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Was Mark Twain a lonely, bitter and vicious old man?

March 29, 2010

A century after Mark Twain’s death the truth can be told: In his declining years the beloved author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn became a bitter, vindictive coot who turned on a loyal secretary and made her the scapegoat for the family’s scandals.

That’s the  sordid story detailed in the Los Angeles Times yesterday. It seems that Twain scholar, Laura Skandera Trombley, who’s been mucking about in the Twain archive for 16 years to produce Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, discovered fresh significance in materials disregarded by previous scholars (and by “previous” I mean “male.”)

The “other woman” was Isabel Lyon, a 38-year-old socialite “fallen on hard times” when she became Twain’s secretary in 1904, following the death of his wife, Olivia. The two became close and might have married — except for Clara, Twain’s daughter.

Already jealous of her sister, Susie, who died in 1896, Clara resented Lyon’s relationship with her father. What’s more, Clara had an affair with her married piano teacher that “mortified” Twain, an outspoken proponent of monogamy. He forced the end of the affair and guided Clara into a loveless marriage with conductor Ossip Gabrilowitsch.

“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.

Clara Clemens

Soapy enough for you? Just wait: Clara convinced Twain that Lyon was a “thief and a conniver” who had stolen money and tried to seduce him. Not only did Twain fire Lyon, he wrote a 450-page manuscript — “the blackmail dossier” — detailing the accusations. He gave instructions for its publication if Lyon ever went public with Clara’s affair.

“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.”

Trombley, who is also president of Pitzer College in Claremont, Cal., takes a feminist view of Twain, one that emphasizes the importance of women in his life. It’s a view endorsed by Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois, and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.

Along with Susan Harris, of the University of Kansas, Trombley has successfully challenged “the boy’s club” of traditional Twain scholarship, Michelson says.

Not everyone is convinced. The San Diego Union’s Peter Rowe finds fault with Trombley’s portrait of Twain as “full of malice and terribly lonely” suffers by comparison to a cheerier portrayal in Michael Shelden’s Mark Twain: The Man in White.

Shelden, writes Rowe, implicates Lyon in a “plot to siphon off most of Twain’s fortune.” That’s why Twain fired her in 1909.

Isabel Lyon

Yet, as the London Times notes, Twain left instructions to keep his 5,000-page autobiography (including the blackmail dossier) secret for 100 years after his death. Somebody had something to hide, no?

Clara kept up “the hate campaign” until Lyon’s death in 1958, manipulating Twain scholars and their treatment of the incident, Trombley believes.

“Isabel was waiting for Clara to die first so she could publish her own memoir,” Trombley told the London Times. “I have read her notes. Isabel was loyal to the Twains up to the end, but I am not sure they deserved it.”

So who’s at fault here — the Twains or Lyon? Who has a more accurate portrait of the aging Sam Clemons — Trombley or Shelden?

11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 12:52 pm

    I had read this before. Due to family loses and money loses he was very depressed the last 10 years. He still did give talks for money, but it became less and less. He had a lot of heart ache in his life.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 29, 2010 1:34 pm

    Yes, Susie really was his favorite, and he was entirely dependent upon Olivia, and he’d squandered more than one fortune under the delusion he was a businessman. But none of this excuses his treatment of Isabel Lyon — providing Trombley’s exigesis of the autobiography and the blackmail dossier is accurate.

    • Tommy Smart permalink
      March 29, 2010 2:03 pm

      “Blame it on the Twain, yeah, yeah”

      “Un-Twained Melody”

      Yes, well if Trombley’s assertations are based on fact and not fiction doesn’t Clara come off looking like the lonely, bitter and vicious one and Samuel being an average dad who could not accept that the apple of his eye was a vixen.

      Yes, this is soapy enough for me, delicously so.

      • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
        March 29, 2010 9:34 pm

        Well, it could be a matter not of fact or fiction, but interpretation. After all, Shelden looked at the same period in Twain’s life, and presumably the same evidence, and came to a different conclusion. I don’t think it likely either scholar fictionalized anything.

  3. March 29, 2010 2:01 pm

    None given. May have gone a bit crazy toward the end. I knew he only kept giving speeches because of the money. Serious depression will change a person for ever also.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 29, 2010 9:35 pm

      Yes, indeed. And how often the truly funny among us are prone to depression. A cliche, I know, but true nonetheless.

  4. rachel permalink
    March 29, 2010 4:42 pm

    Very juicy stuff you have here. I don’t know one way or the other, but it sounds scandalous and fun.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 29, 2010 9:41 pm

      Yes, it’s always a bit of a shock when those fools in old-style hats and coats are found to have been up to naughty things, isn’t it? Each generation thinks it invented sex –ba-ha-ha-ha-ha! — as though they are the product of parthenogenesis.

  5. Tommy Smart permalink
    March 29, 2010 9:07 pm

    I am sure Samuel Clemens had a bad side, who doesn’t. He never shied away from using invectives. Any “nice guy” has to potential to become a crabby, cantankerous old coot.

    What I wonder about is, did his daughter smirk or frown whenever she looked at his 450 page blackmail dossier.

    If I had to choose, I think I would read the dossier over “The Other Woman”.

    I cannot help thinking that there is something naughty going on in that photograph from the book cover.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 29, 2010 9:37 pm

      I had the same impression of the photo as you, Tommy. But maybe we’re reading the photo anachronistically, projecting modern assumptions and standards on to it. Maybe not.

  6. Candice permalink
    March 30, 2010 1:43 pm

    Oh no–this is shocking.

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