Arts and Culture

Meet Mark Twain’s Jewish Son-in-Law

Mark Twain (Shutterstock)

(Jewniverse via JTA) — When you think of Mark Twain, chances are white fences and the Mississippi River spring to mind a long time before anything Jewish does. But the man lauded both as “the greatest American humorist of his age” and “the father of American literature” had a Jewish son-in-law who achieved some heavy praise himself when it came to the piano.

Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the man who would eventually marry Twain’s daughter, Clara, in 1909, was born to a Russian Jewish family in 1878. He studied piano and composition at Saint Petersburg Conservatory, after which he met Clara, a fellow musician and singer who appeared with him in a recital. A year after they were married, their only child, Nina, was born. After a brief stint in jail following a pogrom at the outset of World War I, Gabrilowitsch and family moved to the United States.

His music career flourished in America, where he composed several original works and was eventually appointed the founding director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Gabrilowitsch died from stomach cancer in 1936 at the age of 58. In an obituary in Etude Magazine, the “Gabrilowitsch touch” is explained as “an indescribable something that was the envy of pianists,” stating his hands were “ideal, from a pianistic standpoint.”

So it’s no surprise that Gabrilowitsch and Twain had a loving, mutually respectful relationship —both of their hands had the magic touch.

(Molly Tolsky is the editor of and the senior editor of No Tokens.)

Jewniverse is a daily email list and blog featuring extraordinary, inspirational, forgotten, and just-plain-strange dispatches from Jewish culture, tradition and history. Sign up at