Mark Twain’s Other Woman:
The Hidden Story of His Final Years
By Laura Trombley
Knopf, 316 pages
Mark Twain: Man in White:
The Grand Adventure
of His Final Years
By Michael Sheldon
Random House, 470 pages
In 1868, when Mark Twain was 33 and working on his first full-length book, he wrote a brief spoof on the lives of Siamese twins Chang and Eng. Notoriously adversarial, Twain’s Chang fought with the Union Army and his Eng with the Confederates; they took each other prisoner at Seven Oaks. In 1893, a national icon in the process of bankrupting himself, Twain wrote “Those Extraordinary Twins,” about the conjoined Capello brothers. Angelo is blond, punctilious, and never without religious pamphlets; Luigi is dark-complexioned, inebriate, and a reader of Thomas Paine. Naturally, when Luigi provokes a duel, it’s Angelo who is shot. On New Year’s Eve 1906, Twain reprised his joke by appearing in the salon of his Manhattan brownstone tied to a young man in a matching suit. As the other man sullenly pulled on a flask, Twain’s sermon on temperance became increasingly slurred and confused.
Now, at the centenary of Twain’s death, two new biographies have arrived that make Siamese twins of a single man. Both address Twain’s final years, but in one we find Twain cynical and bereaved, harried to an early grave by members of his home scheming for control of his legacy. In the second we find a man partaking in an exuberant renascence, refusing to bow to fast-coming tragedies and to the end exploiting his fame for all the fun it would allow.
The second depiction—of an old man thoroughly enjoying his life—immediately seems the more far-fetched because anyone who knows about Twain’s life has long since taken it for granted that he came to his end in tragedy and betrayal. And not just his final days, but indeed, the entirety of his life has served as a cautionary example for writers throughout the century following his passing. We are to take Twain not as America’s funniest writer but as an object lesson in America’s progress from a dreaming, free-spirited young republic to a stifled and disillusioned plutocracy. In The Ordeal of Mark Twain, published in 1920, Van Wyck Brooks sought to identify “the deep malady of the soul that afflicted Mark Twain,” and he found in the surfeit of books and correspondence (Twain may have written as many as 100,000 letters) evidence of a self-loathing and bitterly “balked personality.” He was, said Brooks, “the saddest, most ironical figure in all of Western Civilization,” a view that informed succeeding biographies by Justin Kaplan and Hamlin Hill, as well as Ken Burns’s shattering 2001 documentary.
This gloomy figure emerges as well from Laura Trombley’s Mark Twain’s Other Woman, which approaches Twain’s last decade through the starstruck eyes of his private secretary, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. Hired to the Clemens household in 1902 at the age of 38, Lyon assumed vast responsibilities after the death of Twain’s wife, Livy. Twain’s first two children had already died; his middle daughter, Jean, suffered from epilepsy and would eventually be sent to a sanitarium; and his youngest daughter, Clara, an aspiring singer, was too willful and independent to give Twain the doting companionship he liked.
Lyon filled these roles, and Trombley is at pains to explain how demanding and yet hazily defined her position was. She managed the household expenses, organized Twain’s social calendar, often worked as his amanuensis, and was expected to stay up late every night playing whist or listening to him read aloud from Macaulay’s History of England. In 1906 she was given the massive task of overseeing the construction of Twain’s new home in Redding, Connecticut (at which she did an admirable job). She nursed Twain when he was ill. After his baths, she dried his hair.
All these jobs Lyon performed gratefully, with the mix of indulging awe and maternal solicitude that is otherwise reserved for royalty (indeed, Lyon’s nickname for Twain was “the King”), except that there was the added possibility, at least in Lyon’s mind, that she and Twain might marry. Twain further complicated their relationship by promising that Lyon could edit his letters after he died.
But despite Trombley’s efforts to stir up sympathy for Lyon, the domestic life described in Mark Twain’s Other Woman has the quality of an unending nightmare. Twain appears like poor Angelo Capello suffering the hangovers of his brother’s drinking: moody and helpless, always in the crossfire of double-barreled nagging from Clara and Lyon, and perpetually eager to hide in the billiard room or get out of the house. Lyon’s journal entries become increasingly gushing and romantic (“To have him walk into this room where I lie in bed, is to have the place suddenly filled with the flash of human beauty”) and at the same time reveal a degree of deep-seated jealousy not often encountered outside of Euripides.
In one chilling episode, Lyon is devastated by Twain’s plans to travel to Egypt: “A few days later Twain suffered a sudden bout of bronchitis, and an enormously relieved Isabel was ‘so glad—So selfishly glad’ that Twain had to cancel his trip.” Trombley doesn’t speculate, but it seems terribly plausible that this “bout of bronchitis” was helped into existence, perhaps by an inadequately dried head of hair.
There is, in fact, a great deal that Trombley doesn’t do in Mark Twain’s Other Woman. She has spent, she says, 16 years transcribing Lyon’s personal writing, and though future scholars will be in her debt, the nearsighted focus on the journals makes her blind (as Lyon seems to have been) to the events of the vicious feud that soon surrounded Twain’s estate. Trombley is especially lenient to the inimical figure of Ralph Ashcroft, which is puzzling, as he was the primary cause of Lyon’s excommunication from Twain’s life. Ashcroft was a young hanger-on who ingratiated his way into Twain’s confidence and immediately began preying on his calamitous business sense in the hopes of attaching his name to some lucrative bequests. He wooed and eventually married Lyon (he was 33, she was in her 40s and often bedridden) and used her to commence a tawdry conspiracy of gossip and blackmail against Twain’s daughters and his biographer Alfred Bigelow Paine.
Twain fortunately repudiated Lyon and Ashcroft, but only at the shrill insistence of his daughter Clara, a tantrum-prone diva who would be the bane of Twain historians for the next 50 years. The fiasco aggravated the angina attacks that would kill Twain but not before he had written one final sustained work of prose, an astonishing 429-page screed called the “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript” that no one has yet been cruel enough to publish. And that is the way Trombley leaves Mark Twain, ailing, betrayed, and humiliated by a con man, his rage spent to ash, and very nearly alone.
Michael Sheldon, author of the doubly subtitled Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventures of His Final Years, is having none of it. Sheldon notes, “It is a strange truth that modern accounts of Twain’s last years tend to portray them as a largely dull and bleak conclusion to an otherwise colorful and attractive life.” He has instead corralled a wealth of wonderful stories that give the lie to those gloomy assumptions and display a man who energetically embraced what Sheldon calls a “second bachelorhood.”
Sheldon is precisely the sort of biographer that Twain would have liked: diligent and deferential and willing to mute his own voice so that Twain’s can be better heard. Sheldon’s prose is workmanlike, but his story is delightful, and what is most striking about it is the picture it captures of a man who exulted in his superstardom as few celebrities seem to do. Twain’s slightest move made the papers, and he relished the daily opportunity to sling some new witticism or pose for the camera. When he lived in Manhattan, he timed his walks so that he would pass St. Patrick’s Cathedral just as the crowds let out—“I like the throng,” he said.
Some of the most entertaining episodes in Man in White concern Twain’s friendship with Henry Rogers, one of the principal shareholders of Standard Oil and a notoriously unscrupulous businessman. Rogers had helped Twain work out of bankruptcy and thereby earned Twain’s unswerving loyalty, despite the seeming incongruity of the country’s foremost satirist befriending one of its foremost robber barons. (When a journalist lamented that Rogers’s money was tainted, Twain remarked that it was doubly tainted: “’Taint yours, and ’taint mine.”) The outwardly humorless oil magnate was the perfect straight man for Twain, and there is a great deal of Tom and Huck in their hijinks on Rogers’s yacht and the beaches of Bermuda. At their silliest, they conspired on a profanity-laced letter to the editor of the New York Times and signed it from their painstakingly mannered friend William Dean Howells.
Such boyishness is the key to Man in White. Money was always something of a fantastical commodity to Twain, which is why he was so easily fleeced of it (his 14-year investment in a complicated piece of typesetting machinery may have lost him as much as $5 million in today’s money)—it was like deceiving a child. But it was his stubborn childlike resilience after tragedy that helped him rebound from the deaths of his wife and his gifted daughter Susy, and later the deaths of Jean and Rogers. His writing at the end of his life was almost entirely polemical—attacks on King Leopold, Mary Baker Eddy, warmongers, and in the marvelously acerbic Letters from the Earth, the whole damned human race—but Sheldon presents this work as cathartic and restorative, ventings of spleen that converted grudges into grand, and usually naughty, jokes. (Sheldon even finds a good deal of bombastic humor in the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript.)
William Dean Howells observed that Twain’s “literature grew less and less and his life more and more,” and it is the case that Twain’s final artistic achievement was his own celebrity. His imagination had always provided him a world apart from reality. In 1897, reflecting on Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he wrote in his notebook, “we have a spiritualized self which can detach itself and go wandering off upon affairs of its own.. . .Waking I move slowly: but in my dreams my unhampered spiritualized body flies to the ends of the earth in a millionth of a second.” In these excursions into the mind, Twain fetched back the creative flowering of his books; now, in his old age, he was superimposing that giddy dream life upon his public personality. To Van Wyck Brooks, Twain’s duality was his tragedy—his was a mind frustratingly divided. But Sheldon persuasively suggests that this doubleness was Twain’s salvation, and that the success of his last years was in his ability to lead a life of his own inventing, no matter how hard-pressed he was by deception and heartbreak.
In the most meditative chapter of Man in White, Sheldon recounts Helen Keller’s visit to Twain’s house in Redding. (She and Twain were old acquaintances, and Twain had convinced Henry Rogers to pay her way through college.) One night he read her (or rather read to her caretaker, Anne Sullivan, who then translated it into her palm) his short book Eve’s Diary, and both were struck by the fact that just as Twain’s Eve names all the creatures of the earth (Adam having “no gift in that line”), Keller had also discovered the gift of naming when she learned sign language at the age of 7. Sheldon writes:
In Twain’s view, what made Keller such an important figure was not simply that she had learned to communicate in spite of being both blind and deaf, but that, for her, the imagination and the world had become one.. . .Twain understood that she was the artist of her own life, and he envied the pure state of an imagination unfettered by ordinary perceptions.
There is no shortage of Twain biographies delineating his insolvency, the deaths in his family, his physical infirmities, the scams perpetrated against him by trusted friends, and all that duality, duality, duality. With Man in White, Sheldon has instead written the story that Twain applied all his remaining genius to give to posterity. It makes for a better tale. As Twain himself observed, “a well developed unreality is pretty hard to beat.”