Laura Skandera Trombley

 

On her book Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years

Cover Interview of March 15, 2010

In a nutshell

An enduring mystery in Mark Twain’s life concerns the events of his last decade, 1900 to 1910.

Despite a multitude of published biographies, no one has determined exactly what took place during Twain’s final years and how those experiences affected him, both personally and professionally.  Writers have speculated on whether his final decade was ruled by a growing misanthropy or whether he retained his keen sense of humor as he made his incisive social commentary.

The public version for nearly a century has been that Twain went to his death a beloved, wisecracking iconoclastic American, undeterred by life’s sorrows and challenges. However lives are complicated, Twain’s extraordinarily so.  Long intrigued by the vagaries of Twain’s life, I sensed that there had to be more to the story than the carefully cultivated, homogenized version that had been intact for so long.

The key that turned the lock and helped reveal the answers to these questions and many more was Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. For almost one hundred years, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon has been the mystery woman in Mark Twain’s life.  After the death of his wife, Olivia Langdon, in 1904, Twain spent the last six years of his life largely in Isabel’s company. To free himself from having to deal with professional and business matters, he willingly delegated the management of his schedule and finances to her.  She was slavishly devoted to Twain: running the household staff, nursing him during his various illnesses, arranging amusements to keep boredom at bay, managing his increasingly unmanageable daughters, listening attentively as he read aloud what he’d written that day, acting as the gatekeeper to an enthralled public, and overseeing the construction of his final residence, “Stormfield.”  And then something happened that led to the dramatic breakup of that relationship.

Mark Twain’s Other Woman is an exploration of those events.  After Isabel had been summarily “fired,” Twain lived one last year, full of malice and terribly lonely.  Mentally and emotionally he could never let her go.  He finally delivered his coup de grace in a letter sent to his daughter Clara, branding his former companion “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.”

Yet despite the inordinate attention Twain gave her before his death, Isabel has remained a friendless ghost haunting the margins of Mark Twain’s biography.  I wrote this book to lift the layers of what has come to be accepted as truth about Mark Twain’s life and to explore what actually existed in the beginning and what finally remained at the end.  Indeed my account directly contradicts the well-established, genteel and genial image of one of America’s literary icons.  This is a story that Mark Twain was determined no one would ever tell.