Friday, April 30, 2010

Mark Twain's Other Woman by Laura Trombley



After the death of his wife in 1904, Mark Twain spent most of the last six years of his life largely in the company of Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. To free himself from having to deal with professional and business matters, he willingly delegated the management of his scedual and finances to her. She was " slavishly devoted" to Twain: running the household staff, nursing him in his various illnesses, arranging amusements to keep his boredom at bay, acting go-between his unmanageable daughters, listening as he read aloud what he'd written, acting as the gatekeeper to an enthralled public, and overseeing the construction of his final residence at Stormfield, in Redding Connecticut. Then something happened that led to a dramatic breakup.

Although his oldest daughter's adulterous affair with Charles Wark, his youngest daughter's tragic struggle with epilepsy, and other possibly embarrassing financial affairs seems to have been at the heart of the disputations that arose between Twain and his amanuensis, the author's meticulous research into the long neglected Isabel Lyon's collection at the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California doesn't seem to have unraveled much of the mystery. That both parties to the conflict habitually abused alcohol and indulged broadly in the various psychotropic patent remedies and pain-killers, available across the counter and from physicians in those days, dampens much of whatever reliability we may attribute to Laura Trombley's [annoyingly 'tabloid style'] social and psychological conjectures.*


The daughter of the aristocratic Georgiana Van Kleek and Colombia University Professor Charles Harrison Lyon, Isabel lived to the age of ninety-five, mostly in her small apartment at 7 Charles Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. During the last decade of her life she declined frequent requests for interviews and agreed to speak with only a few individuals about her time with Twain. These included Samuel and Doris Webster, co-authors of an unpublished transcription of her memoirs, Dixon Wecter, a literary editor of the Mark Twain Papers, and Hal Holbrook, the creator of the famed stage impersonation and tribute to Mark Twain.


Hal Holbrook first contacted Isabel in 1958, when he was performing Twain in a Village nightclub. He had been developing his impression for several years, his first performance given in 1954. Holbrook had a clear motive in meeting the elderly woman; by this time she was one of the last people who had been in close contact with Mark Twain and could describe his intonations and mannerisms. Holbrook became a frequent visitor, and he remembers Isabel as "independent in a rather exciting way. She was somebody special." Their meetings greatly affected him and profoundly influenced his portrayal of Twain. When the two met in her apartment, before she would start talking, Isabel would pack the small meerschaum pipe Twain had given her with tobacco, pour herself a stiff Scotch ( the same kind of liquor she drank with Twain), and prop up the seat cushion of her favorite chair as a backrest so her feet could touch the floor.

Holbrook was placed "in a peculiar position of not being able to record these conversations, despite the fact that nothing but the most charming stories and fine insight into Mark Twain has resulted from them. She is a wonderful recluse, intent on maintaining her privacy, and I was allowed to see her only on the understanding that I would 'never publish' what she told me.. It is only by the luckiest stroke that she has agreed to speak to me. So I have to honor her wishes." Isabel saw Holbrook performing Mark Twain Tonight just once, on a freezing cold evening in the summer of 1958, in Nyack, New York.

After learning of her death just a few months later, Holbrook sent a condolence note to Isabel's grandnephew, David Moore:

"She was a lovely, genuine person and I have so much respect for her. I admired her very much. I have talked with many people who knew Mr. Clemens, but none of them knew him as she did nor had her deep understanding of him. She impressed me very strongly, and the image of Mark Twain she gave me is the strongest one I have and, I believe, the truest one."

In a second letter to Mr. Moore, Holbrook recalled Isabel's insistence that Twain be remembered as "a very serious minded man. A man who felt deeply about the world about him and the people in it, an extremely sensitive man, and that his sense of humor came out of this well of seriousness... That was the most important message I carried away from my meeting with Ms. Lyon and I have tried to honor this in my presentation of him on the platform."

Halbrook went on to play the role of Mark Twain longer than his subject lived it.

10 comments:

  1. Mark Twain's Other Woman; The Hidden Story of His Final Years by Laura Skandera Trombley; Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

    Laura Trombley is the President of Pitzer College in Claremont, California

    *Isabel's diaries entries are not models of clarity and contain many 'crossing outs'. Large sections of it have been destroyed or rewritten. Thus, Trombley's characterization of Isabel's motives and 'psychic structure' rest more on thin than solid air and a rather enemic analysis of the social mores of those times. She carries her conjectures 'beyond the pale' for the sake of a narrative that one supposes she thought would have a rather more popular than strictly academic appeal; at least from my point of view, which is not that attentive to the interests and aptitudes of common undergraduates attending College these days.

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  2. I look forward to reading the book and formulating my opinion. I just finished Michael Shelden's MARK TWAIN: MAN IN WHITE, which is a thrilling account of Twain's last days in which he presents a less than positive account of Lyon and her husband Ralph Ashcroft.

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