The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac
_Mark Twain: Man in White_. By Michael Shelden. New York: Random House,
2010. xxxix + 484pp. $30.00 ISBN 978-0-679-44800-6
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell
Copyright (c) 2010 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.
The only complaint this reviewer could muster about Ron Powers's superb
biography of Mark Twain (_Mark Twain, A Life_, 2005) was the regret that
Powers ended his entertaining and informed biography too soon, choosing
instead to compress his narrative of the last years into a brief summation.
Powers's first two books on Mark Twain were brimming with insights and a
third one focusing on the final years would have formed a remarkable
trilogy. That could still happen, but with Michael Shelden's extremely
well-researched, carefully crafted, and highly entertaining look at Mark
Twain's last few years, Twainians may have exactly what they had hoped to
see from Ron Powers.
The last years of the great man's life have been the subject of controversy,
scholarly assertions and counter-assertions, and endless speculation. Much
of the drama has centered on the sometimes conflicting evidence of the
household dynamics involving Mark Twain, his daughters Clara and Jean, his
secretary Isabel Lyon, and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft, with the
conflicting accounts of Hamlin Hill (_Mark Twain, God's Fool_, 1973) and
Karen Lystra (_Dangerous Intimacy_, 2004) best representing the two opposing
views of how those last years unfolded and what it all meant.
Hamlin Hill presented a portrait of Mark Twain as a bitter old man, his
creative powers ebbing (Hill, pp. 31, 77), who kept his daughter Jean (and
her homicidal urges) at arm's length (Hill, p. xxvii) and ultimately
victimized his adoring secretary, Isabel Lyon, in a 400-page diatribe known
as the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript (Hill, pp. 228-32). Lystra, using Jean's
diaries and some evidence not available to Hill, and re-examining some of
Hill's evidence, comes to the conclusion that Isabel Lyon was an emotionally
disturbed and alcoholic woman (Lystra, pp. 79, 153, 222, 266), not the
victim but the victimizer and that she contrived to keep Jean away from her
father (Lystra, pp. 81, 83, 86, 133, 142, 153, 204), joined with Ashcroft to
take control of Twain's estate, deserved the spleen-venting that Twain gave
her (Lystra, pp. 220-25), and was still tampering with the evidence (her own
diaries) decades later (Lystra, p. 269).
Readers of Hill's and Lystra's books, as well as other books and articles on
Mark Twain's last years, have been left to choose who might be right, and
most seem to arrive at some point in between, but not without some sense of
confusion and frustration. In fact, with the Hill and Lystra accounts more
or less defining the later years as the tragic and unhappy end of a writer
in decline, it should not be surprising that Ron Powers is not the only
biographer to shy away from those final chapters in the Twain biography.
Clearly, there is more to the story of Twain's last years than his
dysfunctional household. Shelden, undeterred by the weight of three decades
of scholarly baggage and blinders, has focused on some events and
relationships in Twain's life not examined in detail by Hill or Lystra.
Using some new sources and a refreshing dose of common sense, Shelden
carries the narrative forward to a point where most readers will gladly
Shelden contends that "modern critics who so easily imagine [Twain] crippled
by misfortune and blind anger forget how difficult his life had been from
the beginning. He survived into his seventies for a reason. He was made of
strong stuff.... he did not merely endure old age, but repeatedly
demonstrated an ability to rise above its limitations and tragedies, and
seek out pleasures to offset its pains." (p. xxxii). Having declared his
thesis, Shelden then lays out his case in a narrative that is hard to put
down, exploring both the pains and the pleasures of Twain's last years. No
doubt those last years will continue to be fodder for articles, and new
evidence will trickle out, but it is hard to imagine that Shelden's
conclusions will invite much revision.
Having researched his subject as carefully as Hill, Lystra, or any other
Twain biographer, and writing in a style that rivals Pulitzer Prize winner
Ron Powers, Shelden begins his story with a cinemagraphic account of Twain's
dazzling appearance before the hearing on copyrights in the Senate Reading
Room of the Library of Congress in December, 1906 (pp. xv-xvi).
Unintimidated by his surroundings, Twain removes his overcoat and reveals
his white suit and consciously morphs from a popular author who wore white
in season to a modern-day celebrity who has chosen to wear white year-round.
This calculated act gained him attention, reinforced his fame as a unique
American character, and signaled his intention to be a nonconformist to the
very end. If, as William Dean Howells said of him, his literary output was
less and less, his life grew more and more (p. xxx). As Shelden points out,
as Twain's life grew and grew he did not become a raging embittered old man,
but a resplendent lit!
erary lion who would now roar his verdicts on the moral failings of his
fellow men, saying in public the same things he'd been saying or writing in
private for many years to his friends such as Howells and Joe Twichell.
Shelden next takes us to one of Twain's New Year's Eve parties where the old
man, always the life of the party, appears before his guests as the older
half of a pair of Siamese twins, joined arm-in-arm with a young fellow
(Witter Bynner) playing his twin who sips whiskey from a hidden flask while
Twain delivers a temperance lecture whose stern beginning soon dissolves
into slurred speech and slapstick (p. 6). Shelden proceeds to sample the
seemingly endless succession of parties, dinners, speeches, and charitable
events that filled Twain's social calendar in his last four years. These
events were frequently populated with stunning young women (not Angelfish),
and Shelden samples the roster of beautiful young women whose company Twain
regularly enjoyed--actresses Ethel Barrymore, Billie Burke, Margaret
Illington (a rising Broadway star), and later on Elinor Glyn (the author,
who had a frank talk with Twain about adultery) (pp. 10, 178, 188-93, 235).
The chapters that follow e!
xplore the personal pleasures and financial benefits of Twain's friendship
with Henry ("Hell Hound") Rogers, and provide abundant and damning
background on Rogers's business activities that Twain chose to overlook out
of his personal gratitude and friendship (pp. 41-65, 354-58). Shelden
chronicles the delight Twain took in attacking Mary Baker Eddy's terrible
writing style and her cult status (he was less critical of the basic tenants
of her Christian Science church), and just as he did with Rogers, provides
an excellent context for Twain's attack by providing background information
on other attacks that were taking place against Eddy and her church at the
same time (pp. 67-76). Twain is observed enjoying the company of striking
young women, exploiting the friendships of wealthy cronies, and blasting
away with gusto at public figures such as Mary Baker Eddy. These pursuits
surely count as pleasures, and who among us knew that Twain was casting
spells of his own on a young a!
ctress (Billie Burke) who would later become the Good Witch of "The Wizard
Good Witches are not the only surprises in Shelden's story. Along the way,
people as diverse as T. S. Eliot (p. 230) and Zero Mostel (p. 156) pop up in
connection with various aspects of Twain's life. We learn that Bram Stoker,
who knew Twain, makes use of one of Twain's aphorisms in _Dracula_ (p. 123).
One unexpected surprise is Twain's near entanglement with the "Trial of the
Century." Even those familiar with Twain's biography may be surprised to
learn that Twain was a prospective juror in the sensational trial of Harry
Thaw for the murder of Stanford White (the famous architect who seduced
Thaw's wife, the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, before her marriage). Twain's
friend, the publisher Robert Collier had also dated Nesbit, but Thaw's
defense attorney Martin Littleton was a friend and neighbor of Twain, and
after a visit with Twain one night, Twain's name was removed from the list
of prospective jurors (pp. 193-99). Another surprise might be Twain's
cordial friendship with Mr!
s. Peck, Woodrow Wilson's mistress. Twain saw both Peck and Wilson in
Bermuda and spent a good deal of time with them both, although he may not
have known the full extent of their relationship (pp. 200-13). Twain managed
to steer clear of these public scandals, although he seemed to thrive when
controversies provided him a public forum.
While Twain's busy social life was filled with pleasures, things were not
going well at home. His daughter Jean was increasingly frustrated by her
fading marriage prospects and viewed her epilepsy no differently than did
her family or society--as a personal deficiency. At the same time, her
sister Clara was carrying on a barely concealed affair (p. 262) with her
accompanist Charles Wark (a married man) while her rocky on-again/off again
romance with her eventual husband, the pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, simmered
in the background. Twain, too busy enjoying himself to be troubled with
problems on the home front, was only too happy to hand more and more
responsibility to his trusted secretary, Isabel Lyon, whose boundless
adoration of her employer not only offset her slave wages, but lulled her
into considering herself a member of the family and mistress of the
household. Twain soon brought Albert Bigelow Paine on board to write his
official biography, and increasingly came to !
depend on Ralph Ashcroft for his personal business services, all without
questioning how either man could devote such attention to Twain's business
and personal life without compensation (p. 179).
Not even his personal finances grabbed Twain's attention except when things
went wrong; he otherwise had a curious hands-off approach. Although Twain
had been easily distracted by investment opportunities all of his life, once
Rogers got him out of debt from the failures of the Paige typesetter and the
Webster Publishing Company, he not only turned over his personal finances to
Isabel Lyon, but he also put her in charge of overseeing the building of his
new mansion in Redding, Connecticut, and entrusted her with the household
cash accounts. He left it to her to manage the servants, manage Jean's
doctors, and even handle his correspondence with Jean. He put Lyon in charge
of paying Clara whatever was needed to further her aspirations as a singer.
When the Knickerbocker Bank failed, Twain's savings were at risk of being
wiped out, but that crisis soon passed, and he continued to leave his
financial matters in Lyon's (and later Ashcroft's) hands, as well as Jean's
's rank in the household was so prominent it is no wonder that rumors of a
Twain-Lyon marriage seemed plausible to the press. Only when Clara tired of
Lyon's tight-fisted attitude toward her expensive life-style and demanded an
examination of her father's finances did the nefarious activities of Lyon
and Ashcroft come to light.
That's when the pleasure stops and the pain begins, and it's sorely tempting
to delve into the details of this drama and compare the various conclusions
of Hill, Lystra, and Shelden at every twist and turn, as those events
unfolded. Shelden draws a deft portrait of Clara, displaying both her
strengths and her frequently unstable personality (p. 232), but she is not
much different from the Clara already familiar to readers of Hill and
Lystra. He brings Jean back to life on his pages, and although she is
physically and intellectually vigorous, Shelden doesn't ignore her
self-doubts; but like Clara, she is not much different from her portrayal in
the works of Hill and Lystra. Shelden presents Isabel Lyon as the tragic
figure she was, in all her melodramatic, alcoholic, idol-worshipping, and
conniving splendor, capturing both the sympathetic elements of her
personality that Hill first gave us, as well as showing us the contriving
shrew whose deceptions were enumerated by Lystra !
(pp. 175-76, 251, 257, 260, 327, 362). But the plot thickens when Shelden
gets around to Ralph Ashcroft, and he presents a fuller portrait of
Ashcroft's malicious personality and his destructive role in the household
than any biographer before him. Shelden's evidence hints that Ashcroft may
have pocketed huge amounts of money supposedly "lost" by his clients
(including Twain) on large stock purchases he made on their behalf. He
leaves no doubt that it was Ashcroft who planted newspaper stories about
Clara's affair with Wark (pp. 262-63) to extort Clara. Ashcroft's calculated
seduction of Isabel Lyon (p. 296) casts Lyon in the role of an innocent
victim, and there is even some suggestion that she may have been coerced, at
least at the beginning, into helping her husband in his financial chicanery
(p. 260 et seq.). Ashcroft's final blunder was his bragging about his power
over Twain's finances (through a power of attorney he tricked Twain into
signing) (pp. 293, 358-59), and !
his arrogance and insolence comes into even sharper focus after he and Lyon
are exposed and ejected from the household.
Despite all the attention focused on them, the household dramas did not
dominate Twain's last years in the way they dominate biographical and
scholarly examinations of those years, and Shelden must be given credit for
establishing a refreshing and long over-due balance in how we see those
years. Besides several photographs that will be new to even the most devoted
Twainians, readers will discover new insights from reading Shelden's
accounts (all shimmering with new details) of Twain's enthusiastic
involvement with a settlement house called the Educational Alliance (pp.
155-62), the fun Twain had with the composition and controversy of _Is
Shakespeare Dead?_ (pp. 316-25), the full story of Twain's vigorous
responses to the Stormfield burglary (pp. 267-85), Helen Keller's visit to
Twain's home and his empathetic reaction to her keen mind and charming
perceptiveness (pp. 311-16), and his stair-race with Texas Ranger Bill
McDonald (pp. 181-82). Finally, Twain scholars will want !
to take their own measure of Shelden's fresh assessment of the literary
merits of the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript of which he says "as rants go... it
is a gem.... one of the best examples of Mark Twain uncensored" (pp.
Is this book flawless? Of course not, but neither are Twain's own works.
Despite this reviewer's best efforts, only a handful of trivial faults could
be found, and are mentioned here strictly for the record. Shelden says the
fire that destroyed Stormfield left just one brick chimney standing (p. 414)
but it actually left four. He says that Livy died before the sale of the
Hartford home (p. 25), but the home was sold in May, 1903, and Livy did not
die until June, 1904. He slightly misquotes one minor source (p. 157,
footnote 19). The photograph of Twain posing with a pistol after the
burglary (p. 266) is reversed, an irritating historical inaccuracy (Twain
was right-handed, not left-handed) for which Shelden's Random House editors
must take the bullet.
In the last four years of his life Twain "built a mansion... survived a
burglary by a couple of gun-toting thieves, enjoyed flirtatious friendships
with some of the prettiest actresses on Broadway, debated female sexuality
with the woman who coined the phrase "the It girl," helped a group of slum
children start a theater, entertained a Texas Ranger, stayed out until four
in the morning partying with show-girls and dancing dogs, explored Bermuda,
pretended that he had been lost at sea, joked with the king and queen of
England on the grounds of Windsor Castle, recited Romantic poetry to society
ladies at the Waldorf-Astoria, used his influence to avoid being called for
jury duty in the ragtime era's "Trial of the Century," taught little girls
how to play billiards and cards, published books on heaven and Shakespeare,
and almost allowed himself to be swindled out of everything he had." (pp.
xxv-xxvi). These are not the events we associate with anybody's twilight
years, and if T!
wain's pleasures didn't outweigh his pains toward the end of his life, they
certainly balanced things off.
Shelden winds down his story with an epilogue that recounts the fates of
some of the major players in Twain's final years, ending with a brief
account of the actor Hal Holbrook's meetings with Clara Clemens and Isabel
Lyon in their own last years. Shelden closes his story with a comment on
Holbrook's impersonation of Twain, saying that his performances have made it
possible for audiences "to imagine for a moment that Mark Twain had never
left" (p. 417). Michael Shelden's book will do the same for those who read