Cyril Coniston Clemens was born on July 14, 1902 in St. Louis, the only son of James Ross Clemens and Katharine Boland Clemens. Through his father Cyril Clemens was the third cousin twice removed of Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), and through both parents was related to the most prominent families of St. Louis.
James Ross Clemens (1867-1948), great-grandson of St. Louis millionaire John Mullanphy, was born in the Clemens mansion at 1849 Cass Avenue. He attended high school on the old Saint Louis University campus at 9th and Washington before moving to England to continue his education at Stonyhurst College, Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and the Royal College of Surgeons in London. In 1899 he wed Katharine Boland, and the young couple spent their first years of married life in England.
James Ross Clemens's intimacy with his cousin Mark Twain began when the London newspapers erroneously reported that the great author had been left destitute in the city. Medical student Clemens communicated with Twain via the latter's publisher, offering him aid. Twain replied on March 5, 1897 thanking his relative, and the two became fast friends. The famous story of Twain's premature demise evolved from another journalistic misunderstanding when it was reported that Twain, not his cousin James Ross Clemens, had died of pneumonia. Twain penned a note on the subject that was published in facsimile in Outlook in 1910: "James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago, in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness, the report of my death was an exaggeration." During his last visit to St. Louis in 1902 Twain stayed with his "Cousin Jim"at the latter's townhouse at 3958 Washington Avenue.
James Ross Clemens, his wife Katharine, and their daughter Muriel returned to St. Louis in 1902, where son Cyril was born 3 months later. Clemens practiced medicine in the city, specializing in pediatrics and internal diseases. He was professor of children's diseases at Saint Louis University until becoming dean of the College of Medicine at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska in 1916. He raised this school from a Class B to a Class A institution by importing more accomplished professors. His tenure at Creighton lasted until 1918 with an interlude as major in the Army medical corps stationed at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Later he headed the Department of Pediatrics at Saint Louis University.
James Ross Clemens also wrote articles, poetry, movie scenarios, and plays that were produced at Stanford University and won contests in Oxford and London, England. He was such a renaissance man that his obituaries gave equal prominence to his careers of poet and physician. He died in 1948 at the age of 81.
His wife Katharine Boland Clemens (1874-1968), a great-great-granddaughter of John Mullanphy through her mother Catherine Thomas Boland, was born at Claverach, the country estate of her grandfather Benjamin F. Thomas. Bounded by Clayton, Big Bend, and Hanley Roads and Wydown Boulevard, this land now forms part of Claverach Park in Clayton, a suburb of St. Louis. She was educated at Loretto Academy and then at Sacred Heart Convents in St. Charles, Missouri, at Maryville in St. Louis, and in Tours, France. In 1899 she wed James Ross Clemens in the chapel at Claverach in a ceremony conducted by Joseph J. Kain, Archbishop of St. Louis. She went to live in London with her husband, and their daughter Muriel was born there in 1900.
Returning to St. Louis in 1902, she bore her son Cyril soon after her arrival. She claimed to have begun to write in 1905, contributing articles to Vogue, House Beautiful, London Bookman, and other publications. Her literary productions also included poetry, short stories, and movie scenarios: in 1910 she won $100 in the St. Louis Times contest for the best scenario, to be produced by the IMP (International Moving Picture) Corporation. In 1913 she wrote a booklet of rules for house servants, and in 1938 her autobiography, Gardens and Books, was published by her son Cyril's International Mark Twain Society.
Katharine Boland Clemens shared her husband's friendship with Mark Twain and his family. Twain's last letter was addressed to her in 1910 as "Dear Cousin Katharine." She was a proud, strong-willed woman accustomed to luxury, intent on cutting a figure in society, and determined that her son Cyril should do great things in the world. In 1912 she was named one of the 100 best-dressed women in St. Louis. She and her husband had already purchased a summer house on Long Island Sound, probably either Clemenscroft in Noroton, Connecticut (now part of Darien) or Casa-del-Ponte, described in American Homes and Gardens as "a summer home at Tokeneke Park at Rowayton, Connecticut" (now part of Norwalk). Both addresses appear on family letters of the period. Here she enjoyed the company of such neighbors as celebrated author Richard Le Gallienne and his wife until the house was sold some time later. In 1913 she briefly became (in the words of one newspaper) "mistress of Claverach," the estate having passed to her father John L. Boland, an extremely wealthy stationer, and her mother, who offered her the property after finding it too exhausting to run at an advanced age. Soon, however, Mrs. Boland and an unmarried daughter decided to reoccupy the place, and Clemens thereafter made her home in less imposing establishments in the St. Louis area. She died at 94 in 1968.
Cyril Clemens' education began at the Sacred Heart Convent in St. Louis, which accepted boys up to the age of 12. Thereafter he boarded at Canterbury School in New Milford, Connecticut, and graduated from Saint Louis University High School in 1922 with first honors. After attending Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where his interest in political figures continued to develop, he received his BA. in English from Washington University in St. Louis in 1928. According to his mother's memoirs, he did 2 years of post-graduate work at Stanford University in Berkeley, California and went to summer school at Cambridge in England. In 1949 he returned to his alma mater, Washington University, for a master's degree in history.
Cyril Clemens remembered visiting his cousin Mark Twain in Redding, Connecticut in 1909, one year before the author's death. The boy asked Twain why he favored white suits, and Twain replied, "Dark clothes depress me." Watching Twain playing with some kittens, Cyril, a fellow devotee of the species, inquired what was better than a cat. Twain shot back, "Two cats." But in spite of his pleasant memories of his kinsman and a love of letters dating from his childhood, Cyril Clemens professed to have had no real fascination with Twain's work or even much knowledge about his life until asked in the early 1920s to speak to a woman's club about his cousin. researching his subject, Clemens conceived a passion for the life and literature of his cousin Mark Twain.
In about 1923 Clemens founded the International Mark Twain Society. Originally this was a group of around 15 friends who gathered at the home of Clemens' parents in Webster Groves, Missouri to enjoy dinner and good conversation about literary figures and their works. In 1927 Clemens named Italian dictator Benito Mussolini honorary president of the Society and later granted him a gold medal for achievement as "The Great Educator." Adopting the motto "to knit the whole world in bonds of cultured peace," devised for the Society by English author A.E. Coppard, Clemens proceeded with his aim of keeping Twain's name alive by linking it with 20th-century notables who professed admiration for the American's work. According to Clemens, amassing a collection of the autographs of and anecdotes about famous people was a secondary consideration for him, but he never denied that he was making a career of being Mark Twain's cousin. Indeed, Clemens practiced no profession apart from his activities for the Society. He often remarked to reporters that he enjoyed a comfortable private income left him by his parents, and he once claimed that the Society was endowed, supported by rich St. Louisans, so that it never needed to ask members for money.
In 1930 Clemens and his mother traveled through Europe for several months, visiting with many prominent people and enrolling them as Knights and Daughters of Mark Twain or as honorary members of the Society, depending on the quality of their achievements. He also lectured on Twain and other literary figures, an activity for which he reportedly sought no remuneration, and advocated the establishment of Twain clubs and discussion groups.
In 1933 Clemens lent autographed letters received by the Society to the Missouri Historical Society for exhibition at its headquarters at the Jefferson Memorial in Forest Park in St. Louis, following this up with a show of Twain manuscripts two years later. During 1935, Twain's centennial year, Clemens lobbied for the creation of a Twain memorial in St. Louis. Mussolini offered $200, the largest individual contribution, toward this project, which ended in the purchase of a bronze bust of Twain that was installed at the St. Louis Public Library in April, 1936. In that same year Clemens incorporated the Society as the nonprofit Mark Twain Memorial Association and began publishing the Mark Twain Quarterly, a literary magazine that was favorably received by Arthur E. DuBois writing in the Sewanee Review in 1938. A year later the Saturday Review of Literature revealed Clemens' contribution to the Library of Congress of many autographed copies of works by international authors as well as signed photographs of world notables. The article also pointed out that Clemens had become the only active member of the Society, which had no constitution or bylaws.
During the 1930s Clemens' troubles with the Mark Twain estate began. In 1932 his book Mark Twain the Letter Writer was suppressed by the estate for copyright infringement, and a similar fate threatened My Cousin Mark Twain in 1939. An attorney for Twain's daughter Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, who also served as a trustee of the estate, accused Clemens of being "a very distant cousin of Mark Twain who won't keep his distance." Clemens' "self-assumed title of 'cousin' is absolutely without authority," insisted the lawyer, who went on to castigate Clemens for "masquerading under such assumed relationship" and for the "liberties he was taking with the name Clemens and the rights of others." For his part, Clemens scoffed that the estate believed it owned the entire persona of the author and even had had the gall to suggest that he change his name.
In March 1950, after Clemens advertised for Twain letters for inclusion in a new book he was planning, the estate filed suit to prevent Clemens' publishing any more of the Twain material in his possession. Clemens countersued for $150,000, claiming he had lost this amount in publishing deals that had gone sour in the face of the estate's repeated attacks upon his activities. A hung jury resulted from the trial in a Clayton, Missouri courtroom, but in an out-of-court settlement Clemens received $1250 from the publisher Harper and Brothers, owners of the Twain copyright, and was allowed to keep the family letters from Twain that the estate had demanded be turned over to Harper's. Clemens promised to refrain from disseminating any more unpublished Twain material. The judge in this case decided a point of law not previously determined in Missouri: that the copyright in letters belongs to the writer of the letters and his heirs, not to the person in physical possession of the letters.
In the mid-1940s Clemens produced the first published biography of President Harry S. Truman, The Man From Missouri. Clemens' own favorite among his books had appeared in 1942: Young Sam Clemens was the result of a collaboration with Laura Hawkins of Hannibal, Missouri, Mark Twain's model for Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer. Clemens labored under criticism of his works, which were often described as thin pamphlets built around one or two polite letters from notables being inducted as members of the Society, or as pastiches of previously published works by other authors.
In the 1950s Clemens ran unsuccessfully three times for supervisor of St. Louis County. His electioneering was punctuated by two more legal disputes. In 1954 the fraud division of the Postal Service filed a complaint against Clemens, Harry Bristol Williams, the Society, and the Mark Twain Quarterly seeking to deny these entities the use of the mails. The Postal Service claimed that the Quarterly was in fact published irregularly, that the Society had no board of directors and that the notables listed on its letterhead filled no real positions, and that Clemens and Williams were using the mails to send letters "calculated to induce recipients to contribute money and property" to the Society. This last part of the Postal Service's allegations was related to the Internal Revenue Service's case against Clemens.
From 1944 to 1954 Harry Bristol Williams, whom Clemens described as the active secretary of the Society with his home at 5972 Clemens Avenue as the organization's business address, used the Society's letterhead to solicit funds. He collected $31,000 in a secret bank account under the Society's name, taking $20,000 for himself. After Williams's death, the Internal Revenue Service seized the balance in the account for back taxes. Negotiations led to the return of half that amount to the Society. Lee Meriwether, who defended the Society against the tax claim, became for a time president of the Society and editor of the 1957 issues of the Quarterly, which had been renamed the Mark Twain Journal in August 1954 to reflect more accurately its erratic publishing schedule.
In 1983 the Journal moved to Charleston, South Carolina where it came under the editorship of Thomas A. Tenney, a professor at the College of Charleston. In its new incarnation as a mainstream academic publication, it remains the oldest American literary journal devoted to a single author. In 1985 Cyril Clemens gave to the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford, Connecticut the largest private collection of Twain papers in the country.
On October 18th, 1933 Clemens had married Nan Shallcross at the Cathedral of St. Louis. Nan, a graduate of Webster College in Webster Groves, was the daughter of Wyatt Shallcross Sr., a St. Louis stationer, and had also studied in Switzerland for several months while staying with her uncle and aunt, Major and Mrs. E.F. Twiss. Nan was a descendant of George Washington's sister as well as of the daughter of Martha Custis, Washington's wife. She was related to Lord Baltimore, Robert E. Lee, and most of the First Families of Virginia. For some years before her marriage she was a librarian in the St. Louis Public Library system, and from 1946 to 1956 she was director of the Fontbonne College Library in Clayton, Missouri. She died in 1980. Her and Cyril Clemens' son Samuel (Sam), named for Mark Twain, was born on August 7, 1939, and became a salesman in California, where he died on April 27, 1995. His widow, Joanna Clemens, was instrumental in arranging the donation of this collection to the Saint Louis University Archives.
Cyril Clemens died in Kirkwood, Missouri, the community that had been his home for 66 years, on May 16,1999. He was survived by his daughter-in-law, Joanna Clemens of California, and by granddaughter Robin Clemens and great-grandson Christopher Clemens Kaplan, both of South Salem, New York.