The purpose of this project is to celebrate Samuel L. Clemens' life in Redding, Connecticut by documenting and showcasing his time here in multiple formats both online and offline. Your donations & site sponsorships will help me dedicate more time to these projects and allow me to get them online sooner.

Monday, August 31

Mark Twain and Isabel Lyon

Mark Twain and Isabel Lyon
an untold Story
By Susan Boone Durkee

Isabel Van Kleek Lyon 1863-1958

The relationship between Isabel Lyon and Mark Twain has basically been kept a secret for nearly 70 years. How can that be? Here is a woman about whom Twain himself said he knew most intimately in all the world -- with the exception of his wife, Livy.

Mark Twain first met Isabel Lyon in 1892, when she was 26 and working as a Governess for a Hartford family. He encountered her at a party while he was playing cards, and he was so charmed by her that at the end of the evening, when invited to return, he replied: "I'll come only if I can play with the little Governess."

When Isabel Lyon first came to work for the Clemens family in 1902, Twain described her as "slender, petite, comely, 38 years old by the almanac, and 17 in ways and carriage and dress." A charming woman, hard working and competent she soon took responsibility for the entire Clemens household.

After Livy's death in 1904, Isabel became Mark Twain's secretary, bookkeeper, household manager, social companion, literary critic, and holder of his power of attorney. For a period she lived at Stormfield with Twain. Supposedly her bedroom was next to his.

Intelligent, and sensitive, Isabel worshipped Twain, referring to him as "The King." He, in turn, called her "The Lioness." Isabel staggered under the demands that Twain placed on her. As Twain described her,

"Miss Lyon runs Clara, and Jean, and me, and the servants, and the housekeeping, and the house building, and the secretary work, and remains as extraordinarily as competent as ever."

In her diary, Isabel records:

"I have been so busy, for there is this house to look after (The Lobster Pot), and the Tuxedo house to think and plan for, and the Redding house to be after too, and Santa (Clara) to love and be with when she was here and do for, and Jean to be anxious over and to help if I can, and her doctors to see, and the King's social life to look after - for in these days he is very lonely and reaches out for people - and people he must have, so now I am planning parties for him."

Although it is said that Isabel had designs to marry Twain, she ended up marrying married Twain's business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, in 1909. It was an unhappy marriage and ended in divorce in 1926.

There is no evidence that Lyon ever betrayed Twain, even though she was paid poorly and treated badly at the end of her service -- Twain even took back the "The Lobster Pot," her "darling house," which he had given her as a Christmas gift in 1907. Still, Isabel remained devoted to him. Many years later, she would refer to the situation as, "we had a falling out." A young actress friend, Joyce Aaron, who lived next to Isabel when Isabel was in her mid-nineties and living in Brooklyn, told this to me.

What really happened between Twain and Isabel? Was it Clara's jealous prodding? Was Twain jealous that she married Ashcroft and not him? Did she really try to steal from Twain? Was Albert Bigelow Paine jealous of her control of Twain? We may never know for sure.

So why has this relationship been kept secret?

After Twain died, Clara Clemens and Albert Bigelow Paine removed virtually all record of Isabel Lyon's existence. So as far as the public was concerned, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon never existed.

Isabel died in 1958. She willed her diary and photos to the Mark Twain Papers collection at the University of California, Berkeley, with the condition that they not be open to the public until after Clara's Death. So I guess you can say that after Clara died, Isabel was reborn.

We all owe a lot to this woman, Isabel Lyon. Because of her diligence in keeping a sequence of detailed journals and photos the last years of Mark Twain's life can now be better known to all.

2010 will bring a lot of Twain activity, with the statute of limitations up for Twain's writing -- hundreds of unpublished letters and documents, including the never before published, 429-page, emotionally charged Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript. Documentaries, including "Dangerous Intimacy," and even a movie, "Remembering Mark Twain," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, will appear. According to the producer, Albert Ruddy (of Million Dollar Baby), it is a sweet film and a possible Oscar contender.

View photos of Isabel and her house "The Lobster Pot" at:

View information on Mark Twain's final years in Redding, Connecticut via the History of Redding web site.

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Monday, August 17

2009 Mark Twain Library Book Fair

The Annual Mark Twain Book Fair is September 4 - September 7. Daily from 9am to 5pm. Redding Community Center, Lonetown Road (Route 107) Redding CT. Free parking, no admission fee (early buying Friday 9am-10am $10 fee), bargains abound, air-conditioned comfort, handicapped accessible, refreshments sold.

This is "officially" the 49th Annual Fair but the fund raising concept of the fair dates way back to the very beginnning. Coley Taylor described the early days of the fair in his recollections published by American Heritage in 1985 "Our Neighbor, Mark Twain":

"Mark Twain donated a large number of books from his own collection to the library. They were housed in the seldom used old chapel facing the ancient but still used Umpawaug Cemetery. A librarian was on hand Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Twain secured donations from many friends, including Andrew Carnegie, and publishers. At a meeting to promote the library on October 7, 1908, he read a statement that he had composed for the occasion.

There was a woman's group that met fairly often to sew clean strips of rags of all colors and fabrics for making braided rugs to sell at an annual fair for the library building fund. We children went to the meetings too; there were no baby-sitters then; we could roll the long strips into balls. It was my job to turn the ice-cream freezer for the cake-and-ice cream binge later.

The annual fair was held in August to attract the summer people, who would leave for their homes by Labor Day. There were not many in Redding but the lake resorts near Danbury and a noted summer colony in nearby Ridgefield provided the necessary crowds, together with local residents. All kinds of things were sold at the fair: cakes, pies, jellies, pickles, canned fruits in glass jars, salads, the rag rugs, and second hand furniture, which was grabbed up as antiques. A long picnic table under a tent was loaded with food, provided luncheon for the guests- at a price, of course."


The following weekend is the 58th Annual Redding Antique Car Show at Lonetown Farm.

Wednesday, August 12

Linking Connecticut Towns to Mark Twain

I grew up in Redding, yet it was not until a recent discovery that I realized there was a connection between Redding and Easton outside of each town originally being a part of the Town of Fairfield and the Region #9 school district [Joel Barlow High School]. As I was digging through the Mark Twain Library archives last winter out popped a note about Samuel L. Clemens and his home written by Helen Keller in 1909. Having wondered why Helen Keller was named for the Middle School in Easton and feeling a little guilty for the jokes we made about the name in middle school I was drawn to the entry in his guestbook:

"I have been in Eden three days and I saw a King. I knew he was a King the minute I touched him. Though I had never touched a King before."

-A Daughter of Eve
Helen Keller, January 11, 1909

Ms. Keller was a fan of Redding, CT and the man known to the World as Mark Twain! After all she refers to Redding as "Eden" and Twain as a "King".

Several more file cabinets later I found the photo below:

In case it is tough to read I'll quote it:

"I have visited Stormfield [Twain's home in Redding] since Mark Twain's death [April,1910]. The flowers still bloom; the breezes still whisper and sough in the cedars, which have grown statelier year by year; the birds still sing, they tell me. But for me the place is bereft of its lover. The last time I was there, the house was in ruins. Only the great chimney was standing, a charred pile of bricks in the bright autumn landscape."

This is likely after 1923 when Stormfield burnt to the ground during renovation work.

During her lifetime, Helen Keller lived in many different places—Tuscumbia, Alabama; Cambridge and Wrentham, Massachusetts; Forest Hills, New York, but perhaps her favorite residence was her last, the house in Easton, Connecticut she called "Arcan Ridge."

The same can be said about Samuel L. Clemens...He too fell in love with his final residence and himself wrote:

"I bought this farm of 200 acres three years ago, on the suggestion of Albert Bigelow Paine [Biographer], who said its situation and surroundings would content me- a phophecy which came true 3 years later when I arrived on the grounds. John Howells, Architect + Clara Clemens + Miss Lyons planned the house without help or advice from me + began to build it in June 1907. When I arrived a year later it was all finished + furnished + swept + garnished + it was as homey + cozy + comfortable as if it had been occupied for a generation. This was the 18th of June of the present year [1908] I only came to spend the summer, but I shan't go away anymore."
December 29, 1908

He didn't go away again...he traveled to Bermuda several times but Redding was the last place he'd call home.

Two great Americans, two great towns.

This discovery highlights the great opportunity Connecticut has as we close in on the 100th anniversary of Twain's passing...the opportunity to link Twain to towns and cities across Connecticut.

An idea I've been working on for most of the summer is...

To showcase and celebrate Mark Twain's life in Hartford and Redding, Connecticut throughout the year 2010 to "Mark" the Centennial of his passing.

This will be accomplished by displaying portraits of him in every public library and/or public place, that wants to be a part of this celebration, along with photos and information about his life, his work and his friends in Connecticut.

The friends of Twain aspect is very important because it ties in many Connecticut towns to his life, which allows us to make others aware of these people and their accomplishments. With any luck it will spur community pride as well.

For example: In Easton, Connecticut we would include information & photos about his friendship with Helen Keller; In Ridgefield, Connecticut we'd highlight his friend, Cass Gilbert; In Bethel & Bridgeport, P.T. Barnum; In Norwalk, E.K. Lockwood; In Westport, Ned Wakeman; Cos Cob/Greenwich, Charles & Jean Webster; Saybrook, the Fenwick Hotel; Obviously the Hartford area has many friends.

I feel this idea can be greatly expanded upon once each town and their historians join me to offer their input and ideas...I'm hoping to make connections all over the State so please send names and ideas!

I will be providing the artwork, and Redding information to all public libraries and/or public places interested (free). My hope is that the Mark Twain House will provide some photos and information on Hartford and they have already reached out to me so that's moving in a positive direction.

The artwork:

I am also pursuing an official Mark Twain Day in Connecticut on April 21, 2010. If you feel this is a worthwhile effort, you can assist me in pursuing the "Mark Twain Day" idea by contacting Governor Rell's office and asking her to approve it.

I can be reached at or by phone at 860-364-7475.

It should be great fun,
Brent M. Colley


Video of Hal Holbrook speaking at the site of the Mark Twain Study at Quarry Farm, Elmira, New York. Hal Holbrook discusses meeting with Clara Clemens during the Elmira Conference.

Why Do You Study Twain? An interesting question and answer video from the attendees of the 2009 Mark Twain Elmira Conference.

Attendeees answering in order of appearance:

Bruce Michelson
Patti Philippon
Barb Taylor
Gretchen Sharlow
Jeff Melton
Joe Csicsila
Tom Quirk
Chad Rohman
Lou Budd
Kerry Driscoll
Sharon McCoy
Alan Gribben
Cameron Nickels
Joe Alvarez
Ann Ryan
David L. Smith
Hal Bush
Michael Kiskis (w/ Ann Ryan)
Jan McIntire-Strasburg
Judith Yaross Lee (w/Joe Csicsila)
Jim Caron
Gregg Camfield
Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Hal Holbrook

I study Twain because I am intrigued by his life, especially the final years of his life- 1905-1910, and I find his maxims, quotations, and various opinions interesting, thought provoking and accurate.

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
- Mark Twain, a Biography

When you fish for love, bait with your heart, not your brain.
- Notebook, 1898

Thursday, August 6

Stormfield Photos

These are some images I scanned this summer from the Mark Twain Library collection.

Clemens and Angelfish in October 1908 at the Mark Twain Library Dedication event.

Stormfield in the days prior to Clemens arrival.

Stormfield ready for the grand entrance of its owner.

Stormfield from the back. View of Clara's Cage on the right.

New Mark Twain Library building with Stormfield in the background.

Below are photos of the Lobster Pot before and after renovations.

Isabel V. Lyon was forced to return this house and 20 acres to Clemens on 07-17-1909.

Grantor: William F. & Catherine Kearney 03-24-1906- 75 Acres
Grantor: Albert B. & Arthur S. Hill 05-07-1906- 110 Acres
Grantor: Estate of Sarah E. Jones 09-04-1906- 10 Acres
Grantor: Stephen E. Carmina 04-10-1909- 125 Acres (Jean's Farm)
Grantor: Isabel V. Lyon Ashcroft 07-17-1909- 20 Acres

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