EDITOR’S NOTE: At the Clemens Conference in Hannibal, Missouri in July 2019, Alan Rankin gave a talk entitled “Nina: The Lost Diary of Nina Gabrilowitsch.” What follows is a modified and expanded version of that talk, including illustrations. The 1924 diary and Nina’s life are the subjects of his current work in progress, also called Nina: The Lost Diary.
I’ve been studying the life of Nina Gabrilowitsch for more than 25 years, since June of 1992. I was not a Mark Twain scholar when I started. In fact, I don’t really consider myself one now. In 1992, my knowledge of Twain was probably equal to that of the average American: I knew something about his work, something about his personality, a little bit about his personal life, but nothing at all about his family. But…I knew Nina. Through her own words.
How did I happen to read those words in 1992? My lifelong friend Rudy Bowling inherited a box of books after his grandmother passed away in the late 1980s. One of those books was a hand-written diary, kept in 1924 by a 13-year-old girl named Nina Gabrilowitsch.
Rudy had no idea who that was. But he allowed his roommate, a history buff named Jerry Smith, to read the diary anyway. After seeing Jerry’s reaction, he decided to read it himself. A little while later they told me about it, and I borrowed the diary and read it also.
We all had the same reaction, quickly becoming fascinated with the life that the diary revealed. Nina’s writing drew us into her world: her happy life at home and school; her adventures traveling in Europe with her family over the summer; her troubles with math class; her first crush. It was a window into the life of a young woman from a different era.
I decided to see if I could find out who she was.
Remember, this was 1992, before the internet. The odds of finding some random girl who had lived in Detroit 70 years before seemed pretty remote. But, according to the diary, her father was at least locally famous, as the director of the symphony orchestra, and her mother was a singer. So it seemed possible I might find something.
Well, I found something. It was an entry from Webster’s Biographical Dictionary on her father, Ossip Gabrilowitsch:
We knew it was the same man, because Nina mentioned her father’s unusual first name in the February 22nd entry of the diary. If I had been a Mark Twain scholar, that line at the end, just before “Director,” probably would have jumped out at me. But it didn’t. Frankly, I was just amazed that I had found any reference to Nina at all. I photocopied the page, put the book back on the shelf, and went on about my day.
It was only later that night, just prior to calling Rudy, that I glanced at the entry again. And realized “S.L. Clemens” was probably that S.L. Clemens. This was our first inkling of who Nina really was.
But here’s what’s important to remember: By the time I saw that name, we had already been reading her diary for four months. It would be impossible for us to regard her as a footnote in the biography of a world-famous author. In the mystery which had begun unfolding for us from the moment we first passed around the diary, Nina was the protagonist and nobody, not even Mark Twain, was going to upstage her.
Once we figured out who she was, we only had more questions, starting with how the diary had ended up with Rudy’s grandfather, whose name was Al Matthews. Matthews had been a well-known attorney in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s. His other celebrity clients included the Barrymore family of actors, and Barbara Graham, whose trial was the basis for the classic film I Want to Live!
Matthews was friends with Nina Gabrilowitsch, as well as her personal attorney. At the end of her life, he inherited her personal effects, including the diary.
The story was just beginning for me. I’ve spent the intervening 25 years working on a book about Nina. It became a sort of a part-time obsession. I collected all the information I could find related to Nina and the diary. For example, I identified all the classical musicians who visited the Detroit house in 1924. Most of these figures are obscure now, but were well-known to music aficionados a century ago.
At The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, I found Nina’s surviving photo album from 1924, including many images of the people she mentions in the diary.
Once the Internet was established, online sources provided more images, such as this beautiful old postcard of the Veendam, the ocean liner Nina and her family take to Europe in June of 1924.
In the German national archives, I found photos of the zeppelin that Nina saw over Berlin in September – photos that were taken on the very day that she saw it!
And of course, in my research, I found out what happened to Nina after the diary.
Learning about her death was shattering enough. We felt like Nina was someone we knew. But learning about her life was worse!
As an adult, Nina struggled with mental illness, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Her’s was life that somehow seemed destitute in the midst of great wealth – like the Beales of Grey Gardens. Many of the obituaries in 1966 mentioned her last words, said to a friend before she left the bar earlier that night:
“When I die, I want artificial flowers, jitterbug music, and a bottle of vodka at my grave.”
Some of the obituaries implied that this was a verbal suicide note, although we don’t know, and will never know, if the overdose was accidental or deliberate.
As my research intersected with the world of Twain scholarship, we learned that most Twain scholars only knew Nina as a tragic figure: perpetually unhappy and unable to fulfill her potential, whatever it was. That was not how we saw her. We still saw her as a self-assured, cosmopolitan, happy young woman. That’s the Nina of the 1924 diary. And somehow, both views of her are right.
Other than her birth and her death, Nina had only one real moment of national fame. It was at a train station – the one in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1935. Nina was invited to dedicate the Mark Twain Zephyr, a locomotive named after her famous grandfather, in the town where he grew up. She broke a champagne bottle on the nose of the engine. Her voice was broadcast on CBS radio coast-to-coast, and she posed for photos with local kids dressed like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher. Afterward, there was a fancy dinner party, where she was treated like a princess. Among the other notable guests was Harry Truman, then a senator from Missouri. Many photos were taken that day, all of which can be examined at the Hannibal Public Library’s great web page about the event. But this one is my favorite:
This picture seems like the “happy” Nina, the Nina from the 1924 diary. A Nina who it increasingly felt like only we knew. This previously unexamined, early part of Nina’s life is one reason I call my book The Lost Diary. The other reason? It seems the diary really was lost.
There are other diaries – 20 years worth of them – at a university archive in Provo, Utah, where scholars have studied them from time to time. Nobody’s really sure why the 1924 diary didn’t wind up there as well. But I have a supposition, based on what we do know.
I think Nina kept the 1924 diary separate from the other diaries, at the end of her life, and maybe for a long time before. That’s why it wound up with the “personal effects” that went to Al Matthews. I have to wonder if 1924 represented a sort of “golden year” in Nina’s life. Maybe it’s not coincidence that the 1924 diary contains no signs of mental illness, no family strife, and takes place at an age (she turned 14 that year) when most people are starting to assert their individualism and independence from family and community.
Maybe the diary was a way for an older, sadder Nina to remember who she was, or, at least, who she had been.
After The Diary of a Young Girl was published in the 1950s, millions mourned its young author, Anne Frank – and rightfully so. But who mourned for Nina? I did. Because I met her, knew her, and cared about her before I ever saw the name: “S.L. Clemens.”
There were no tourists, thank God, on that Wednesday in June of 1999, when I visited the Woodlawn Cemetary in Elmira. In fact, the cemetery was all but deserted. I walked up onto the pavestones surrounding the two large standing monuments. There, in front of me, was the grave of Mark Twain.
And I hardly noticed it.
Beside him were his wife Livy, and the two daughters, Susy and Jean, who had preceded Twain in death. Beyond them, just outside the flagstones, were markers for Clara and Ossip. And off to the side of them…separate, alone…
I started to cry.
It occurred to me that I might be the only person since 1966 to mourn her, to look at that gravestone and weep. Considering how her life ended, maybe I was one of the only people ever to mourn for her.
That clever little girl, so full of life and joy. That sad, lonely woman, inheritor of an impossible legacy. Against the odds, she had connected with someone and changed lives, long after she was gone.
After a while, I went and got the items I had brought with me. Your last words, Nina. I took them to heart:
“When I die, I want artificial flowers, jitterbug music and a bottle of vodka at my grave.”
I cried as I placed the articles against the gravestone. She could have said it as a joke, not knowing the overdose awaited only hours later. It might not have meant anything to her. But it meant something to me. Was I the only person, ever, to honor her whimsical last wish?
Was she there? Was she watching? If she was, then they all were: Ossip and Clara, all the Langdons and Clemenses, and old Sam himself. What would they make of the skinny hippie at the end of the Millennium, who stands at the grave of the last Clemens and weeps?
I also wondered, briefly, about the next student, tourist, or caretaker who came to the Clemens plot. What would they think when they saw the swing CD, the plastic flowers, and the bottle of vodka sitting at her grave? I would never know. But I did know one thing for sure: I was so overcome with emotion at seeing Nina’s grave, I hardly even noticed Twain’s plot there next to me. It might have been the first time in history Nina overshadowed her famous grandfather…
Alan Rankin is a writer with an abiding interest in unexplored corners of history. His biographical column, “It’s A Faire Life,” appears in Renaissance Magazine.