Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Yearsby Karen Lystra
The Standard Account of Mark Twain's Old Age 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 offers a very different account of Twain's final years: they were lived in the shadow of deception and prejudice, but also in the light of the author's unflagging energy and… See more details below
The Standard Account of Mark Twain's Old Age 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 offers a very different account of Twain's final years: they were lived in the shadow of deception and prejudice, but also in the light of the author's unflagging energy and enthusiasm.
Dangerous Intimacy tells the story of how, shortly after his wife's death in 1904, Twain enjoyed 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 manipulated the household into exiling Jean, Twain's youngest child and an epileptic, to a sanitarium. 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 household and estate. Fortunately, Twain recognized the plot being woven around him in the nick of time. So rife with twists and turns as to defy belief, the story comes to life via the letters and diaries of the participants: Katy the housekeeper, Jean, Lyon, and others whose distinctive, perceptive, often amusing voices take us straight to 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 of life 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 experienced the interplay of love and pain that is one of the hallmarks of his work.
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DANGEROUS INTIMACYTHE UNTOLD STORY OF MARK TWAIN'S FINAL YEARS
By KAREN LYSTRA
The University of CaliforniaCopyright © 2004 Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMark Twain-and Sam's Women
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 of The 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 in demand, and he never hesitated to offer it. He knew a long list of celebrities, including Bram Stoker, Bret Harte, Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and James Whistler. He had also met, among many others, Robert Browning, Lewis Carroll, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, William James, Grover Cleveland, Winston Churchill, and the Prince of Wales.
In both his lectures and his written works, Twain seemed to capture a quintessentially American spirit, a mix of sly humor, cynicism, affirmation, and plain speech that felt both unique and universal and that captivated audiences in the United States and Europe. With his extroverted nature and his evident enjoyment of life and his own performance in it, he managed to combine pessimism and optimism in such a way that people often missed-or could choose to miss-the depth of the bite beneath the laughter. This, one suspects, just made Mark Twain that much more popular. Shrewd enough to observe that "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water," Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man behind the pseudonym, clearly relished his celebrity.
In 1895 Sam Clemens had reason to feel blessed in his private life as well. Although the previous five years had been clouded by financial difficulties and ultimate bankruptcy, brought on by Sam's penchant for extravagant living and bad investments, his family had never been less than comfortable. Beyond material wealth, he could look back on twenty-five years of married life confident in the love of his wife and three daughters. Oddly enough, for all Mark Twain's identification with a rough-and-tumble image of America, Sam Clemens had lived most of those years in an ornately Victorian New England home, sharing domestic contentment with a household of women who helped him with his work, catered to his needs, and were a continual source of amusement and happiness.
* * *
Samuel Clemens and Olivia Langdon were married on February 2, 1870, at the Langdon family home in Elmira, New York. The couple settled briefly in Buffalo and in 1871 moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where they lived for the next twenty years. With her dark brown hair, regular features, and angelic smile, Livy, as she was affectionately called by her friends and family, was the picture of an ideal Victorian wife. By almost all accounts, Sam and Livy had an exceptionally successful marriage. "How I do want you at home Darling," she wrote to him in their second year of marriage. "I am so thankful that I do want you-you are a dear little man-I am grateful that my heart is so filled with love for you." "Lecturing is hateful," Sam acknowledged during that absence, "but it must come to an end yet, & then I'll see my darling, whom I love, love, love."
Olivia Clemens has often been cast as a Victorian prude, ever vigilant to quash the frankness of ideas and language Mark Twain was famous for. This interpretation originated with Van Wyck Brooks's publication in 1920 of The Ordeal of Mark Twain, in which he claimed that from the moment Sam married Livy, his artistic integrity was compromised: "[I]n his case the matrimonial vow had been almost literally reversed and it was he who had promised not only to love and honour but also to obey." According to Brooks-and the many critics who followed in his footsteps-Livy became Twain's chief censor, tragically squelching the virile westerner with her "infantile" taste and Victorian conformity. Yet, interestingly, the private Sam Clemens was much more emotionally reserved than his wife. She expressed her affection for him in kisses, caresses, and verbal endearments, which he freely admitted were "always an astonishment to me." His daughter Clara remembered that her father was quite bashful about expressing physical affection. He would stand near his wife and surreptitiously take her hand, squeezing it devotedly, yet appear embarrassed if his children noticed.
Although she had a weak heart and was often ill, Livy was a woman with a cheerful disposition and an unusual endowment of both common sense and sympathy. Sam's closest literary friend, the novelist and critic William Dean Howells, described her as the loveliest person he ever knew: "the gentlest, the kindest, without a touch of weakness; she united wonderful tact with wonderful truth." She had an extraordinary capacity for compassion without seeming patronizing or self-aggrandizing. "[I]f there was any forlorn and helpless creature in the room Mrs. Clemens was somehow promptly at his side or hers," Howells observed; "she was always seeking occasion of kindness to those in her household or out of it." He also portrayed her as a woman so generous that she could even embrace rebellion against the social conventions she had once approved. Sam persuaded her to give up formal Christianity, a remarkable step for a well-bred lady of the time. And though she protested, Livy readily forgave her husband's swearing. According to Katy Leary, who became the Clemenses' housekeeper in Hartford, Twain was free in the privacy of his home "to say anything and everything that he wanted to-no matter what it was." (In exactly what terms he could say it might sometimes be under dispute.) Livy decided when they were first married "that his home was going to be a place where he could say and do what he wanted." She was committed to other people's rights, Katy observed, "even if they was her husband's."
Missing from some accounts of Livy's nature is the quality that, according to Howells, allowed her to appreciate the "self-lawed" genius of her husband: a sense of humor. One morning Sam was in the bathroom, where he usually did not get through a shave without a string of profanity. Taking the necessary precautions, he had shut the door to allow for his usual expressions of annoyance. The shave went smoothly, but after he put on his shirt, he realized that a button was missing. He tossed the shirt out the window and put on another, and then another, only to discover that buttons were missing on all three shirts. "I augmented my language to meet the emergency," he reported, "and let myself go like a cavalry charge." It was then that he realized the door was open. Livy had been lying in bed the entire time. As he crept into the room and met her gaze, she responded by imitating his "latest bathroom remark," but with a "velvety" expression that he said was "absurdly weak and unsuited to the great language."
"There, now you know how it sounds," she exclaimed.
"Oh Livy, if it sounds like that I will never do it again!"
"Then she had to laugh herself," Twain remembered. "Both of us broke into convulsions, and went on laughing until we were physically exhausted and spiritually reconciled."
Livy did have a strong sense of what was proper-and Sam thoroughly enjoyed tempting his wife to laugh at something that shocked her at the same time. One day, after they had been married many years, a reporter arrived for a scheduled interview. Livy went in to announce the reporter and found her husband in bed, where he often worked. "Youth," she addressed him by her favorite nickname, "don't you think it will be a little embarrassing for him to find you in bed?"
"Why, if you think so, Livy," came the deliberate reply, "we could have the other bed made up for him."
Because of her reputation for cultivated prissiness, Livy unfairly shoulders blame as censor of her husband's writing, but Mark Twain was himself deeply committed to guarding his public persona well before he met Livy. To this end he had enlisted Mrs. Mary Mason Fairbanks, a matron he met on the journey that he transformed into his first best-seller, Innocents Abroad, to educate him in matters of taste and refinement. "I acknowledge-I acknowledge-that I can be most laceratingly funny without being vulgar," Twain wrote in 1868 to Fairbanks, whom he almost always addressed as "Mother." His toast to "Woman" at a grand banquet the night before was "frigidly proper in language & sentiment," he reported. "Now haven't I nobly vindicated myself & shed honor upon my teacher & done credit to her teachings?" he asked her only half in jest. Mother Fairbanks had convinced him to make some alterations to Innocents Abroad, including the deletion of "offensive" language, such as slang terms and colloquialisms that might be considered vulgar, as well as "improper" allusions, such as seeing underneath ladies skirts on the ascent of Vesuvius. Although her influence began to wane after her star pupil was married, she continued to lobby for his respectability. "I'm just crazy to have him write one book of polite literature," Fairbanks admonished Livy in 1872. "I want him to show the world more of his rich, brilliant imaginings."
Twain regularly turned as well to William Dean Howells-himself a popular writer, a perceptive critic, and the respected editor of the Atlantic Monthly-for editorial advice. Howells was no less vigilant than Livy or Mrs. Fairbanks when it came to certain public proprieties, and Twain always accepted his editorial changes without a murmur. "His proof-sheets came back each a veritable 'mush of concession,' " Howells noted approvingly. "If you wanted a thing changed, very good he changed it; if you suggested that a word or a sentence or a paragraph had better be struck out, very good, he struck it out." Howells routinely struck out the profanity in Twain's magazine pieces, observing that "Now and then he would try a little stronger language than The Atlantic had stomach for."
Twain also tricked his unsuspecting wife in her role as his editor. At Quarry Farm, the family's summer home in Elmira, New York, Livy would sit on the porch and read her husband's manuscripts aloud to the children, with pencil at the ready. "[T]he children would keep an alert and suspicious eye upon her right along," Twain chuckled, "for the belief was well grounded in them that whenever she came across a particularly satisfactory passage she would strike it out." He would often deliberately create offensive passages or what he called "felicitously atrocious" remarks to entertain himself and the children, who would vigorously protest their deletion. "Now and then we gained the victory and there was much rejoicing," he confessed. "Then I privately struck the passage out myself."
* * *
Livy was known as a grand hostess. The Clemenses had built a large and luxuriously appointed home in Hartford, and they entertained regularly with lavish dinner parties for twelve people or more. "They used to have the most beautiful dinners that I ever heard of before or since," Katy remembered. "To them dinners we always had a fillet of beef and ducks as a rule, canvasback, they called them." She also recalled serving sherry, claret, and champagne, plus ice cream shaped like cherubs, flowers, and little angels. Among those invited were Hartford neighbors such as Charles and Susan Warner; and family friends such as the Howellses and Joseph and Harmony Twichell. (Twichell was the minister who had married Sam and Livy.) Many luminaries were invited, such as the famous actors Henry Irving and William Gillette; the renowned explorer Sir Henry Stanley and his wife, Dorothy Tenant, a well known English artist; and George Robinson, the governor of Connecticut, and his wife. Sam would ask his guests to tell stories and always delighted in satisfying their entreaties for tales from Mark Twain.
In an episode that reveals much about the household, Katy Leary recalled that Livy's sense of propriety was sometimes tested at these dinner parties by the butler, George. He regularly laughed out loud at all the stories and jokes that were told during dinner. In fact, he was always the first to roar at a funny line. George had other faults as well, among them his penchant for stretching the facts. Livy's patience finally snapped one day, and she fired him. The next morning she came down to breakfast to discover that the butler was at his usual post at the breakfast table.
"Why, George, I discharged you yesterday, didn't I?" she asked with some surprise.
"Well, yes, Mrs. Clemens," George replied, "you did, but I know you really couldn't get along without me, so I thought I'd just stay right on anyway."
For a more inflexible, humorless woman that would have been the last straw, but George continued to work for the family and left them after eighteen years of service only when they closed the Hartford house.
* * *
Sam and Livy had four children. The short life of their only son, Langdon Clemens, was one of the few shadows across their early years together. Langdon was born prematurely on November 25, 1870, and was always sickly. In June 1872, a little more than two months after the birth of his sister Olivia Susan on March 19, he died of diphtheria. Sam always believed that he was to blame for Langdon's death. "I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning's work," he confessed thirty-three years later in his published autobiography, "and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it." He had let the covers slip off the child during a long drive in an open carriage in April. A bad chill did not kill his son, though Sam's feelings of guilt may have intensified his grief. Both parents found some antidote for loss in their new baby, and she soon became, in Sam's words, "our wonder and our worship."
The Clemenses' second daughter, Clara Langdon, was born on June 8, 1874. While Susy was a malleable child, Sam affectionately called Clara "the sassmill," noting her irreverence and lack of deference to authority. Six years later, a third daughter was born, on July 26, 1880. Although she was named after her paternal grandmother, Jane Lampton, this was a strictly ceremonial legacy, for the youngest child was called Jean from birth. Sam joked that she had replaced her mother as "No. 1" in the stock-quotations on her sisters' "Affection Board." "I have dropped from No. 4, and am become No. 5," he quipped. "Some time ago it used to be nip and tuck between me and the cats, but after the cats 'developed' I didn't stand any more show."
Excerpted from DANGEROUS INTIMACY by KAREN LYSTRA Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Karen Lystra is Professor of American Studies at California State University at Fullerton. She is the author of Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America (1989).
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