Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years , by Karen Lystra
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2004)

Reviewed by Grey Fisher

Karen Lystra’s Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years is entertaining and important but not essential for our course. She writes a new, heartbreaking story of Sam Clemons’ life after the 1904 death of his beloved wife. The story centers on Clemons’ manipulation by his obsessed and controlling secretary, Isabel Lyon, and the tragic consequences of Lyon’s power for Clemons’s daughter, Jean. Lyon was hired as a secretary but soon gained incredible power in the Clemons household thanks to her seductive charms and Clemons’ self-indulgent relinquishment of responsibility in his old age. Lyon was obsessed with her boss, despite the fact that he was 28 years her senior, and desperately wanted to marry him. Clemons did not discourage his attractive worshipper’s flattery and attentions; he became completely dependent on her and confident in her good character. Unfortunately, Clemons was blind to Lyon’s malicious designs.

When Lyon was hired, she quickly realized she would have to care for Clemons’ epileptic daughter Jean, a duty she loathed because Jean stood between Lyon’s obsessive aim to develop an intimate and exclusive relationship with Twain. Therefore, Lyon took steps to have Jean sent to an institution for epileptics and, in a series of complex, dishonest manipulations, she made sure Jean was kept there. Clemons failed as a father by passively letting Lyon handle his daughter’s care and essentially ignoring his daughter’s pleas to come home. Lyon, however, actively deceived Twain and Jean’s doctor, managing to exile Jean from her own home for over three years.

Fortunately, not everyone was blind to Lyon’s true character and eventually, primarily through the efforts of Twain’s daughter, Clara, and his autobiographer, Albert Paine, the truth about Lyon was revealed; Lyon abused her position, embezzling thousands of dollars and using deception to keep Jean out of her father’s house. Ultimately, Lyon was fired and Clemons was happily reunited with Jean. Soon after, however, Jean drowned in her bath tub due to an epileptic seizure.

Lystra’s account of Twain’s final years is worth reading for several reasons, none of which however, are central to our course. First, as a story of obsession, manipulation, exile, embezzlement, and death, it has many characteristics of entertaining fiction and is hard to put down. In addition, it tells the significant story of the important women in Sam Clemons’ later life and is especially valuable in reevaluating Jean’s and Lyon’s characters. For our course, however, the book is not essential, largely because it focuses on Twain’s final years, when he has already written most of the texts covered in our class. Therefore, there is little direct overlap with the texts we read. In addition, much of the book focuses on Jean and Lyon, which is fascinating but not entirely critical for the main issues in our course.

While I do not recommend adding this book to our syllabus, it does connect to some of our class discussions and could be a helpful final paper resource. The book is especially valuable in relation to the theme of Mark Twain’s celebrity. Lystra’s text shows how Twain’s fame touched every aspect of his life; at times he indulged in it, other times it made him vulnerable, and often his family suffered because of it. For students interested in Twain as a reporter, as we saw in Roughing it, Lystra’s book is also relevant. The text often refers to press coverage of Twain and how it affected him. Ironically, considering his background, Twain refuses to offer newspapers any comment on the scandal of his final years, despite the inaccuracies of press reports and the media’s abuse of his loved ones. Finally, the text includes passages from many of Clemons’ late writings that were not written for profit. Through comparison, these later pieces can shed light on how Twain’s financial motives impacted the writings on our syllabus.

The text also provides insight into our course’s question as to where to draw the line between Mark Twain and Sam Clemons. Lystra even refers to her main character by both names, depending on the context. For example, Lyon was obsessed with Twain, but Jean desperately needed the love of Clemons. The book reveals much about Clemons’ flaws in his old age, including complacency, selfishness, and indulgence. The reader also gains a clearer understanding of Clemons as a father, husband, and friend. In addition, the text provides another glaring example, like those we saw in the Autobiography of Mark Twain chapters from class, of how easily Clemons is taken advantage of. Overall, I would recommend Lystra’s account of Twain’s final years to anyone looking for additional insight into aspects of Sam Clemons’ later life that are not focused on in our class or to those who simply enjoy a scandalous story.