Olivia Louise Langdon Clemens, middle child of Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, was born 27 November 1845 in Elmira—a progressive, nineteenth-century city in western New York. Prior to her birth, Olivia’s parents, with their adopted daughter, nine-year-old Susan Dean Langdon, had moved to Elmira, where Olivia’s father would achieve success in the lumber and coal industry. Olivia’s parents first rented a home in Elmira and then purchased the house where Olivia was born. Olivia, called Livy by family and friends, would enjoy her first seven years in that home, until her parents purchased and renovated a much larger house—indicative of her father’s business successes—across the street from Elmira’s Congregational Park Church.
Knowledge of Olivia’s early years is limited. Accounts show, however, that her parents were generous and intelligent, invested in developing the good of their community as well as goodness in their three children. In “A Study of the Cranes of Quarry Farm, Their Lives and Their Relationships with Mark Twain,” Gretchen Sharlow included a remembrance written by Olivia’s older sister, Susan, describing “the joy of a small window” in the attic of their home and “the still larger joy […] in the fact that I was allowed to take the baby Livy up to that room. Seat her on a chair on the inside, next to the window, while I sat outside with a chair in front as a horse… To have that dear little girl to myself, near that window was joy enough, making me very rich, she too was happy in the play” (Sharlow, Mark Twain in Elmira, 2nd edition, 306). Four years later, in 1849, the family welcomed another child, Olivia and Susan’s younger brother, Charles Jervis Langdon.
As Olivia grew, she and Susan attended Clarissa Thurston’s Elmira Female Seminary, dedicated to teaching young women science and developing their good character. Girls under the age of twelve attended the Preparatory Department. Courses included reading, spelling, penmanship, math, grammar, history, geography, and history of the United States. The three-year program following the preparatory curriculum broadened the course of study to include botany, physiology, astronomy, philosophy, advanced math, theology, and evidence of Christianity. Olivia attended the preparatory programs at age six, ten, and twelve; Susan was awarded a Certificate of Merit in 1853, at age seventeen. Also in 1853, Olivia’s father began his involvement in the planning of Elmira Female College, the first college in the United States to be endorsed by the Board of Regents to grant a degree to women equal to that of men. Olivia’s father was appointed to the College’s Board of Trustees and was one of its financial supporters. Olivia attended the Preparatory Department of the College at age 14 (Sharlow, 308-9). Olivia and her siblings benefitted from their parents’ belief in good education.
Additional insight into Olivia’s early years, friendships and general development is provided in Susan K. Harris’s The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain. For eight years, beginning in 1863, Olivia kept a commonplace book, “a notebook into which she, and occasionally a friend, copied passages from published materials that she wanted to have readily available – her own anthology of useful quotations” (14). Selections included in commonplace books offered insights into the keeper of the book, and Olivia’s choices suggested her piety, her belief in mastering herself and her environment, her optimism, and her role as a woman. Susan K. Harris suggests that Olivia was “struggling to create a self open to experience and changes while remaining well within the culture’s definition of femininity and Christianity” (20). For a list of writers quoted in her commonplace book, see Laura E. Skandera-Trombley’s Mark Twain in the Company of Women (47). Trombley notes that “the range of authors and subjects in Olivia’s commonplace book…is impressive. Particularly striking is the fact that, in contrast to most journals, the majority of writers Olivia quotes are contemporary, not classical, and many of the authors represented were associated with progressive interests” (47). This suggests Olivia’s broad interests and reading habits.
Olivia’s correspondence with her lifelong friend, Alice Hooker Day, also offers understanding of her adolescent years. Alice, daughter of Isabella Beecher Hooker, became acquainted with Olivia when her mother, Isabella, met young Olivia while both stayed at the Gleason Water Cure in Elmira. Letters between Olivia and Alice show their developing friendship as well as shared interests in books both were reading—noting philosophy and chemistry texts, Shakespeare, and Edward Young, among others (Harris, 20-3). Of additional interest to both girls were lessons in science and natural philosophy taught in the Langdon home by Elmira College Professor Darius R. Ford. In a 24 February 1867 letter from Alice to her mother, Alice said of Olivia, “…she is so much more thoughtful, original, deep, than most girls and so is constantly making me go to the foundations of things. I feel very shallow sometimes by her but then am glad I am with her to get good from talking with her” (qtd. in Harris, 21).
Olivia and her family were members of the Independent Congregational Church – later the Park Church – of Elmira. Founded in 1846, the church broke with the existing Presbyterian Church over the slavery issue. Jervis and Olivia Lewis Langdon, both abolitionists, were early members of the Independent Congregational Church and contributed funds toward construction of the new Park Church building. The innovative structure offered seating for 800, a kitchen that could serve hundreds, parlors, apartments, play areas for children, and a public library. The Langdons were good friends of Thomas K. Beecher, minister of the Park Church, and, in 1858, Olivia began attending Sunday School classes taught by his second wife, Julia. Known for their progressive, independent, nonsectarian approach toward religion, the open attitudes of Thomas K. and Julia Beecher likely influenced young Olivia.
During late adolescence, Olivia spent several years in various health care facilities. In his Autobiography, Mark Twain noted that Olivia had experienced a debilitating fall on the ice at age sixteen that had left her partially paralyzed. For two years, Olivia received therapy at the Swedish Movement Cure on the lower West Side of Manhattan where her convalescence included bed rest and confinement in an immobilizing brace. She returned home in 1864, and a faith healer, Dr. James Rogers Newton, visited the family in Elmira and raised Olivia from her bed. Olivia later began a second, three-month stay at the Institute and finished that course of treatment and exercise near the end of January 1867. Although Clemens cited Olivia’s fall on the ice as the cause of her lengthy convalescence, Mark Twain scholars have puzzled over her confinement. Laura Skandera Trombley posited that Olivia may have been suffering from Pott’s Disease, which may stem from “some particular fall or blow in the back” (Trombley, 102n28). K. Patrick Ober suggested an additional possible diagnosis—“neurasthenia,” which included symptoms of “weakness, fatigue, generalized malaise, dyspepsia, depression, and insomnia” (Ober, Mark Twain and Medicine: “Any Mummery Will Cure,” 120). Regardless of a diagnosis, Olivia struggled with issues of strength and health.
Courtship and Marriage
In December 1867, twenty-two-year-old Olivia and her family traveled to New York City and stayed at the St. Nicholas Hotel on Broadway. Samuel Clemens also was visiting Manhattan at that time, and he stopped by to talk with his friend, Olivia’s younger brother, Charles Langdon. Clemens had met Charles earlier that year as they both had travelled to Europe and the Holy Land on the Quaker City steamer. During that trip, Charles had shown Clemens a photograph of Olivia. Mark Twain famously described that moment, years later, in his 1906 Autobiography, when he recalled, “I saw her first in the form of an ivory miniature in her brother Charley’s stateroom in the steamer ‘Quaker City’, in the Bay of Smyrna, in the summer of 1867, when she was in her twenty-second year….” That December, Clemens met Olivia in person and also attended a Charles Dickens reading with her family on New Year’s Eve. These visits strengthened his interest. Clemens would next see Olivia many months later, in Elmira in August of 1868, when his wooing of Olivia would begin in earnest. Theirs was a courtship of personal visits as well as of letter-writing. According to Olivia’s count, Samuel wrote over 180 letters to her. While Olivia’s half of the exchange likely numbered as many as Samuel’s, only one of her letters from the courtship period survives. Olivia had pursued involvements with other young men prior to Samuel’s appearance in her life, but, as she wrote of Samuel in a 3 March 1869 letter to Alice Hooker Day, she confessed that “a great satisfying love has slowly, gradually, worked its way into my heart—into my entire being—”
Olivia’s parents agreed to a conditional engagement between their daughter and Samuel Clemens on 26 November 1868, one day before Olivia’s 23rd birthday. The couple’s engagement was formalized several months later, on 4 February 1869, and they were married almost a year later, on 2 February 1870, in the Langdon home in Elmira, in a ceremony officiated by the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher of Elmira and assisted by the Reverend Joseph E. Twichell of Hartford. Following their wedding, Samuel and Olivia moved to Buffalo where Clemens would begin working at the Buffalo Express. Clemens was delighted to discover that he and Olivia were recipients of a home on fashionable Delaware Avenue—a surprise gift from Olivia’s father and mother—complete with furnishings and servants. Two weeks after their wedding, Olivia wrote her mother, “We are so happy in our house I wish that you and Father could come and see us before long …Two weeks tonight since we were married, it all seems like a dream–It seems
if as if we must be playing keep house—but I assure you that we are thankful that we do not have to board—dear good Father how happy he has made us by his great magnificent gift to us—” (OLC to OLL, 16 February 1870).To Alice Hooker Day, Olivia wrote, “Mr Clemens and I are fully convinced that we are the two happiest people in all the earth—”(OLL to AHD, 17 March 1870).
Early Years in Buffalo
Two months after their marriage, Olivia wrote her older sister, Susan Crane, “We are so happy that nothing seems able to mar our joy—” (OLC to SLC, 16 April 1870) but, following a pleasant start in their new home and new life together, events quickly brought challenges to Samuel and Olivia. Olivia was pregnant, happily, but at the same time her father began his battle with stomach cancer. To Alice Day, Olivia confided, “Father has been very miserable…we have felt very anxious about him…His great trouble is that he cannot keep food on his stomach…it is such a change to see Father so miserable…” (OLC to AHD, 31? May 1870). Olivia’s father died several weeks later, on 6 August 1870. Time passed, and Olivia, now six months pregnant, next served as deathbed nurse to one of her girlhood friends, Emma Nye, friends who visited her in Buffalo. Emma died of typhoid in Samuel and Olivia’s bed. Her death was followed by the premature birth of their firstborn son, Langdon, named in honor of Olivia’s deceased father. Months later, in February 1871, Olivia fell ill with typhoid fever. Facing these challenges, Olivia and Samuel decided to sell their Buffalo home and relocate to Hartford, Connecticut—near to Samuel’s publisher and many mutual friends. En route to Hartford in March of 1871, the family at first stayed in Elmira for several months, where Olivia was cared for by her mother and sister, and where Samuel first experienced writing at Quarry Farm, his sister-in-law’s home on East Hill in Elmira. In years to come, the family would return to Elmira for many summer visits, and Samuel would compose some of his most important fiction at Quarry Farm.
The following year, on 19 March 1872, a second child, Olivia Susan, was born in Elmira. That May, following some travels, Langdon caught a cold that quickly worsened into diphtheria, and on 2 June 1872, he died in Hartford. His body was brought to Elmira for burial near his grandfather and namesake in the Woodlawn Cemetery. Olivia grieved the loss of their son, revealing to her sister, “Seeing the Mothers with their children does make me so homesick for Langdon—it seems as if I could not do without him” (OLC to SLC, 7 July 1872).
Hartford, Travels, and A Growing Family
In 1873, seeking to stabilize their future, Olivia and Samuel purchased a building lot in Nook Farm, Hartford, Connecticut. With construction underway, Olivia, Samuel, Susy, and Clara Spaulding, Olivia’s girlhood friend from Elmira, traveled to England and Scotland for six months, where Samuel lectured and worked to secure copyright protection for The Gilded Age. Traveling with Samuel and Clara Spaulding and baby Susy was likely a comforting distraction from grief, and Olivia’s letters to her mother reveal the excitement and difficulties of ocean travel: “We have had two or three very rough days, not stormy but the waves high so that the vessel rocks frightfully—as we are not sick it is funny although Clara was thrown violently against her birth and her eye quite badly hurt last night—” (OLC to OLL, ca. 23 and 26 May 1873). After four months of traveling, Olivia, now pregnant with their third child, grew weary, and the family returned home.
In June 1874, a third child, Clara Langdon Clemens, was born at Quarry Farm. A few months later, in September 1874, the family moved to their new Farmington Avenue home, where, in the years to come, Olivia was busy as young mother, hostess to many guests, and as helpmate to her increasingly successful husband.
In 1878, the family again traveled in Europe for eighteen months, making many purchases for their Hartford home, and visiting Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Belgium, Holland, and England. Returning to their Nook Farm home in 1879, Olivia shared with her mother the challenges of getting a house in order after so long an absence: “Mother I don’t believe you know what it is to set a house going that has stood empty for eighteen months…What an intense love of home I always had as a young lady—now surely I ought to be able to do for my children what you did for me—…” (OLC to OLL, ca. 1 November 1879). In 1880, pregnant with their fourth child, Olivia decorated and reorganized the Hartford house, visited with and entertained friends, managed the household staff, and cared for the family. Another daughter, Jane Lampton Clemens, called Jean, was born at Quarry Farm on 26 July 1880.
For the next eighteen years, Olivia’s life would be influenced by the business decisions of her husband.In an effort to strengthen and diversify his finances,Clemens founded his own publishing firm, Charles L. Webster & Company, and also invested in Kaolatype and the Paige Compositor. Meanwhile, on the home front, plumbing repairs in Hartford expanded into the remodeling and redecorating of the first floor, and Olivia hired Elmiran Katy Leary to serve as her maid and seamstress. Susy and Clara were now adolescents, and Susy aspired to attend Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Over time, Charles L. Webster & Company began to lose money, and Samuel invested increasingly in the Paige Compositor. In the autumn of 1890, Samuel and Olivia each buried their elderly mothers.
Bankruptcy, Around-the-World Tour, and Susy’s Death
In June 1891, the family departed for Europe, hoping to live more economically abroad. They closed their Hartford home, leaving it in the care of trusted servants. Samuel and Olivia both experienced health issues in Europe, and their finances continued to falter. Clemens made repeated trips to America, hoping to curtail disaster, but the Panic of 1893 brought widespread economic stress, and, in the spring of 1894, Charles L. Webster & Company declared bankruptcy. Later that year, the Paige Compositor also failed, leaving the Clemenses’ finances in ruin. To her sister, Olivia confided, “…I have a perfect horror and heartsickness over it. I cannot get away from the feeling that business failure means disgrace. I suppose it always will mean that to me.…Sue, if you were to see me you would see that I have grown old very fast during this last year. I have wrinkled” (OLC to SLC, 22 April 1894). In an effort to relieve their enormous debt, the family devised a plan: in 1895, Clemens would embark on an around-the-world lecture tour, accompanied by Olivia and Clara. Jean and Susy remained in the United States, supervised by Susan Crane, and the family planned to reunite in the spring of 1896 in England. Olivia, Samuel, and Clara enjoyed their travels. Mark Twain was greeted with acclaim and adoration around the globe. From Ballarat, Victoria, Australia, Olivia wrote her daughter, Susy, “I think Papa never talked to a more enthusiastic audience. They were entirely uprorious, taking a point almost before he had reached it. The house was packed, people sitting on the stage and standing around the sides of the hall.…And so it goes, it is constant unceasing adulation of papa and most appreciative words about him” (OLC to OSC, 20 October 1895). In 1896, at the end of their tour, just at the moment of their hoped-for reunion, Susy became ill in Hartford and died of meningitis. Grieving, the family remained in Europe, unable to return to live in Hartford without Susy. To a friend, southern writer Grace King, Olivia confided, “Constantly I have wanted to write you but I have not been able. I am too broken hearted and unreconciled & life seems to me too bitter and too little worth while…Every detail of Susy’s leaving us seems unbearable” (OLC to GEK, 9 March 1897). In 1898, Samuel overcame his debt. In 1899, the family began to seek treatment for Jean’s increasing epileptic seizures.
Return to America, Heart Failure, and Olivia’s Death
In October 1900, the family returned to America, at first renting a home in New York City, then leasing a home along the Hudson River, then buying a home in Tarrytown, New York, where they would never live. Olivia began to struggle with heart failure. For periods of time, she was isolated from her family, and the doctors hoped that solitude would improve her health. Restricted from being in one another’s presence, Samuel and Olivia exchanged notes with each other.
Youth, my own precious Darling,
I feel so frightfully banished. Couldn’t you write in my boudoir? Then I could hear you clear your throat & it would be such a joy to feel you near.
I miss you sadly, sadly. Your note in the morning gave me support for the day, the one at night peace for the night. With the deepest love of my heart your
LivyUndated note from Olivia Langdon Clemens to Samuel Clemens, during her 1902-1903 confinement period
In May 1903, Samuel and Olivia sold their Hartford home and left for Florence, Italy, where it was hoped that pleasant weather might ease Olivia’s health issues, but episodes of heart failure continued, until, on the evening of 5 June 1904, Olivia died. On 14 July 1904, Olivia was buried in Elmira’s Woodlawn Cemetery, next to her daughter, Susy, near to her son and parents.
Harris, Susan K., The Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain. Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Naparsteck, Martin and Michelle Cardulla. Mrs. Mark Twain: The Life of Olivia Langdon Clemens, 1845-1904. McFarland & Company, 2014.
Sharlow, Gretchen Ehle. “A Study of the Cranes of Quarry Farm, Their Lives and Their Relationships with Mark Twain,” in Mark Twain in Elmira, Second Edition (2013).
Snedecor, Barbara E., Editor. Gravity: Selected Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens. University of Missouri Press, 2023.
Stoutenburg, Adrien and Laura Nelson Baker. Dear, Dear Livy: The Story of Mark Twain’s Wife. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1963.
Trombley, Laura Skandera. Mark Twain in the Company of Women. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.
Wecter, Dixon, Editor. The Love Letters of Mark Twain. Harper & Brothers, 1949.
Willis, Resa. Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman who (Almost) Tamed Him. TVBooks, 1992.
Barbara E. Snedecor served as Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and edited Gravity: Selected Letters of Olivia Langdon Clemens (University of Missouri Press, 2023).
Dr. Snedecor has participated in a large number of CMTS events and lectures, including: