Isabel Lyon's framed portrait in The Mark Twain Room of The Lobster Pot
Isabel Lyon, 24 x 30 oil on linen
I just finished a Portrait of Isabel Lyon, Mark Twain's secretary, companion and household manager. It was a fun portrait to paint, to give her some well deserved recognition. I placed her in my family's antique carved rosewood chair and placed a copy of Mark Twain's Book "Captain Stormfield goes to Heaven" in her hand.
Her portrait will be featured in an upcoming Documentary by former PBS Director and Producer, James Nicoloro, called "The Redding Mark Twain"
To learn more about Isabel Lyon and her controversial relationship with Mark Twain and the Clemens Family, please visit some of my other posts on this subject.
Mark Twain and Isabel Lyon
An untold Story
By Susan Boone Durkee
Isabel Van Kleek Lyon
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 charades, 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, 39 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 and her office was located just inside Stormfield’s front hall on the left.
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 Twain’s business manager, Ralph Ashcroft, in 1909. It was an unhappy marriage and ended in divorce in 1920.
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 and hurt that she married Ashcroft? Did she really try to steal from Twain? Or did she know too many of the family's secrets?
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.
Check out below to see the progression of Isabel's portrait.
This is the photo I used for the portrait, it was taken by Coburn in 1908 at Mark Twain's last home, Stormfield, in Redding Ct. I flipped the original reference photo as I wanted to make the portrait as original as possible.
Starting Isabel's portrait, first marks on the canvas.
Working on the first wash-in.
As the portrait progresses...........
Captain Stormfield wants his portrait painted too!!!!!!
The first wash-in
The portrait is progressing.
Carnelian Beads. The necklace that Isabel is wearing was made of Carnelian beads, (possibly belonging to Mark Twain's wife, Livy)
This is the book she is holding...the proceeds from this publicaton enabled Mark Twain to built his last home "Stormfield"
This chair, which has been in my family since the mid 1800's was used in the portrait