Mark Twain was a much-loved author — and a terrible businessman.
Samuel L. Clemens (the writer’s real name) was so financially inept that, even though he married a wealthy woman and had great success with his books and articles, he found himself owing $60,000 to banks, friends and business partners at the ripe old age of 59. (That’s $1.8 million in today’s dollars.)
The great author was a sucker for get-rich-quick investments, including a typesetting machine that broke often and was slower than its competitors. So, in 1895, he rented out his mansion in Hartford, Conn., and embarked on a round-the-world tour, a combination of stand-up comedy and celebrity victory lap to make back the money. He was the first American author to circle the globe that way.
“Chasing the Last Laugh,” by Richard Zacks, tells the story of the five years it took Twain to recoup his losses, three in travel and another two in England to write a book and hold off creditors.
Zacks had access to a wealth of letters, diaries, journals and contemporary newspaper accounts, which makes his book a colorful and fun read. The best stuff, of course, comes from the hand of Twain himself, whether he is describing a servant in India he called Satan or the variety of Australian wallpaper. Thanks to Twain’s homespun humor and Zacks’s ability to know when to let the man speak for himself, the reader gets an immediate picture of the white-haired author, wearing a black evening suit and never once cracking a smile.
The idea of a global comedy tour needs a 19th-century context, of course. Twain was speaking before crowds of hundreds with no microphone and no attempt to raise his voice. For 90 minutes, he would tell meandering tales that he had memorized, mostly taken from his own works, using pauses for comedic timing. His audiences in Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Britain mainly roared at this hilarity, calling him the “funniest man in the world.”
Although the aim of the tour was recouping losses, the great man enjoyed luxury.
The Clemens entourage stayed at the best hotels and traveled on the most luxurious ships and trains. This, of course, cut into the amount of money he could save. He was also tormented by carbuncles — clusters of boils — and frequent colds that made him unable to perform, probably exacerbated by his 20-cigar-a-day habit. Even so, he was wined and dined, and his family had opportunities to sightsee in every country.
In the end, the trip, along with his travel book “Following the Equator,” pushed the family out of debt. The trip in many ways did give him the last laugh, but with one tragic element: the death from spinal meningitis of Susy, one of the Clemens daughters who stayed home while they were abroad.
Twain died about 10 years after his trip, at age 74. He left an estate of $471,136 — about $15 million today.
Debra Bruno is the co-author, with Bob Davis, of “Beijing From A to Z: An Expat Couple’s Adventures in China.”
By Richard Zacks
Doubleday. 450 pp. $30