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The Hidden Story of His Final Years

Written by Laura Skandera TrombleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Laura Skandera Trombley


List Price: $13.99


On Sale: March 16, 2010
Pages: 352 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59325-2
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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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.



“Too Perfect for Life”

THE LATE 1880s TO FALL1905

Today has been very full of the joy of living—I wrote letters and read some in the morning. Looked out of my window just in Time to see Dear Mother look up at me on her way home from Church and in the afternoon she came over. Later I played cards with my chief. Some day the penalty for having such perfect living will come.


By all rights no one should have ever heard of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He should have lived and died a cipher of rural nineteenth-century America. Certainly his modest beginnings presaged a difficult, abbreviated existence. Yet life takes unexpected turns, and the course that his journey took as Mark Twain would have strained the credulity of the most dedicated fiction reader.

Born two months prematurely, red-haired Samuel Langhorne Clemens arrived to his parents, thirty-two-year-old Jane Lampton Clemens and thirty-seven-year-old John Marshall Clemens, on November 30, 1835. His birthplace was a tiny two-bedroom rented cabin with an outdoor lean-to kitchen in the village of Florida in Monroe County, Missouri, located at a fork of the Salt River. He joined four young siblings: ten-year-old Orion, eight-year-old Pamela, five-year-old Margaret, and three-year-old Benjamin. Another brother, Pleasant, had died in infancy six years earlier. For a time it looked as though he would suffer Pleasant’s fate. No one in his family much expected him to survive. His mother later wrote, “he was a poor looking object to raise.” Of Florida, Twain joked that the dusty little settlement “contained a hundred people and I increased the population by 1 per cent. It is more than many of the best men in history could have done for a town. It may not be modest in me to refer to this, but it is true. There is no record of a person doing as much—not even Shakespeare. But I did it for Florida, and it shows that I could have done it for any place—even London, I suppose.” Yet in the midst of these decidedly inauspicious surroundings, there was an augury that hinted that this child just might be special. For weeks prior to his birth, the bright trail of Halley’s Comet crossed the nighttime sky.

After a departing shower of sparks and the passage of years, interest in the comet’s appearance receded. But not so for Jane Clemens, who told and retold the story of the mysterious visitation and how it foretold great things, and most important, not for Twain, who by the end of his life embraced the notion that Halley’s Comet had heralded his coming. He possessed a strong affinity for the celestial body, expressing his hope that he would make his exit when it returned during its seventy-five-year cycle: “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.”

Maybe Twain felt that a passing comet provided the best explanation for his remarkable life. That this son of Missouri would grow up to be the most famous author in the world and the first global celebrity was so implausible that even Twain had difficulty making sense of his rise: “The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ ” The accomplishments of this “freak” were so many and his fame so enormous that by the end of his life he had come to be considered by those who knew him well as otherworldly. According to a close friend, “He always seemed to me like some great being from another planet—never quite of this race or kind.”

The family failed to prosper in Florida, and so in 1839 they moved twenty-eight miles northeast, to the bustling riverside town of Hannibal, Missouri, in Marion County. The little boy quickly adapted to his new surroundings and acquired a closely knit group of friends. His boyhood adventures exploring the environs of Hannibal with Tom Blankenship and Laura Hawkins would later be immortalized in his most beloved works, Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

With the untimely death of his father when he was just eleven years old, his formal schooling ended and his mother apprenticed him to a Hannibal printer named William Ament to learn the trade. Trained as a boy to move individual letters, he would grow up to become a compulsive writer of words. In 1851, he went to work with his brother Orion, who owned a small newspaper, the Hannibal Western Union. It was while working at the Union that he began writing humorous sketches that were occasionally published. Two years later, he traveled north working as an itinerant typesetter in Saint Louis, Philadelphia, and New York City. After a few years spent wandering, he decided he would travel to South America to sail the Amazon and make his fortune in “COCA, a vegetable product of miraculous powers,” which he had read, in a book about the Amazon, “was so nourishing and so strength-giving that the native of the mountains of the Madeira region would tramp up hill and down all day on a pinch of the powdered coca and require no other sustenance.” His plan was to travel by river from Cincinnati to New Orleans and then set sail for Pará (a port city in northern Brazil), where he would establish himself in the lucrative cocaine trade.

While on board ship he met Horace Bixby, a legendary riverboat pilot. By the time he disembarked in New Orleans, plans for South America had been abandoned in favor of working for Bixby. Bixby had agreed to mentor the young man and they worked together on the Mississippi River from 1857 to 1861. On April 9, 1859, Twain received his steamboat pilot’s license. Working as a pilot brought him not just increased income, but an enhanced social status. To the end of his life, he would regard earning his pilot’s license as one of his proudest accomplishments. He reluctantly decided to leave the river and the ship he was piloting, the Alonzo Child, only when the American Civil War broke out, in 1861, and commercial traffic on the Mississippi was curtailed.

At loose ends, he accompanied his brother Orion to Nevada, where he had been appointed secretary of the new territory. After trying his hand at silver prospecting, Twain worked as a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada. It was in 1863, while he was with the Enterprise, that he began signing articles with the pseudonym “Mark Twain”—meaning two fathoms deep, indicating safe passage, a fond allusion to his time spent working on the river. His first big success as an author came in 1865, when he was living in San Francisco and his short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” was published in the Saturday Press on November 18. The story was a sensation, and Twain became known as a western humorist. Newspapers and magazines across the country reprinted this tall tale of an inveterate gambler and his shot-filled frog, Dan’l Webster.

While in San Francisco, Twain worked as a newspaper correspondent, and in 1867 he registered as a passenger on the Quaker City’s maiden voyage to the Mediterranean, with a trip to the Holy Land as part of the tour. He persuaded the San Francisco Alta California to pay his traveling costs in return for the letters he would send them. These letters ultimately served as the material for The Innocents Abroad. Innocents became a best seller, with more than seventy thousand copies sold in its first year, and remained the best selling of all of Twain’s books during his lifetime.

While on board the Quaker City, Twain befriended young Charles Langdon of Elmira, New York. After the trip’s conclusion, Charles invited him to attend a reading by Charles Dickens in New York City. There he met Langdon’s father, Jervis Langdon; his mother, Olivia Lewis Langdon; and his sister, Olivia Louise Langdon. Twain was immediately attracted to the well-educated, wealthy, pretty young woman, and after a year-and-a-half-long courtship, the two were married, on February 2, 1870, in the parlor of the Langdon mansion in Elmira.

A decade younger than her husband, Olivia proved to be Twain’s ideal companion. Erudite, genteel, and possessed of a keen sense of humor, Olivia encouraged her spouse’s literary pursuits. The couple moved to Buffalo, New York, where Twain had become a co-owner of the Buffalo Express newspaper. Their first child, a son, Langdon, was born nearly nine months to the day after their wedding. Buffalo did not suit them and their son Langdon was a sickly child who passed away after just nineteen months. The couple relocated in 1871 from Buffalo to Hartford, Connecticut, where they had three more children and resided for the next twenty years. This period constituted the happiest time of Twain’s life. The Clemenses spent their winters in Hartford and summered in Elmira, at Susan Crane’s home, Quarry Farm. Susan was Olivia’s older sister, and it was there that Twain did most of his writing.

To those around him, Twain possessed a seemingly endless amount of energy. His intense intellectual curiosity compelled him to crisscross the globe (he sailed the Atlantic Ocean twenty-nine times) and to amass an enormous personal library with thousands of volumes. He was an individual who craved conversation, and he flourished as the center of attention. For Twain, dialogue was everything, and it is estimated that he wrote fifty thousand letters over the course of his lifetime in addition to more than three thousand newspaper and magazine articles and more than thirty books. His creative capacity appeared limitless, and when he was not writing he talked. The only impossibility, it seemed, was for Twain not to express himself. He was so confident of his imaginative powers that he claimed he never needed to worry about inspiration: “I made the great discovery that when the tank runs dry you’ve only to leave it alone and it will fill up again in time, while you are asleep—also while you are at work at other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on.”

In addition to his correspondence, newspaper articles, and book-length manuscripts, he was a dramatist and wrote scores of short stories. By age fifty-four he had written many of what would come to be considered classics of American literature. His books The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), The Gilded Age (1873), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), A Tramp Abroad (1880), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) had catapulted him into the highest ranks of American writers, and he was read and beloved by the general public as well as by the literary elite. Writing to his close friend William Dean Howells, Twain bragged about his proletarian popularity: “High and fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water.” A beloved public intellectual in his later years, he frequently wrote opinion and critical essays that were widely published. Over the course of his career Twain managed to move from being regarded as a satirical humorist to a serious author, a feat no other American writer could claim. During his lifetime, Twain was declared to be the “one living writer of indisputable genius” in the United States. And while Twain is remembered for his writing legacy, perhaps his greatest talent, which unfortunately no one today will ever see or hear, was his ability to command the platform as one of the greatest stand-up comedians who ever lived.


By early 1890, Mark Twain had every reason to be well satisfied with his life. Living in his spectacular mansion in Hartford, Twain adored his close-knit family circle, and at age fifty-five he relished fatherhood. Pictures from that period show a beaming Twain with his dignified, attractive forty-five-year-old wife, Olivia, and their three lovely daughters. Susy, eighteen years old, wanted to become an author and at age thirteen had written a biography of her father; Clara, age sixteen, studied piano and voice and dreamed of a concert career; and Jean, just ten years old, loved animals and making mischief. The local newspaper, the Hartford Courant, proudly claimed that Twain “has taken a leading place in literature, in society, and in business in America.” The entire family enjoyed socializing and frequently opened their home to friends and visitors for lavish evenings of fine dining and entertainment.

His literary reputation well established, Twain was also recognized for his financial acumen, and highly regarded for his humanitarian inclinations. When his publishing firm, Charles L. Webster and Company, published Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs in 1886, he was regarded as Grant’s savior, rescuing the dying general’s family from certain poverty. Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant became a best seller, and Grant’s family received an astonishing $400,000 (75 percent of the royalties, according to their contract with Webster and Company), giving them a Gilded Age tax-free fortune.

While Twain was never deficient in ego, even he appeared to be a bit overwhelmed by his good fortune: “I am frightened at the proportions of my prosperity. It seems to me that whatever I touch turns to gold.” For this little-schooled country boy from Missouri, all that success meant Twain had conquered the impossible. Harper’s Weekly hailed him for lifting “himself high in the ranks of American authorship. He is not only a humorist, but he is a writer of rare and peculiar power.... While other men are living on what they have done, Mr. Clemens is continually progressing. He is a growing man, and each year he accomplishes some new feat in literature.” In a profound sense, Twain had come to symbolize America’s promise and hopes for continued prosperity.


Into this heady atmosphere of congratulation, wealth, and celebrity walked twenty-six-year-old Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. One afternoon in the late 1880s, Mrs. Harriet Whitmore asked Isabel to deliver a package of books to her good friend Olivia Clemens. Isabel was glad to do this task for her mistress, as it provided a welcome break from her duties as governess to the Whitmores’ six children.

Isabel was let into Clemens’s Hartford home by George Griffin, the family’s African American butler, and led across a marble floor into  the ground-floor library where Olivia was waiting. While Isabel was no stranger to wealth—as a child she had enjoyed the privileges of  the upper class due to her parents’ affluence and social status—she had never before witnessed such opulence as this. The “Steamboat Gothic”–style mansion had cost approximately $120,000 to build in 1874. Designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter, the house had the effect of awing and overwhelming its visitors. The exterior featured a curved front porch, soaring turrets, fancy red brickwork, and colored roof  tiles. With nearly twenty rooms, the house boasted a staff of seven and Hartford’s first telephone in a private residence. Guests were received In an extravagant entrance hall with wood-paneled walls and ornamental detail carved by Leon Marcotte of New York and Paris. Candace Wheeler, America’s first female decorator, had designed the hall and stenciled the room’s original paneling in silver, with the walls and ceiling painted red with patterns of dark blue. The library was an ornate space designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s firm. A massive carved wooden fireplace mantel, originally from Ayton Castle in Scotland, dominated the room.

From the Hardcover edition.
Laura Skandera Trombley|Author Q&A

About Laura Skandera Trombley

Laura Skandera Trombley - Mark Twain's Other Woman
Laura Skandera Trombley was raised in Southern California and attended Pepperdine University, where she earned her BA and MA summa cum laude, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in English and was a Lester and Irene Finkelstein Fellow. She is the president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and the author of three books about Mark Twain and dozens of articles. She lives in the Pitzer president’s home with her son, Sparkey.

Author Q&A

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

  • Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley
  • March 08, 2011
  • Biography & Autobiography - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.95
  • 9780307474940

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