The Secretary Who Knew Everything

We’ve all read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but how much do we actually know about the man who penned those famous novels? Today, Lynn Cullen, author of Mrs. Poe and the upcoming Twain’s End tells us a little bit about the materials she used to conduct her research on the mysterious and legendary American author. Turns out even back in the early 1900s, things were pretty scandalous…


Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ashcroft, the man Isabel's future husband.

Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain, and Ralph Ashcroft, Isabel’s future husband.

Mark Twain called her “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction.”

Strong words, especially against the woman who oversaw the building and furnishing of Twain’s house and washed his hair, who dealt with his daughters’ doctors and bought his clothes, who arranged his entertainments and took his dictation for his autobiography, who serenaded him on the organ for hours each night.  After hearing them, I had to know what would provoke our homespun national philosopher, a man worshipped for his wit and his championing of the underdog, into unleashing such ugly vitriol against the woman who, for nearly seven years, gave him everything she had for $50 a month: his secretary, Isabel Lyon.  He himself said that Lyon “knows everything and I find that I don’t know anything.”  (At least that was the reason he gave for taking her with him on a pleasure trip to Bermuda when eyebrows were raised.) What better place to find the truth about the pair than in the pages of Miss Lyon’s diary?

While researching TWAIN’S END, I pored over hundreds of books by or about Mark Twain.  But when it came to understanding the final decade in the life of Samuel Clemens, the man subsumed by his pen name, no reading was more revealing than Isabel Lyon’s daily journal entries.  Now housed among the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California Berkeley, Lyon’s diary became the basis of the scenes in my book and of my deciphering of the Twain-Lyon relationship.  It says a lot about the pair when she wrote that she and he listened to his daughter sing one evening, he joining Isabel in the hall… dressed only in his undershorts.   Although reporters kept asking Isabel when the May/December couple would be getting married (their closeness wasn’t lost upon the press), she wouldn’t talk about marriage in her diary—she rarely spoke of the workings of her heart—but she did take unusual care to note several instances of younger women happily consorting with older men.  She found it interesting that Twain was disgusted with a famous adulterer currently on trial, not because the man committed adultery but because he didn’t lie to protect the woman’s honor.  Little things like these earned her attention, and, when pieced together with Twain’s own writings and actions, say so much about the man–and their private relationship.

Lyon’s daily observations reveal a couple much more emotionally involved than a typical employer and secretary.  So how did they go from talk of wedding bells to becoming so estranged that Twain ranted in public about her?  My theory about the cause of their breakup can be found in TWAIN’S END—and in the pages of the hundred-year-old diary of the plucky secretary who, indeed, knew everything.

TWAIN’S END is available October 13, 2015 from Gallery Books. 

 

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