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Dangerous Intimacy

Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years

Karen Lystra
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 363
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  • Book Info
    Dangerous Intimacy
    Book Description:

    The last phase of Mark Twain's life is sadly familiar: Crippled by losses and tragedies, America's greatest humorist sank into a deep and bitter depression. It is also wrong. This book recovers Twain's final years as they really were-lived in the shadow of deception and prejudice, but also in the light of the author's unflagging energy and enthusiasm.Dangerous Intimacyrelates the story of how, shortly after his wife's death in 1904, Twain basked in the attentions of Isabel Lyon, his flirtatious-and calculating-secretary. Lyon desperately wanted to marry her boss, who was almost thirty years her senior. She managed to exile Twain's youngest daughter, Jean, who had epilepsy. With the help of Twain's assistant, Ralph Ashcroft, who fraudulently acquired power of attorney over the author's finances, Lyon nearly succeeded in assuming complete control over Twain's life and estate. Fortunately, Twain recognized the plot being woven around him just in time. So rife with twists and turns as to defy belief, the story nonetheless comes to undeniable, vibrant life in the letters and diaries of those who witnessed it firsthand: Katy the housekeeper, Jean, Lyon, and others whose own distinctive, perceptive, often amusing voices take us straight into the heart of the Clemens household. Just as Twain extricated himself from the lies, prejudice, and self-delusion that almost turned him into an American Lear, so Karen Lystra liberates the author's last decade from a century of popular misunderstanding. In this gripping book we at last see how, late in life, this American icon discovered a deep kinship with his youngest child and continued to explore the precarious balance of love and pain that is one of the trademarks of his work.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94037-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxii)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Mark Twain—and Sam’s Women
    (pp. 1-19)

    In 1895 Mark Twain was one of the most famous men in the world. At the age of sixty, he was celebrated as the author ofThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and other novels for adults and children as well as a great number of short stories and nonfiction sketches and articles. He was perhaps equally renowned as a lecturer, a second—and sometimes more lucrative—career he had pursued in parallel with his writing since the 1860s. Twain held strong views on many issues, from anti-imperialism to copyrights for authors. His opinion was constantly...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Heartbreak
    (pp. 20-44)

    In May 1895, the Clemens family returned to the United States and their summer home in Elmira, New York. There Sam made preparations for an extended lecture tour that he hoped would raise the money needed to clear his bankruptcy. In fact, perhaps partly in response to Livy’s scruples, he had undertaken to repay all his debts in full. (Early in the previous year he had estimated that his debt was $160,000, an astounding figure for the period.) Livy and Clara were to travel with him. Taking to heart Madame Marchesi’s recommendations about her health, however, Susy chose to remain...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Rearranging the Household
    (pp. 45-58)

    Looking for a place to spend the summer of 1905—and perhaps, as well, for a place to heal—Sam settled on an artist colony in Dublin, New Hampshire. Dublin was the permanent home of the American landscape painter Abbott Thayer, who had once touted the New Hampshire highlands to his writer friend. If it was a good place for an artist in paint, Sam reasoned, it would also be good for an artist in “morals and ink.”¹ When he heard that the house of the writer Henry Copley Greene would be available that summer, Sam insisted that Katy give...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Looking for Love
    (pp. 59-79)

    The image we have of Mark Twain in his later years, as portrayed by both scholarly and popular writers, embodies a consistent theme of pessimism and despair, beginning from the time of Susy’s death in 1896.¹ “The last two decades of Mark Twain’s life veered into a dead-end despair,” one critic wrote, describing him as “a man poisoned with self-loathing” and a “bitter and neurotic cynic.” Another characteristically remarked, “Mark Twain lived the last fifteen years of his life a bitter pessimist.” “Crippled,” “brittle,” “dulled,” and possessed by a “rage at the obscenity of life” was another influential critic’s characterization...

  10. CHAPTER 5 A Pact with the Devil
    (pp. 80-87)

    On September 25 Jean paid a visit to the Thayer family in Dublin. “It seems curious,” she wrote the next day, “that after the Thayers had asked if I had ever been in a sanitarium, yesterday, Dr. Sarah Stowell should have spoken most emphatically in favor of it, this morning.”¹ Curious indeed, for Jean had never mentioned the subject to either party. It would seem as if someone had talked to the Thayers and Dr. Stowell, Jean’s gynecologist, behind the scenes. Yet Jean’s sister had never set foot in Dublin. Her father had left on September 15. Paine would certainly...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Life in the Sanitarium
    (pp. 88-99)

    Jean had agreed to the sanitarium at Katonah sight unseen. But the seven cemeteries on the train ride from New York to her new home were a distressing omen, even to her practical mind. Determined to “get accustomed to it in time,” she threw herself into the sanitarium’s play regime with gusto, going fishing, bowling, walking, and playing hours of croquet within the first week. Always an athletic woman, Jean loved outdoor exercise, and the four to five hours per day prescribed by Dr. Hunt were not unwelcome.¹

    His dietary rules were less salutary, however. Jean loved salty food, but...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Someone to Love Him and Pet Him
    (pp. 100-109)

    Once she had Jean placed in the vise of the sanitarium and the Redding house resurrected, the Lioness was able to move in on her most treasured goal: to walk down the aisle with America’s greatest literary celebrity. Her machinations were endless but never lacked imagination—and had in fact begun well before Jean left for Katonah. An undeniably charming and pretty woman, the Lioness was always finding excuses to touch the King. “[A]rch girly-girly pats on the back of my hand” and “playful little spats on my cheek with her fan” was how he described the small moves designed...

  13. CHAPTER 8 A Viper to Her Bosom
    (pp. 110-122)

    As she approached the anniversary of her arrival at Katonah, Jean was desperately unhappy. When she had first agreed to leave home, she had anticipated that it would be for a few months and that she would spend the next summer in Dublin with her father. Now jaded and angry, she was not the naive young woman who had entered the sanitarium with high hopes of complete recovery. Even the absence of any grand mal seizures since April 10—almost six months—did not bring her joy.¹

    Jean recognized her own impotence. She had some hardheaded comprehension of her specific...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Innocence at Home
    (pp. 123-133)

    As the new year of 1908 approached, Jean received much-hoped-for news—the prisoner of Katonah was being sprung to a house in Greenwich, Connecticut, twenty miles away. An old friend of Lyon’s from Farmington, a woman named Mildred Cowles, had turned up as a patient at the sanitarium in early November, with her sister Edith along as helper and nurse, and the secretary seized the opportunity to set up a “little household” for Jean with the two women.¹ These were no ordinary companions, however. Mildred told Jean in early December that she was at Katonah because she had attempted suicide...

  15. CHAPTER 10 Stormfield
    (pp. 134-145)

    Isabel Lyon had hatched the dream of building a little cottage for herself in Redding, Connecticut, during the summer of 1906. At the time, she was much taken with Albert Paine, who had cultivated her dream in the hopes of persuading Clemens to buy property next to his own home in Redding. Under their influence, Clemens had bought his first parcel of land there on March 24, 1906, and added to his holdings in May and September.¹ He had authorized his best friend’s son, John Howells, to draw up plans for the house. Clara also wholeheartedly supported the project, even...

  16. CHAPTER 11 An American Lear
    (pp. 146-158)

    In the summer of 1908, while the King was preoccupied with billiards and Angelfish, his lady-in-waiting was busy running the kingdom—and beginning to worry about household expenditures. “Last night I couldn’t sleep, so the morning broke with no strength in it,” Lyon admitted. “But I dismissed Hobby, paid her in full—so that expense is closed up.” Miss Hobby, Twain’s longtime stenographer, told him later that she was sacked because she helped Lyon write checks and knew too much. However much she knew, the stenographer’s salary of $25 per week made her Twain’s highest paid employee. By contrast, Katy...

  17. CHAPTER 12 Illusions of Love
    (pp. 159-170)

    Mark Twain sent out photographic postcards to mark the Christmas season of 1908. In the image he duplicated for his friends, Twain sits squarely in a window at Stormfield, with a petite Lyon standing in profile on his left outside the window and a goateed Ashcroft hovering just behind him on his right. As the photograph plainly displays, Isabel and Ralph had become Mark Twain’s family. He did not make a move without them, and anyone who stood in the way of their dominion was at risk. Lyon, who had already told the entire countryside around Redding that Jean was...

  18. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  19. CHAPTER 13 Unraveling
    (pp. 171-178)

    Wedding bells tolled on March 18, 1909, for Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft. Nine people attended the traditional church ceremony in New York City, including Clemens, who said that Lyon acted the sweet, girlish, radiant bride to perfection. As was often the case in her life, presentation did not match substance. On the train ride back to Stormfield the bride “stayed apart” from her bridegroom, and the newlyweds continued their silence at dinner. Eyebrows arched and tongues wagged when they took separate rooms and continued to sleep apart for the ten or twelve nights that they remained under Clemens’s roof....

  20. CHAPTER 14 The Exile Returns
    (pp. 179-190)

    Despite the tone of resignation in her note to Twain, Mrs. Ashcroft had not yet given up all hope of reconciliation. After she was fired, she returned to Stormfield each day, trying to wriggle her way back into her boss’s good graces. She arrived at ten in the morning and fussed around until five, when she left for home. “Now & then she would sail into my room,” Clemens remembered, “artificially radiant & girlish with something killingly funny to tell me, & would stand by my bed & detail it with all sorts of captivating airs & graces & bogus laughter—& get no response.” She haunted...

  21. CHAPTER 15 Confrontation
    (pp. 191-198)

    At the outset of his reunion with Jean, Sam was deeply impressed by her energy, pace, and strength, all of which contrasted with the “sick” image cultivated so assiduously by his former secretary. “Not a single symptom of her cruel malady has ever shown itself,” he said proudly. His judgment of her health and fitness to rejoin him continued, however, to be grounded in a symptom-free standard. He never fully understood how this standard had contributed to Jean’s exile. What he did comprehend was that his youngest daughter was a delight and that that “reptile Lyon” had been mistress of...

  22. CHAPTER 16 A Formidable Adversary
    (pp. 199-206)

    Suspicious and perhaps uneasy, Twain’s lawyer decided to ask Mrs. Ashcroft to sign a lease for the six weeks she had permission to remain in her cottage.¹ By this action, Mr. Lark was aiming to protect his client’s interests as much as the law would allow. More than Mrs. Ashcroft’s regret and fickleness was at stake here—Lark may have been worried that she would refuse to vacate the cottage or try to invalidate the transfer deed that returned ownership to Clemens. He went back to the cottage on July 20, three days after the transfer deed had been procured....

  23. CHAPTER 17 False Exoneration
    (pp. 207-217)

    Ralph Ashcroft returned to America on July 27, 1909. Wasting no time, he met with Mr. Lark two days later and then sat down to write a summary of his position at the lawyer’s request. Clearly, Ashcroft had come home prepared to mount a spirited defense of himself and his wife, which he undertook in his letter to the lawyers and in two carefully crafted statements he made to theNew York Timesin the course of the next weeks. Taken together, the letter and the statements yield important glimpses into the man. Revealing character, motives, and submerged feelings in...

  24. CHAPTER 18 The Funniest Joke in the World
    (pp. 218-233)

    George Bernard Shaw remarked that it was Mark Twain who taught him that “telling the truth’s the funniest joke in the world.”¹ Shaw’s line captures the genius of great humor: it is always trying to penetrate the façade of self-deceit and the conventions of respectability. Shaw recognized that the connection between humor and truth was central to Twain’s writing. Twain continued to take aim at the truths of his life and society as he grew older, but—ever self-conscious about the cash value of his persona—he wrote increasingly for himself rather than his reading public. Consequently he composed, yet...

  25. CHAPTER 19 Melting Marble with Ice
    (pp. 234-242)

    Twain ended the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript most peculiarly. After more than four months of sometimes gut-wrenching narrative about himself and his family, he closed with a memorandum on the controversy over who discovered the North Pole. This seemingly inexplicable non sequitur prompted the most influential critic of the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript to conclude that “it ends with the quite irrelevant and almost irrational comment about Peary and Cook both discovering the North Pole.”¹ And at first glance this criticism seems rather mild. Twain gave no context, offered no explanation or hint as to why he saw the discovery of the North Pole...

  26. CHAPTER 20 The End of My Autobiography
    (pp. 243-262)

    Twain’s constant smoking finally caught up with him. In the summer of 1909 he began to experience more frequent chest pains.¹ His health was also not improved by the nerve-shattering betrayal of his closest confidants. Dr. Quintard advised less smoking and diminished exercise. Predictably, his patient followed only one-half of Quintard’s counsel.

    After finishing the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript in September, however, Twain was lighthearted and full of plans. According to Paine, his face was “as full of bloom as at any time during the period I had known him.” Clemens’s sense of humor was also full of bloom. “I have always...

  27. EPILOGUE: How Little One May Tell
    (pp. 263-274)

    There was no one, not even Mark Twain’s surviving daughter, who grieved more than Katy Leary over his death. “It almost cut my heart in two when I looked at him for the last time,” she remembered fifteen years later. “I felt like my life ended then! That I had lost the best friend I’d had in the world.”¹ To the devoted servant, in times of trouble, fell the work of a Clemens family burial and the painful aftermath of tidying up. In 1896 she had packed away Susy’s belongings for good; eight years later she gathered the small treasures...

  28. NOTES
    (pp. 275-324)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 325-342)