By Mallory Howard
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2017-2018
Mark Twain’s image as a sardonic, sometimes cynical humorist and sharp-witted observer of human behavior
remains firmly ensconced in American culture more than a century after his death. But that image often concealed a soft heart—at least when it came to the love of his life, his wife, Olivia, whom he called Livy.
Twain—or Samuel Clemens—met her in 1867 after he and her brother Charley Langdon found themselves fellow travelers on board the steamship Quaker City on a five-and-a-half-month trip to the Holy Land. Langdon showed Clemens an ivory miniature portrait of his sister, and Sam was smitten.
Back in the U.S., Clemens pursued the introduction to Olivia Langdon, who was living at home in Elmira, New York. The couple’s first date at the end of December or beginning of January was in New York City: Sam accompanied Livy to a reading by the famous British author Charles Dickens.
Their early letters suggest that Livy resisted Sam’s ardent entreaties for many months thereafter. But Sam pressed on. His language grew a bit flowery to impress Olivia, as this 1869 letter shows:
Livy dear, I have already mailed to-days letter, but I am so proud of my privilege of writing the dearest girl in the world whenever I please, that I must add a few lines, if only to say I love you, Livy. For I do love you, Livy—as the dew loves the flowers; as the birds love the sunshine; as the wavelets love the breeze; as mothers love their first-born as memory loves old faces; as the yearning tides love the moon; as the angels love the pure in heart. I so love you that if you were taken from me it seems as if all my love would follow after you & leave my heart a dull & vacant ruin forever & forever.
Sam imagined what their life would be like together. That same year he wrote:
And so you have been having visions of our future home, too, Livy? I have such visions every day of my life, now. And they always take one favorite shape—peace, & quiet—rest, & seclusion from the rush & roar & discord of the world. You & I apart from the jangling elements of the outside world, reading & studying together when the day’s duties are done—in our own castle, by our own fireside, blessed in each other’s unwavering love & confidence. But it makes me ever so restive, Livy! —& impatient to throw off these wandering duties that thrall me now, & take you in my arms, never to miss your dear presence again.
Sam’s persistent charm worked, and the couple were married on February 2, 1870 in Livy’s hometown; the Reverend Thomas K. Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Clemens’s dear friend Reverend Joseph Twichell officiated.
In 1871 they moved to Hartford. Livy’s wealth provided for the design and building of their house on Farmington Avenue where they lived from 1874 to 1891. They had four beloved children: Their first-born, and only son, Langdon, died of diphtheria in 1872 at 19 months; Susy was born that same year; Clara in 1874, and Jean in 1880.
In 1874 Sam sent his wife a rather racy message:
I love to picture myself ringing the bell, at midnight—then a pause of a second or two—then the turning of the bolt, & “Who is it?”—then ever so many kisses—then you & I in the bath-room, I drinking my cock-tail & undressing, & you standing by—then to bed, and everything happy & jolly as it should be. I do love & honor you, my darling.
We get a glimpse of Livy’s feelings about these early love letters in one she wrote to Sam at the beginning of that difficult year of 1872 (dated January 7):
My Youth [her pet name for Sam], you have seemed so near and dear to me, if any thing more than usually so, since last evening … I could not help going to the tin box when I went to my room … I did not read any of the oldest love letters, only some that were written since we were married,—how sweet the memory … our love life is—…but at such times it is hard not to be able to put out my hand and touch you—Last night I had a vivid dream of your return, a natural dream, in my sleep I did all the things that I should have done waking if you had returned to me, put my hand in yours, stroked your hair, did every thing that should make me really conscious of your presence—Youth don’t you think it is very sweet to love as we love?
Livy, who had always been frail and suffered bouts of ill health, died in 1904 at age 58. Sam, in his grief, paid loving tribute to her at the end of his brief Book of Genesis fantasy called “Adam’s Diary.” At its poignant conclusion, Adam visits the grave of Eve and laments, “Wheresoever she was, there was Eden.”
The Mark Twain House & Museum
351 Farmington Avenue