Twain’s End (Simon & Schuster) reads like a well-mannered, luxuriously long and riveting striptease involving some unhurried fumbling with whalebone corsets.
“Women were perpetually hobbled by long skirts, silly shoes, and steel-rimmed foundations,” Lynn Cullen observes in her expertly paced, fact-based novel, “but they still outran their men. Now that she thought about it, how appropriately ‘stays’ were named — it was not just flesh that was to be kept in its place.”
Lusty impulses and appetites of all kinds must be held in check, especially for image-conscious symbols of Americana like Mark Twain, who found a muse in his multitasking, omni-capable, sure-footed secretary, Isabel Lyon. So the subtle erotic suspense — there is much lingering eye contact, some carafes of high-end whisky sipped together and other acts of casual intimacy such as her washing the great man’s ruff of hair — builds throughout the novel until the affair between the two is finally, to the great relief of the reader, consummated. For a brief but glorious moment, there is honest-to-goodness, middle-aged nudity in the moonlight, and it is delivered authentically, without any overheated purple prose.
“That was conjecture on my part,” says Cullen, who will speak at the Margaret Mitchell House at 7 p.m. on October 13. “There were certain strategic items that were left out or removed from Isabel’s diary.”
But their bedrooms did adjoin each other, after all, so certain storytelling assumptions are inevitable. Yet when the couple is whispered about in the press and Lyon, to everyone’s surprise, marries Twain’s business manager, the author throws an ugly tabloid tantrum, immolating the relationship and making a mission of publicly defaming his most loyal admirer.
Those well-documented attacks on Lyon leave an irresistible paper trail for a researcher like Cullen, who first impressed us with historical novel Mrs. Poe. She draws heavily on diaries, letters, interviews and yellowing newsprint items — as well as her own keen-eyed intuition about the frisson between men and women — for historical fiction that limns the background players in large lives.
“The more I read of his attacks on Isabel, the more I thought he was clearly protesting too much and that there was something more there to explore,” she says.
Even Helen Keller makes a cameo appearance in this book as a tactile siren in a simmering threesome with Anne Sullivan Macy and her teacher’s “strong-chinned” husband. So, as in a Merchant Ivory film, the sexual tension crackles in the rarefied air among glib, charismatic geniuses, but it is starchily “kept in its place” until it erupts — with disastrous results.
“I am expecting some pushback from Twain fans who will grieve for their idol,” Cullen says, about revealing the clay feet anchoring that trademark white suit. “I’m an admirer, and it was not my intention to drag him down, but certain facts speak for themselves. He was a very tormented man with a kind heart who always fought for the underdog, but his writings near the end of his life grew increasingly angry and bitter. It’s no secret that he had a terrible temper, and some theories hold that he was probably bipolar.”
Cullen traces some of his rancor to an early trauma and draws a parallel about how the “help” ultimately gets treated in a Clemens household. “There’s definitely a connection between events in his early life and his later life,” she says.
The author’s family owned one slave named Jennie, a nurturing and beloved figure. When he was 6, his family “sold her down the river,” to a certain death, an act that traumatized his childhood, haunted his adulthood and informed his canonical social commentary on the subject of slavery.
Lyon, who was well-born but destitute, initially entered this intense, legendary tableau as a secretary to Clemens’ wife, the frail and bed-ridden Olivia. Lyon proved herself sharp and steely when playing cards, though, and gradually won Twain’s affection and respect, and he set about dictating his autobiography to her. He took Lyon on travels to Italy and Bermuda and after his wife’s death, asked her to design a house for him, with a cat waiting on its porch. She threw herself into creating the perfect lair, requisite kitty included. Clemens paid her only $50 a month and never gave her a raise. Her corsets and frocks were notably modest and threadbare.
“They went everywhere together, side by side, and it was clear to everyone that they were an item,” Cullen says. “You can see in photographs and in her diary how she clearly adored this man.”
In March of 1909, Clemens blessed the marriage of Lyon to his savvy business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Just a month later, he fired both of them and then, along with his daughter Clara, embarked on his vicious slander campaign.
“He didn’t just defame Isabel Lyon,” Cullen says. “He went ballistic and utterly destroyed her, made it a point to refer to her publicly as a ‘slut’ with wanton ways and filed a lawsuit against her for an allegation of theft. The more I read, the more I wanted to vindicate this woman and her contributions.”
Lyon lived another 40 years or so in obscurity, still sipping whisky and smoking the meerschaum pipe that Clemens gave her. She never betrayed his confidences or his secrets. Actor Hal Holbrook consulted her for his one-man Twain show, but she remained discreet and politic about her personal association with America’s most famous writer.
“She never did publicly speak out about Sam Clemens,” Cullen writes, “nor would she address her character assassination at his hands. Perhaps she thought her innocence was enough.”
Whatever went on in that storied household, its dynamics both strained and magical, Cullen has crafted an elegant tale of seduction and betrayal that stands on its own while providing some overdue context for one of our most complicated and important cultural figures.
It is almost as if Clemens applied Huck Finn’s famous declaration to his doomed relationship with his secretary: “All right then, I’ll go to hell.”