Mark Twain's Other Woman:The Hidden Story of His Final Years



Knopf, 2010. 332 pp. $27.95, hardcover.

Biographers of Mark Twain love possessive pronouns. William Dean Howells begins the practice with My Mark Twain; Clara Clemens, telegraphs a conflicted attitude about her paternal legacy in My Father, Mark Twain. The slightly creepy Dorothy Quick elides the pronoun but maintains possession with Mark Twain and Me: A Little Girl's Friendship with Mark Twain. Lou Budd takes a democratic tack in Our Mark Twain: The Making of His Public Personality; there's even the non-committal Everyone's Mark Twain.

At its best, the impulse to stake out a particular view of Twain is a recognition of his changeable, multiple, prism-like personality. However, as we’ve seen in the response to Laura Skandera Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of his Final Years, the tendency to cast “Mark Twain” in possessive terms may be less a reflection of the complexity of the author, than the limitations of the critic. “He's my Mark Twain” such a critic seems to declare, “not yours.” More than any recent biography of Twain, Skandera Trombley's portrait of Mark Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon has excited what can only be described as a backlash. In what is ultimately a misreading of both works, Mark Twain's Other Woman has been cast as an assault upon the character of Mark Twain—a kind of biographical femme fatale—while another recent biography, Michael Sheldon's Mark Twain: Man in White, The Grand Adventure of his Final Years, is positioned as an heroic defense of the author's virtue.

In light of such simplistic responses, one is tempted to paraphrase “Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses.” It seems far from right for critics to speak of these works without having read them—or at least having read more than the titles. To be sure, both are focused on the final years, and both have assumed radically different perspectives—one is exploring hidden secrets, and the other is trumpeting grand adventures—yet each is more complicated than the resulting brouhaha has suggested. What is so striking, however, is the extreme hostility that Skandera Trombley's work has excited. Shelden's Man in White affirms a more familiar—some may argue, more palatable– view of Mark Twain: courageous, original, an old man raging against the dying light. And there's a great deal of truth in this perspective. Yet Laura Skandera Trombley's analysis of the complex, multi-layered relationship between Isabel Lyon and her taxing, inspiring, erratic employer also tells the truth. And it's a story that needs telling. Skandera Trombley is not dazzled by the white suit or the man's manifest charisma; those facets of Twain's persona have been pretty thoroughly mined. Instead, she places Twain in far less familiar and far more familial contexts. What emerges is an illustration of subtle and complicated sexual politics being played out at a time when gender roles were shifting radically. Mark Twain emerges from this biography as a man comfortable with assuming the privileges afforded by both his masculinity and his celebrity, comfortable with being “The King” in his household, and happy to be waited on by a woman who called him “Marse C.” This portrait may or may not be compatible with some critics’ views of “the man in white,” but it's an accurate portrait nonetheless.

Caught within the strictures of a nineteenth-century feminine ideal, and propelled by twentieth-century economic realities, Isabel Lyon—a prototypical “New Woman”—struggles to adapt to a rapidly changing cultural landscape. And as Skandera Trombley illustrates, Lyon's situation is particularly complicated; her sometimes desperate search for place and identity occurs within the context of Mark Twain's home—often at the foot of his bed– and in the shadow of his celebrity. Unlike previous explorations of the relationship between Isabel Lyon and Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain's Other Woman does not fall back on clichéd narratives of female desire or victimization; Lyon is no seductress and Clemens is neither a dupe nor a cad. Instead, Skandera Trombley situates both Lyon and Clemens each within their respective histories of loss, each within their enormous need for affirmation, and both of them in relationship to the literary, cultural, and corporate phenomenon of “Mark Twain.” Not unlike the card games that Lyon and Clemens played into the early hours of the morning, their relationship had a strategic element to it on both sides; neither of them could forget that they were playing with “Mark Twain.” Despite their years together, Isabel seems always blinded by Clemens’ genius and celebrity; for his part, the aging Sam Clemens is as anxious about his legacy as “Mark Twain” as he is longing for some relief from the burdens it engenders. In the end, Isabel will lose her game with Twain, and be cast by the Clemens family—and subsequent generations of critics—as a conniving and mercenary temptress. It's hard not to recall an entry from Pudd’nhead Wilson's calendar when reading this biography: “Tell the truth or trump—but get the trick.” As Laura Skandera Trombley illustrates, Mark Twain and all his many investors—a description that particularly fits his daughter Clara and his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine—must protect the brand, even at the expense of the truth.

Isabel Lyon begins work for the Clemens family while Olivia Clemens is still alive; she's hired in October 1902 at the rate of $50.00 a month (Skandera Trombley is careful to point out that her compensation remains the same for the length of her employment) to help with various secretarial duties. Within two years Olivia is dead and Isabel would become an indispensible surrogate for every member of the family: occasionally a confidante of Clara; a kind of case worker for Jean as her epilepsy worsened; and to Samuel Clemens—the grieving husband, overwhelmed father, and needy genius—she became amanuensis, housekeeper, accountant, project manager, and most of all, ardent defender and devotee. As Skandera Trombley reports there is no duty too small, too intimate, or too complex that cannot be given to Isabel Lyon:

She was slavishly devoted to Twain: running the household staff, nursing him during his various illnesses, arranging amusements to keep boredom at bay, managing his increasingly unmanageable daughters, listening attentively as he read aloud what he’d written that day, acting as gatekeeper to an enthralled public, and overseeing construction of his final residence, Stormfield. (xv)

Add to this list fluffing his hair dry, rubbing his gouty feet, supervising his correspondence, and managing his daily schedule and it becomes clear how thoroughly the lines had blurred between public and private, employer and intimate.

Some of the most amusing responses to Mark Twain's Other Woman have focused upon the fact that Skandera Trombely, in no more than two paragraphs, mentions that Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft purchased for Clemens an “Arnold Electric Vibrator,” a suggestive looking contraption that promised to relieve headaches and a variety of muscular tensions. Scholars have rushed to castigate Skandera Trombley for suggesting that Mark Twain, author of “‘1601,’ an ode to masturbation,” could have imagined other uses for this contraption. Many of these somewhat hysterical defenses of Twain radically miss the point. What Skandera Trombley illustrates in this episode is the extent to which Clemens, who is now regularly conducting interviews in bed, had utterly conflated his private and public life; he had so thoroughly welcomed Isabel into that private space she felt no compunction about catering to his most intimate personal needs. Attending to Clemens’ body—his hair, his feet, his diet, his pleasures, his pains, had become one more of Isabel's many duties.

Early on in her tenure with the Clemens’ family, Isabel begins keeping a daily journal. Other scholars have drawn upon these records, though most have dismissed them as either the saccharine reflections of a lovelorn spinster or the manipulative dictations of a schemer. And to be sure, Isabel's prose evokes the spirit of Emmaline Grangerford in its sentimental and self-indulgent moments. Nonetheless, Skandera Trombley reads these journal entries as the honest expressions of a woman who longs to be needed, and who is yet keenly aware of how tenuous her situation is. After a particularly intimate conversation with Twain, she writes in her journal:

Oh the richness of his nature, & his brain, & his soul—He sounds the awfulest depths of the tragedies of earth & heaven & hell—he bubbles over with gaity—he melts with grief into silent sobs—he slays with satire your beliefs—he boils over into profanities that make you feel the terror of the thunderbolts that must come—& he is the gentlest, most considerate most loveable creature in all the Earth—Yet how he covers his true self away from most!” (93).

If Isabel feels that she has earned, as Skandera Trombley describes it, a place in the “inner sanctum” of Clemens’ personal life, she is nonetheless aware of how fragile this position could be. In yet another journal entry she records “the great horror” excited by her attempts to read Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth. According to Skandera Trombley, “Isabel was completely traumatized by Wharton's novel. Repelled, yet obsessively drawn to it, she attempted to read it on three separate occasions … Each time she tried to read the book she had to ‘dash it aside full of pain over its dreadfulness’” (101). Skandera Trombley explains:

Wharton's realism threatened Isabel's ambition. Isabel found far too much to identify with in the novel—indeed, Lily was Isabel's doppelgänger … The House of Mirth ends with Wharton's Lily dying alone in a poor tenement room, abandoned as a formerly attractive object that had lost its appeal. Isabel's great horror was the ugly possibility that the same fate might wait her. (102-3)

In Isabel's journals, Skandera Trombley explores the desires, the fears, and the fantasies that Clemens’ celebrity awakens in Lyon, as well as in the men who surround Clemens in his final years. Not only do they want “a piece of his person, his fame, his possessions, his writings, and his wealth,” they also want to be written into the fiction of his life and/or to write that narrative for themselves. Albert Bigelow Paine, Clemens’ biographer and, according to Skandera Trombley, something of a nemesis for Isabel Lyon, actually assumes the mantel of “Mark Twain,” and after Clemens’ death rewrites his final work No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. Ralph Ashcroft, Isabel's eventual husband, will consolidate the person of “Mark Twain” into a corporation, in which Ashcroft would be an officer—turning “Marse C” into a commodity to be bought and sold. In the case of Isabel Lyon, Skandera Trombley effectively proves that Isabel's desires were far less mercenary, far more subtle than has previously been represented. Although she undoubtedly longed for economic stability, prosperity even, it's clear from her journals that what inspired her devotion to Samuel Clemens was a deep desire to belong, to be a part of something meaningful, to be valued and needed by “Mark Twain.”

Skandera Trombley titles the final section of the biography “Another Stripped & Forlorn King Lear,” which aptly represents the state of Twain's relationship to Clara: both father and daughter simultaneously court each other's affection and resent each other's failure to provide it. After narrowly avoiding a sexual scandal that would have jeopardized her father's reputation and her own, Clara Clemens returns to Stormfield to manage her father's assets, and more importantly, to stake a proprietary claim in them. She quickly displaces Lyon and Ashcroft by accusing them of financial improprieties, a charge that will be made public, and eventually convinces her father that he has been the victim of two masterful con artists. In response, Clemens will direct his spectacular fury —previously reserved for the likes of Bret Harte and Charles Webster—at his former employees. Fueled in part by a desire to please his daughter and in part by a need to protect his reputation, Clemens will write what's now known as the “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript.” Skandera Trombley describes the manuscript as a “poison-pen epistle dedicated to destroying any credibility Isabel and Ashcroft might ever claim” (214).

While Isabel Lyon has been cast as the villain of this piece, the truth of the matter is far murkier. Clemens, in his desire for peace and companionship, had willingly turned over his finances to be managed by Ashcroft and Lyon; Clara, increasingly alienated from her father (and from her primary source of income), felt the insult of Isabel's pre-eminence and Ashcroft's control; and Isabel, after years of work and devotion, attending to any need that Sam Clemens could imagine or articulate, most certainly felt that she was owed some part of “Mark Twain's” legacy. What emerges from this biography of Isabel Lyon is the complexity of each of the players in this game. Skandera Trombley dismantles the occasionally cartoonish renderings of Samuel Clemens and Isabel Lyon and restores them to their full humanity. Each appears alternately weak and wounded, desiring and imaginative, raging against circumstance yet negotiating with reality. If Clemens emerges from this biography appearing at times callous and cruel, Skandera Trombley also makes clear how beleaguered he is by age, and illness, and even by his own celebrity. If, on the other hand, Isabel Lyon appears to be maneuvering Clemens and his assets, she seems to be motivated as much by her desire to protect “Mark Twain” as by her need to protect herself.

In her earlier work, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, Laura Skandera Trombley counters the portrait of Olivia Langdon as repressive and dour—a view first articulated by Van Wyck Brooks and embraced by subsequent generations of critics–with a more accurate portrait of Olivia as an inspiration for Clemens’ creativity. Mark Twain's Other Woman is similarly a corrective to a narrative that casts Twain as the victim of Isabel Lyon's cunning. Both of these works, highlight the extent to which Twain criticism has often trafficked in simplistic representations of gender, many of them inspired by Twain's own use of gender stereotypes. Scholars have invested in Twain as an idealized representation of American masculinity, and the women in his life have variously been seen as humorless, disapproving “Miss Watsons,” weepy, sentimental “Emmaline Grangerfords” or seductive, dangerous “Morgan Le Fays.” Laura Skandera Trombley is one of a handful of scholars who have understood the complexity of Clemens’ relationships with women and his often subtle understanding of sexuality and masculinity. Mark Twain's Other Women redeems the reputation of Isabel Lyon and places her “in the company” of other women whom Sam Clemens relied upon and often struggled with. Skandera Trombley invites us to consider Clemens as something more than a mischievous but loveable bad boy or a cheerful and grandfatherly old soul. What emerges from this biography is a portrait of Samuel Clemens—complete with fears, vulnerabilities, family tensions and personal resentments—as a three dimensional human being, a man caught in the crosshairs of celebrity, old age, genius, and desire. And standing in the bull's eye with him is Isabel Lyon.