Cover image for Dangerous intimacy : the untold story of Mark Twain's final years
Dangerous intimacy : the untold story of Mark Twain's final years
Lystra, Karen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, [2004]

Physical Description:
xxi, 342 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1260 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
PS1332 .L97 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
PS1332 .L97 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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 Intimacy relates 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.

Author Notes

Karen Lystra is Professor of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Among the vast archive of documents in the Mark Twain Papers at UC-Berkeley is Twain's memoir fragment about his former personal secretary and his ex-business manager whom he accused of turning him into "another stripped & forlorn King Lear." While Twain left this scathing piece unpublished, and his surviving daughter drew a posthumous veil over the near-scandal that had erupted when Twain fired the two amid accusations of financial impropriety, Lystra (professor of American Studies, California State University at Fullerton) recounts the family drama that took place during Twain's last decade. Isabel Lyon joined the Clemens household in 1902 as the writer's secretary, a few years before her future husband, Ralph Ashcroft, started managing Twain's business affairs. Using Lyon's diaries and notebooks, which have been mostly neglected by previous scholars, Lystra shows how ardently Lyon tried to make herself indispensable and implies that she was instrumental in alienating Twain's affections from his daughter Jean, who was institutionalized for three years for her poorly understood epilepsy; the book's saddest chapters explore the state of psychiatry and the prejudices of the time. Twain's eventual reliance on Lyon and Ashcroft brought them into conflict with his daughter Clara, who finally accused them of embezzlement. Although an independent audit turned up no evidence, Twain turned on them for supposedly tricking him into giving them power of attorney over the Mark Twain Company. Despite Twain's Lear-like railings (to which Lystra gives more credence than other scholars), Lystra brings no proof that Lyon was Machiavellian. 21 b&w photos not seen by PW. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This gripping examination of Twain's later life recounts a family drama so fantastic it reads like the subplot of a daytime soap opera. After the death of his beloved wife, Livy, in 1904, Twain allowed himself to fall increasingly under the spell of his charming younger secretary, Isabel Lyon. With flattery, deception, and the elderly Twain's complicity, Lyon managed to wrest control of his household and finances from him and his family. Under the guise of sparing the famous author unnecessary anxiety over trivial matters, Lyon took over management of Twain's checkbook, spending his money freely on herself as she castigated his daughters' every expense. Lyon schemed with Twain's assistant (and her future husband) Ralph Ashcroft, as he duped the writer into unwittingly signing over power of attorney to them. Most tragically, Lyon's machinations kept Twain's loving, epileptic daughter Jean isolated in sanitariums for years and cut her off from direct contact with her father. For all its intrigue and melodrama, this is a remarkably powerful and moving study. Lystra (California State Univ., Fullerton) manages to present Twain as a sympathetic, Lear-like figure who is the victim of his own age and vanity. Not everyone will agree with this portrayal, but Lystra's well-researched pseudo-potboiler should be a welcome addition to most literature collections.-William D. Walsh, Georgia State Univ., Atlanta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Lystra (California State Univ., Fullerton) disputes the myth of Twain's (i.e., Clemens's) late-life despair through a convincing examination of offbeat materials surrounding a plot to gain control of Clemens's estate, Twain's manuscript about that drama, and the diary of Clemens' daughter, Jean. An epileptic, Jean was abandoned by Twain and banished to wretched conditions by Twain's secretary Isabel Lyon, who yearned to be Clemens's paramour and conspired to take over his estate. Finally, Jean is rescued and Twain enjoys a brief happy time with her before her death by drowning during a seizure. Twain's part in the imbroglio was painfully inept, and Lystra's telling reveals Twain's complicity and abdication of parental responsibility--a complicity he admitted and which powered a furious energy of writing in his last year. Lystra finds evidence of Twain's enthusiasms and prejudices where others have seen despair, but Jean's story remains a heart-wrenching betrayal. Debunking Hamlin Hill's Mark Twain: God's Fool (CH, Dec'73), the dominant interpretation of Twain's last years, Lystra finds logic behind Twain's moods and brings into focus Twain's huge manuscript about the affair and some misunderstood minor works. Rational, detailed, and solidly documented, this is important reading. ^BSumming Up: Highly recommended. Graduate students through faculty; general readers. D. E. Sloane University of New Haven

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
A Note on Namesp. xxi
1. Mark Twain--and Sam's Womenp. 1
2. Heartbreakp. 20
3. Rearranging the Householdp. 45
4. Looking for Lovep. 59
5. A Pact with the Devilp. 80
6. Life in the Sanitariump. 88
7. Someone to Love Him and Pet Himp. 100
8. A Viper to Her Bosomp. 110
9. Innocence at Homep. 123
10. Stormfieldp. 134
11. An American Learp. 146
12. Illusions of Lovep. 159
13. Unravelingp. 171
14. The Exile Returnsp. 179
15. Confrontationp. 191
16. A Formidable Adversaryp. 199
17. False Exonerationp. 207
18. The Funniest Joke in the Worldp. 218
19. Melting Marble with Icep. 234
20. The End of My Autobiographyp. 243
Epilogue: How Little One May Tellp. 263
Notesp. 275
Indexp. 325