Mark Twain in Love

A chance encounter on a New Orleans dock in 1858 haunted the writer for the rest of his life

After Mark Twain first glimpsed the girl of his dreams, he never forgot Laura Wright's "frank and simple and winsome" charms. (Illustration by Jody Hewgill)
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Details of her life after New Orleans are sparse, but they suggest a woman of exceptional grit and resilience—and bad luck. Mark Twain wrote in his Autobiography of a letter from Laura, detailing her own crisis as she traveled upriver in May 1858. The Roe hit a snag and took on water; its passengers were evacuated, but Laura insisted to the captain that she would not leave her cabin until she had finished sewing a rip in her hoop skirt. (She calmly completed her task and only then joined the evacuees.) Shortly after that misadventure, according to a family friend, C. O. Byrd, she signed on as a Confederate spy and ended up with a price on her head. During the Civil War, she married a river pilot named Charles Dake, perhaps to escape the dangers of life as an espionage agent. She and her new husband headed west.

In San Francisco, Laura opened a school for “young ladies” and attained some sophistication. A tantalizing question is whether Laura was in the audience at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco on the night of October 2, 1866. There, Mark Twain delivered a vivid and uproarious account of his interlude as a Sacramento Union reporter in the Sandwich Islands—present-day Hawaii. The performance launched him as one of the country’s most celebrated lecturers in an era when traveling speakers from the droll Artemus Ward to the august Ralph Waldo Emerson bestrode the popular culture.

She moved to Dallas and became a public-school teacher. In March 1880, the 44-year-old Sam Clemens (by then happily married to Livy—whom he had wed in February 1870) opened a letter sent to his residence in Hartford, Connecticut, by a 12-year-old Dallas schoolboy with the wonderful name Wattie Bowser. Wattie asked the great man to answer biographical questions for a school essay, then added a stunning postscript:

“O! I forgot to tell you that our principal used to know you, when you were a little boy and she was a little girl, but I expect you have forgotten her, it was so long ago.” The principal’s name was Laura Dake—nee Wright. Writing to Laura through Wattie, Clemens sent back a torrential series of letters, filled with lyrical allusions to his youth and assuring Wattie/Laura, “No, I have not forgotten your principal at all. She was a very little girl, with a very large unusual girl.”

One of the last known communication between Clemens and Laura occurred 26 years later. Laura, then 62, was teaching at poverty-level wages. Even so, she was trying to help a young man—perhaps he had been one of her students—who needed money to attend medical school. She asked her former suitor to intercede for her with the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Clemens recognized the thinly disguised plea for help and sent her a check for one thousand dollars. She sent a letter of thanks. A few additional letters were exchanged the following year.

Laura re-emerges one final time, some 15 years after Mark Twain’s death. According to a letter written in 1964 to scholar Charles H. Gold by C. O. Byrd, whose father had known the Wright family, Byrd spent an evening with Laura in—of all places—a Hollywood nightclub on the occasion of her 80th birthday. The two became friends. Sometime later, at Laura’s shabby apartment, Byrd encountered an astounding literary treasure.

“On one of my visits we happened to be talking about Mark Twain,” Byrd wrote to Gold. “She took me to her bed room, had me open her trunk, and got out several packages of letters from Sam Clemens. For several hours she read me portions of many of the letters. I think Lippincotts [the publishing company, J. B. Lippincott & Co.] offered her $20,000.00. I know that some of the letters were written during the [Civil] war.”

Laura Wright Dake told Byrd that her sisters and brother had urged her to sell the letters, but this was not her wish. “She made me promise, on my honor, that after her death I would destroy the letters and not let anyone read them. She said Sam Clemens wrote them to her and for her and that they were not to be published.” C. O. Byrd was one of those vanishing oddities of the 20th century, a man of his word. In his 1964 letter he blandly informed Gold, “I destryed [sic] the letters and followed all her instructions after her death.”

Laura died in 1932, around age 87, on the eve of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. Beyond her conversations with C. O. Byrd and her siblings, she never divulged information about her flirtation with Sam Clemens or her correspondence with Mark Twain.

Perhaps there was more to tell than rational scholarship could conceive, as Mark Twain would write at the conclusion of “My Platonic Sweetheart”: “In our dreams—I know it!—we do make the journeys we seem to make: we do see the things we seem to see; the people, the horses, the cats, the dogs, the birds, the whales, are real, not chimeras; they are living spirits, not shadows; and they are immortal and indestructible....We know this because there are no such things here, and they must be there, because there is no other place.”


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