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The following review appeared 3 March 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The only complaint this reviewer could muster about Ron Powers's superb biography of Mark Twain (Mark Twain, A Life, 2005) was the regret that Powers ended his entertaining and informed biography too soon, choosing instead to compress his narrative of the last years into a brief summation. Powers's first two books on Mark Twain were brimming with insights and a third one focusing on the final years would have formed a remarkable trilogy. That could still happen, but with Michael Shelden's extremely well-researched, carefully crafted, and highly entertaining look at Mark Twain's last few years, Twainians may have exactly what they had hoped to see from Ron Powers.
The last years of the great man's life have been the subject of controversy, scholarly assertions and counter-assertions, and endless speculation. Much of the drama has centered on the sometimes conflicting evidence of the household dynamics involving Mark Twain, his daughters Clara and Jean, his secretary Isabel Lyon, and his business manager Ralph Ashcroft, with the conflicting accounts of Hamlin Hill (Mark Twain, God's Fool, 1973) and Karen Lystra (Dangerous Intimacy, 2004) best representing the two opposing views of how those last years unfolded and what it all meant.
Hamlin Hill presented a portrait of Mark Twain as a bitter old man, his creative powers ebbing (Hill, pp. 31, 77), who kept his daughter Jean (and her homicidal urges) at arm's length (Hill, p. xxvii) and ultimately victimized his adoring secretary, Isabel Lyon, in a 400-page diatribe known as the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript (Hill, pp. 228-32). Lystra, using Jean's diaries and some evidence not available to Hill, and re-examining some of Hill's evidence, comes to the conclusion that Isabel Lyon was an emotionally disturbed and alcoholic woman (Lystra, pp. 79, 153, 222, 266), not the victim but the victimizer and that she contrived to keep Jean away from her father (Lystra, pp. 81, 83, 86, 133, 142, 153, 204), joined with Ashcroft to take control of Twain's estate, deserved the spleen-venting that Twain gave her (Lystra, pp. 220-25), and was still tampering with the evidence (her own diaries) decades later (Lystra, p. 269).
Readers of Hill's and Lystra's books, as well as other books and articles on Mark Twain's last years, have been left to choose who might be right, and most seem to arrive at some point in between, but not without some sense of confusion and frustration. In fact, with the Hill and Lystra accounts more or less defining the later years as the tragic and unhappy end of a writer in decline, it should not be surprising that Ron Powers is not the only biographer to shy away from those final chapters in the Twain biography. Clearly, there is more to the story of Twain's last years than his dysfunctional household. Shelden, undeterred by the weight of three decades of scholarly baggage and blinders, has focused on some events and relationships in Twain's life not examined in detail by Hill or Lystra. Using some new sources and a refreshing dose of common sense, Shelden carries the narrative forward to a point where most readers will gladly follow.
Shelden contends that "modern critics who so easily imagine [Twain] crippled by misfortune and blind anger forget how difficult his life had been from the beginning. He survived into his seventies for a reason. He was made of strong stuff.... he did not merely endure old age, but repeatedly demonstrated an ability to rise above its limitations and tragedies, and seek out pleasures to offset its pains" (p. xxxii). Having declared his thesis, Shelden then lays out his case in a narrative that is hard to put down, exploring both the pains and the pleasures of Twain's last years. No doubt those last years will continue to be fodder for articles, and new evidence will trickle out, but it is hard to imagine that Shelden's conclusions will invite much revision.
Having researched his subject as carefully as Hill, Lystra, or any other Twain biographer, and writing in a style that rivals Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers, Shelden begins his story with a cinemagraphic account of Twain's dazzling appearance before the hearing on copyrights in the Senate Reading Room of the Library of Congress in December, 1906 (pp. xv-xvi). Unintimidated by his surroundings, Twain removes his overcoat and reveals his white suit and consciously morphs from a popular author who wore white in season to a modern-day celebrity who has chosen to wear white year-round. This calculated act gained him attention, reinforced his fame as a unique American character, and signaled his intention to be a nonconformist to the very end. If, as William Dean Howells said of him, his literary output was less and less, his life grew more and more (p. xxx). As Shelden points out, as Twain's life grew and grew he did not become a raging embittered old man, but a resplendent literary lion who would now roar his verdicts on the moral failings of his fellow men, saying in public the same things he'd been saying or writing in private for many years to his friends such as Howells and Joe Twichell.
Shelden next takes us to one of Twain's New Year's Eve parties
where the old man, always the life of the party, appears before his guests
as the older half of a pair of Siamese twins, joined arm-in-arm with a young
fellow (Witter Bynner) playing his twin who sips whiskey from a hidden flask
while Twain delivers a temperance lecture whose stern beginning soon dissolves
into slurred speech and slapstick (p. 6). Shelden proceeds to sample the seemingly
endless succession of parties, dinners, speeches, and charitable events that
filled Twain's social calendar in his last four years. These events were frequently
populated with stunning young women (not Angelfish), and Shelden samples the
roster of beautiful young women whose company Twain regularly enjoyed -- actresses
Ethel Barrymore, Billie Burke, Margaret Illington (a rising Broadway star),
and later on Elinor Glyn (the author, who had a frank talk with Twain about
adultery) (pp. 10, 178, 188-93, 235). The chapters that follow explore the
personal pleasures and financial benefits of Twain's friendship with Henry
("Hell Hound") Rogers, and provide abundant and damning background
on Rogers's business activities that Twain chose to overlook out of his personal
gratitude and friendship (pp. 41-65, 354-58). Shelden chronicles the delight
Twain took in attacking Mary Baker Eddy's terrible writing style and her cult
status (he was less critical of the basic tenants of her Christian Science
church), and just as he did with Rogers, provides an excellent context for
Twain's attack by providing background information on other attacks that were
taking place against Eddy and her church at the same time (pp. 67-76). Twain
is observed enjoying the company of striking young women, exploiting the friendships
of wealthy cronies, and blasting away with gusto at public figures such as
Mary Baker Eddy. These pursuits surely count as pleasures, and who among us
knew that Twain was casting spells of his own on a young actress (Billie Burke)
who would later become the Good Witch of "The Wizard of Oz."
Good Witches are not the only surprises in Shelden's story. Along the way, people as diverse as T. S. Eliot (p. 230) and Zero Mostel (p. 156) pop up in connection with various aspects of Twain's life. We learn that Bram Stoker, who knew Twain, makes use of one of Twain's aphorisms in Dracula (p. 123). One unexpected surprise is Twain's near entanglement with the "Trial of the Century." Even those familiar with Twain's biography may be surprised to learn that Twain was a prospective juror in the sensational trial of Harry Thaw for the murder of Stanford White (the famous architect who seduced Thaw's wife, the beautiful Evelyn Nesbit, before her marriage). Twain's friend, the publisher Robert Collier had also dated Nesbit, but Thaw's defense attorney Martin Littleton was a friend and neighbor of Twain, and after a visit with Twain one night, Twain's name was removed from the list of prospective jurors (pp. 193-99). Another surprise might be Twain's cordial friendship with Mrs. Peck, Woodrow Wilson's mistress. Twain saw both Peck and Wilson in Bermuda and spent a good deal of time with them both, although he may not have known the full extent of their relationship (pp. 200-13). Twain managed to steer clear of these public scandals, although he seemed to thrive when controversies provided him a public forum.
While Twain's busy social life was filled with pleasures, things were not going well at home. His daughter Jean was increasingly frustrated by her fading marriage prospects and viewed her epilepsy no differently than did her family or society -- as a personal deficiency. At the same time, her sister Clara was carrying on a barely concealed affair (p. 262) with her accompanist Charles Wark (a married man) while her rocky on-again/off again romance with her eventual husband, the pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, simmered in the background. Twain, too busy enjoying himself to be troubled with problems on the home front, was only too happy to hand more and more responsibility to his trusted secretary, Isabel Lyon, whose boundless adoration of her employer not only offset her slave wages, but lulled her into considering herself a member of the family and mistress of the household. Twain soon brought Albert Bigelow Paine on board to write his official biography, and increasingly came to depend on Ralph Ashcroft for his personal business services, all without questioning how either man could devote such attention to Twain's business and personal life without compensation (p. 179).
Not even his personal finances grabbed Twain's attention except when things went wrong; he otherwise had a curious hands-off approach. Although Twain had been easily distracted by investment opportunities all of his life, once Rogers got him out of debt from the failures of the Paige typesetter and the Webster Publishing Company, he not only turned over his personal finances to Isabel Lyon, but he also put her in charge of overseeing the building of his new mansion in Redding, Connecticut, and entrusted her with the household cash accounts. He left it to her to manage the servants, manage Jean's doctors, and even handle his correspondence with Jean. He put Lyon in charge of paying Clara whatever was needed to further her aspirations as a singer. When the Knickerbocker Bank failed, Twain's savings were at risk of being wiped out, but that crisis soon passed, and he continued to leave his financial matters in Lyon's (and later Ashcroft's) hands, as well as Jean's welfare. Lyon's rank in the household was so prominent it is no wonder that rumors of a Twain-Lyon marriage seemed plausible to the press. Only when Clara tired of Lyon's tight-fisted attitude toward her expensive life-style and demanded an examination of her father's finances did the nefarious activities of Lyon and Ashcroft come to light.
That's when the pleasure stops and the pain begins, and it's sorely tempting to delve into the details of this drama and compare the various conclusions of Hill, Lystra, and Shelden at every twist and turn, as those events unfolded. Shelden draws a deft portrait of Clara, displaying both her strengths and her frequently unstable personality (p. 232), but she is not much different from the Clara already familiar to readers of Hill and Lystra. He brings Jean back to life on his pages, and although she is physically and intellectually vigorous, Shelden doesn't ignore her self-doubts; but like Clara, she is not much different from her portrayal in the works of Hill and Lystra. Shelden presents Isabel Lyon as the tragic figure she was, in all her melodramatic, alcoholic, idol-worshipping, and conniving splendor, capturing both the sympathetic elements of her personality that Hill first gave us, as well as showing us the contriving shrew whose deceptions were enumerated by Lystra (pp. 175-76, 251, 257, 260, 327, 362). But the plot thickens when Shelden gets around to Ralph Ashcroft, and he presents a fuller portrait of Ashcroft's malicious personality and his destructive role in the household than any biographer before him. Shelden's evidence hints that Ashcroft may have pocketed huge amounts of money supposedly "lost" by his clients (including Twain) on large stock purchases he made on their behalf. He leaves no doubt that it was Ashcroft who planted newspaper stories about Clara's affair with Wark (pp. 262-63) to extort Clara. Ashcroft's calculated seduction of Isabel Lyon (p. 296) casts Lyon in the role of an innocent victim, and there is even some suggestion that she may have been coerced, at least at the beginning, into helping her husband in his financial chicanery (p. 260 et seq.). Ashcroft's final blunder was his bragging about his power over Twain's finances (through a power of attorney he tricked Twain into signing) (pp. 293, 358-59), and his arrogance and insolence comes into even sharper focus after he and Lyon are exposed and ejected from the household.
Despite all the attention focused on them, the household dramas did not dominate Twain's last years in the way they dominate biographical and scholarly examinations of those years, and Shelden must be given credit for establishing a refreshing and long over-due balance in how we see those years. Besides several photographs that will be new to even the most devoted Twainians, readers will discover new insights from reading Shelden's accounts (all shimmering with new details) of Twain's enthusiastic involvement with a settlement house called the Educational Alliance (pp. 155-62), the fun Twain had with the composition and controversy of _Is Shakespeare Dead?_ (pp. 316-25), the full story of Twain's vigorous responses to the Stormfield burglary (pp. 267-85), Helen Keller's visit to Twain's home and his empathetic reaction to her keen mind and charming perceptiveness (pp. 311-16), and his stair-race with Texas Ranger Bill McDonald (pp. 181-82). Finally, Twain scholars will want to take their own measure of Shelden's fresh assessment of the literary merits of the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript of which he says "as rants go... it is a gem.... one of the best examples of Mark Twain uncensored" (pp. 360-64).
Is this book flawless? Of course not, but neither are Twain's own works. Despite this reviewer's best efforts, only a handful of trivial faults could be found, and are mentioned here strictly for the record. Shelden says the fire that destroyed Stormfield left just one brick chimney standing (p. 414) but it actually left four. He says that Livy died before the sale of the Hartford home (p. 25), but the home was sold in May, 1903, and Livy did not die until June, 1904. He slightly misquotes one minor source (p. 157, footnote 19). The photograph of Twain posing with a pistol after the burglary (p. 266) is reversed, an irritating historical inaccuracy (Twain was right-handed, not left-handed) for which Shelden's Random House editors must take the bullet.
In the last four years of his life Twain "built a mansion... survived a burglary by a couple of gun-toting thieves, enjoyed flirtatious friendships with some of the prettiest actresses on Broadway, debated female sexuality with the woman who coined the phrase "the It girl," helped a group of slum children start a theater, entertained a Texas Ranger, stayed out until four in the morning partying with show-girls and dancing dogs, explored Bermuda, pretended that he had been lost at sea, joked with the king and queen of England on the grounds of Windsor Castle, recited Romantic poetry to society ladies at the Waldorf-Astoria, used his influence to avoid being called for jury duty in the ragtime era's "Trial of the Century," taught little girls how to play billiards and cards, published books on heaven and Shakespeare, and almost allowed himself to be swindled out of everything he had." (pp. xxv-xxvi). These are not the events we associate with anybody's twilight years, and if Twain's pleasures didn't outweigh his pains toward the end of his life, they certainly balanced things off.
Shelden winds down his story with an epilogue that recounts
the fates of some of the major players in Twain's final years, ending with
a brief account of the actor Hal Holbrook's meetings with Clara Clemens and
Isabel Lyon in their own last years. Shelden closes his story with a comment
on Holbrook's impersonation of Twain, saying that his performances have made
it possible for audiences "to imagine for a moment that Mark Twain had
never left" (p. 417). Michael Shelden's book will do the same for those
who read it.