Elizabeth Wallace and Mark Twain

Twain and Wallace were photographed together in 1909, the year after they met and the year before his death. (Photo courtesy Minnestoa Historical Society)

Elizabeth Wallace, the King, and I

Collector and self-proclaimed “Twainiac” Ivan Kane, AB’78, JD’81, remembers Mark Twain’s friendship with University of Chicago professor Elizabeth Wallace.

Near the end of his life, the old man was a bundle of contradictions. He had long craved attention, adopting a colorful pen name and striking manner of dress. He still loved to perform in public and hold private court with his many admirers, who affectionately called him “the King.” But in later years he was also intensely lonely and subject to dark spells. His circle of friends was predominantly male, but his household was made up exclusively of women. His oldest daughter and wife had already passed away, and he was soon to lose his remaining daughters, one to a tragic accident and the other to marriage.

In light of this, it was not surprising that the old man would seek out a friendship with a younger woman who was his peer in intellectual accomplishments and who possessed great sympathy and discretion. She said of him: “I never knew him to say a clever thing at the sacrifice of a kind thing, nor a witty thing divorced from truth. I don’t mean mere vulgar facts, but truth, truth about human nature—he was always true to that.”

University of Chicago professor Elizabeth Wallace (1865–1960) met Mark Twain in 1908 while vacationing in Bermuda. Betsy (as Twain called her) and the King became fast friends. They were intellectual soul mates—not lovers. Twain regularly invited Betsy to join his party at meals and on walks and carriage rides about the island. He summoned her to join the after-dinner card games in his room. He read to her his favorite Kipling poems and from his unpublished writings. 

The relationship continued until Twain’s death two years later, with regular correspondence, exchanges of favorite books, and a Thanksgiving visit to Twain’s home.

I am a 1978 graduate of the College, where I majored in English. I wish I could say that I discovered Elizabeth Wallace during my studies at the University, but I learned of her decades later. However, the seeds of this discovery were planted during my undergraduate studies. I had a wonderful exposure to Twain with James E. Miller Jr., AM’47, PhD’49, and Robert Streeter, well-known American literature scholars. (In one class I wrote a paper titled “The Unity and Coherence of Huckleberry Finn.” The title was a poke at the Chicago school Aristotelians and New Critics, but I was convinced that I had discovered a textual organizing principle that explained Twain’s intentions for the structure of Huckleberry Finn, which most critics believe falls apart with its burlesque ending.)  

My undergraduate experience triggered a lifelong passion for all things Mark Twain. I became a Twain-iac! I collect Twain books, ephemera, and whatever else crosses my path, and I read as much scholarship as time permits. Lately scholars have been particularly interested in Twain’s last years, which produced Letters from the Earth (Harper and Row, 1962) and other reflections on the state of man that were considered too controversial to be published during his lifetime. Recent biographies that focus on this period mention Twain’s friendship with Wallace. My reaction was, “Why didn’t I know about this before?”

The relationship was not a secret. Just a few years after Twain’s death, Wallace published a memoir of their friendship, Mark Twain and the Happy Island (McClurg, 1913). I wish I could give the book an unqualified recommendation, but it shows signs of the influence of Twain’s late-life travel companion and literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine, who closely guarded Twain’s reputation. He suppressed the darker writings and insisted that acquaintances portray Twain in a sunny light. Paine requested many changes in Wallace’s manuscript and approved the final result. Wallace’s deep affection for Twain is evident in her writings, so she also may have wished to burnish his legacy. As a result, Happy Island is a popular treatment in a breezy, occasionally sentimental style. It portrays Twain as a fun and caring friend but only hints at weightier matters.  

Twain’s correspondence with Wallace tells a different story. He shares intimacies about his family and personal situation. He rejoices in his daughter Clara’s wedding but discloses that her betrothed broke off two prior engagements. He rages against his personal secretary and her fiancé, who he believes are conspiring to defraud him. He shares his sorrow concerning the deaths of his daughter Jean and his dear friend Henry H. Rogers. And he shares details of his declining health, most centering around whether his doctors will or will not allow him to indulge his cigar habit.

The Twain-Wallace relationship gave me a fascinating window on the mind and character of America’s greatest writer—and learning more about Elizabeth Wallace gave me equal delight and satisfaction. She was a remarkable woman whose accomplishments were felt on three continents.  

Born in 1865 in Bogotá, Colombia, Wallace was a child of Presbyterian missionaries. She was speaking English and Spanish by age four. Among her childhood playmates was the famous South American poet José Asunción Silva. When Wallace was 8 or 9, her mother and her siblings moved to the United States for the children to continue their educations. She eventually graduated from Wellesley College and acquired French, Italian, and German fluency and considerable Latin skills along the way.  

Wallace did graduate work under future UChicago president Henry Pratt Judson at the University of Minnesota. When William Rainey Harper called on Judson to recruit him for the not-yet-opened University, Judson summoned Wallace to his home to meet Harper and, after accepting Harper’s offer, encouraged her to apply for a UChicago graduate fellowship. She was surprised to learn that John D. Rockefeller’s gift establishing the fellowships specifically gave women “equal privileges to men,” and even more surprised to be accepted. Wallace joined the 1892 entering class as a fellow in history.

Her choice to study Latin American history puzzled the head of the history department, German scholar Hermann von Holst. He responded (as she described it): “I know notings von tose countries. For me tey do not exist . ... You read and study all you vant about dem, den you come und tell me und I will gif you a degree.”  

Harper was more enthusiastic, as (said Wallace) “he liked nothing better than to find an unexplored field.” He funded an appropriation for Latin American source books and asked Wallace to give a course in Latin American history and institutions so that UChicago “should be the first institution in the country to initiate such studies.” It is no exaggeration to say that Wallace invented the field we now call Latin American studies.

Early in her academic career, Wallace secured postgraduate fellowships at l’École des Hautes Etudes in Paris and at the International Institute in Madrid. During her first extended stay in France, in 1896, she formed friendships with that country’s best-known writers and thinkers, and kept the company of French intellectuals for the rest of her life. When she visited the country in 1949, at age 84, she told of meeting “vociferous existentialists, both male and female, with disheveled hair, fantastic beards and stockingless feet.” The dame of French letters was also a woman of action. In 1946 Wallace was inducted into the French Legion of Honor for her relief work for France in both World Wars.

After her first sojourn in France, Wallace returned to the University of Chicago as a French instructor. Apart from travel for fellowships, she would remain there for the rest of her academic career. She left her mark on the University in many ways, including as a dean in the College, head of one of the first dormitories for women, and a teacher of French and Spanish literature in the Department of Romance Languages, where her class on Molière was especially popular.  

In 1923 Wallace and two others became the first women to attain the rank of full professor at the University of Chicago. The next year she joined with the other two female professors to write a remarkable letter addressed to the president and trustees. The letter detailed the many ways in which women were then second-class citizens at the University: there were no women on the board of trustees and very few on important faculty committees. Only four women spoke at the first 134 convocations. Women accounted for only 20 percent of graduate fellowships despite comprising 40 percent of the graduate students. Women received instructorships while men of similar achievement were awarded professorships. And women had only restricted privileges at the Quadrangle Club. 

The letter called on the University to furnish opportunities to both sexes on equal terms. It was reported that some trustees wanted to fire Wallace and her coauthors, but a special commission found that all of the letter’s claims were not only true but understated. In the next announcement of promotions, the ranks of female full professors were doubled.  

Upon Wallace’s retirement in 1927, Harold H. Swift, PhB 1907, chairman of the trustees, wrote, “her name stands in the knowledge of alumni with Harper, Judson, Burton, and others of our Hall of Fame.” The pronouncement was especially generous and gratifying coming from one of the addressees of Wallace’s letter on women’s issues. Today, though the memory of her has largely faded, she is still present on campus as the namesake of Wallace House in the Max Palevsky Residential Commons and as the model for the figure “the City” in the Masque of Youth mural on the third floor of Ida Noyes Hall.

After her University of Chicago career ended, Wallace stayed active until her death in 1960—as a scholar, attending academic conferences all over the world, and as the Zelig-like figure she’d long been, crossing paths with a colorful cast of writers and intellectuals. Among those she encountered (both during and after her UChicago career) were Henri Bergson, Marc Chagall, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, Émile Zola, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and Edith Wharton. 

In one episode Wallace joined UChicago hosts and a special guest as a plus-one at the opera. The production was not to the guest’s liking, so he and Wallace whiled away the time composing risqué limericks on their programs at the back of the box. Only after the event did she learn her companion was H. G. Wells.  

Her closer friends included Stephen Vincent Benét, Archibald Mac-
Leish, Gaston Paris, Ida Tarbell, and Thornton Wilder. She was a trusted adviser to University presidents in both school and personal matters. Harper sought her help to “rescue” a “striking blonde” student from an imprudent affair with an older man, and later Wallace gave Robert Maynard Hutchins advice concerning how the University could help a nation at war. Caltech president (and former UChicago physicist) Robert A. Millikan sought her help with his autobiography. So Mark Twain was just one of many eminences to make her a confidant.  

For me the most striking parts of the Twain-Wallace correspondence are certain reflections Twain shared with her in the face of death. These letters show the intimacy of their relationship, as well as Twain’s trust in Wallace’s discretion. She never revealed the more controversial parts of the letters, either in Happy Island or in her autobiography, The Unending Journey (University of Minnesota Press, 1952).  

In the last six months of his life, Twain’s letters to Wallace grew longer. He tells Wallace he is writing Letters from the Earth—a blasphemous repudiation of Christianity with frank passages about human sexuality—and wishes he could read it to her, while at the same time admitting that perhaps he had better omit certain passages. “This book will never be published,” he tells her—“in fact it couldn’t be because it would be felony to soil the mails with it.” He adds that “Paine enjoys it, but Paine is going to be damned one of these days I suppose.” In fact Paine and, after his death in 1937, Twain’s daughter Clara suppressed publication until 1962.  

Twain’s next lengthy letter came shortly after the death of his daughter Jean. He wrote from Bermuda, where he had fled hoping that the better climate would improve his declining health. He opened with both barrels, echoing the ideas about religion he was writing for Letters from the Earth:

No, revelation—of a valuable sort— does not come through sorrow when one is old. Before 70 the whole satire and swindle of life has been revealed—to all except the willfully or constitutionally dull. What a silly invention human life is! And how like a glove its silliest religion fits it! And how perfectly our principal God and His Family harmonise with the outfit! Do I “know more” than I knew before? Oh, hell no! There was nothing to learn (about hereafters and other-such undesirables), there never has been anything to learn and know about these insulting mysteries. I am happy—few are so happy—but I got none of this happiness from “knowing more” of the unknowables than I knew before.

In a reply that is lost to us, Wallace, the daughter of missionaries, tried to comfort Twain by speaking of “worlds still unexplained.” The next letter brings Twain’s exasperated response: “You ‘know there are worlds still unexplained’? Do you? Very well then—you don’t. Why do you want to talk like that and wither a person’s hopes? Isn’t this life enough for you? Do you wish to continue the foolishness somewhere else? Damnation, you depress me!”

Perhaps not wanting to offend his friend with his bitterness, Twain then shifts the tone of the letter to chatty news about acquaintances and the delights of Bermuda. He closes by giving his friend an affirming portrait of his life on the island, where “the joy of it never stales”: 

There are no newspapers, no telegrams, no mobiles, no trolleys, no trains, no tramps, no railways, no theatres, no noise, no lectures, no riots, no murders, no fires, no burglaries, no politics, no offences of any kind, no follies but church and I don’t go there. I think I could live here always and be contented.

You go to heaven if you want to—I’d druther stay here.  

As ever affectionately 

S. L. C.

Twain died April 21, 1910, not six weeks after his last letter to his “Dear Betsy.” Wallace followed him from this world 50 years later, on April 9, 1960, the same year that Twain’s daughter Clara finally authorized publication of Letters from the Earth.

Ivan P. Kane, AB’78, JD’81, recently retired after 35 years of practicing law. He is recovering and settling into his next life, which includes service on the University of Chicago Humanities Council and as a board member and chair of the Program Committee at the American Writers Museum.