Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Skandera Trombley
“Like Letters from the Earth, Twain continues to give long after his death. Now, we have Laura Trombley’s fascinating narrative of his last days and his little-known relationship with Isabel Lyon. The pieces begin to fall into place; the funniest man on earth is revealed to be a much more complicated soul. It was Twain after all who said, “The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there is no humor in Heaven.”—Ken Burns, filmmaker
An enduring mystery in Mark Twain’s life concerns the events of his last decade, from 1900 to 1910.
Despite many Twain biographies, no one has ever determined exactly what took place during those final years after the death of Twain’s wife of thirty-four years and how those experiences affected him, personally and professionally. For nearly a century, it was believed that Twain went to his death a beloved, wisecracking iconoclastic American (“I am not an American,” Twain wrote; “I am the American”), undeterred by life’s sorrows and challenges.
Laura Skandera Trombley, the preeminent Twain scholar at work today, suspected that there had to be more to the story than the cultivated, carefully constructed version that had been intact for so long. Trombley went in search of the one woman whom she suspected had played the largest role in Twain’s life during those final years and who possibly held the answers to her questions about Twain’s life and writings.
Now, in Mark Twain’s Other Woman, after sixteen years of research, uncovering never-before-read papers and personal letters, Trombley tells the full story through Isabel Lyon’s meticulous daily journals, the only detailed record of Twain’s last years that exists, journals overlooked by Twain’s previous biographers.
For one hundred years, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon has been the mystery woman in Mark Twain’s life. Twain spent the bulk of his last six years in the company of Isabel, who was responsible for overseeing his schedule and finances, nursing him through several illnesses, managing his increasingly unmanageable daughters, running his household, arranging amusements, as well as presiding over the construction of his final residence. Isabel Lyon also served as Twain’s adoring audience (she called him “the King”), listening attentively as he read aloud to her what he’d written that day. She was Twain’s gatekeeper to an enthralled public.
Trombley writes about what happened between them that resulted in the dramatic breakup of their relationship; about how, in Twain’s final months, he gave bitter, angry press conferences denouncing her; how he ranted in personal letters that she had injured him, calling her, “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction.” Trombley writes that Twain’s invective bordered on obsession (he wrote about Isabel for hours every day, even while suffering from angina pains and gout attacks) and about how, despite the inordinate attention he gave her before his death, Isabel Lyon has remained a friendless ghost haunting the margins of Twain’s biography.
For decades, biographers deliberately omitted her from the official Twain story. Her potentially destructive power was so great that Twain’s handpicked hagiographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, allowed only one timorous reference to her in his massive three-volume work, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912).
Isabel Lyon was a forgotten woman, “so private,” she wrote in her journal, “that the very mention of me [was] with held from the world. . .”
This riveting, dark story that “the King” determined no one would ever tell is now revealed at last.
Laura Skandera Trombley was raised in Southern California and attended Pepperdine University, where she earned her BA and MA, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in English literature. She is the president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and is the author of Mark Twain in the Company of Women. She lives in Claremont with her husband and son.
Meet the author on her book tour.
From our Q&A with Laura Trombley
Q: Who was Isabel Van Kleek Lyon and why don’t we know more about her?
A: Isabel was Mark Twain’s confidant, personal assistant and social secretary during the last years of his life. She is a relative unknown in Twain scholarship because of a falling out that she had with Mark Twain and his two daughters, Clara and Jean. Because of her access to the family—she lived in the same home with Twain during her six years with him—she knew the family’s secrets and they eventually resorted to blackmailing her to guarantee that she would never attempt to claim a place in his life. Subsequent biographers either knew that the family was very opposed to any mention of Isabel or they ignored her due to her working class status and gender. Also, Twain wrote a scandalous fictionalized document about her that some biographers have mistakenly taken as truth.
Q: What was the nature of Isabel’s relationship with Mark Twain?
A: The two were emotionally intimate confidants. Isabel was charged with handling every aspect of Mark Twain’s life. Isabel decided who was allowed to see Twain, what he would eat, what he would wear, etc. Twain was utterly dependent upon her—physically, intellectually and emotionally—and he suffered enormously after he was forced by his daughters to fire her.