Mark Twain, the highest-paid writer in America in 1894, was also one of the nationâs worst investors. âThere are two times in a manâs life when he should not speculate,â he wrote. âWhen he canât afford it and when he can.â The publishing companyÂ Twain 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. âI have a perfectÂ horrorÂ and heart-sickness over it,â she wrote. âI cannot get away from the feeling that business failure means disgrace.â
Â Â Â 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 âplatformâ again, embarking on a round-the-world stand-up comedy tour. No author had ever done that. He cherry-picked his best storiesâsuch as stealing his first watermelon and buying a bucking broncoâand spun them into a ninety-minute performance.
Â Â Â Twain trekked across the American West and onward by ship to the faraway lands of Australia, NewÂ Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa.Â He rode an elephant twice and visited the Taj Mahal.Â He saw Zulus dancing and helped sort diamonds atÂ the Kimberley mines. (He failed to slip away with aÂ sparkly souvenir.) He played shuffleboard on cruiseÂ ships and battled captains for the right to smokeÂ in peace. He complained that his wife and daughter made him shave and change his shirt every day.
Â Â Â The great American writer fought off numerousÂ illnesses and travel nuisances to circle the globe andÂ earn a huge payday and a tidal wave of applause.Â Word of his success, however, traveled slowly enough that one American newspaper reported that he hadÂ died penniless in London. Thatâs when he famouslyÂ quipped: âThe report of my death was an exaggeration.â
Â Â Â Throughout his quest, Twain was aided by cutthroat Standard Oil tycoon H.H. Rogers, withÂ whom he had struck a deep friendship, and he wasÂ hindered by his own lawyer (and future secretaryÂ of state) Bainbridge Colby, whom he deemed âhead idiot of this century.â
Â Â Â InÂ Chasing the Last Laugh,Â author Richard Zacks,Â drawing extensively on unpublished material in notebooks and letters from Berkeleyâs ongoing Mark TwainÂ Project, chronicles a poignant chapter in the authorâsÂ lifeâone that began in foolishness and bad choicesÂ but culminated in humor, hard-won wisdom, andÂ ultimate triumph.
About: From Richard Zacks, bestselling author ofÂ Island of ViceÂ andÂ The Pirate Hunter,Â a rich and lively account of how Mark Twainâs late-life adventures abroad helped him recover from financial disasterÂ and family tragedyâand revived his world-class sense of humorMark Twain, the highest-paid writer in America in 1894, was also one of the nationâs worst investors.
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