Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. By Karen Lystra. University of California Press, 2004. Pp. xxi + 342. Hardcover. $27.50. ISBN 0-520-23323-9.

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The following review appeared 16 June 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed by
Barbara Schmidt

Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years is the most significant study of this period of Twain's life since Hamlin Hill wrote God's Fool in 1973. Lystra draws from letters, diaries, and Twain's own body of work known as the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript to reconstruct the dynamics of the relationships between Twain and his daughters Jean and Clara, his secretary Isabel Lyon, his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft. In the final analysis Lystra presents conclusions that differ significantly from previous studies of Twain's final years.

The primary focus of Dangerous Intimacy is on Twain's youngest daughter Jean Clemens who was born in 1880. Lystra chronicles Jean's battle with epilepsy which began in 1896, Twain's inability to cope with the illness after his wife Livy died in 1904, and the maneuvering of Isabel Lyon to distance Jean from her father after Livy's death. Social prejudices and fears of epileptics prevailed and treatment often consisted of isolation from society at large. Livy, who bore the brunt of Jean's care, made every effort to retain Jean within the family social circle. Livy's health declined during what Twain described as the "fiendish" years of dealing with Jean's illness. At the end of 1902, Isabel Lyon was hired to assist Livy as a personal secretary. After Livy's death in 1904, the family structure changed and Jean's oversight fell to Lyon, a woman who worshiped and idolized Twain and held onto the hope of leading him to the altar.

Jean was sent to a sanitarium in Katonah, New York in 1906. This first long-term separation from her father since 1896 would stretch into three years. Lystra assumes the role of a prosecutor as she connects the dots of many (sometimes circumstantial) pieces of evidence and presents damning arguments to convict Lyon of robbing Jean of three years away from her father. While Jean was in the sanitarium and a string of other homes, Lyon censored and controlled communications with her father, consulted with her doctors, and controlled her meager allowance. Lystra does not spare the horse-whip in describing Isabel Lyon: she is "the Janus-headed mediator among daughter, physician, and father" (p. 81); she "spent freely--and drank cocktails in the same style" (p. 138); "clothes, furniture, and flashy accessories called to her like a siren song" (p. 147); she was an "accomplished manipulator" (p. 204). These accusations stand in sharp contrast to Hill who wrote of Lyon, "Her mistake was in not questioning whether Clemens' loyalty to her was as compelling and powerful as her loyalty to him" (Hill, p. 241).

Ralph Ashcroft entered Twain's entourage in 1907 when he served as a traveling companion to Oxford, England. Ashcroft ingratiated himself as an unpaid advisor and subsequently established himself as an officer of the Mark Twain Company. He later married Lyon, at her request, when it appeared that her position in the family was in peril due to concerns of Twain's daughter Clara over the way the family fortune, along with her father, was being manipulated. Regarding Ashcroft, Lystra writes that he was guilty of "snake-oil salesmanship of the highest order" (p. 209) and was a "fabulous counterfeiter" (p. 215) and "trickster who discarded facts as easily as candy wrappers" (p. 215). Hill, on the other hand, characterized Ashcroft as "the son of an English Congregational minister" (Hill, p. 101) who "took no recorded advantage" of his position with Clemens (Hill, p. 241).

Lystra gives careful scrutiny to the rise and fall of Lyon and Ashcroft within the Clemens household, and the jousting for favored position with biographer Paine whose unanswered advantage was his skill at playing billiards with the boss. The tangled web of legal documents, disputed signatures, questionable finances, and gifts of real estate is not an easy story to relate and Lystra does it competently. The eventual firing of Lyon and the triumphant return of Jean Clemens to the family home are a fitting climax to Lystra's story. In the aftermath of Lyon's firing, Lystra chronicles Ashcroft's manipulation of the New York Times to cause embarrassment to Twain and Clara Clemens and how these actions impacted Twain's composition of the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript.

Lystra's version of what actually happened differs from Hamlin Hill's on at least six key points:

  1. Hill accepted the version of Isabel Lyon's diary that indicates Jean tried to kill housekeeper Katy Leary, thus hastening and justifying Jean's banishment from the household. Lystra rejects the theory that Jean intentionally tried to kill Leary and claims Lyon's diaries were revised after the fact.

  2. Hill stated, "Nothing in the surviving record indicates that Miss Lyon was instrumental in keeping father and daughter apart" (Hill, p. 215). Lystra quotes Lyon, "Jean Clemens and I can never live under the same roof, which means that she can never come home" (p. 139).

  3. Regarding a disputed general power of attorney given to Ralph Ashcroft and Isabel Lyon, Hill wrote: "Possibly, as he [Twain] claimed, the signatures were obtained and notarized by fraud; more likely, they were placed on documents when he was so befuddled and indifferent that he could confuse his own ennui with 'hypnosis' " (Hill, p, 241). Lystra believes the disputed power of attorney was a "pirated" document and that Twain was in full possession of his mental capabilities when it was drawn up (p. 187).

  4. Hill suggested that an interview given by Ashcroft and published in the New York Times on September 13, 1909 wherein Ashcroft claimed Twain had signed a document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft of any blame for conduct while in his employ indicated the extent and complexity involved in the affair (Hill, p. 239). Lystra contends Ashcroft's interview was a web of lies and "journalism at its worst" (p. 216) and that "Twain never signed any document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft" (p. 215).

  5. Hill stated, "Clemens broke his silence and composed a public statement about the Ashcrofts" (Hill, p. 240). Lystra states, "He even composed a letter to the Associated Press, which he never intended to have published" (p. 225); "He made no statement to the press" (p. 239). Lystra relates that Twain sent Paine to protest in person to Adolph Ochs, publisher of the New York Times.

    The theory that Clemens never made a public statement following Lyon's firing is crucial to Lystra's interpretations regarding the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript. While both Hill and Lystra reference a letter addressed to Melville Stone (General Manager of the Associated Press) dated September 14, 1909, the question arises whether or not the letter was ever sent or actually used by Stone.

  6. Hill wrote of the 429-page Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, "The manuscript is a geyser of bias, vindictiveness, and innuendo ... it ends with a quite irrelevant and almost irrational comment about Peary and Cook both discovering the North Pole" (Hill, p. 231). Lystra claims the manuscript is the "most sustained and important writing of his final years"; "most maligned and misunderstood work" (219); a "confession that he abandoned his own daughter" (p. 220). Lystra explains that in the Peary and Cook controversy Twain recognized a parallel to his own situation with the Ashcrofts--writing privately about discoveries rather than publicizing them. In Twain's situation, he failed to press his claims and suspicions against Ashcroft and Lyon publicly in print.

Providing a theory of how Twain fell so completely under the Lyon and Ashcroft spell, Lystra explains "learned helpless syndrome" (p. 230)--a condition identified by modern behavioral psychologists where a person comes to think and act with total dependence upon a caretaker.

In concluding her book, Lystra discusses how Lyon attempted to revise her original diaries decades later with a possible intent of publishing them. Lyon made revisions to original entries in inks that are easily distinguished from the original. Lyon "rewrote" the original diary for January 3 - June 22, 1906, silently incorporating the changes. On two occasions Lystra has found that Lyon made revisions to strengthen the impression of Jean Clemens as a homicidal killer. This version of the diary is now owned by the University of Texas. In fairness to Hamlin Hill, Lystra acknowledges this version was not available to him in 1973. The original diaries with revisions were given to Doris Webster who produced a typescript--yet another variant. Researchers who quote from Lyon's diaries should take heed to note which version they are using. Other positive points in Lystra's book include the publication of "Death of Jean" in its original form for the first time. Previous printings were edited by Paine.

Lystra's book is not without flaws. In at least one instance, a quote from one of Jean's letters is construed as complimentary of her father, when a complete reading of the passage reveals it may be otherwise. In an attempt to show that the reunion between father and daughter in 1909 was harmonious, Lystra quotes from Jean, "For, although he is very good and generous, when he has an idea in his head, it's like melting marble with a piece of ice to make him change his mind!!" (p. 242). Lystra does not provide her reader with the immediate preceding passage, "You have to do certain things to earn a living and I have to do others in order that my father shall not grow too angry and tell me to go to the devil."

Lystra writes that a final settlement was reached between Twain and the Ashcrofts on September 26 [1909] when ties were legally severed but she does not reference a source or document for this statement nor explain what the settlement entailed (p. 239). Lystra's failure to tie up this loose end in a neat package is disappointing. Lystra's book also lacks a discussion of the history of ownership and legal skirmishes surrounding the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript after Twain's death.

For a scholar to make accusations of deception and forgery--as in Lystra's case against Ralph Ashcroft--it seems reasonable to expect that she carefully examined the specific original documents she questions. A weakness of Dangerous Intimacy is that Lystra failed to investigate or secure expert or scientific testimony to support her claims of fraudulent legal documents. She gives no indication she ever examined the notorious power of attorney given to Ashcroft and Lyon. Lystra's chapter 17 "False Exoneration," is built on the theory that Ashcroft concocted lies and manipulated documents for publicity in the New York Times. Lystra calls a promissory note from Ashcroft to Twain for $982.47 on behalf of Lyon a "phony legal document" (p. 213). Yet, she never acknowledges examining the original copy or its signature. She describes a discharge of all indebtedness signed by Twain, Clara, Jean and Paine as "nonexistent" (p. 214) and states "Twain never signed any document acquitting Mrs. Ashcroft" (p. 215). Yet these documents existed. Records indicate they are in the Detroit Public Library along with the original "pirated" power of attorney. If Lystra ever examined these documents there is no discussion of her doing so. The burden of proof is on Lystra. Her theories and speculations are compelling. But they do not rise to the level of facts, especially when she has neglected to examine the original documents most important to her allegations of fraud. Her apparent lack of curiosity hurts her case just as she is going in for the kill.

Overall, Lystra's disagreements with Hill are significant. Some scholars define Hill's role in Twain scholarship as that of a skeptic who questioned Twain's claims and actions (more so than Lyon's). Lystra has placed much of her trust in Twain's testimony and the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript. Lystra's view is indispensable for interpreting the fundamental truth of Twain's intent to bare his soul in confessing the wrongs he did to his daughter Jean. Her interpretation of the Peary Cook passage is to be commended. Her book is a valid defense of an aging Twain and a well-reasoned attack on Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft. As to Hamlin Hill and other scholars who have dismissed the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, Lystra concludes that, "Doubtless Twain would have raged at the gullible establishment ... laughed at his failure to convince them that his most humiliating confessions were true" (p. 272). Dangerous Intimacy adds a new voice to the way we understand Twain's final years and his last major work written just months prior to his death.