Laura Skandera Trombley, the preeminent Twain scholar at work today, reveals the never-before-read letters and daily journals of Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain’s last personal secretary.
For six years, Isabel Lyon was responsible for running the aging Man in White’s chaotic household, nursing him through several illnesses and serving as his adoring audience. But after a dramatic breakup of their relationship, Twain ranted in personal letters that she was “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” For decades, biographers omitted Isabel from the official Twain history at his decree. But now, the truth of the split is exposed at last in a story that sheds light on a lionized author’s final decade.
Excerpted from Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley. Copyright © 2010 by Laura Trombley. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: Who was Isabel Van Kleek Lyon and why don’t we know more about her?
A: Isabel was Mark Twain’s confidant, personal assistant and social secretary during the last years of his life. She is a relative unknown in Twain scholarship because of a falling out that she had with Mark Twain and his two daughters, Clara and Jean. Because of her access to the family—she lived in the same home with Twain during her six years with him—she knew the family’s secrets and they eventually resorted to blackmailing her to guarantee that she would never attempt to claim a place in his life. Subsequent biographers either knew that the family was very opposed to any mention of Isabel or they ignored her due to her working class status and gender. Also, Twain wrote a scandalous fictionalized document about her that some biographers have mistakenly taken as truth.
Q: What was the nature of Isabel’s relationship with Mark Twain?
A: The two were emotionally intimate confidants. Isabel was charged with handling every aspect of Mark Twain’s life. Isabel decided who was allowed to see Twain, what he would eat, what he would wear, etc. Twain was utterly dependent upon her—physically, intellectually and emotionally—and he suffered enormously after he was forced by his daughters to fire her.
Q: In this book, you draw on primary documents by and about Isabel that have not been explored before. How did you come across them?
A: I did primary research for 16 years, traveled from coast to coast working in archives and historical societies, and did a much closer examination of Isabel’s papers than any previous Twain scholar. I discovered that the Vassar College archive held half of Isabel’s journal and the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley had the other half. I am the only Twain scholar who has ever read all of Isabel’s writings. Several years ago, I met with Isabel’s relatives and they released letters and photographs to me that no scholar had previously seen.
Q: Why have these papers not previously been brought to light?
A: The first Twain scholars were aware that there had been a great deal of unpleasantness in the family during those final years (although they didn’t know what it was about) and didn’t want to air unflattering family secrets. Also Twain’s daughter Clara lived until the early 1960s and there was no possibility that any mention could have been made of Isabel while Clara was still alive due to the animosity she felt toward her father’s former secretary. Subsequent biographers simply accepted the cover story that Twain created; he was a genius after all and one of our finest fiction writers, and they were predisposed not to pay much attention to a pink-collar worker’s writings.
Q: How does Isabel’s story change our perception of Mark Twain?
A: Thanks to Isabel’s writings we now know a much more human Mark Twain and the true story of his very difficult last years. The previous “heroic” biographies contained the version of his life that Twain wanted to be promoted—yet Twain’s version was false. Isabel’s writings also capture his thoughts and emotions during those final years and how his personal difficulties were reflected in his increasingly dark and misanthropic writings.
Q: You have studied Mark Twain for much of your academic career. What did the research for this book expose about his life that you hadn’t known before? (Or that had been purposefully hidden?)
A: I discovered his humanity, his fragility and the challenges he faced as a single father. This is a story about sexuality, jealousy, illness, narcissism and blackmail. I also had been bothered for years by what I saw as gaps in his final years that had never been addressed by biographers, often there seemed to be an awkward silence, and now the full story is told for the first time. I also was taken aback by how vindictive he could be and discovered that once he decided that you were an enemy he would not stop short of trying to completely destroy you. I am certain that had I attempted to write a biography of this type while any of his remaining family members were alive they would have attempted to silence me.
Q: How would you characterize Twain’s relationships with women? It’s clear from your book that he relied upon women immensely, yet he managed to alienate his daughters Clara and Jean and viciously turned against Isabel.
A: As an individual who was obsessed with control, Twain in his last years found himself for the first time in a situation that he could not directly influence through the strength of his sheer will or force of his personality. Jean, his youngest daughter, was very ill with severe epilepsy and no matter the amount of railing Twain did against man and God, the situation was not going to change. Clara, his middle daughter, is a turn-of-the-century example of the perils of being the child of the most famous man in the world and she was every bit as iconoclastic as her father. Isabel really was an intelligent, desperate woman, determined to improve her social station in life. While Twain cared for them all, in the end his narcissism prevailed and he painstakingly constructed the way he would be remembered by the public, and to achieve that end he sacrificed those closest to him.
Q: Late in his life Twain also specifically sought out the company of young girls he referred to as “Angelfish,” a practice that disturbed Clara and annoyed Isabel. Had this habit been common knowledge?
A: His relationships with the Angelfish were well known. Clara resented what she considered to be her replacements, and Isabel resented the extra work arranging these “play dates” meant for her.
Q: Isabel has been cast in many lights: a social climber, a “new woman” with career ambitions, a faithful companion and Mark Twain himself once, late in their relationship, called her a “salacious slut.” After writing this book what is your own opinion of Isabel? What is the most important thing that you wish to set straight in her historical record?
A: Isabel was an intelligent woman trapped by historical circumstance. She was born to the upper middle class and due to the deaths of her father, uncle and brother, she was forced to enter into service. She was shrewd enough to know that her options were limited and she was not satisfied to serve the rest of her life as a nanny or secretary. With that said, she was also genuinely fond of Twain and his greatest admirer. She showed the most decency among all of the people involved by forgiving Twain’s many wrongs toward her. Those who might cast her as a scarlet woman or sycophant fail to understand how difficult life was for women like Isabel at the time and how she managed to move forward with her life despite many, many disappointments.
Q: Has this project opened up any new area of Twain scholarship that you wish to pursue next? Or will you move in a different direction?
A: While there will always be areas of Twain’s life that I will research, I am thinking that my next book length subject will be about life as a young, female college president and revealing the panoply of college life with all its joys and challenges.
“Incredible. . . . A complex and absorbing narrative which, like a good mystery, gets more suspenseful as it goes.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“A treasure trove. . . . Isabel is an intriguing figure, but even more gripping is Trombley’s portrait of Twain as a kind of American Lear, obsessed with his legacy and beset by the troubles of his surviving daughters.” —St. Petersburg Times
“Compelling. . . . Goes beyond Twain’s carefully constructed versions of events [for] a refreshing, fill-in-the-blanks effect.” —Newsday
“Trombley gives [Twain’s] 450-page rant against a former personal assistant the historical context and credibility that had been long missing.” —Los Angeles Times
“Like Letters from the Earth, Twain continues to live long after his death. Now we have Laura Trombley’s fascinating narrative of his last days. . . . The pieces fall into place: The funniest man on earth is revealed to be a much more complicated soul.” —Ken Burns, filmmaker
“A remarkable investigative effort. . . . Gripping.” —The Oregonian
“Researched to a ‘T,’ Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years tells a story of dysfunction, deceit and duplicity the likes of which we associate not with Mark Twain—but with the pages of Henry James.” —Brenda Wineapple, author of White Heat and Hawthorne, winner of the Pushcart Prize
“In this often revealing work, Trombley punctures the myth that Twain was affable and easygoing in his dotage.” —The Boston Globe
“While presenting the case for Lyon, Trombley has some interesting things to say about the difficulties of being a ‘new woman’ in America 100 years ago.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Trombley has proved to be adept at peeling back Samuel L. Clemens’s carefully constructed persona and forcing scholars to reconsider some basic assumptions.” —Bruce Michelson, president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
“The points of friction in the story of Twain and Lyons mirror a Victorian drama.” —Los Angeles Times
“[A] remarkable book about an even more remarkable relationship. This friendship, which went sour, makes for engaging reading and his historical reporting at its very best. Laura Skandera Trombley brings both Twain and this very determined woman into sharp focus.” —Tucson Citizen
“Fascinating and persuasive.” —Financial Times
“Provides a disturbing picture of the author, and his family and friends, not found in the traditional Twain biographies.” —The Star-Ledger
“This book is a revelation. . . . A first-rate account of Mark Twain’s last decade. This account gives us a candid look at the cross-currents of wit, charm and irrational angers that marked and marred the great man’s final years. Trombley’s discoveries make for an illuminating portrait, and essential reading.” —Meryle Secrest, author of Duveen: A Life in Art
“An engaging and at times shocking look at Mark Twain, his relationship with his secretary Van Kleek Lyon and his daughters. . . . An irresistible and controversial read.” —Historical Novels Review
“Trombley’s Mark Twain's Other Woman unlocks the door to long-suppressed secrets that marred the closing chapters of Mark Twain’s life. A tragic story emerges, and Trombley’s powerful narrative enables us to witness each dramatic scene.” —Alan Gribben, author of Mark Twain's Library
“Lyon’s story had been lost to history—until now. Lyon finally gets her due in this wonderfully researched book.” —The Sacramento Book Review
“A riveting tale of the vortex of ambition, desire, jealousy and obsession swirling round one Great Man.” —Emma Donoghue, author of Slammerkin and Room