wars, when exportation and importation had been strangled to a minimum. American cotton, tobacco, publications and innovations had returned. There was great curiosity about the “Red” Indians, and the Wild, untamed West. Mark Twain was a welcome messenger, and for him, Europe was a welcome change of venue.

Clara Clemens, (1874- 1962) around age 25.
Clemens's three daughters would benefit greatly from
 the extended stay in Europe during the 1890's.

Sam was more than glad to be there. In fact he had to be there. He found refuge among so many admirers, and relief in a vast expanse where he owed no one anything. He desperately needed to sell his celebrity, whether it be as a speaker, guest writer, or just a token American intellectual, and he did all of that. His children could take advantage of the educational and medical assets in Europe thought to be superior in that day. And becoming even more famous had a certain appeal as well. When the Clemens arrived in Paris in 1893, Sam set out to glean all he could, as he formed his outline for a new manuscript, a book he wanted to write, about Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc was not likely to have been what Mark Twain's devoted readers were expecting. Surely someone or some thing more realistic would have fit his reputation. Was this not the innocent lass built of myth and legend, a veritable French prophet and savior, who was instructed by angels to supposedly save France to her own demise? An agnostic like Clemens only needed a paragraph to destroy such foolishness. It may be that he originally came to excavate and expose the real Joan, to set the record straight. After all, the French could never be objective about her, any more than Americans could be about George Washington. 

But something powerful led him in the opposite direction. I think some of it was subconscious... as the more he learned about Joan, the more he identified with her. Her left-handedness led her to approach life and problems in a way which he admired, because to a degree, he was looking at himself.

So while Sam Clemens enjoyed unmerited grace in the warmth of French hospitality and the balm of French wine, Mark Twain found the love of his literary life.  Jehanne D'Arc was so much more than he was ready for. The French still venerated her. An expose' was out of the question. It would be an insult to his hosts. But that was never an issue, because Twain eventually fell in love with the Maid of Orleans, and like a new found lover, was so smitten he lost all objectivity. Jehanne was so compelling, so wonderful and innocent, all that was good in femalekind.

Mark Twain found and embraced in Joan that which he would not receive from the Christ of the Bible; someone sent by God, true and pure, literally, heroically sacrificing themselves for their fellow man. Both were betrayed, put to death by the religious establishment. 

It seems as though Sam Clemens chose to make a backhanded peace with God in the creation of Recollections of Joan Of Arc. In order to do that however, Jehanne was passed over to fashion a Joan who ended up the savior of his choosing, a shameless whitewash that had little scholarly merit. I have written a ton on the subject if you are interested... but finish this first! My series on Joan of Arc can be found at the LINK  below...


 Still limping from the Franco-Prussian War, Jehanne D'Arc 
was an indispensable bright spot in French lore. And
 an irresistible subject for a lifelong cynic.

Like Adah Menken, Sam loved to keep his readers off-balance, and would take special joy in shocking everyone by worshiping Joan in ink. And this was for him the path of least resistance. It fit the bill on a personal level, as he could create a story that would please his precious daughters, even salute and inspire them. Simultaneously, he would ingratiate himself deeper into French society. Still, it was a such a departure from his usually smug and cynical persona. But Sam needed to pay bills, and Mark Twain needed enthusiastic support, and knew by now that you could get a whole lot more with sugar than vinegar.  

Recollections of Joan of Arc was published and then forgotten in 1896, and its failure would have sunk most authors. Sam considered it his finest achievement. But his critics were stunned, Joan of Arc had taken the starch out of the lion of American literature.

Meanwhile, the Clemens family seemed to thrive, and grew intellectually by leaps and bounds while touring Europe. During these exciting times, the Clemens's took in all the wonderful, superfluous entertainment and social opportunities, and traveled extensively, while the daughters were put in boarding schools. No opportunity was missed to broaden the European experience or the Twain legacy.

Meanwhile Sam quietly went back and forth to the States, quietly negotiating his bankruptcy, which saved his financial situation... By 1895, the family had enjoyed extended stays in London, Berlin, the French Riviera, Rome and Florence. The girls studied under prestigious voice coaches, and were commended as talented singers, but according to Susy's coach in Paris, she was physically underdeveloped, needing sunshine and old-fashioned farm work to enlarge her lungs. Needless to say, that never happened. 
Robust Clara (sec from left) poses with her future husband,
 pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, as
 frail Susy plays second fiddle.

This innocent appraisal of Susy, the oldest daughter may have been the first objective voice that did not make excuses for her frail constitution. This observation seems prophetic now, as she passed away from spinal meningitis in 1896, right after returning to the U.S.. By then the youngest daughter Jean had already experienced her first epileptic seizure. This led to a return to Europe to engage the doctors who might help her.

 Jean Clemens (right) poses with friends, around 1899,
probably some new friends in Vienna or London. 
The woman on the far left looks like Mery Laurent.
This was during the worst of her battle with epilepsy,
 which led to a search all over Europe for a cure.

The Clemens took Jean to Austria to see a specialist, who prescribed bromides, a peculiar chemical that can be quite toxic (Ironically! Has been used in small doses in food and pharmaceuticals here in the U.S., but is banned in most other countries) but has been protected and used for over one hundred years. (That ridiculous dilemma should be another blog someday!) Jean took up woodcarving while living in Switzerland, and Clara was sent to a private music school in Vienna. Eventually by 1898 the whole family congregated there. During this time, perhaps Olivia took a special interest in the French art community. 

It might have been Jean, who had a latent artist within, or even the maid, Ms. Katy Leary. But from where I sit, someone in their party started to collect an amazing array of one-of-a-kind tintypes, a cheap form of photography in that day, of French artists and their models and even some of their close friends and families.The very possession of these items suggests meaningful relationships with some of the more obscure people, who would not have been famous or known to most American tourists. But Mark Twain could easily have been entertained by them, and most probably was. Perhaps Sam acquired the photos and shared them as souvenirs for Jean, tokens of his new connections in Paris, while researching Jehanne, consolations for his suffering daughter being treated in Vienna... unable to go along.

These finds were originally the heart of the collection which I discovered on the Internet auction, which birthed this blog. These were the first “look-alikes” which haunted me and woke me up in the middle of the night and tormented me by day! My search quickly fanned out from poor forgotten Menken. 

Alfred Stevens, an accomplished Belgian
 who was only on the fringes of the Impressionists,
 but a firm supporter.
When I figured out that a famous, Belgian master artist named Alfred Stevens ( a lefty of course) was associated loosely with the French artists, and his likeness was for sale, the search was on. Now I had a community of individuals who could be identified and authenticated. The artists and agents and models of bohemian France began to beg for their story to be told.

My powers of recognition were grossly unprepared for this task and I failed to identify and snag a tintype of John L. Sullivan in time. And then one of Claude Monet before someone else did. The tintypes were priced for quick sale,and were not identified in any way, not even ones like Sullivan that were fairly obvious to the casual historian. I was sure I was the only one who had an inkling of who they were. Still disbelieving, I began to create comparison graphics to ease my mind, one way or the other. My final conclusions still stun me. So many “look-alikes” coincidentally congregated in one place was even more against the odds than these tintypes being the actual people. There was even a tintype of Olivia Clemens and Katy Leary her maid posing with Mary Cassatt...

 Mary Cassatt, Olivia Clemens and Katy Leary, about 1883- '86
 It would be hard to overstate the key role Cassatt 
played in supporting the Impressionist movement. 
Early on, she may have been the most active Impressionist 
art broker in the US.

I think, paint and write from the perspective of a born again Christian, and so I began to surmise there was a reason, as in Providential,  for this discovery. It was not an accident. Even if the whole crazy thing was a delusion, it had fleshed out a good story, with a moral to it, worth telling.

The old saying that “A picture tells a thousand words” applies here. Each tintype not only had a story to tell, but even the aggregate of what had survived and ended up on my Texas dining room table seemed to have a story, as if they had been kept together for a reason. And at this moment, that was as important as art or history.

NEXT: Go to a family reunion 

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