Mark Twain’s Other Woman

Laura Skandera Trombley. Mark Twain’s Other Woman:

The Hidden Story of His Final Years. New York:

Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

As reviewed by Ted Odenwald

tedmarktwainotherwomanWith the voluminous collection of information regarding Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain’s life, one would hardly expect any mysteries. Yet Professor Laura Skandera Trombley has dedicated sixteen years of research to an issue that had seemed unfathomable to her: how could a person who had been the confidante, the social secretary, and personal assistant and companion for seven years be virtually absent from the author’s autobiography and from his authorized biography?

Isabel Van Kleek Lyon generated a large amount of material in the form of letters, journals, and diaries during her years of working for Twain, providing detailed records of his daily activities, the comings and goings of the author’s personal and business contacts, and the complicated, even sometimes explosive, relationships within the Twain household. Through her exhaustive study of the woman’s writings, Trombley has concluded that Lyon knew Twain better than any other person at that time (the early 1900’s). Yet, rather than appreciate her loyalty and devotion-she often referred to him as the King-Twain attacked her viciously in a long expose, calling her “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, an drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.” Relying heavily on Lyon’s writing Trombley pieces together explanations for this obvious falling-out, accusing Twain and his daughters Clara and Jean of mistreating a dedicated and loyal servant.

Lyon joined the Clemens/Twain household in 1904 when Twain’s wife , Livy, was seriously ill, and unable to run the household as was her custom. Beginning as a secretary, who scheduled appointments, Lyon quickly became the “mistress of the house,” with control over virtually all matters within the mansion in Hartford. When Livy died, Twain was devastated, putting all matters into Lyon’s able, controlling hands. She apparently became his chief emotional and psychological support, while handling most practical matters. The anger and jealousy of Jean and Clara were directed against Lyon, whom they believed to have usurped Livy’s role as the mater familias, exercising excessive control over Twain; though their feelings were perhaps  natural, they probably were not justified, because Twain needed someone to run his everyday life; he leaned heavily upon Lyon. The daughters, for all of their complaints, were not willing or able to manage their father’s affairs.

One accusation that has appeared in several recent Twain biographies is that Lyon conspired to keep Jean away from her father by lying to both the author and Jean’s doctor concerning the ability of the household to manage Jean’s illness, grand mal epilepsy. The generally accepted contention, as presented in Michael Sheldon’s Mark Twain: Man in White, was that Lyon, fearing for her own safety and fearing that Jean would draw off many of the secretary’s powers, presented  distorted information to both the doctor and Twain. She even went so far as to orchestrate Jean’s journey to Berlin, ostensibly to receive treatment from a noted specialist but actually to remove her from the family scene. Trombley reveals that Lyon has recorded Jean’s symptoms, all of which are typical of some patients who have suffered grand mal seizures; before they are fully recovered from an episode, the patients may strike out violently at anyone near them. Trombley contends that Lyon was totally justified in acting to protect both Twain and herself from a predictable tragedy.

Another area in which there is contention regards claims that Lyon was a thief, having stolen directly from Twain. In fact, Clara eventually “blackmailed” Lyon, threatening to take her to criminal court for embezzling more than $3,000 from Twain in order to remodel and furnish her cottage near the new Twain estate in Redding, CT. In fact, for years Lyon had control of much of Twain’s cash flow, as he gave her full rein in running the household. While there is evidence that she might have been lavish in her spending, the charge of embezzlement appears far-fetched. The motive for Clara’s accusation was her resentment that Twain had granted Lyon custodial rights to his letters, guaranteeing her income in the future. Clara felt that all proceeds from any of her father’s work should remain in the family. Trombley suggests that the accusations were trumped up and were used as a form of coercion.

Trombley also believes that Clara had become angered, believing that Lyon had turned Twain against her because of the daughter’s adulterous affair with her accompanist, who apparently accompanied her on more than the keyboard. Trombley cites the fact that Clara refused for decades to release some of Twain’s later writings, particularly Letters from the Earth because of his sardonic handling of issues such as adultery and sexual excesses. The harsh commentary, claims this author, may have been directed towards his daughter, who chose to preserve her image, which had already been tarnished by published allegations of an affair, which Clara attributed to Lyon.

Trombley’s book is in essence the defense and apologia of a working woman allegedly egregiously mistreated by Twain’s daughter; the author also directs blame at Twain/Clemens who, primarily concerned with preserving his public image, used those around him selfishly; she also believes that if there was any excessive power in Lyon’s hands, it was mainly due to Twain’s inability to handle finances, to manage a household or to organize his own daily routine.

tedTed Odenwald and his wife, Shirley have lived in Oakland for 40 years. He taught HS English at Glen Rock High School for all of those years plus one more. Now he is enjoying time spent with his family, singing in the North Jersey Chorus and quenching his wanderlust. Ted is also the Worship Leader at the Ramapo Valley Baptist Church in Oakland.