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The following review appeared 6 April 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Laura Skandera Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years is the second major biography released in 2010 focusing on the last years of Samuel Clemens's life. It comes closely on the heels of Michael Shelden's Mark Twain: Man in White -- The Grand Adventure of His Final Years. While Shelden's book focuses on many facets of Samuel Clemens's last years, Trombley's book centers around Clemens's personal secretary Isabel Van Leek Lyon.
Hamlin Hill was one of the first scholars to examine Lyon's relationship with the Clemens family in God's Fool (1973). Hill's sympathetic view of Lyon remained the prevailing one among scholars until Karen Lystra presented an entirely different picture of her in Dangerous Intimacy (2004). Lystra, after researching that period of Clemens's life and his unpublished work "The Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript," portrayed Lyon as a scheming manipulator who contrived to alienate Clemens from his daughters in order to secure her own place with him. Lystra also characterized business associate Ralph Ashcroft, who later married Lyon, as a dishonest man who plotted with her to take over control of Clemens's assets.
Trombley's main sources for Mark Twain's Other Woman are Isabel Lyon's diary and daily reminders as well as newspaper accounts for the years she worked for the Clemens family. In her Preface Trombley acknowledges that Lyon's "daily reminders and diary are heavily edited, and in some cases hunks of pages have been ripped out. . . In addition Isabel made an undated, edited, handwritten copy of her 1906 daily reminder. It appears that she made this separate second version with the intention of either misleading anyone who would read the reminder or as a backup in case the original was stolen" (p. xvi). With this caveat to readers, Lyon's writings form the foundation of Trombley's narrative.
Lyon was born in New York in 1863 into an upper-middle-class family. When her father died shortly after her nineteenth birthday, Lyon and her mother relocated to Connecticut, where Lyon worked as a governess for prominent families. In October 1902, Lyon -- still a spinster at age thirty-eight -- was hired by Olivia Clemens as a personal secretary. After Olivia's death in 1904, the task of managing the Clemens household, overseeing Clemens's correspondence, and assisting in the care of his epileptic daughter Jean fell to Lyon. Trombley's book details Lyon's stormy relationship with Clemens's daughter Clara; Lyon's jealousy over his friendship with another woman; conflict with his official biographer Albert Bigelow Paine; and her retreat into drinking and medications. She likely harbored hopes of marrying Clemens, along with fantasies of other men she met through her employment with him. Lyon ultimately married one of Clemens's business associates Ralph Ashcroft. The Clemens family affairs often spilled over into public print as newspapers clamored for details of potential scandals. Trombley follows Lyon's eventual firing and provides insights into her later life when she entertained scholars who came to visit and listen to her stories about Mark Twain.
There are a number of key points where Trombley's story of Isabel Lyon differs from those presented by Lystra in Dangerous Intimacy as well as Michael Shelden in Mark Twain: Man in White. One point of disagreement centers around Jean Clemens. When Jean suffered from unmanageable epileptic seizures, Lyon negotiated with doctors for her care which included removing her from the family home for confinement in sanitariums for long periods of time. Lystra accuses Lyon of deliberately planning with doctors to keep Jean away from home and revising her diary to make Jean appear more dangerous than she really was. Trombley defends Lyon and discusses the medical malady of postictal psychosis which could be used to explain Jean's aggression after epileptic seizures. But Trombley's explanation does not answer the common sense observations posed by Michael Shelden in Mark Twain: Man in White. Both Lyon and her doctors had encouraged Jean to take up a woodworking and carving hobby. If Jean's doctors "had really shared Lyon's prejudice, it would have been dangerous therapy indeed to leave Jean in possession of sharp carving tools and mallets for hours at a time" (Shelden, p. 176). Shelden further adds that Lyon "seems to have been the only one, however, who ever recorded any fear of violence from her [Jean]" (Shelden, p. 34).
A second area of disagreement between the views of Trombley and those of Lystra and Shelden concerns the authenticity of a 1908 power of attorney. A new power of attorney was drawn up November 14, 1908, naming Ralph Ashcroft and Isabel Lyon as controllers over Clemens's estate. Trombley states "Twain asked that a new legal document be drawn up" but offers no proof it was his idea (p. 190). Clemens himself later denied knowledge of the power of attorney as did two witnesses to the document. Both Lystra and Shelden agree that deception was used to obtain Clemens's signature. Trombley supports the validity of the document by pointing out it was notarized by John Nickerson. Shelden presents the theory that "because Justice John Nickerson at the Redding Town Hall was familiar with the author's signature, and with Ashcroft's privileged standing at Stormfield, he notarized the document without the author being present" (Shelden, p. 293). Shelden's explanation is also supported by a narrative from Nickerson's daughter published in the Redding Times, June 2, 1960 who revealed that she was present when Clemens told her father he never read the document Lyon gave him to sign (online at http://twainproject.blogspot.com/2009/11/new-stormfield-articles.html). Clemens revoked the Ashcroft-Lyon power of attorney on June 1, 1909.
A third point of disagreement between Trombley, Lystra and Shelden centers around Lyon's financial misdeeds or lack thereof. In June 1908 Clemens moved into his new home at Redding, Connecticut and gave Lyon a small cottage on his property. She used his funds without his approval to renovate it and provide a home for her mother. In March 1909, as she faced Clara's continuing animosity, Lyon married Ralph Ashcroft. Clemens subsequently fired her in April 1909 and ordered an audit of his financial accounts. Based on claims of misappropriated funds, Clemens later recovered the deed to the house and property he had given Lyon. In Trombley's words, "Mark Twain stole Isabel Lyon's home" (p. 220). Lystra believes the action was justified. Shelden also points out that Clemens's lawyers had sufficient evidence to warrant the action (Shelden, p. 360).
A fourth area of disagreement between the views of Trombley and those of Lystra and Shelden concerns the "Ashcroft-Lyon" manuscript. Between May and October 1909 Clemens composed the 429-page document venting his anger and detailing his side of the story of what had happened in the tumultuous time Isabel Lyon had worked for him. Trombley describes it as "a poison-pen epistle" (p. 214) meant to be used as a blackmail document against Lyon and Ashcroft that some biographers have mistakenly taken as truth. Lystra characterizes it as "Twain's most important confessional writing" (Lystra, p. xii). Shelden describes the "Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript" as a "great cry of regret" about misplaced trust in a woman who misled him (Shelden, p. 362).
Trombley is the first scholar to examine Clara Clemens's relationship with Charles Wark, a married man who served as her musical accompanist, and the potential of their close relationship for scandal. Trombley's research was first published in American Literary Realism (Winter 2008). Based on oblique comments in Lyon's daily reminder, Trombley believes Clemens broke up a romance between Clara and Wark on Thanksgiving Day 1908 and writes, "after that date Wark seemingly vanished from the Clemenses' lives. . . Twain must have finally discovered Wark's marital status . . . he made it clear to Clara that Wark was no longer welcome to visit Stormfield or to see her (p. 197). However, this analysis is not supported by the fact that Wark's name is recorded in the Stormfield guestbook for February 8, 1909, a day after Clara and Ossip Gabrilowitsch arrived (Stormfield Guestbook, Kevin Mac Donnell collection). Nor does Trombley reconcile her theory with the fact that Wark continued to be paid as part of Clara's musical expenses as late as April 1909 (p. 219).
Trombley theorizes that Clemens forced Clara to marry Gabrilowitsch in October 1909 to avoid an alienation of affection lawsuit from Wark's wife Edith. Newspapers reported rumors of such a suit against Clara a few days after her wedding. The Clemens family believed Lyon and Ashcroft were the source of the rumors which were meant to embarrass the family. Trombley offers no evidence Clara married Gabrilowitsch against her will and has been unable to find proof that Edith Wark ever filed a lawsuit against Clara. Trombley suggests that such a suit could have been settled out of court. Trombley provides no date for when Wark's marriage ended. However, Wark's wife listed the year of divorce as 1907 on her U. S. passport application (online at ancestry.com). If the 1907 date is correct, it may have the potential to weaken Trombley's conclusions. Citing a January 1909 entry in Lyon's day book, Trombley characterizes Wark as a father of twins and a man with a family, but also states only "oblique references to Wark remained" in Lyon's writings (p. 258). Given the potential for ambiguity in Lyon's notes, as well as the lack of historical documentation, the claim that Wark and his wife Edith had twins should be used with caution.
In her Epilogue Trombley traces the final years of Isabel Lyon's life, her divorce from Ralph Ashcroft, visits with editors of the Mark Twain Papers, and her friendship with Clemens's great nephew Samuel Webster and the latter's wife Doris. The Websters befriended Lyon, edited her diary, agreed to get it published (a plan that never came to fruition), and ultimately donated most of Lyon's papers to the Mark Twain Papers at Berkeley. Trombley surmises in an interview on amazon.com that scholars and previous biographers "were predisposed not to pay much attention to a pink-collar worker's writings." However, Trombley's book contains no evidence that sexual or social discrimination was involved in any previous scholars rejecting Lyon's writings as a source of valid information.
Trombley discusses the vigil Clara Clemens kept against Lyon -- afraid Lyon might mention her relationship with Wark or "forced marriage to Gabrilowitsch" (p. 253) -- or any mention of Lyon in subsequent biographies of her father's life. However, Trombley errs in stating that Dorothy Quick waited until after Clara's death to publish her reminiscences Enchantment: A Little Girl's Friendship with Mark Twain (p. 248). The book was published in 1961 and Quick inscribed a copy to Clara, who died in 1962.
Trombley's book features some rare photos including one of Olivia Clemens on her deathbed. The book has no visual referencing cues but it is extensively annotated in a section at the back. Some minor discrepancies occur: Hannibal printer Joseph Ament is misidentified as "William Ament" (p. 4); the printer for What Is Man? was J. W. Bothwell who is misidentified as one of Twain's pseudonyms (p. 63); book collector William T. H. Howe is misidentified as "Irving Howe" (pp. 169, 255); and a January 1908 evening of drinking and card playing took place at the 5th Avenue home in New York, not Stormfield (p. 183). Trombley states Clara Clemens did not attend Lyon's wedding to Ashcroft (p. 209). The Hartford Courant of March 19, 1909 reported Clara was there with her father. Omitted in the list of names accompanying Clara and Wark to Europe for Clara's 1908 tour is Katy Leary (p. 162).
In American Literary Realism (Winter 2007) Trombley reviewed
Dangerous Intimacy and stated "Lystra heavily relies upon Twain's
Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript to support her claims." Trombley has gone to
the other extreme and relied heavily on Lyon's writings to tell her story
while rejecting some versions of events from Clemens and his daughters Clara
and Jean. When facts and proof are most needed to support Trombley's more
controversial conclusions, they are lacking. Following in the wake of Lystra's
ground-breaking analysis and Shelden's balanced and even-handed approach,
Trombley is forced to compete against more convincing points of view. On a
more positive note, Mark Twain's Other Woman brings together in one
source more information on Isabel Lyon's background and personality than has
been previously available elsewhere.