By Scott Martelle
March 14, 2010
There are a lot of reasons why Laura Skandera Trombley spent 16 years working on a book about a woman whom generations of Mark Twain biographers dismissed as inconsequential to his life. But the biggest catalyst was the 450-page elephant in the room -- a manuscript Twain wrote in his final years savaging the reputation of his former personal assistant, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon.
That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.
Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.
In the new book, Trombley dissects the long-dismissed relationship between Twain and Lyon, whose ambitions brought her to the upper levels of American letters before Twain cast her off, publicly vilifying her to reporters as a conniver and thief.
In the end, Trombley says, Lyon became the victim of Twain's jealous daughter, Clara, and the fears of "an old man being overwhelmed and just at that point really emotionally reacting to converging forces. And one of those was the loss of his wife."
"Nobody had ever really spent much time writing about it," says Trombley, a Twain scholar whose day job is president of Claremont's Pitzer College. "When you think about it, here's Twain in the last years of his life, 450 pages he devotes to this. Why wouldn't you make this a major big deal?"
Trombley has proved to be adept at peeling back Samuel L. Clemens' carefully constructed persona and forcing scholars to reconsider some basic assumptions, says Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois, and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
Breaking the 'boys club'
Michelson, in fact, credits Trombley and fellow Twain scholar Susan Harris of the University of Kansas for challenging the conclusions of what he described as "pretty much a boys' club." Their research has forced Twain experts to recognize that women were the "majority party" in his adult life and made up the majority of his book-reading audience in his lifetime, Michelson said. Their research showed that "scholars had to come down from the tree-house and take down the 'Men Only' sign."
Michelson says he hasn't read Trombley's new work yet but lauded her decision to take on the subject of Twain's last years, which form a "special sort of mystery and [are] a mess to deal with. . . . He was bereaved; he had lost most of his money; his health was compromised; his celebrity had slipped away from his grip and taken on a life of its own; his friends and family and opportunists were fighting over what was left of him and his legacy."
Twain's fame began with journalistic accounts of his travels, which led to the books "The Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It." He was just building his reputation when he married Olivia Langdon in 1870 in Elmira, N.Y.
Olivia became, in many ways, the steadying rudder in his life. One of Trombley's earlier books, "Mark Twain in the Company of Women," was her first major assault on conventional beliefs about Twain, arguing convincingly that Twain's best work, including "Huckleberry Finn," came when he was living in Hartford and surrounded by women: his wife and their three daughters (a son had died at 19 months), Susy, Clara and Jean. All but Clara would die before Twain.
Trombley believes the influence of women on Twain, including his wife's introducing him to leading social issues of the day, has been wrongly dismissed by chroniclers, beginning with Twain's hand-picked biographer and first literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine.
But Trombley thinks there's more at play behind the marginalization of Lyon than blinders on the biographers' eyes. She believes Twain and Clara exerted control over those early scholars. Why? Trombley believes it was because of Twain's outspoken positions on adultery, and his fear for his legacy and Clara's financial well-being. The points of friction in the story of Twain and Lyons mirror a Victorian drama.
Clara Clemens inherited much of her father's personality -- particularly his personal insecurity, the need to be the center of attention, a quick temper and a long memory. An aspiring singer with modest talent, after the turn of the century she traveled the U.S. and Europe performing with a classical pianist named Charles Wark, who was married, and with whom Clara fell in love. She began an affair that eventually gave rise to newspaper reports that Wark's wife accused Clara of "alienation of affection," though Trombley could find no evidence of a lawsuit having been filed.
At first, Twain was kept in the dark about the affair. But once he learned of it, he was mortified, forced Clara to end the relationship and steered her into a marriage she didn't want to conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch. And though few people were aware, Lyon knew all the intimate details -- and, in fact, had helped keep the truth from Twain.
"He was very keenly aware of public opinion, and he was 19th century enough that things like adultery and forced marriages, he thought that that would detract from his public persona," Trombley says. An added ingredient was Clara's jealousy of Lyon, whom she felt was her competition for her father's attention. And she was right.
Lyon joined the Clemens household in 1902 while Olivia was still alive but largely bed-ridden. Age 38 and ambitious, she insinuated herself into the family, taking over Olivia's role in running the household. After Olivia died, Trombley believes, Lyon made an unsuccessful romantic play for Twain. Her letters recount late-night talks and card games and a family intimacy -- the last of which may have been the genesis for Twain's accusation that she tried to seduce him.
Lyon's main interest was security. In that era, career options for women were limited, and marrying well also meant securing a future. Lyon eventually married Ralph W. Ashcroft to blunt rumors that she was Twain's mistress, and persuaded Twain to give her 20 acres carved from his Stormfield estate near Redding, Conn., where she built a house of her own while overseeing construction of Twain's final home.
The ousting of Lyon
It was that role that Clara would later use to drive a wedge between her father and her perceived rival. In a stunningly rapid turn, Lyon was fired by Twain, who let himself be persuaded by trumped-up evidence from Clara that Lyon had stolen from him in the construction of the houses.
His health failing, Twain wrote his 450-page dossier on Lyon and instructed Clara to keep it and his lawyer handy in case Lyon ever surfaced to reveal the affair with Wark, and the loveless marriage to Gabrilowitsch: "He wanted to protect the brand," says Trombley. "Anything that would detract from the brand would ultimately mean a smaller amount of royalties. You have narcissism and money. It's a great combination."
Martelle is an Irvine-based author and critic.
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