Mark Twain, the highest-paid writer in America in 1894, was also one of the nation s worst investors. Read more...
Mark Twain, the highest-paid writer in America in 1894, was also one of the nation s worst investors. There are two times in a man s life when he should not speculate, he wrote. When he can t afford it and when he can. The publishing companyTwain owned was failing; his investment in a typesetting device was bleeding red ink. After losing hundreds of thousands of dollars back when a beer cost a nickel, he found himself neck-deep in debt. His heiress wife, Livy, took the setback hard. I have a perfecthorrorand heart-sickness over it, she wrote. I cannot get away from the feeling that business failure means disgrace.
But Twain vowed to Livy he would pay back every penny. And so, just when the fifty-nine-year-old, bushy-browed icon imagined that he would be settling into literary lionhood, telling jokes at gilded dinners, he forced himself to mount the platform again, embarking on a round-the-world stand-up comedy tour. No author had ever done that. He cherry-picked his best stories such as stealing his first watermelon and buying a bucking bronco and spun them into a ninety-minute performance.
Twain trekked across the American West and onward by ship to the faraway lands of Australia, NewZealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa.He rode an elephant twice and visited the Taj Mahal.He saw Zulus dancing and helped sort diamonds atthe Kimberley mines. (He failed to slip away with asparkly souvenir.) He played shuffleboard on cruiseships and battled captains for the right to smokein peace. He complained that his wife and daughter made him shave and change his shirt every day.
The great American writer fought off numerousillnesses and travel nuisances to circle the globe andearn a huge payday and a tidal wave of applause.Word of his success, however, traveled slowly enough that one American newspaper reported that he haddied penniless in London. That s when he famouslyquipped: The report of my death was an exaggeration.
Throughout his quest, Twain was aided by cutthroat Standard Oil tycoon H.H. Rogers, withwhom he had struck a deep friendship, and he washindered by his own lawyer (and future secretaryof state) Bainbridge Colby, whom he deemed head idiot of this century.
InChasing the Last Laugh, author Richard Zacks, drawing extensively on unpublished material in notebooks and letters from Berkeley s ongoing Mark TwainProject, chronicles a poignant chapter in the author slife one that began in foolishness and bad choicesbut culminated in humor, hard-won wisdom, andultimate triumph."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-15
- Reviewer: Staff
In 1895, at the age of 60, Mark Twain, the nation’s highest-paid author at the time, faced financial disaster. To raise cash, he launched a yearlong lecture tour of 122 performances spanning several continents. As Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) relates in this deeply entertaining account, Twain’s rugged journey was redemptive. While restoring his spirit through the excitement of travel, the laughter of audiences, and the admiration of global high society, Twain made good money. Zacks’s book brims with side adventures, including intercontinental sea voyages and visits to African diamond mines. Australia welcomed Twain as a superstar with billboards calling him “the greatest humorist of the century.” Twain was fevered and sick in India, a land he nonetheless ended up adoring. His precarious finances became a well-known gossip item, but Zacks stresses that the public loved him all the more for his fortitude in crisis and successful efforts to pay off his debts. Twain spent four years in Europe after the tour and then returned to America to receive unprecedented tribute and adulation. Zacks’s narrative is well-researched with rich detail, some drawn from unpublished archival material at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and it will strike ardent Twain fans and history lovers as fresh and inspiring. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Apr.)
Well Read: Mark Twain on Tour
I would wager that more books have been written about Mark Twain than any American except Lincoln. Richard Zacks adds to that estimable pile with Chasing the Last Laugh, an impeccably researched and thoroughly engaging account of a less celebrated chapter in Twain’s life. In 1895, faced with a mountain of debt, the famous writer reluctantly embarked on a ’round-the-world lecture/comedy tour. He would later recount his adventures in Following the Equator.
Zacks begins the story two years earlier with the famous novelist and humorist on the brink of financial ruin. Twain had lost huge sums in two failed endeavors: the creation of a publishing house to publish his own works and others, including the hugely successful memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, and a large investment in one of two automated linotype machines being developed to revolutionize printing (he backed the wrong horse). Twain’s wife, Livy, was heiress to a coal-mining fortune and had poured a significant amount of her own money into these failed enterprises. They could no longer afford their spacious Hartford, Connecticut, home, and were staving off multiple legal actions while living a somewhat itinerant life (although Zacks points out that even at his most impecunious, Twain stayed at the nicest hotels).
While he had spent a lot of time on stage entertaining the public with his signature yarns, Twain had planned to spend his later years basking in the glow of his readers’ adoration from a sedentary perch. But Livy insisted that all debts be honorably paid, and the fastest and most assured way to make money was to hit the road. So Twain, accompanied by his wife and one of their three daughters, set off around the world. He traveled by train, steamship and all manner of local transport and entertained sold-out English-speaking audiences across the Western U.S., Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa (alighting, basically, wherever the British had an imperial outpost). Zacks suggests that Twain was most taken by India, and nearly a quarter of the narrative is set on the subcontinent. “Twain’s fascination with India was no literary pose,” he writes, “his uncharacteristically gushing observations spill off the pages of his private notebooks and into letters. . . . He never outgrew a sort of child’s delight in encountering the exotic.” The otherwise triumphant trip was, regrettably, tainted by the death of daughter Susy, who had stayed behind in the States.
Zacks, who has also written books on Teddy Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Captain Kidd, is an accomplished guide through Twain’s travel escapades. While the book is steeped in painstaking detail about the family’s financial difficulties, as well as their personal affections and aversions, the author does an impressive job of synthesizing a lot of material into a highly readable narrative. (Zacks, tongue planted firmly in cheek, points out that the archives of the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley is only missing what Twain ate for breakfast on September 28, 1873.) Although his financial records are less complete, it is generally agreed that the lecture tour allowed Twain to pay off his debts. He died in 1910 with an estate of $471,136—the equivalent of about $15 million today.