A valiant attempt to untangle the complications of Mark Twain’s later years, but ultimately it raises as many questions as it answers.
The “other woman” in the title of this exhaustively researched study by Pitzer College president Trombley (Mark Twain in the Company of Women, 1994) is Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who served the author she called “the King” as his private secretary and so much more—though how much more remains open to debate. There was gossip of an affair and perhaps even a possible engagement, though Trombley never claims the former and Twain shot down any possibility of the latter: “I have not known, and I shall never know…any one who could fill the place of the wife I have lost,” he wrote to the New York Herald, after it had reported on an impending marriage. “I shall never marry again.” Thus he didn’t, likely to the disappointment of Lyon, who filled the vacuum of responsibility left by the death of Twain’s beloved wife, serving as his nurse, groomer, sounding board, card partner, decorator, editor and cheerleader. In the process, she alienated Twain’s two daughters, who are disparaged throughout this account in comparison with Lyon. Not that the book necessarily provides a convincing defense of Lyon, who was beset by depression, alcohol, pain medication, ambition and romantic inclinations toward unlikely partners—not just Twain, some 30 years her senior, but a priest with whom she was infatuated and a business advisor to Twain, 12 years younger than she, whom she married but perhaps never loved. What remains at issue is the degree of her intimacy with Twain, characterized at one point as “multilayered” but later dismissed by its lack—Twain’s candor with her “did not seem to increase their personal intimacy.” The aging author ultimately sided with daughter Clara in accusations that Lyon had swindled him, and he vehemently turned against her.
On this spring’s centennial of Twain’s death, the scholarly speculation serves as a long, inconclusive footnote.