Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, spent the last years of his life bitter and depressed—or so goes the conventional wisdom. A new biography by Michael Shelden, a professor of English at Indiana State University, challenges that view.
Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years (Random House) portrays Twain in the last four years of his life enjoying his world-wide fame, picking fights with the powerful, and hobnobbing with celebrities.
According to Shelden, 58, whose previous biographies were on Graham Greene, Cyril Connolly, and George Orwell, Twain started wearing white when he knew his end was in sight.
“Twain decided that if his death was next, he wasn’t going to live his last years in black but in white. He was going to out with joy, happiness, and style.”
Shelden believes Twain may have wore white as a reaction to the mourning that was going on in his family. He had in recent years lost his wife and youngest daughter, and his daughter Clara engaged in such excessive and long-term grieving, which included wearing black, that she earned the nickname “Night.”
“Twain understood that people would undergo periods of mourning but he didn’t want to be a part of it,” Shelden said. “Twain said, if I have to wear black, in mourning or otherwise, it’s just going to depress me. So I’ll wear white and make a statement.”
Shelden’s wrote the book to correct what he saw was a “glaring omission” in our understanding of Twain. Far from the figure of gloom and despair, as has been traditionally depicted, Twain was full of life at the end.
“Some of his friends were amazed even up to the last few weeks of his life. He was still taking stairs three at a time. He was trim, strong and vigorous.” And if he hadn’t smoked twenty cigars a day, he might have longer than 74 years.
In what could be called his “white period” Twain traveled, drank, danced, and flirted with society girls. He talked politics with Winston Churchill became friends with George Bernard Shaw. He became the willing victim of a lost-at-sea hoax. Sometimes it seemed like he went looking for trouble.
“There was always a bit of Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain. He liked to get into trouble. He picked fights with Mary Baker Eddy of the Christian Science church, and with more powerful people like King Leopold of Belgium who he thought was guilty of atrocities in the Belgium Congo. He didn’t much care for Teddy Roosevelt, who he made fun of a lot.”
In his final years Twain enjoyed the attention he got from women. He was friendly with Billie Burke, the actress who later played Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, and discussed female sexuality with Clara Bow, the “It Girl.” He sometimes stayed out till the wee hours of the morning partying with showgirls.
“Women loved Mark Twain. Whenever he was with a group of women—young women, old women, middle-aged women, young girls—they all wanted to stroke his hair, in some cases give him a kiss. He really wasn’t a sexual creature at this point in his life, but he loved the affection and the attention. He came home from a party one night where a bunch of Broadway actresses were, and someone asked him how the party went, and he said, ‘It was a kissing bee.’”
Readers of Man in White are telling Shelden that they feel “privileged” by the way the book helped them to get to know Twain intimately.
“We don’t get to know too many people well in our lives. I think if a biography does its job well, it gives you that chance to spend time with somebody—somebody extraordinary. And not only to bask in their good fortune and genius, but also maybe raise the level of your own life a few notches, because you’ve been challenged by seeing this other life. What you could do with your own life if you would reach a little farther.”
Michael Shelden’s next book is going to be about Winston Churchill.