Mark Twain and Isabel Lyon
an untold Story
By Susan Boone Durkee
Isabel Van Kleek Lyon 1863-1958
The relationship between Isabel Lyon and Mark Twain has
basically been kept a secret for nearly 70 years. How can
that be? Here is a woman about whom Twain himself said he
knew most intimately in all the world -- with the exception
of his wife, Livy.
Mark Twain first met Isabel Lyon in1892, when she was 29
and working as a Governess for a Hartford family. He encountered
her at a party while he was playing cards, and he was so charmed
by her that at the end of the evening, when invited to return,
he replied: "I'll come only if I can play with the little
When Isabel Lyon first came to work for the Clemens family
in 1902, Twain described her as "slender, petite, comely,
38 years old by the almanac, and 17 in ways and carriage and
dress." A charming woman, hard working and competent she soon
took responsibility for the entire Clemens household.
After Livy's death in 1904, Isabel became Mark Twain's secretary,
bookkeeper, household manager, social companion, literary
critic, and holder of his power of attorney. For a period
she lived at Stormfield with Twain. Supposedly her bedroom
was next to his.
Intelligent, and sensitive, Isabel worshipped Twain, referring
to him as "The King." He, in turn, called her "The Lioness."
Isabel staggered under the demands that Twain placed on her.
As Twain described her,
"Miss Lyon runs Clara, and Jean, and me, and the servants,
and the housekeeping, and the house building, and the secretary
work, and remains as extraordinarily as competent as ever."
In her diary, Isabel records:
"I have been so busy, for there is this house to look after
(The Lobster Pot), and the Tuxedo house to think and plan
for, and the Redding house to be after too, and Santa (Clara)
to love and be with when she was here and do for, and Jean
to be anxious over and to help if I can, and her doctors
to see, and the King's social life to look after - for in
these days he is very lonely and reaches out for people
- and people he must have, so now I am planning parties
Although it is said that Isabel had designs to marry Twain,
she ended up marrying married Twain's business manager, Ralph
Ashcroft, in 1909. It was an unhappy marriage and ended in
divorce in 1926.
There is no evidence that Lyon ever betrayed Twain, even
though she was paid poorly and treated badly at the end of
her service -- Twain even took back the "The Lobster Pot,"
her "darling house," which he had given her as a Christmas
gift in 1907. Still, Isabel remained devoted to him. Many
years later, she would refer to the situation as, "we had
a falling out." A young actress friend, Joyce Aaron, who lived
next to Isabel when Isabel was in her mid-nineties and living
in Brooklyn, told this to me.
What really happened between Twain and Isabel? Was it Clara's
jealous prodding? Was Twain jealous that she married Ashcroft
and not him? Did she really try to steal from Twain? Was Albert
Bigelow Paine jealous of her control of Twain? We may never
know for sure.
So why has this relationship been kept secret?
After Twain died, Clara Clemens and Albert Bigelow Paine
removed virtually all record of Isabel Lyon's existence. So
as far as the public was concerned, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon
Isabel died in 1958. She willed her diary and photos to
the Mark Twain Papers collection at the University of California,
Berkeley, with the condition that they not be open to the
public until after Clara's Death. So I guess you can say that
after Clara died, Isabel was reborn.
We all owe a lot to this woman, Isabel Lyon. Because of her
diligence in keeping a sequence of detailed journals and photos
the last years of Mark Twain's life can now be better known
2010 will bring a lot of Twain activity, with the statute
of limitations up for Twain's writing -- hundreds of unpublished
letters and documents, including the never before published,
429-page, emotionally charged Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript. Documentaries,
including "Dangerous Intimacy," and even a movie, "Remembering
Mark Twain," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, will
appear. According to the producer, Albert Ruddy (of Million
Dollar Baby), it is a sweet film and a possible Oscar contender.