TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 16 Jun 2004 10:04:15 -0500
text/plain (217 lines)

_Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years_. By
Karen Lystra. University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xxi + 342.
Hardcover. $27.50. ISBN 0-520-23323-9.

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Barbara Schmidt

Copyright  2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Karen Lystra's _Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final
Years_ is the most significant study of this period of Twain's life since
Hamlin Hill wrote _God's Fool_ in 1973. Lystra draws from letters, diaries,
and Twain's own body of work known as the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript to
reconstruct the dynamics of the relationships between Twain and his
daughters Jean and Clara, his secretary Isabel Lyon, his biographer Albert
Bigelow Paine, and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft. In the final
analysis Lystra presents conclusions that differ significantly from
previous studies of Twain's final years.

The primary focus of _Dangerous Intimacy_ is on Twain's youngest daughter
Jean Clemens who was born in 1880. Lystra chronicles Jean's battle with
epilepsy which began in 1896, Twain's inability to cope with the illness
after his wife Livy died in 1904, and the maneuvering of Isabel Lyon to
distance Jean from her father after Livy's death. Social prejudices and
fears of epileptics prevailed and treatment often consisted of isolation
from society at large. Livy, who bore the brunt of Jean's care, made every
effort to retain Jean within the family social circle. Livy's health
declined during what Twain described as the "fiendish" years of dealing
with Jean's illness. At the end of 1902, Isabel Lyon was hired to assist
Livy as a personal secretary. After Livy's death in 1904, the family
structure changed and Jean's oversight fell to Lyon, a woman who worshiped
and idolized Twain and held onto the hope of leading him to the altar.

Jean was sent to a sanitarium in Katonah, New York in 1906. This first
long-term separation from her father since 1896 would stretch into three
years. Lystra assumes the role of a prosecutor as she connects the dots of
many (sometimes circumstantial) pieces of evidence and presents damning
arguments to convict Lyon of robbing Jean of three years away from her
father. While Jean was in the sanitarium and a string of other homes, Lyon
censored and controlled communications with her father, consulted with her
doctors, and controlled her meager allowance. Lystra does not spare the
horse-whip in describing Isabel Lyon: she is "the Janus-headed mediator
among daughter, physician, and father" (p. 81); she "spent freely--and
drank cocktails in the same style" (p. 138); "clothes, furniture, and
flashy accessories called to her like a siren song" (p. 147); she was an
"accomplished manipulator" (p. 204). These accusations stand in sharp
contrast to Hill who wrote of Lyon, "Her mistake was in not questioning
whether Clemens' loyalty to her was as compelling and powerful as her
loyalty to him" (Hill, p. 241).

Ralph Ashcroft entered Twain's entourage in 1907 when he served as a
traveling companion to Oxford, England. Ashcroft ingratiated himself as an
unpaid advisor and subsequently established himself as an officer of the
Mark Twain Company. He later married Lyon, at her request, when it appeared
that her position in the family was in peril due to concerns of Twain's
daughter Clara over the way the family fortune, along with her father, was
being manipulated. Regarding Ashcroft, Lystra writes that he was guilty of
"snake-oil salesmanship of the highest order" (p. 209) and was a "fabulous
counterfeiter" (p. 215) and "trickster who discarded facts as easily as
candy wrappers" (p. 215). Hill, on the other hand, characterized Ashcroft
as "the son of an English Congregational minister" (Hill, p. 101) who "took
no recorded advantage" of his position with Clemens (Hill, p. 241).

Lystra gives careful scrutiny to the rise and fall of Lyon and Ashcroft
within the Clemens household, and the jousting for favored position with
biographer Paine whose unanswered advantage was his skill at playing
billiards with the boss. The tangled web of legal documents, disputed
signatures, questionable finances, and gifts of real estate is not an easy
story to relate and Lystra does it competently. The eventual firing of Lyon
and the triumphant return of Jean Clemens to the family home are a fitting
climax to Lystra's story. In the aftermath of Lyon's firing, Lystra
chronicles Ashcroft's manipulation of the _New York Times_ to cause
embarrassment to Twain and Clara Clemens and how these actions impacted
Twain's composition of the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript.

Lystra's version of what actually happened differs from Hamlin Hill's on at
least six key points:

1) Hill accepted the version of Isabel Lyon's diary that indicates Jean
tried to kill housekeeper Katy Leary, thus hastening and justifying Jean's
banishment from the household. Lystra rejects the theory that Jean
intentionally tried to kill Leary and claims Lyon's diaries were revised
after the fact.

2) Hill stated, "Nothing in the surviving record indicates that Miss Lyon
was instrumental in keeping father and daughter apart" (Hill, p. 215).
Lystra quotes Lyon, "Jean Clemens and I can never live under the same roof,
which means that she can never come home" (p. 139).

3) Regarding a disputed general power of attorney given to Ralph Ashcroft
and Isabel Lyon, Hill wrote: "Possibly, as he [Twain] claimed, the
signatures were obtained and notarized by fraud; more likely, they were
placed on documents when he was so befuddled and indifferent that he could
confuse his own ennui with 'hypnosis' " (Hill, p, 241). Lystra believes the
disputed power of attorney was a "pirated" document and that Twain was in
full possession of his mental capabilities when it was drawn up (p. 187).

4) Hill suggested that an interview given by Ashcroft and published in the
_New York Times_ on September 13, 1909 wherein Ashcroft claimed Twain had
signed a document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft of any blame for conduct while
in his employ indicated the extent and complexity involved in the affair
(Hill, p. 239). Lystra contends Ashcroft's interview was a web of lies and
"journalism at its worst" (p. 216) and that "Twain never signed any
document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft" (p. 215).

5) Hill stated, "Clemens broke his silence and composed a public statement
about the Ashcrofts" (Hill, p. 240). Lystra states, "He even composed a
letter to the Associated Press, which he never intended to have published"
(p. 225); "He made no statement to the press" (p. 239). Lystra relates that
Twain sent Paine to protest in person to Adolph Ochs, publisher of the _New
York Times_.

The theory that Clemens never made a public statement following Lyon's
firing is crucial to Lystra's interpretations regarding the Ashcroft-Lyon
manuscript. While both Hill and Lystra reference a letter addressed to
Melville Stone (General Manager of the Associated Press) dated September
14, 1909, the question arises whether or not the letter was ever sent or
actually used by Stone.

6) Hill wrote of the 429-page Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, "The manuscript is
a geyser of bias, vindictiveness, and innuendo ... it ends with a quite
irrelevant and almost irrational comment about Peary and Cook both
discovering the North Pole" (Hill, p. 231). Lystra claims the manuscript is
the "most sustained and important writing of his final years"; "most
maligned and misunderstood work" (219); a "confession that he abandoned his
own daughter" (p. 220). Lystra explains that in the Peary and Cook
controversy Twain recognized a parallel to his own situation with the
Ashcrofts--writing privately about discoveries rather than publicizing
them. In Twain's situation, he failed to press his claims and suspicions
against Ashcroft and Lyon publicly in print.

Providing a theory of how Twain fell so completely under the Lyon and
Ashcroft spell, Lystra explains "learned helpless syndrome" (p. 230)--a
condition identified by modern behavioral psychologists where a person
comes to think and act with total dependence upon a caretaker.

In concluding her book, Lystra discusses how Lyon attempted to revise her
original diaries decades later with a possible intent of publishing them.
Lyon made revisions to original entries in inks that are easily
distinguished from the original. Lyon "rewrote" the original diary for
January 3 - June 22, 1906, silently incorporating the changes. On two
occasions Lystra has found that Lyon made revisions to strengthen the
impression of Jean Clemens as a homicidal killer. This version of the diary
is now owned by the University of Texas. In fairness to Hamlin Hill, Lystra
acknowledges this version was not available to him in 1973. The original
diaries with revisions were given to Doris Webster who produced a
typescript--yet another variant. Researchers who quote from Lyon's diaries
should take heed to note which version they are using. Other positive
points in Lystra's book include the publication of "Death of Jean" in its
original form for the first time. Previous printings were edited by Paine.

Lystra's book is not without flaws. In at least one instance, a quote from
one of Jean's letters is construed as complimentary of her father, when a
complete reading of the passage reveals it may be otherwise. In an attempt
to show that the reunion between father and daughter in 1909 was
harmonious, Lystra quotes from Jean, "For, although he is very good and
generous, when he has an idea in his head, it's like melting marble with a
piece of ice to make him change his mind!!" (p. 242). Lystra does not
provide her reader with the immediate preceding passage, "You have to do
certain things to earn a living and I have to do others in order that my
father shall not grow too angry and tell me to go to the devil."

Lystra writes that a final settlement was reached between Twain and the
Ashcrofts on September 26 [1909] when ties were legally severed but she
does not reference a source or document for this statement nor explain what
the settlement entailed (p. 239). Lystra's failure to tie up this loose end
in a neat package is disappointing. Lystra's book also lacks a discussion
of the history of ownership and legal skirmishes surrounding the
Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript after Twain's death.

For a scholar to make accusations of deception and forgery--as in Lystra's
case against Ralph Ashcroft--it seems reasonable to expect that she
carefully examined the specific original documents she questions. A
weakness of _Dangerous Intimacy_ is that Lystra failed to investigate or
secure expert or scientific testimony to support her claims of fraudulent
legal documents. She gives no indication she ever examined the notorious
power of attorney given to Ashcroft and Lyon. Lystra's chapter 17 "False
Exoneration," is built around the theory that Ashcroft concocted lies and
manipulated documents for publicity in the _New York Times_. Lystra calls a
promissory note from Ashcroft to Twain for $982.47 on behalf of Lyon a
"phony legal document" (p. 213). Yet, she never acknowledges examining the
original copy or its signature. She describes a discharge of all
indebtedness signed by Twain, Clara, Jean and Paine as "nonexistent" (p.
214) and states "Twain never signed any document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft"
(p. 215). Yet these documents existed. Records indicate they are in the
Detroit Public Library along with the original "pirated" power of attorney.
If Lystra ever examined these documents there is no discussion of her doing
so. The burden of proof is on Lystra. Her theories and speculations are
compelling. But they do not rise to the level of facts, especially when she
has neglected to examine the original documents most important to her
allegations of fraud. Her apparent lack of curiosity hurts her case just as
she is going in for the kill.

Overall, Lystra's disagreements with Hill are significant. Some scholars
define Hill's role in Twain scholarship as that of a skeptic who clearly
questioned Twain's claims and actions (more so than Lyon's). Lystra has
placed much of her trust in Twain's testimony and the Ashcroft-Lyon
manuscript. Lystra's view is indispensable for interpreting the fundamental
truth of Twain's intent to bare his soul in confessing the wrongs he did to
his daughter Jean. Her interpretation of the Peary Cook passage is to be
commended. Her book is a valid defense of an aging Twain and a
well-reasoned attack on Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft. As to Hamlin Hill
and other scholars who have dismissed the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, Lystra
concludes that, "Doubtless Twain would have raged at the gullible
establishment ... laughed at his failure to convince them that his most
humiliating confessions were true" (p. 272). _Dangerous Intimacy_ adds a
new voice to the way we understand Twain's final years and his last major
work written just months prior to his death.