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