Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mark Twain's Other Woman

During his lifetime, Mark Twain was arguably the most famous man in the world. As such, he was very conscious of the public image that guaranteed him a secure income stream on the lecture tour any time he needed to tap into it. And because Twain had a habit of losing money to unwise investment decisions, the money he earned from public appearances was crucial if he was to maintain the lifestyle to which he and his family had become so accustomed. Toward the end of his life, Mark Twain became increasingly concerned about how he would be remembered after his death, and he was determined that nothing would tarnish his image at that late date. He achieved that goal - until now.

Laura Skandera Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years, a book some sixteen years in-the-making, gives a very different picture of Twain than the one with which fans of his writing are familiar. Twain's last decade, particularly after his wife's death, was not a happy time for him. He was lonely man concerned that the soon-to-expire copyrights on his earliest works would cause him great financial difficulty. One of his daughters, Jean, suffered so greatly with epilepsy that she spent months at a time living in medical facilities where she could be closely monitored and treated. His other surviving daughter, Clara, was a somewhat spoiled free spirit who often flaunted her disregard for the sexual mores of the times. Because in this period epilepsy was still considered to be a shameful and socially damaging condition to have in one's family tree, Twain was as concerned about the truth of Jean's problems becoming public knowledge as he was about Clara's behavior becoming commonly known.

Into this mix, came Isabel Van Kleek, a woman who first met Mark Twain as his whist partner but would eventually spend six years working for him as a personal secretary, manager, and confidant. Twain would, in fact, live for only one year after ending his relationship with Van Kleek. Trombley largely used Isabel Van Kleek's personal papers and letters to recreate the six years during which Van Kleek lived with the Twain family and became intimately involved in their affairs.

Isabel Van Kleek was an ambitious woman and she always believed that she deserved more status in life than she had been granted. There is little doubt that she attached herself to Mark Twain with the initial intent of bettering her place in life. She sincerely loved the man and would have gladly become his wife if Twain had been so inclined. She was, however, not above taking advantage of her relationship with him to secure some future revenue for herself after his death - having even been granted, at one point, full power of attorney on his behalf plus a royalty percentage in a book of Twain's letters she was to edit and have published after he died. Twain depended on Van Kleek to set his schedule, screen his visitors, decide his menus, purchase his clothing, arrange his travel, and to do everything else involved with his day-to-day world.

Laura Skandera Trombley
Van Kleek, though, managed to make a mortal enemy of Clara Clemens and that would be her downfall because Mark Twain, wanting to avoid public scandal at all costs, sided with his daughter in a campaign to intimidate Van Kleek into keeping silent about her relationship with Twain and his family. Twain, ever the master of fiction, even concocted well-developed lies with which to ruin the woman's reputation. The relationship between Clara and Van Kleek was so poisonous that Clara could not let go of it even after Isabel Van Kleek died in 1959, continuing to disparage Isabel's reputation right up to the time of her own death in 1962.

Mark Twain's Other Woman is a remarkably revealing book about one of the most fascinating writers and characters the world has ever seen. Realistically, the self-serving cover-up perpetuated by Mark Twain and his daughter taints his image far more than the truth of the situation could have ever done in the long term. Twain, however, was a man of his times and he did not believe the public was ready to hear the truth about a relationship that seems, in retrospect, so tame today. This is a "must read" for Mark Twain fans.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. I've never been a huge Twain fan but I certainly appreciate his place as a great American author. I really want to read this biography and will appreciate the insight into his life. I've heard loads of good things about this one.

  2. I've always been fascinated by Twain, Kathleen, but I almost wish I hadn't learned so much about how dysfunctional his family was after Libby's death and how willingly he set out to destroy a woman's reputation by lying and exaggerating the truth about her.