Chasing the Last Laugh: How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour

Chasing the Last Laugh: How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour

by Richard Zacks
Chasing the Last Laugh: How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour

Chasing the Last Laugh: How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour

by Richard Zacks


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In the 1890s, Mark Twain came back from the dead. The famous author’s career was collapsing, his masterpieces were at risk of falling into oblivion, and he was even mistakenly reported dead. But Twain orchestrated an amazing late-in-life comeback from bankruptcy, bad reviews, and family disaster by setting out on an unprecedented international comedy tour to restore his fortunes. Richard Zacks’s Chasing the Last Laugh captures some of Twain’s cleverest and funniest moments—many newly discovered in unpublished notebooks and letters—as he rode elephants in India, sorted diamonds in South Africa, and talked his way out of hell ninety minutes at a time. This untold chapter in the author’s life began with ridiculously bad choices and ended in hard-won triumph. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345802538
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/21/2017
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Richard Zacks is the bestselling author of Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York; Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805; Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd; History Laid Bare; and An Underground Education. His writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, and many other publications. He attended the University of Michigan and the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. Born in Savannah, Georgia, he now lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1

Joys of Self-­Publishing

Twain was a proud man, so he kept up a false front of success to all outsiders. In the summer of 1893, he was by reputation America’s greatest humorist and a successful publisher who was married to an heiress. He ranked among the nation’s highest-­paid magazine writers and most prized after-­dinner speakers. His life—on paper—marked a fabulous success story, from Hannibal to Hartford to the family’s current address abroad in Paris.

Twain owned a publishing house; it was failing. His latest book, a contrived, almost slapstick novella, The American Claimant, hadn’t sold well; his backlist, even including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, was limping along, bringing in small change.

The publishing house owed money to bookbinders, paper suppliers, printers, owed rent for a plush office at 67 Fifth Avenue, at 14th Street; meanwhile, their list included underwhelming titles such as Stories from the Rabbis and One Hundred Desserts and Tenting on the Plains by General Custer’s widow. Twain had invested heavily in a typesetter that had 18,000 moving parts but was supposed to revolutionize the printing industry.

Twain teetered on the brink of financial ruin. At first he blamed himself for numerous bad business decisions, but once he got that formality out of the way, he unleashed his sizable writing talents on blaming others.

He wrote in a private notebook his thoughts on the inventor James W. Paige, whom he had amply funded but who still had not delivered his invention. “[He] and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-­trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.”

Twain and his wife owned their expensive home in Hartford, but they had run out of enough cash to live there in the style to which they were accustomed, with seven servants (a black butler, a gardener, cook, coachman, tutor and maids), and horses and an elegant carriage. They had moved out two years earlier, claiming Livy’s health required a change of scenery and they chose Europe, which sounds odd for financially strapped people, but it was cheaper than their Hartford high life. They chose self-­exile over the public shame of a diminished lifestyle.

The beautiful mansion lay empty.

“I have never felt so desperate in my life, for I haven’t got a penny to my name & Mrs. Clemens hasn’t enough laid up with [her brother Charles] Langdon to keep us two months. . . . I do not sleep, these nights, for visions of the poor-­house. . . . Everything does look blue, so dismally blue.”

Twain’s publishing house had started off magnificently in 1885. He had installed his former gofer, his niece’s thirty-­three-­year-­old husband, Charles L. Webster, to run it, even called it “Charles L. Webster & Co.”—perhaps to insulate himself from blame. The quirky founding contract stipulated that Twain could “not be called upon” to perform any managerial or editorial duties but nonetheless would retain final approval of all new books.

The company’s first two releases were Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. One was a modest success; the other a record-­breaking blockbuster.

Grant’s memoirs set publishing records, with 600,000 volumes issued and nearly $400,000 ($12 million in today’s dollars) paid to the Grant family. Twain had lured the former president away from a verbal agreement with Century, calling for the general to receive industry-­standard royalties—10% of the cover price; Twain instead offered 70% of net profits (after printing expenses, etc.), which Twain promised—rightly—would turn out to be double the Century offer.

And, contrary to some reports, Twain did not write the memoirs. In fact, he was furious when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World charged that General Adam Badeau had ghostwritten many chapters as Grant lay dying from throat cancer. Twain dropped his threatened lawsuit, claiming he didn’t want to give any free publicity to “that daily issue of un-­medicated closet paper [i.e., toilet paper].”

The seeds of ruin, however, sprouted early. Sad-­eyed, balding Webster failed to oversee the torrents of cash; a bookkeeper embezzled $25,000 (wound up in Sing Sing prison) and a Midwest book agent stole $30,000. These were huge sums in that era when a beer cost a nickel. The company signed up famed minister Henry Ward Beecher, but he died before he could complete his autobiography or his life of Christ. Civil War generals—Sheridan, Sherman, Winchester—lined up to repeat Grant’s deluge of gold, but the public quickly tired of war memoirs.

The company pinned its hope on the pope, the immensely popular Leo XIII, whose face seemed to be everywhere, since his portrait accompanied an endorsement of Vin Mariani, a cocaine-­laced wine. Webster traveled to Rome, landed the contract, and was knighted to the Order of the Golden Spur, with robes and a ceremonial sword. (Webster later found himself the only papal knight in Fredonia, New York.)

“[Twain] had no words in which to paint the magnificence of the project, or to forecast its colossal success,” later recalled author-­editor-­friend William Dean Howells. It bombed, despite the unusual inclusion of two color chromolithographs of the pope. “We did not consider how often Catholics could not read,” surmised Howells.

Twain replaced Webster with young Fred Hall, a stenographer with no publishing experience; he said he was replacing “guesswork” with “brains.” But no one saw that the Library of American Literature was crushing the company under a mountain of debt.

Ironically, their biggest seller was destroying them. Salesmen had no trouble lining up tens of thousands of “subscription” orders for the eleven-­volume collection. The well-­respected editors Edmund Clarence Stedman and Ellen Mackay Hutchinson had skimmed the cream of Hawthorne, Melville, Longfellow, and the like to create a compendium of 1,207 authors, 2,671 selections, 303 full-­page illustrations. More than half the nation still lived on farms and in small towns, and rural buyers, especially fond of ornate bindings, could achieve instant gentility and respectability with the purchase.

But the business plan had one crucial flaw. Customers had to pay only the first $3 monthly installment of the $33 cover price to receive the entire set, but it cost the company $13 to print, bind, and ship, and another $12 in commission to the agents. The publisher was $22 in the red on every sale, and, as the economy soured, customers increasingly stopped paying installments. Delinquent payments ballooned from $28,862 in 1891 to $67,795 in 1892.

The office manager observed, Twain-­like: “The faster installment orders came in, the faster our capital shrank, until our prosperity became embarrassing.”

Twain himself called it a “lingering suicide.”

What had begun as a quest by author Twain to receive a fair shake from publishers had spiraled into a nightmare. Now, instead of furnishing money, his venture, Charles L. Webster & Co., was sucking up cash. Twain deferred his royalties. Livy pumped in large sums, but the company eventually had to borrow from Harlem’s Mount Morris Bank, itself on shaky ground because of a bad investment in the Chicago & Alton Railroad.

The whole country was reeling from the Panic of 1893, as the stock market had crashed in June and more than 16,000 businesses failed, and more than 2½ million men were unemployed. Credit was tight and fear great.

Twain tried to unload his publishing house on Harper & Bros. but failed. “I want to sell because I am not made for business,” he wrote. “The worry of it makes me old & robs life of its zest.”

Twain had one overriding fear: that in the chaos of his publishing house suddenly going under he might lose the copyrights to his own books, that Huckleberry Finn might wind up owned by a bank or a printer. “If they go, I am a beggar,” he wrote on August 14, 1893, to the man running his publishing house.

On Monday, September 11, 1893, he learned that a Webster Company debt note for $8,000 ($240,000 today) would be coming due in one week. He had tapped out his ability to borrow from his depressed brother-­in-­law, who had recently cosigned $21,000 in Mount Morris Bank loans for them. Twain had no cash but was using his Cosmopolitan magazine fee for “The Esquimaux Maiden’s Romance” to live on. He was saving more money by staying at the home of his friend Dr. Clarence Rice, throat surgeon to the Metropolitan Opera; the Century, America’s most prestigious monthly, was so squeezed it had refused to pay Twain for his new novella Pudd’nhead Wilson until it started running in November. Fred Hall, who had stopped drawing a salary, was near broke and had already borrowed $15,000 ($450,000 today) for Webster & Co. from family friends, the Barrows.

(A quick note on historical dollar values; day laborers made 15 cents an hour; a fine three-­bedroom Manhattan apartment rented for $80 a month; economists suggest multiplying 1890s dollars by thirty to gain an approximate value in the early twenty-­first century.)

A sudden failure could put the creditors in control, could open Twain to lawsuits by companies that might succeed in seizing his home and his books.

As Twain put it, “the billows of hell” began rolling over him. He didn’t want to go to Hartford—where people would ask embarrassing questions about why the Clemens family had not returned after two years, but he forced himself.

Twain walked over to Grand Central Depot on Tuesday evening, and under the magnificent 200-­yard glass dome covering the platforms boarded a train to Hartford. He did not go to his home on Farmington Avenue, his beautiful burnt-­orange confection of turrets and balconies. He visited two wealthy Hartford businessmen, longtime friends, members of the informal Friday night billiards club, Edward M. Bunce and Henry C. Robinson. He wanted to borrow $5,000.

They turned him down. He sat in the parlor of lawyer Robinson—former mayor of Hartford, twice nominated for governor—with bank executive Bunce, and the trio brainstormed for an hour. They came to the conclusion that it was hopeless; Bunce had heard of a Chicago millionaire during this Panic of 1893 turned down trying to raise $600,000 on prime real estate worth four times that amount. Robinson told Twain he couldn’t borrow even $3,000 on his Farmington Avenue home, even though Twain claimed it was worth $170,000.

He later wrote to Livy: “My friends . . . they were not moved, not strongly interested, & I was ashamed that I went.” And Twain spent the night at the Bunces’ but informed Livy he had seen no one else in Hartford. She was obsessed with keeping their financial setbacks secret.

“The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet & steady & loyal & enduring a nature that it will last through the whole lifetime if not asked to lend money.” He had written those lines a year earlier as a Pudd’nhead Wilson maxim.

Twain—in those days of few telephones—sent a telegram to Livy’s sister, Sue, saying, “I have no shame; the boat is sinking,” and asked for $5,000. She said she didn’t have the cash, and her banker informed her that her bonds were not negotiable in New York, but she traded a bond with her sister-­in-­law, Ida. She said if Twain telegraphed on Friday, she’d messenger the bond to him.

Twain and Hall walked the corridors of Wall Street, discreetly trying to find a loan. They failed. Hall told Twain that $5,000 from Sue wouldn’t save them. They needed $8,000. Twain collapsed on the bed on Wednesday night at Dr. Rice’s house, thinking he was a ruined man. With all the stress and travel, he had developed a deep, phlegmy hacking cough.

He was at the Webster offices Thursday when a messenger arrived from the plump, genial doctor. “[Dr. Rice] told me he had ventured to speak to a rich friend of his who was an admirer of mine about our straits,” wrote Twain. “I was very glad.”

Twain was told to send young Hall down to the gentleman’s office at 26 Broadway, in the Standard Oil Building, the following afternoon with their account books. Apparently, the executive had absolutely loved Roughing It, Twain’s tale of Nevada cowboys and silver mining mishaps; the executive had read it himself, then had read it aloud to his family.

Fred Hall showed up at 4 p.m. on Friday and in “six minutes” he had a check for $8,000 and their “worries were over”—temporarily.

Twain’s new friend, worth about $50 million, was Henry Huttleston Rogers, a fifty-­three-­year-­old vice president at Standard Oil and one of the wealthiest men in America. Their friendship would last to the very last days of each man’s life; it would disturb some of Twain’s literary brethren; many biographers would gloss over it.

Around this time, they met briefly in a drawing room at the Murray Hill Hotel. They even resembled each other, with Rogers being slightly taller but slender with ample mustache and bushy eyebrows. Rogers’s piercing blue eyes were mesmerizing, and at times distracting, during tough negotiations.

The affinity between the two men was near instant. They would quickly discover that they shared a love of Twain’s writing, of cigars, boxing matches, poker and especially billiards; both liked practical jokes, hated opera, had strong senses of humor, heavy on the sarcasm and vitriol. (Rogers kept his hidden except for a circle of close friends.)

One perceptive observer of both men thought their bond was actually anchored in a profound “mutual envy”: Twain envied Rogers’s financial prowess and his huge self-­made fortune, and Rogers envied Twain’s popularity and unbuttoned irreverence.

H.H. Rogers, three years younger than Twain, spent his childhood in maritime Fairhaven, Massachusetts, working his way up from grocery store delivery boy to making a fortune in the oil industry. The nineteenth-­century oil boom, with wells first geysering in Pennsylvania, centered on supplying millions of gallons of illuminating oil to fill portable lamps in unelectrified cities and in rural America, replacing Civil War–­era sperm-­whale oil. The market also mushroomed for oil by-­products such as varnish, paints, solvents, naphtha, long before the viscous black liquid was refined into automobile fuel.

H.H. Rogers over the weekend reviewed the Webster account books Hall had brought and by Monday had a more ambitious solution for Twain’s dire cash shortage. He suggested selling the Library of American Literature and the subscription sales department to his son-­in-­law William Evarts Benjamin, a memorabilia dealer with a literary pedigree from his father, the poet Park Benjamin.

Why would the money-­hemorrhaging Library of American Literature appeal to Rogers? There was $67,000 in uncollected subscriptions, 585 eleven-­volume sets sitting in the warehouse, another 5,000 sets printed but unbound, printing plates, and a veteran sales force. Rogers and his son-­in-­law offered $50,000. Once the Panic ended and people could pay their bills, the property should rocket in value.

Twain was outraged by the price but didn’t share his opinion with his very new acquaintance, Rogers. Instead he unleashed his fury that Monday on a respected Oxford-­educated copy editor at the Century magazine who had dared to change his punctuation in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain wrote Livy: “I said I didn’t care if he was an Archangel imported from Heaven, he couldn’t puke his ignorant impudence over my punctuation.” Twain restored his commas and semicolons the following day.


Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 Joys of Self-Publishing 5

Chapter 2 Panting Mogul 13

Chapter 3 Safe Eggs and Broken Eggs 21

Chapter 4 The Trials of Paige and Joan of Arc 36

Chapter 5 An Odd Homecoming 46

Chapter 6 Not Enough Time to Curse 56

Chapter 7 Twain Grilled, Livy Burnt 65

Chapter 8 America: Dry Run for the World 78

Chapter 9 Traveling with a Volcano 88

Chapter 10 Separation 110

Chapter 11 At Sea 117

Chapter 12 Greetings, Mate 126

Chapter 13 Cashing in on the Platypus 141

Chapter 14 Maorilaiid 162

Chapter 15 Birthdays and Longing 181

Chapter 16 To India 194

Chapter 17 Bombay! 199

Chapter 18 Eyes Wide 206

Chapter 19 Rails, Riches and Elephants 218

Chapter 20 Holy Cities 225

Chapter 21 The Heart of the British Raj 242

Chapter 22 Himalayan Joy Ride 252

Chapter 23 Mutiny on the Ganges 260

Chapter 24 Feverish in the Pink City 273

Chapter 25 Dreams at Sea 285

Chapter 26 Africa 288

Chapter 27 Reuniting the Family 309

Chapter 28 Alone in London 325

Chapter 29 Helen Keller 329

Chapter 30 A London Revival 334

Chapter 31 Charitable Schemes 344

Chapter 32 Joys of Payback 352

Chapter 33 Back in the Game 365

Chapter 34 Homecoming 384

Postscript 399

Acknowledgments 407

Appendix 409

Notes 411

Bibliography 431

Illustration Credits 437

Index 439

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