I Am Your Loving Daughter, Clara Clemens Print E-mail

20030508(San Diego Reader May 8, 2003)

In 1940, the recently widowed and wealthy Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch bought a small estate in the Hollywood hills and sought counsel from a medium named Sardoney about her love life. Known also by his epithet the Human Radio, Sardoney channeled news that a fresh husband was in transit and that Clara could not “escape this appointment with Destiny.” The irrepressible Clara opened herself to the possibility. Soon she met and started dating a dashing Russian émigrè musician, who claimed to have conducted many of the world’s greatest orchestras and to be well-acquainted with several U.S. presidents. (Nearly all his claims were lies.) Jacques Samossoud was the man and Clara was smitten. In 1944, the pair were married. In a nod to the New Age, she wrote of their union as “positively miraculous in its multifarious strata of rainbowism.” He was 50, and she was 70.

Clara was in love and Jacques was in clover. He began borrowing from Clara’s ample assets—valued in the hundreds of thousands—for a few investment schemes of his own. (His conducting career had apparently ended without fanfare.) First there was $30,000 for a foray into movie production, which failed. Then there were gambling trips to Las Vegas that Clara financed and from which Jacques came home empty. Then there were the three promissory notes, totaling $350,000, that Jacques signed to Clara. This money he used to wager and to pay off debts from an addiction that Clara had no idea was consuming him—betting on horses.

By 1951, Jacques’s horse-track debt had become so large that he insisted they auction off their Hollywood home and much of Clara’s reserve, the papers and belongings of America’s greatest author. Clara readily agreed, for she was devoted to the men in her life—to her first husband, pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch; to her second husband, Samossoud; and to her father, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known everywhere as Mark Twain.

Clara Clemens Samossoud was Samuel Clemens’s middle daughter, the only one of his four children to survive him. She was born in 1874, was present at her father’s death in 1910, and died in San Diego in 1962. As his heir, she received a sizable income from the Twain estate every year. She would also receive income when her father’s new, unpublished works appeared: to her delight—and dismay—there were a number of such books.

Following the 1951 auction, Clara and Jacques relocated to San Diego, first to the Casa de Mañana Hotel in La Jolla and, in 1954, to the newly-opened Bahia Hotel on West Mission Bay Drive. One item that Clara could not part with and brought to San Diego was a 24-volume edition, The Collected Works of Mark Twain, published in 1904. She had the Becker Bindery on Market Street encase every volume in new buckram. Each book was signed by her father. According to a November 1951 story in the San Diego Union, one of the “pithy precepts penned on the flyleaf” of one volume read, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together, to hurt you to the heart: the one to slander you & the other to hurry the news to you.” Another volume contained this oft-quoted pearl: “Be good and you will be lonesome—like me.” Still another had the prophetic gem: “Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Why prophetic? The dark side of Sam Clemens, much like the darkness of her marriage to Jacques, was something Clara refused to make public—perhaps even to realize.

Arriving in La Jolla, a giddy Clara told the Union reporter that “we are in love with this place.” For a photo, she posed beneath an oil portrait of her father, which, she said, caught an expression he often wore, “a sort of half wistful look.” In 1960, Life magazine published a similar photo of Clara, seated at the Bahia below this same portrait. At 86, she looked radiant—she had her father’s wiry thatch of hair (the dark brunette now white), his furry eyebrows, his rascally black eyes. Life reported that Clara and Jacques had lived “comfortably” the previous year on $38,000 income from Twain’s estate. The couple’s money worries and shady financials were a buried problem.

Evidence of just how deep in debt the Samossouds were came in a 1958 letter Clara wrote when the Mark Twain Memorial solicited her for a donation. She spoke of her and her husband’s “feverish embarrassment, because of our greatly limited financial circumstances. About ten years ago most unexpected financial reverses fell to our lot. Otherwise I would long ago have sent a contribution worthy of my relationship to the man whose memory you are honouring.”

This careful statement masked their financial sinkhole. With the estate income eaten up by tax bills and Jacques’s racetrack debts, Clara had to borrow from her personal secretary, Phyllis Harrington, and her biographer, Caroline Harnsberger, to pay for stylish clothes and club memberships and to keep her middle-aged daughter Nina afloat. Nina, Samuel Clemens only grandchild, who had followed her mother west in the 1940s, was severely addicted to alcohol and drugs. In 1958, she spent a year in detox at the California State Psychiatric Hospital in Camarillo.

Clara’s financial travail and her daughter’s affliction were not her only crosses. For a half-century she felt she had had to censor Clemens’s anti-religious writings. She believed her father’s negative views misrepresented the Mark Twain she wanted the public to treasure. A Christian Scientist, she also felt such pieces insulted her beliefs as much as they fed the views of the Soviet communists. The anti-God Soviets loved Twain: he championed the poor and criticized imperialism. They had heard about Clara’s “suppression” of his articles and taken this outrage on as a cause célèbre. In the late 1950s, protests by scholars in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union grew, until Clara, confined to her bungalow, would make a surprising decision about whether to publish her father’s most pointed barbs against the church and its doctrines.

Clara seemed to avoid the dusky natures of the men in her life. She refrained from publicizing her father’s contentiousness with Christianity and never talked about the many difficulties she had with him when she was young. She also found nothing unseemly about Jacques, whose lies about his professional credentials she may have never known. She would take her private affairs and her spiritual confidences to the grave but not before she disinherited her daughter Nina and bequeathed the estate’s income to Jacques. After his death, that income would be given to Jacques’s horse-racing pal, Dr. William Seiler of Pacific Beach, who, as a “stranger in blood,” would collect on Mark Twain’s estate for another decade.


The Mark Twain that Clara insisted on and that Albert Bigelow Paine, Clemens’s handpicked biographer, agreed to preserve in 1910, was the white-suited, humorous public persona whose novels and essays had been read and revered by millions. But that Mark Twain is not the man we recognize today. Our Twain is the consequence of a century of conflicting and refashioned canonizations: Saint Mark has been the silver-mining raconteur, the tall tale-teller, the lecturer, the children’s book author, the war-for-glory refuter, the existential pessimist, and, in our age, the complicated father and family man. This latter persona is epitomized in Ken Burns’s recent documentary, Mark Twain, aired on PBS. Burns, best known for his series, The Civil War, presents us with two Mark Twains—the incredibly gifted writer whose books have changed human history and the shattered father who was besieged by business and personal losses. Underpinning all his success and sorrow is his wife Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal baron from Elmira, New York. Samuel Clemens was deeply in love with Livy, as she was called; their marriage lasted 34 years.

Clara promoted her father only as the gifted writer. If she revealed anything of his private life, it was always centered on the family’s rosy togetherness. Some of this togetherness was true. Clara spent her childhood and adolescence, with her older sister Susy and younger sister Jean, in the 19-room mansion in Hartford, Connecticut, that Clemens called “the loveliest home that ever was.” (The Clemenses’ first child was a son, Langdon; born in late 1870, he died of diphtheria 18 months later.) The menagerie of the Hartford estate consisted of magical Christmases overseen by Clemens as Santa; seven full-time servants; readings of new material that Clemens shared first with the family; plays that Clara and her sisters put on of their father’s historical romances; a German governess, private tutors, piano lessons. As a girl, Clara wrote to her father of his largess: “Don’t speak to me or think of presents—you are crazy! Just think of all you give one every day.” Another epistle ends, “Do you realize you are as great as Shakespeare?” Such adoration at home was crucial to Clemens, writes Twain scholar Leland Krauth. The family “was the stabilizing center without which Clemens was less and less able to control his personal disorders . . . and without which Mark Twain was less and less likely to write.”

In constructing her Mark Twain, Clara knew she would have to muzzle those personal disorders, not only to protect his legacy but also to avoid bad memories. (Clara almost never wrote of these memories, though most who knew her testify to their veracity.) Samuel Clemens’s favorite of his daughters was Susy, whom he called “incomparable.” Her soprano singing voice was one of “almost unexampled power and volume.” At 13, she penned a haloed biography of her father, which was largely responsible for how later generations regarded Clemens at home. He, in turn, wrote that her writing talent and gift for elocution were undeniable. But Susy couldn’t keep up with Papa. She was moody, shy, and frail, subject to stress and nerves like her mother. In 1891 she enrolled at Bryn Mawr, but soon returned, homesick and physically ill. To help her, Sam and Livy turned to mental healing as many nineteenth-century families did.

Livy had already practiced the art: at 16, she had been cured of a two-year neurasthenic “paralysis” by a faith healer. But no one in the Clemens family applied mind over matter more earnestly than Susy. Under the influence of spiritualists and Christian Scientists, Susy used the “mind cure” to get rid of negative feelings. She claimed to heal her friends’s headaches. Clemens wrote to Susy that his “exasperating colds and carbuncles came from a diseased mind, and that your mental science could drive them away.”

Despite Clemens’s preferring one daughter over the others, all three sisters experienced the frequently tyrannical side of their father. Caroline Harnsberger, one of Clara’s biographers, has written that Clemens’s daughters were afraid to be alone with him: “His fits of irritation, with their accompanying fireworks, terrified the impressionable young girls and made them wonder how a person could be sweet one minute and a demon the next.” Even Clemens, in a letter to William Dean Howells, said, “I found that all their lives my children have been afraid of me! have stood all their days in uneasy dread of my sharp tongue and uncertain temper. . . . All the concentrated griefs of fifty years seemed colorless by the side of that pathetic revelation.”

As each sister neared a marriageable age, her independence was checked, her desire for romantic attachment undermined. Visiting the sociable Clara in Vienna, where she was studying voice in the early 1890s, Clemens would insist that his flirtatious daughter be chaperoned whenever she went out. As Clara became an adult, she often stood up to him. She quarreled with his incessant talk of the “incorrigible human race” and his disapproval of her singing career. (Sam and Livy were right that the stress of rehearsing for public performances caused Clara nothing but anguish.) Angry at her parents, she’d leave in a huff but would return soon because her father not only financed her music lessons in Europe but, eventually, paid all her career expenses, including manager and accompanist. Clemens got Clara to come back also by reminding her that a daughter was obliged to nurse her sickly mother and older sister. Though Clara complained, she took care of her father, too—and routinely collapsed from the strain. Her bouts of “nervous prostration” required months of rest.

Contributing to the stress of family illness in the early 1890s, Clemens's publishing business, Webster & Company, which produced, among other works, the successful Memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant, went under. Clemens also lost a $300,000 investment in a typesetting machine that never worked. That machine and Webster’s collapse bankrupted Clemens in 1894.

Clemens undertook an around-the-world lecture tour to pay his debts, leaving with Livy and Clara, while Susy and Jean stayed behind. A year later, the tour ended in England when word reached them that Susy had contracted a fever and requested to be treated not by a doctor but by a spiritualist. Susy’s maid put a stop to this request and sent for a doctor, who found advanced spinal meningitis. She died within a few days. Clemens, the first to learn of the loss, lashed out at himself in a letter to Livy who was, with Clara, aboard a steamer bound for America. “I have spent the day . . . reproaching myself for a million things whereby I have brought misfortune and sorrow to this family.” He added, “I neglected her [Susy] as I neglect everybody in my selfishness.”

One knows such self-reproach keeps pace with grief. But the gloomy view Clemens held of himself, from then on, marked his view of the world. Susy’s death and the “deadness which invaded” him meant, in his writing, he would sermonize more and satirize less. In a series of works, he hammered away at “the damned human race”: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg,” in which he exposed the hypocrisies of a town’s so-called best citizens; “King Leopold’s Soliloquy,” in which he denounced the white man’s yoke of the Congo; No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger, in which the protagonist, in the guise of a trickster Satan, enjoyed terrorizing the ignorant young men of a medieval village. One chronicle of Clemens’s life stated that after 1898, he was “strongly moved to write ‘seriously,’ to set down what he deem[ed] unprintable truths about God, religious institutions, man, politicians, tycoons, business associates, friends, and relatives.”

Clemens lashed out at God, writing a friend that “we were robbed of our greatest treasure, our lovely Susy in the midst of her blooming talents and personal graces. You want me to believe it is a judicious, a charitable God that runs this world. Why, I could run it better myself.” Elsewhere he wrote that God was vindictive: “He gives you a wife and children whom you adore, only that through the . . . miseries which He will inflict upon them He may tear the palpitating heart out of your breast and slap you in the face with it.”


With Susy’s death, Clara took on more of the caring for her mother; the loss of her daughter now intensified the pain of a congenitally weak heart. Clara’s studies in Europe, which had been accelerating, now stopped. During one two-year period, the bedridden Livy was nursed by Clara, who carried in notes and oral instructions from her excitable father. Clemens longed for Livy’s companionship but was allowed to see her each day either briefly or not at all. It was easier for Clara to boss her father than to argue with him. In 1902, when Clemens hired a secretary and gave her the control of his fiances, which included Clara’s allowance, Clara’s resentment boiled over into rage.

By late 1903, doctors were advising Livy, whose heart disease was worse, to go to Italy. Apparently, the dry air in Florence would help her breathe more easily. But, after the family arrived, the winter was foggy and wet. Clara, who had returned to her voice lessons and now planned a career-launching recital, agreed to pitch in. But she was quickly overwhelmed with the stress and soon had another fight with her father. Evidence of this came to light recently in correspondence between Clara and a friend. In a letter, postmarked February 5, 1904, Florence, Italy, Clara describes her outburst: “I was seized by something & began to scream & curse & knocked down the furniture. . . till everyone of course came running & in my father’s presence I said I hated him, hated my mother, hoped they would all die & if they didn’t succeed soon I would kill them.”

(When this letter was made public in 2000—why it was kept “hidden” for 96 years remains a mystery—Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editor of the Oxford Mark Twain, wrote that Clara’s “regret for having been out of control herself may have helped prompt her to maintain the rigid control that she tried to retain over her father’s posthumous image.”)

From her room, Livy heard Clara’s explosion and suffered a heart attack. This strain, along with other ailments, led to her death in four months.

Following Livy’s death, Clara locked herself away for four days, lying “motionless and wordless.” She later wrote, “I had been taken to a doctor’s house . . . for examination, for my health had completely broken down under the strain of Mother’s long illness and the shock of her death. It was determined that I must resort to a life of rest and inactivity, avoiding all forms of excitement or worry, as I was considered to be seriously ill.” During her “restorative treatment,” her father, as he wrote to a friend, was not “allowed to have any communication with her, even telephone, for a year.”

This time Clara was slow to revive. Finally released, she was told that she had to care for Jean, who had been diagnosed with epilepsy. Clara did her best but Jean’s attacks required aides full-time. Her exasperated father eventually put Jean in a sanatorium; she remained there for more than two years. Clara escaped to Europe, where she left behind a father who was now all but living in the past and where she could woo and be wooed by the Russian-born musician, Ossip Gabrilowitsch. Back in the states, Ossip and Clara were married in October 1909, and the pair returned to Europe. Within two months Jean, at home with her father, suffered an epileptic fit in the bathtub and drowned.

After Jean died, Clemens was prostrate with depression. A pregnant Clara arrived, hoping he’d be well enough to hear about a grandchild. But Clemens, listening as Clara sang several Scottish airs he loved, never knew she was pregnant—she may have withheld the news from spite or from fear of over-exciting him. Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910. Once his body was in the family plot and Nina Gabrilowitsch was born in August, Clara and Ossip returned to Europe. In July of that year, Clara wrote a friend that “at last if nothing happens to my husband I have really landed in a beautiful harbor & soon enough [can] worship every ripple in the delicious blue sunflecked water. Even father’s & Jean’s deaths can not take from me this longed for happiness which is actually mine.” Clemens left a short, clear will, keeping the money and rights to his work in the family and making Clara his literary executrix. Clara received a lump sum and a regular income for life, “free from any control or interference on the part of any husband she may have.”

It wasn’t long before Clara and biographer Paine were buoying the Mark Twain literary vessel that Clemens himself wanted to abide. This master was an author already enshrined by his mid-career novels—The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper—as well as such deft tales as “The Danger of Lying in Bed” and “That Awful German Language.” Such companionable literature Clemens composed during his halcyon days in Hartford, when he was happiest and when he exposed to readers a world, whether corrupt or unwieldy, with loving burlesque and satire.

Evidence that Clara was busy shaping the legend came soon after her father’s death. She sent a letter to a woman who had written an intimate account of Clemens’s final days. “I have looked at [the article],” Clara wrote, “as nearly as possible with Father’s mental eyes and I can not feel that he would be pleased. His advice, I am sure, would be: ‘Give the facts to Paine, who is writing my biography and has practice in literary expression, and let him tell the story.’ Of one thing I am absolutely sure . . . he would never want those insignificant and purely personal letters to be published. . . . These facts Mr Paine is of course acquainted with and he will be able thereby to save the public from an unnecessarily tormenting impression of his end.”

Paine was as committed to charting the public Twain as Clara was. Not only did he and Clara have sole access to the author’s huge trove of unpublished works, but he had a contractual job—to publish the three-volume Mark Twain: A Biography, which he did in 1912. He also edited, from 450,000 words Clemens dictated during his final years, Mark Twain’s Autobiography. But, as a censor, Paine was less inhibited than Clara. In fact, in the biography, intriguing bits and pieces of the unregenerate Clemens slipped out: stuff about Satan getting the better of God; stuff about the strain in his family between him and his daughters; and more. Writers and scholars began asking whether the public shouldn’t be allowed to see these other works and learn of Clemens’s personal life. Paine said no. The canon was set, as he wrote in a letter to Clemens’s secretary in 1908: “I have no desire to parade the things he would wish forgotten.” Paine believed his job was to “build a personality so impregnable” to criticism that “the man we know . . . will remain known as we know him, loved and honored through all time.”

And yet, nearly 100 years after his death, readers, scholars, critics, and educators seem to agree that the great satirical and sympathetic works of Mark Twain, written during the 1870s and 1880s, expressed only one part of the man’s elusive sensibility. We know about that sensibility because, in a long life, the gregarious Clemens revealed the whole of himself in books, articles, financial records, manuscripts, and an estimated 30,000 letters—the great number owing to Clemens so often being away from, despite his professed love for, his family. He was an amalgam of polarities, seldom, in private, the showy alter-ego of Mark Twain. Clemens hated the limelight his lectures brought as much as he loved the audience’s adulation; he hated capitalist profiteering as much as he invested greedily in many get-rich-quick schemes; he hated the advantages of privilege and wealth but sought these relentlessly in obsequious friendships, one with a robber baron of the Gilded Age who lent him money and curried his favor.

In 1926 Paine expressed the worrisome bottom line in Twain preservation, an opinion Clemens himself may have agreed with. The monetary interests of Clara, Paine, and Harpers, Clemens’s publisher, would eventually suffer. If others, Paine warned, begin “writing about him . . . the traditional Mark Twain will begin to fade and change, and with that process the Harper Mark Twain property will depreciate.” The preservation of income for these three entities was no different from the preservation of the “traditional” Twain.


For two decades, Clara and her husband Ossip lived in Detroit, where Ossip conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. With income from the Clemens estate (valued in 1910 at $541,136) and Ossip’s salary as a world-class conductor, they purchased a mansion in 1919 for $125,000. Daughter Nina had, like Clara, a patrician upbringing, with the best in private tutors and first-class travel. Clara’s singing career was unheralded; her reviews, typically polite, talked more of her namesake than her song-styling. On occasion she acted in Detroit-area theater groups. As the years passed, the Gabrilowitsches wealth grew: between 1924 and 1932, Clemens’s books sold very well, and Clara’s income totaled $831,000—this, during the Great Depression. Then, unexpectedly, in 1935, Ossip contracted cancer and, responding to neither medical nor spiritualist treatments, died in 1936. Two years later, Clara wrote a nostalgic book about him, just as she had about her father, My Father, Mark Twain, in 1931. But, like Susy’s loss for Clemens, Ossip’s death portended a slide that Clara had not foreseen.

Clara had grown distrustful of Charles Lark and her uncle Jervis Langdon, who were running the Mark Twain estate. By the late 1930s Clara felt neither man was providing her enough income nor upholding her father’s public image. Too much private information was coming out about him, and, by extension, her. Lark thought Clara was greedy. He wrote a friend that she felt slighted about movie deals in Hollywood that proceeded without her negotiating royalties and censoring intimacies. Lark wanted scholars and film makers to have access to Clemens’s papers, including every letter, but she refused. Clara got wind of Lark’s dissatisfaction with her and complained volubly. In 1943, Lark and Langdon resigned, and Clara asked the court to appoint as trustees Manufacturers Hanover Bank of New York and a lawyer, Thomas Chamberlain, who would do her bidding. Clara chose Chamberlain, in part, because he knew nothing about her father.

Meanwhile, Nina, age 19, with a fat allowance and a famous forebear to brag on, went to Barnard College in New York City in 1929. She soon moved in with a man, bohemian and jobless, against Clara and Ossip’s wishes. Her companion introduced Nina to hard liquor. Nina graduated and began training as an actress, but neither accomplishment slowed Clara’s hectoring and advice-filled letters.

With Ossip dead and Nina on her own, Clara, who called her health “reliably unreliable,” began going to California for “treatments.” She said her only real stability was a reborn faith in mental science, the balm her sister Susy once cultivated.

Awake to a Perfect Day, published in 1955, was Clara’s personal testament to the healing powers of the mind by way of Christian Science. In it Clara notes that “the children of geniuses are never models of strapping strength. Certainly my sisters and I were presented with atrocious nervous systems and a marked propensity for hyper-emotionalism.” Clara “began to hunt around for something better than nerve-tonics and sedatives” and “learned the indisputable fact . . . that negative thinking such as worry, fear, discontentment, irritability, cause a surprising collection of physical complaints.” She describes a trip to Berkeley, California, where in the mid-1930s she took an unsuccessful treatment (the “ipecac cure” or forced vomiting) for an “amoebic infection.” She was taken on a “litter” to the Mira Sol Hotel in Santa Barbara, an “applicant for death.” A chambermaid asked whether Clara would like to try mental healing. “I couldn’t think of any reason why not,” she wrote. “The healer sat silent by my bed. He turned to Divine Mind which poured its resurrecting energies into my consciousness.” He told her she’d be better tomorrow and, sure enough, “I knew I was healed—miraculously.”

Clara’s memoir catalogs her lifelong ailments: short-term deafness; head-noises; indigestion; acute arthritis; irregular heart-beat, accompanied by amnesia; deep depression; excessive weakness; severe colds; insomnia; carbuncles; high blood pressure; nervous prostration; and, her worst malady, shingles, which required surgery on her arm to sever shrunken, intractable tendons. Her suffering, she wrote, was “unspeakable.” Large doses of codeine helped the pain but made her fuzzy.

In 1939, Clara headed west for good. She bought Casa Allegra, a 12-room, two-story Hollywood home on five walled acres, with a swimming pool and a large flagstone terrace. (She purchased the mini-estate from pioneering film producer Jesse Lanksy.) On the property, she built an Italianate writing studio, reminiscent of her father’s studio on the Langdon farm in Elmira, New York, where the family summered and where Clemens wrote his greatest novels. In Casa Allegra, Clara installed her secretary, her chauffeur, his wife and six children. She closeted a half-ton of her fathers’s books, manuscripts, and letters.

Intrigued by her mother’s movie connections, Nina soon came to California. On arrival, she said that to get film parts she needed her “bulbous nose” fixed. Clara paid for the surgery, then enrolled Nina in the Duffy School of Acting. But mother and daughter bickered—according to Clara, because of Nina’s alcoholism, and, according to Nina, because of Clara’s intolerance of Nina’s actor pals and their late hours. Health was fundamental to Clara, and Nina was ruining hers. At wit’s end, Clara bought Nina a house and set up an irrevocable trust from the Twain estate that gave her daughter $1500 a month for life. Clara put her personal secretary, Phyllis Harrington, in charge of Nina’s affairs. On her own, Nina got worse, drinking heavily and taking trips to Mexico in search of illegal drugs. By the mid-1940s Nina was entrenched in a cycle of treatment programs in several sanatoria, followed by release and relapse.

In Hollywood, marriage-minded Clara was chased by a number of suitors, among them, a Tibetan lama. But she had a softness for Russian musicians, anti-Bolshevik expatriates from the expunged aristocracy. Her first husband Ossip had fled the revolution. So, too, had Jacques Samossoud, who now trotted into her life. Twenty years younger, the hatchet-faced Samossoud had deep-set Asiatic eyes and a body shaped like a pool cue. He told everyone he was a clarinet player and an erstwhile musical director of opera companies—the National Opera in Washington, the Grand Chicago Opera, and the Imperial Opera in Leningrad. He said that he had conducted symphonies at the White House under presidents Coolidge, Hoover, and Franklin Roosevelt who, Samossoud said, was a “close friend.” He’d come to Tinsel Town to work in the movies.

While Jacques Samossoud is credited as music director for the 1944 film “Knickerbocker Holiday,” few other items on his résumé are verifiable. He told reporters that he had founded the San Francisco Symphony and composed “September Song.” Neither claim is true: the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Opera have no listing of him in their archives; Kurt Weill wrote the song. The Library of Congress lists him as a conductor of six Works Progress Administration opera projects in Los Angeles during the late 1930s, and nothing else. There’s no mention of him in the biographies of presidents he claimed to have known. His name is not found in the Grove dictionaries of music or of opera. Histories of opera companies and their musical directors show no Jacques Samossoud, and archival search requests for his name have yielded nothing.

Jacques and Clara were married in 1944 and spent 7 years at Casa Allegra. When they auctioned off the estate and its contents in 1951, the Los Angeles Times reported that the material went for “bargain prices” in a “carnival atmosphere with loud-speakers, floodlights, flash bulbs, and a hot-dog stand.” While Clara told the press that she and her husband were going “a-gypsying,” Jacques was privately aghast that the sale netted only $100,000, not nearly enough to pay his debts. According to Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California Berkeley, Jacques showed up at the university in 1952 and offered 500 love letters—from Sam to Livy—to then-director Henry Nash Smith. Jacques wanted $25,000 in cash. Immediately. Smith said no, but contacted university president Robert Gordon Sproul. That weekend, Sproul secured a buyer who, upon purchase, donated the letters to the archive. Jacques received a few thousand.

After the Samossouds settled at the Bahia, Jacques got roughed up one night in a Tijuana card game. The next morning Clara was aghast at his facial bruises, about which Jacques claimed amnesia. She told him to seek the advice of a neighborhood doctor whom they had met at the Bahia bar. According to Clara’s biographer, Caroline Harnsberger, Pacific Beach doctor William Seiler, who became Clara’s physician, saw Jacques after his Tijuana mishap and counseled him, apparently tongue-in-cheek, to “Stay up most of the night, take coffee and alcohol, and keep in action.” Soon, Seiler and Samossoud were best friends. With Seiler driving, the pair often went to Tijuana where they bet on jai alai or the horses. (One octogenarian cohort of Seiler’s told me that in the 1970s when they played craps in Las Vegas, he placed $2 bets while Seiler—like Jacques before him—placed $100 bets. He said Seiler “never quit”; he “loved to gamble. He said, ‘You can’t win a lot unless you bet a lot.’”)

Meanwhile, Clara had given Jacques power of attorney over her income, and by 1957 they were in arrears on their taxes. The U.S. government threatened to garnish half the income from the Twain estate unless he paid up. So Jacques got Clara to pull out a few rainy-day manuscripts for another auction. The tally was a pathetic $6000. It remains a mystery how the couple survived—hidden savings? secret sales of Twain memorabilia? loans from friends?

Jacques discovered in Samuel Clemens’s will that Clemens had given his beneficiaries the “power of appointment.” This meant that Clara could decide how the assets would be disposed of following her death. Jacques, perhaps nervous that the promissory notes to his wife had swelled (with interest) to more than a half-million dollars, must have known that if Clara wrote Nina out of her will, Jacques would become the sole heir of his wife’s estate and would, as Twain scholar Isabelle Budd has written, “simply owe the [borrowed] money to himself.”

In 1958, Clara disinherited Nina. She told her daughter why in a letter: “Since I created a trust for you several years ago, I am leaving you nothing in my will. Too much money increases your difficulties caused by alcohol.” Thereafter, mother and daughter exchanged only letters. In one letter from 1960 Nina’s sad short sentences reveal how dispossessed and depressed she felt: “Each day seems like a nightmare. I wish I could take a trip. I’m so tired of these surroundings. Sleep is the only thing I look forward to. I don’t mean to worry you. I should be very busy & forget myself. I feel like an invalid without really being one. What terrible damage the mind can do. If I could only make it work the opposite. I feel as if a black pit were yawning in front of me. Please send me some helpful thoughts. All my love, Your old Nina.”

Doctor Seiler’s widow, Reita, today wears a diamond ring, given to her husband by Clara in 1956. The inscription reads, “To Bill Seiler, from Clara Clemens Samossoud, the last of the Twains.” Clara believed that she was the end of the “Twain line,” not her daughter. Nina was cast out as a rightful heir because of her alcoholism but also because her condition made her unable to nurture the Twain legacy. To nurture others was the purpose of Clara’s life, and she would die doing her duty.

Clara made Jacques the sole beneficiary of her new will, and his gambling buddy, Dr. Seiler, the sole beneficiary after Jacques’s death. Jacques was off the hook for what he owed Clara. And, it seemed, he was also off the hook for an “unspoken indebtedness” (Isabelle Budd’s phrase) to the doctor: he, Seiler, would collect later. With the defenseless, booze-addled Nina erased from the will, Samossoud boarded the gravy train for good.


In the early 1930s, the American literature historian Bernard DeVoto challenged Albert Paine and Clara’s position that Clemens’s papers contained nothing worthy of publication and were, thus, closed to scholars. DeVoto’s acclaimed study, Mark Twain’s America, was the first book to show how Clemens’s experience with the frontier, from Missouri to California, underpinned his finest work. Impressed with this book, Clara had DeVoto appointed editor of the Mark Twain Papers; she asked him to examine the papers and recommend collections for publication. He did, suggesting three volumes—one of letters, one of autobiography, and one of Clemens’s musings and attacks on religion, which DeVoto called “extraordinary.” He couldn’t understand why Clara and Paine had hidden these works: “Mark Twain is a great writer, a great man. A great man is not injured by the truth about him—he is injured by its suppression.”

The “extraordinary” third volume DeVoto put together was Letters From the Earth. It featured, as one critic would write, “magnificent blasphemies, sneering sarcasm and home truths told at last about ‘whatever brute or blackguard made the world.’” Among the pieces was “The Great Dark,” an unfinished novel in which a happy family becomes trapped aboard a ship, sailing across a drop of water, in a terrifying nightmare; and “The Damned Human Race,” in which Twain takes Charles Darwin topsy-turvy to reveal how low the higher animal “man” is.

The title piece, written shortly before Clemens’s death, employs Satan’s voice to tell of his banishment to Earth for ridiculing God. In 11 epistles home to fellow angels, Michael and Gabriel, the fallen angel describes the life earth people are living based on a book they treasure, the Bible. Satan’s “Letters” are a sarcastic and anti-Christian catalog of human absurdity. They effervesce with Twain’s verve.

A brief miscellany. Satan comments that man “has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!” And, insult to injury, in heaven, what takes the place of sexual intercourse but prayer.

Throughout, Satan’s opinions shine. On church-going: “In the earth these people cannot stand much church—an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing.”

On the Bible: “It has noble poetry . . . some clever fables . . . some blood-drenched history . . . some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

On God, “the Source of All Morality,” Satan says such a Being doesn’t get many compliments but rather is met only with scorn: “These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously; they are uttered without a smile.”

On our so-called “Moral Sense”: It is “the parent of all the immoralities.”

On those who worship God: “Having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing!”

Satan even attends the physical inequality of the sexes. Though God gave women unlimited sexual power, “the Creator intended the woman to be restricted to one man.” On this point, it is not too improbable to hear Clemens’s voicing support for the women’s movement of the early 1900s: Man’s “procreative competency is limited to an average of a hundred exercises per year for fifty years, hers is good for three thousand a year—and as many years long as she may live. . . . yet instead of fairly and honorably leaving the making of the law to the person who has an overwhelming interest at stake in it, this immeasurable hog, who has nothing at stake in it worth considering, makes it himself!”

In 1940, when Clara read DeVoto’s proposal to publish Letters From the Earth, she was appalled. She had, she wrote him, “insurmountable objections” to its publication. Readers would be “drowned in an avalanche of critical poisons that give false testimony to the character of Mark Twain.” DeVoto tried to assure her that not only would the book “bring about a renewed interest in Mark Twain,” but it would “enlarge the market for his others books.” Translation: more income. Moreover, DeVoto emphasized in another letter that the ideas in Letters From the Earth are “so elaborated in the unpublished work that they must now be regarded as more important in the published work than there was reason to suppose.” In other words, not only was the Clara Clemens-Albert Paine version of their Mark Twain incomplete, it was false. The brilliant Clemens was even more ingenious than we had known. He used any means necessary—burlesque, humor, satire, diatribe, peroration, harangue, travel essay, boy’s story, tall tale—to express what he believed in: a deterministic and unalterable view of human nature with the problem of evil at its core, which was intractable because we refused to look at how gullible our nature was. For that Twain to supercede the old Twain was scary indeed.

DeVoto resigned in 1946 as head of the Mark Twain Papers. He cited Clara’s charge that he had “done her father’s reputation irremediable damage” and that he (DeVoto) was “anti-God.” DeVoto believed he had remained true to his prime directive: “institutional advertising—the spread of discussion of Mark Twain in order to maintain and increase the sale of his books.” “In fact,” he wrote, “if Mark Twain is to go on selling, he must go on being discussed.” Publishing his “controversial books” would do just that. During the next two decades, a succession of scholars was appointed to oversee the Mark Twain Papers—and again, when requests to publish Letters From the Earth, antireligious writing in the Autobiography, and Clemens’s journals came up, Clara nixed every one.


Besides being mortified by her father’s sarcasm about religion, Clara nursed a new worry. The Red Scare of the 1950s had intensified her fear of Communism. She wrote to another scholar, who had dug up additional examples of Clemens’s antireligious writing, that though she agreed with her father’s attacks on “most of the Bible,” she was “not going to place my blessed father and his superior character on the side of the all-good-destroying Communists.” The ex-Russian Jacques had warned her that the Soviets would make hay of Twain’s “attack on God.” He also told her that if Letters From the Earth saw print, she “would be bombarded with questions and demands for explanations from countless newspapers, magazines, not to mention a deluge of letters.” Frail and old, she deserved not to be hounded.

Clara’s “no” was grounded in her mother’s editing of her father’s work. In a letter, Clemens once wrote that Livy “is solely responsible—to her should go the credit—for any . . . moral influence my subsequent work may exert. After my marriage, she edited everything I wrote.” Clara recalled that Clemens wanted a censor. This is not to say that he agreed to be silenced. Rather, as Twain scholar Laura Trombley has argued, Clemens wanted his works to be commercial, ethical, and humorous. To sell, his books had to be palatable to women, who were then (as now) the majority of readers. Thus, he sought Livy’s input, as well as his daughters’, for this “informed, intelligent, female perspective.” Clara worried that female readers would blanch at Letters From the Earth; this unfriendly book might severely curtail other sales.

During the 1950s, correspondence between trustee Thomas Chamberlain and Henry Nash Smith, then-editor of the Mark Twain Papers, parlayed a new tack—if Letters From the Earth were banned in some corners of America, overall sales would be handsome. Chamberlain wondered whether “we could get some real money out of Look or out of Harper’s for publication” of Twain’s suppressed work. “How could Mr. DeVoto’s Letters From the Earth best be published so as to bring a maximum return to Mrs. Samossoud?” Smith, who favored publication, wrote back listing the many reasons why “possible buyers” would want this book, which “would be likely to bring more revenue to the Estate than any other project which I have been able to suggest.”

Jacques, privy to all the estate’s correspondence, began telling Clara that her father’s controversial writing might significantly increase sales. The couple had enjoyed income from past volumes of “new Twain” work; this book should follow suit. In 1962, drained of fight, Clara abruptly released all of her father’s unpublished work. But still she winced: “My heart was heavy because of that permission . . . but the more I thought of it, the less right I seemed to have to erect a fence in front of Father’s writings.” “The public has loved Mark Twain,” she wrote, an incontestable statement based on her efforts over the past 52 years. And yet she feared his grave-stirring wrath: “Now there will be a volcanic eruption, which he himself would prefer to avoid, I imagine.”

Life magazine in its September 28, 1962 issue excerpted Letters From the Earth, which was also, that month, published as a book by Harper & Row. The magazine spread was titled, “In a Long-suppressed Work, a Satanic View of Man and God by Mark Twain.” It included the picture of Clara at the Bahia, smiling serenely beneath her father’s “half wistful” portrait. Life reported that Clara believed “some of the pieces did not accurately represent her father’s beliefs.” But she had consented, and the book, wrote Life, promised to be “the literary surprise of the year.”

Indeed, the new Mark Twain book found immediate resonance in the 1960s. In earlier work Clemens labeled Christianity and monopoly trusts the carriers of American imperialism. Letters From the Earth further primed this pump, just as the war in Vietnam was heating up and, eventually, the protest movement against it. Howard Mumford Jones found Clemens prescient: he observed in The New York Times that readers who finish this book will “ponder a view of man’s capacity to be cruel that, after the horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, has more relevance to the modern ethical problem than even Twain anticipated.”

The book was a success, spending 9 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and peaking at number five for two weeks in December. Soviet editors and writers had stirred a minor tempest when they learned that an American publisher was refusing to print the antireligious work of America’s most famous author. With publication, that storm abated.


At Clara’s death, November 19, 1962, age 88, the Samuel Clemens’s estate devolved to Jacques Samossoud, William Seiler, and Nina Gabrilowitsch. Within a year, Nina was contesting her mother’s will because Samossoud and Seiler were its prime beneficiaries. Nina’s lawyer first charged Samossoud and Seiler with conspiracy to “dominate and control” Clara because (a) she was “in a weakened physical and mental state” and confined to her room her final three years; (b) they were “more vigorous physically” and “more mentally alert” than she; and (c) they told Clara, falsely, that Nina “did not love or care for” Clara, and that Nina “was not worthy to be a beneficiary of her estate.” The next legal maneuver probably frightened the bejesus out of Samossoud, who himself was unwell: Nina’s lawyer wanted payment plus interest on Jacques’s promissory notes, worth $800,000 by 1963. To advance the claim, the lawyer asked for “all communications from 1944 to the present” among those involved in Clara’s finances, including Seiler. Samossoud agreed to settle: Nina received 35% of the income and Jacques 65%. In exchange for that, Nina agreed “to dismiss the court case against [Jacques] for the money he owed her mother’s estate,” money he obviously didn’t have.

While Nina’s lawyer was settling with Samssoud, Nina moved to Cedar Lodge, an exclusive sanitarium in Los Angeles, where she briefly stabilized. Once she returned home, her lawyer appointed a middle-aged psychiatrist to live with her; in effect, a new around-the-clock treatment program. The paranoid Nina escaped his strictures by running to a nearby motel. One night, she invited a reporter to interview “Miss Clemens,” the name she had adopted. From her “cheerless” motel room, she told him that, despite her trust income and despite getting 35% of the income from her grandfather’s million-dollar estate, she was a pauper. She had no clothes and no money for curtains in her home. She described herself as a writer and painter and showed the reporter her sketches: “I’ve been offered as much as $100 for some of these,” she said. One drawing was of her bohemian lover whom, she said, she had married in 1932. She had also written “up to page 65 of my life story,” a book-to-be, titled A Life Alone. One early morning, in January 1966, Nina declared to the bartender of a local bar, “When I die, I want artificial flowers, jitterbug music, and a bottle of vodka at my grave.” Before dawn, she went back to her motel room and overdosed on sleeping pills.

That same year, Jacques died of arteriosclerosis. So despised by the Langdon family in Elmira, New York, he was buried in an unmarked grave next to the Twain family plot.

Which leaves a final mystery—Dr. William Seiler. Reita Moore met Seiler in 1965, when she was 33 and he 56 (a gap opposite that of Clara and Jacques). Reita and Bill married in 1971. From 1967 until his death in 1978, Seiler collected the Twain estate income, on average $22,000 per year in quarterly payments. But this wasn’t all the income: Each stub stated that Seiler’s check was a “55% share of income collected after reserve for commissions, attorney’s fee, and administration expenses.” With Twain’s estate worth around $1 million, $18,000 a year or 45 percent of the income was going to Manufactures Hanover Bank to manage the fund.

Why did Clara leave Dr. Seiler the income? Because, said Reita, she “was very fond of Bill.” He called on her regularly at the Bahia; those who visited said she never seemed to be suffering. Clara did inscribe a copy of Awake to a Perfect Day to him, but made it clear she was a “friendly opponent.” Christian Scientists avoid doctors, yet Clara seemed unopposed to whatever comfort Seiler offered her. What was the nature of his comfort? Clara reportedly refused drugs, but she was known to have used codeine to numb the pain of shingles. Did Seiler give Clara morphine shots for that pain, as some Twain scholars have suggested, and did Clara, under the influence, sign documents or change her will? Conversely, what was the nature of her gratitude? Why didn’t she provide more for Phyllis Harrington and Caroline Harnsberger in her will, both of whom loaned Clara money after Jacques had spent it all each month and supported her with friendship for many more years than Seiler did? Harnsberger exchanged some 500 letters with Clara and 100 with Nina, maintaining active friendships with Clara and Nina after mother and daughter were estranged. Harrington’s bequest ($300 a month) seemed paltry considering that Harrington had for years ferried Nina to alcohol treatment programs.

Did Reita suspect that the bequest to her husband might have been to repay money Jacques owed Seiler, perhaps an “unspoken indebtedness”? She said, “I’ve never heard that one. I’m sure my husband would have told me had that been true.”

When Dr. Seiler died, the Mark Twain estate was rolled into the Mark Twain Foundation, where the money has been “used and expended for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes, including within such purposes, the enabling of mankind to appreciate and enjoy the works of Mark Twain.” As for the first of those five purposes, one can only smile at the irony.


Hal Holbrook Encounters Clara Clemens Samossoud:

Seventy-eight-year-old Hal Holbrook has performed his Mark Twain Tonight! more than 2000 times since his first full-stage appearance in the role in 1954. His near 50 years of playing Twain is longer than Clemens himself played Twain. No one has done more to spread the legend and the wisdom of Mark Twain than Holbrook has. He knows of the public Twain and the private Clemens, especially the strain between Sam and Clara, which seems never to have left her. In the following remembrance of meeting Clara, Holbrook mentions “An Encounter with an Interviewer.” This was a sketch Twain wrote in 1875 about a subject who befuddles his interviewer with nonsensical answers.

“I was out here [Los Angeles] in 1959 after I made my first success in New York with Mark Twain. I played the Huntington Hartford Theater, the one on Vine, below Hollywood Boulevard. After one of the shows, Jacques Samossoud and a doctor friend of his came to my show and came backstage to meet me. They were standing in a dark corner, backstage, and I went over to them. They were very mysterious-looking guys. They looked very noncommunicative, staring at me. I didn’t get a friendly feeling from them. They told me that Clara was not in very good health. I remember they used the phrase, ‘she had good days and she had bad days.’ I’d heard that she wasn’t in good health, and she was living down in Mission Beach. I’d heard about Jacques Samossoud and the way he was spending the money, her money, at the racetrack at Del Mar. I’d heard some pretty unfavorable things about Jacques Samossoud—so I wasn’t prepared to think too much of him. He was very polite. The doctor looked like somebody out of Arsenic and Old Lace.

“I had written Clara, because I wanted to come down and meet her, so they had come to check me out. I said, ‘I’d be willing to drive down on the chance that she’d be [available],’ and Jacques said, ‘If you came down, it depends on the day. I might have to meet you and tell you, you can’t see her.’ I said, ‘I’ll take the chance.’

“So he said, ‘She talks to him, you know.’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon.’ And he said, ‘To her father. She talks to him.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I understand. Yes, I know, she’s interested in spiritualism.’ ‘She’s talked to him about you.’ I said, ‘Oh yeah.’ And he [Jacques] said, ‘So watch out.’ This is a true quote. ‘So watch out.’ Holy mackerel, I thought, I’m in Arsenic and Old Lace. I’m deep in it, so I better just hang on.’ So I said, ‘OK, yeah, I will. What does he say about me, do you know?’ He said, ‘So far, it’s pretty good.’ I said, ‘OK. I hope it stays that way.’ That’s what I remember about this weird meeting in the dark backstage.

“So then I went down to San Diego and found what really was a motel. A nice motel in Mission Beach. I walked in. It was a very airy place, as I remember, sort of colonnaded. Very pleasant. But I was surprised that the daughter of Mark Twain would be living in a motel. Something about it seemed bizarre to me. I figured she’d live in a house. I had had dealings with the estate when my lawyer made a lifetime deal with the Hanover bank. I had some idea of the amount of money coming in. So Jacques Samossoud met me; he was a little more friendly. He said, ‘She’s doing well today. She wants to see you.’ My heart was kind of pounding.

“I walked into her bedroom and it was startling. She was laying in bed against at least three pillows. She had three or four books spread out on the bed. She had a great shock of curly white hair. Her eyebrows were even dark. All she needed was a mustache, and she would have looked exactly like her father. The sharp nose. The eyes, dark and piercing. And there was a side table beside the bed that had a lot of bottles of pills and things on it just like his [bed]. I have a pretty rare picture that was given to me of him laying in bed, writing. It was absolutely startling, almost like an imitation.

“I was very shy about the whole deal. It’s just my nature. Probably today I would have more weight behind me. Maybe I would have felt I had more of a right to ask certain questions. Which I was reticent to ask because I was very, very respectful. I was always very respectful of my attachment to Mark Twain, and I still am. I’m much more mature about it now, but in those days I was still young. I was very respectful to the point of not wanting to bother or hurt anybody. I’m not a gossip monger.

“She was very sweet, very alert, very friendly. ‘Hello Hal,’ she said, as if we knew each other. ‘Draw up a chair.’ Samossoud had come in and moved things around so she could see me. I sat down, but I can’t remember what I said, something like, ‘It’s so wonderful to be able to meet you.’ Maybe she said, ‘I’ve heard a lot about you.’ She may have said Dorothy [a friend of her father’s] wrote her. I can’t remember. But it was nice talk.

“She asked me about myself. I asked a few questions about her father, but I was very nervous I guess about asking any terribly interesting questions about him. I would have loved to have said, ‘I hear that you and your father didn’t get on very well.’ If I had to go through it again—I was a fool. I had an opportunity to find out certain things that have been written about. People have written about those last years. Quite obviously she was not his favorite. Quite obviously she was a very strong-willed person. And certainly so was he. He was a true artist. He was a genius artist. Tremendously sensitive man, way more sensitive than anybody would think just by looking at him. He was probably an extremely difficult person to be around some of time. And he was a star. I don’t like the word self-centered because it reduces the greatness of his soul and his perceptions to say that he was self-centered. But he was the great shining light—obviously—any place he went. His children—it’s very difficult on children. And I think it was very difficult on Clara. And then that starts to work both ways. Because a certain resentment develops on one side, it boomerangs back on the other person. And if that other person has strong sensitivities, it can upset that person’s emotional metabolism. And then you’ve got a maladjustment in a relationship. I think in very simple terms that’s probably what happened with Clara.

“But, anyway, she didn’t want to talk about her father. I couldn’t get her to talk about her father. I tried to get her to talk about him in a gentle way, leading the conversation, and she would steer it away, to me. And then she finally said, ‘I have an idea for you Hal.’ I said, ‘Really, what is that?’ ‘I have an idea what you should do.’ I said, ‘What?’

“‘I see you doing a performance as Jesus Christ.’ I said, ‘Really. Gosh, I don’t know.’ ‘I think it would be wonderful,’ she said. ‘You could bring His teachings and His wonderful philosophy to the world.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I could really do that. Would anybody want to come and see it?’ ‘Oh, I think it would be very popular with people. I think they would really want to see it.’ I said, ‘I don’t know whether I’m—I can’t imagine myself, you know—’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I think you could do it Hal, I really do.’ I said, ‘Well’—and I’m thinking to myself, good grief, is she crazy? I didn’t want to insult her. She was very lovely and sweet about it.”

“And serious?” I asked, finally interrupting the tale.

“And serious. I think she was serious. Unless this was one of those great Mark Twain put-ons. Like ‘An Encounter with an Interviewer.’ You’ve just struck on an idea that never occurred to me. Maybe she was doing ‘An Encounter with an Interviewer.’ Now you’ve struck it. That’s the only explanation I could possibly think of for her saying that I should do Jesus Christ. If she wasn’t doing it, her father was doing it through her. Her father was putting me on.

“Samossoud and the doctor had probably wanted to say, ‘She wants you to play Jesus Christ,’ so be ready for this. Samossoud had left the room; he didn’t want any part of it. Then he picked me up on the way out. ‘How was it?’ he said.

“When I look back on this incident—and I was a grown man—my reluctance to be nosy with people, my fear of hurting someone’s feelings, prevented me from finding out quite a few things. I could have said, ‘Are you kidding, ma’am?’ She might have smiled and said, ‘Why, do you think I’m kidding?’ I mean, come on—Jesus Christ? I’m only an actor."