Mark Twain made a painful confession that didn’t come to light until 100 years after his death, in 2010. He’d been flattered, manipulated and fleeced by a seductress: his personal secretary, Isabel Lyon.
Twain included the confession as part of his 5,000-page autobiography and ordered that it not be published for a century after he was “dead, and unaware, and indifferent.” He wanted to speak his “whole frank mind.”
He wrote a scalding, often funny, 429-page attack on Isabel Lyon, who had been in cahoots with Twain’s self-appointed business manager, Ralph Ashcroft.
Scholars disagree about Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft. Was she Twain’s best friend, a devoted employee who relieved him of every care only to be attacked by a jealous daughter? Or were they really, as Twain called them, “a pair of degraded & sufficiently clumsy sharpers?”
Whatever the case, the 429-page screed, written as a letter to his friend William Dean Howells, had a specific purpose. A few months after Twain died in 1910, the letter accomplished its purpose.
Mark Twain Meets Isabel Lyon
Mark Twain met Lyon at a party in 1892, when she was 29 and working as a governess for a Hartford family. Paired with her at cards, he found her charming. At the end of the evening he was invited to return. “I’ll come only if I can play with the little governess,” he said.
She was the daughter of a Columbia University classics professor who died when she was 19. His death forced her to support herself and her mother.
Ten years after that card game, Twain’s wife Olivia hired Isabel Lyon to handle his correspondence, as she was too frail to do it herself anymore. Twain described her as “slender, petite, comely, 38 years old by the almanac, and 17 in ways and carriage and dress.” At first, she rarely saw the great man.
In 1903, Isabel Lyon and her mother traveled with Twain’s family to Italy and stayed in a cottage on the grounds of their villa outside Florence. Olivia then died in Italy in 1904.
Grieving, Mark Twain returned to the United States. Isabel moved in with the family in New York City, summering with them in Dublin, N.H., at the house of artist Abbott Handerson Thayer. Twain had sold the house in Hartford because the family found it too painful to live where his daughter Susy had died in 1896.
The Main Chance
Isabel Lyon realized the opportunity presented by her closeness to Twain as his secretary. She revered him, calling him the ‘King’ in her diary. She grew closer to him and gained more authority over his affairs.
Eventually, Lyon ran the household, handled his finances, edited his writing and acted as his social secretary. She also chaperoned his two surviving daughters, Clara, rebellious and difficult, and Jean, seriously ill with epilepsy.
Everyone, Twain later wrote, knew Isabel Lyon wanted to marry him. He knew it too. He described how she tried to seduce him in her silken dainties:
She would get herself up in sensuous oriental silken flimseys of dainty dyes, & stretch herself out on her bepillowed lounge in her bedroom, in studied enticing attitudes, with an arm under her head & a cigarette between her lips, & imagine herself the Star of the Harem waiting for the eunuchs to fetch the Sultan.
Touchy-Feely Isabel Lyon
She was always touching him, he complained to Howells:
…Miss Lyon is good company, agreeable company, delightful company … but there is nothing about her that invites to intimate personal contact; her caressing touch –& she was always finding excuses to apply it–arch girly-girly pats on the back of my hand & playful little spats on my cheek with her fan — & these affectionate attentions always made me shrivel uncomfortably–much as happens when a frog jumps down my bosom. Howells, I could not go to bed with Miss Lyon, I would rather have a waxwork.
“In all my (nearly) seventy-four years I have seen only the one person whom I would marry, & I have lost her,” he wrote. “Miss Lyon compares with her as a buzzard compares with a dove. (I say this with apologies to the buzzard.)”
Twain, calling himself “a born ass,” blamed himself for liking the attention.
By 1907, Mark Twain wanted to move out of New York. His biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, lived in Redding, Conn., and persuaded Twain to buy land, sight unseen, in the town. The property included a two-story saltbox house called the Lobster Pot. Twain gave it to Lyon in gratitude for her service.
Twain was touring, and left it to Lyon and an architect to build and furnish an 18-room Italianate mansion called Stormfield. (See a video of Mark Twain with Clara and Jean taken by Thomas Edison at Stormfield here.)
It was at Stormfield that Isabel Lyon met her Waterloo. She grew increasingly high-handed, spent Twain’s money lavishly and grew intimate with Ralph Ashcroft. Ashcroft had insinuated himself into Twain’s life as his business manager. But Lyon managed to alienate Clara and the servants.
Biographer Laura Skandera-Trombly, who is sympathetic to Lyon, writes:
… the most likely explanation for Clara’s ending Clemens and Lyon’s relationship was that it was beginning to resemble, much too closely for her comfort, a type of permanent union.
Karen Lystra, though, writes that an audit showed Lyon had used Twain’s money to renovate the Lobster Pot without his permission. Lystra also had evidence that she and Ashcroft duped him into granting her power of attorney in November 1908.
Matters came to a head in 1909 when the family doctor told Twain to ask Lyon and Ashcroft to account for their stewardship. Twain was indignant. Ashcroft was indignant. Clara persisted in the accusations. Finally Twain grew suspicious when he broached the subject of an audit and Ashcroft and Lyon resisted.
Twain had an audit done.
Isabel Lyon then married Ralph Ashcroft in March 1909. The next month, Twain fired her and evicted her from the Lobster Pot.
She fought back in the press and in the courts. They battled until Twain settled out of court in 1909. Ashcroft got some money and Twain got the Lobster Pot. Just before he died, Twain sent a letter to John Hays Hammond:
First & last, in one way & another, that putrescent pair cost me $50,000 — & yet I have come out ahead. For they are tied together for life, & I was the unwitting reason of it.
And he denounced Isabel Lyon bitterly. Twain called her “a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction.”
Twain penned his 429-page attack on Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft between May and October 1909. The Ashcrofts moved to Chicago. Twain died on April 21, 1910.
Three months later, Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft tried to sell a manuscript they had taken from him. They wrote a letter to Clara threatening to blackmail her if she stopped the sale. Lyon knew about Clara’s affair with her married accompanist. Clara wrote to a friend:
But Father left me one weapon to use in case they troubled me any more & I used it. –He wrote out a full description of their entire story of dishonesty which I was to publish if there was no other way to keep them quiet.
Clara sent an attorney to Chicago, who retrieved the other manuscripts they’d stolen.
The Ashcrofts moved to Montreal in 1913 and separated in the 1920s. They divorced in 1927. Isabel Lyon died December 4, 1958 in New York City.
This story last updated in 2022.
Image: Portrait of Mark Twain ca. 1905 owned by the Mark Twain Library in Redding, Conn. From Terry Ballard via Flickr. CC By 2.0.