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Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 16, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

A Q&A with Laura Skandera Trombley

Question: Who was Isabel Van Kleek Lyon and why don’t we know more about her?

Laura Skandera Trombley: 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.

Question: What was the nature of Isabel’s relationship with Mark Twain?

Laura Skandera Trombley: 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.

Question: In this book, you draw on primary documents by and about Isabel that have not been explored before. How did you come across them?

Laura Skandera Trombley: I did primary research for 16 years, traveled from coast to coast working in archives and historical societies, and did a much closer examination of Isabel’s papers than any previous Twain scholar. I discovered that the Vassar College archive held half of Isabel’s journal and the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley had the other half. I am the only Twain scholar who has ever read all of Isabel’s writings. Several years ago, I met with Isabel’s relatives and they released letters and photographs to me that no scholar had previously seen.

Question: Why have these papers not previously been brought to light?

Laura Skandera Trombley: The first Twain scholars were aware that there had been a great deal of unpleasantness in the family during those final years (although they didn’t know what it was about) and didn’t want to air unflattering family secrets. Also Twain’s daughter Clara lived until the early 1960s and there was no possibility that any mention could have been made of Isabel while Clara was still alive due to the animosity she felt toward her father’s former secretary. Subsequent biographers simply accepted the cover story that Twain created; he was a genius, after all, and one of our finest fiction writers, and they were predisposed not to pay much attention to a pink-collar worker’s writings.

Question: How would you characterize Twain’s relationships with women? It’s clear from your book that he relied upon women immensely, yet he managed to alienate his daughters Clara and Jean and viciously turned against Isabel.

Laura Skandera Trombley: As an individual who was obsessed with control, Twain in his last years found himself for the first time in a situation that he could not directly influence through the strength of his sheer will or force of his personality. Jean, his youngest daughter, was very ill with severe epilepsy and no matter the amount of railing Twain did against man and God, the situation was not going to change. Clara, his middle daughter, is a turn-of-the-century example of the perils of being the child of the most famous man in the world, and she was every bit as iconoclastic as her father. Isabel really was an intelligent, desperate woman, determined to improve her social station in life. While Twain cared for them all, in the end his narcissism prevailed and he painstakingly constructed the way he would be remembered by the public. To achieve that end, he sacrificed those closest to him.

Question: Isabel has been cast in many lights: a social climber, a "new woman" with career ambitions, a faithful companion and Mark Twain himself once, late in their relationship, called her a "salacious slut." After writing this book, what is your own opinion of Isabel? What is the most important thing that you wish to set straight in her historical record?

Laura Skandera Trombley: Isabel was an intelligent woman trapped by historical circumstance. She was born to the upper middle class and, due to the deaths of her father, uncle, and brother, she was forced to enter into service. She was shrewd enough to know that her options were limited and she was not satisfied to serve the rest of her life as a nanny or secretary. With that said, she was also genuinely fond of Twain and was his greatest admirer. She showed the most decency among all of the people involved by forgiving Twain’s many wrongs toward her. Those who might cast her as a scarlet woman or sycophant fail to understand how difficult life was for women like Isabel at the time, and how she managed to move forward with her life despite many, many disappointments.

(Photo © John Lucas)

From Publishers Weekly

In this book on Twain's last decade and his complicated relationship with his secretary, Isabel Lyon, Trombley is often too much the professor—quoting overlong passages when summary and interpretation would be better. An otherwise informative epilogue rambles. But when Trombley hits her stride, we learn quite a lot of the Twain household's secrets. Lyon wormed her way into Twain's life in the late 1880s as his favorite whist partner. Upon realizing the worth of Twain's letters, she obtained full power of attorney. She feuded with his hot-tempered daughter Clara over who would be in charge of his affairs. But the manipulative Lyon also truly loved the King, and in his loneliness after his wife's death, he was responsive. Twain's ultimate falling out with Lyon, including Twain's charges that she made unwanted sexual advances to him, make for painful reading and will be controversial. 43 photos. (Mar. 17)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (March 16, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030727344X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307273444
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,203,562 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Mark Twain's Other Woman (Knopf 2010) is Laura Skandera Trombley's fifth book.

Laura is an internationally renowned Mark Twain scholar, authoring several books and dozens of scholarly articles on Twain. She appeared in Ken Burns's Mark Twain documentary and, as a graduate student, discovered the largest known cache of Mark Twain letters.

In addition to Mark Twain's Other Woman, Laura's other works on Twain include Mark Twain in the Company of Women and Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship.

Laura was raised in Southern California, and at age sixteen she attended Pepperdine University, where she earned her BA and MA. She then attended the University of Southern California, where she earned a PhD in English literature. In addition to being an author, Laura is also the president of Pitzer College. Learn more at or

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31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Robert Busko VINE VOICE on July 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Mark Twain is one of my two favorite authors, the other being Robert Frost. With that said, I am a wee bit sensitive when I think someone is trying to belittle either of them. That was my initial fear when I saw the book "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" by Laura Skandera Trombley. So many of our traditional cultural, historical, and literary icons have been sullied over recent years by both substantiated and unsubstantiated claims, that it's hard not to react negatively when a new expose is published.

Thankfully I picked the book up and looked at it and then did a little research on the Internet and discovered that while "Mark Twain's Other Woman" is not exactly complimentary to Mark Twain, it isn't a slash and burn attack on one of our larger than life and beloved literary figures.

Isabel Van Kleek Lyon was hired as a personal assistant (secretary) to Samuel Clemens in 1902. Lyon, it turns out, kept a detailed daily diary of Twain's final years: Who he saw, who he was mad at, what he did, and simply a register of his day to day activities. It is through this daily log, almost totally ignored by other Twain scholars, that Trombley develops her book.

Lyon joined the Clemens household in 1902, before Olivia, Clemens wife, died. It was very soon after that, however, that Clara Clemens, Mark Twain's eldest daughter, developed a dislike for Lyon. In the end Clara managed to convince her father that Lyon had stolen from him and the two launched an unstoppable campaign to smear Lyon's reputation.

Did Lyon's steal from the Mark Twain? Did she desire a physical relationship with the elder writer? Trombley does a good job of examining these and other issues.
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A short time ago, I read a fine biography of Mark Twain by Ron Powers. One issue that intrigued me mightily was a very brief mention of two women in Twain's later life--Isabel Lyon and Laura Wright (later Dake). In both cases, Powers' discussion made me want to know more about each.

Well, this work discusses in much more depth the relationship between Lyon and Twain. And it is a pretty disturbing tale, of fight to the death nastiness among those in Twain's life. Isabel Lyon wrote well detailed notes on nearly a day-by-day basis in terms of her years with Twain. She served as a secretary, a colleague, the person who looked after his finances, running his household, and supervising his last home. A part of the picture was the fierce contention Lyon had with Twain's daughter Clara, with Twain's biographer, and so on. Sometimes the people could work together; at other times they fought fiercely.

Lyon was Twain's companion for much of the last 6 years of his life. At some point, he essentially kicked her out of his life and began vituperative attacks on her.

This book uses previously unused private papers of Lyon to outline the nature of the relationship with Twain--and other aspects of Twain's life. I am not an expert on Mark Twain, so I am not in a position to judge the validity of the author's findings. But this is powerful reading, and one wonders how someone who played such an important role in Twain's later life could be so effectively expunged from many works on Twain.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Photo Genie on June 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I was fascinated by this account of Twain's final years. Using archival records,contemporaneous newspapers, and Isabel Van Kleek Lyon's diaries, author Trombley weaves an engrossing tale which makes events from 100 years ago vividly come to life. If you enjoy well-documented and carefully planned biographies, you'll like this work. It was worth the sixteen years the author took to complete it. I came away with little respect for most of the Clemens family, but at the same time I could understand clearly their motivations for their behavior. As for the almost forgotten Miss Lyon, she really deserved this work. I really sympathized with her and the way she was mistreated by the Clemens clan. At last, the true story is available to us all.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Sam Sattler on December 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
During his lifetime, Mark Twain was arguably the most famous man in the world. As such, he was very conscious of the public image that guaranteed him a secure income stream on the lecture tour any time he needed to tap into it. And because Twain had a habit of losing money to unwise investment decisions, the money he earned from public appearances was crucial if he was to maintain the lifestyle to which he and his family had become so accustomed. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain became increasingly concerned about how he would be remembered after his death, and he was determined that nothing would tarnish his image at that late date. He achieved that goal - until now.

Laura Skandera Trombley's "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years," a book some sixteen years in-the-making, gives a very different picture of Twain than the one with which fans of his writing are familiar. Twain's last decade, particularly after his wife's death, was not a happy time for him. He was lonely man concerned that the soon-to-expire copyrights on his earliest works would cause him great financial difficulty. One of his daughters, Jean, suffered so greatly with epilepsy that she spent months at a time living in medical facilities where she could be closely monitored and treated. His other surviving daughter, Clara, was a somewhat spoiled free spirit who often flaunted her disregard for the sexual mores of the times. Because in this period epilepsy was still considered to be a shameful and socially damaging condition to have in one's family tree, Twain was as concerned about the truth of Jean's problems becoming public knowledge as he was about Clara's behavior becoming commonly known.
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