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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 company 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. "I have a perfect horror and 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 59-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 90-minute performance.
Twain trekked across the American West and onward by ship to the faraway lands of Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa. He rode an elephant twice and visited the Taj Mahal. He saw Zulus dancing and helped sort diamonds at the Kimberley mines. (He failed to slip away with a sparkly souvenir.) He played shuffleboard on cruise ships and battled captains for the right to smoke in peace. He complained that his wife and daughter made him shave and change his shirt every day.
The great American writer fought off numerous illnesses and travel nuisances to circle the globe and earn a huge payday and a tidal wave of applause. Word of his success, however, traveled slowly enough that one American newspaper reported that he had died penniless in London. That's when he famously quipped, "The report of my death was an exaggeration."
Throughout his quest, Twain was aided by cutthroat Standard Oil tycoon H. H. Rogers, with whom he had struck a deep friendship, and he was hindered by his own lawyer (and future secretary of state) Bainbridge Colby, whom he deemed "head idiot of this century".
In Chasing the Last Laugh, author Richard Zacks, drawing extensively on unpublished material in notebooks and letters from Berkeley's ongoing Mark Twain Project, chronicles a poignant chapter in the author's life - one that began in foolishness and bad choices but culminated in humor, hard-won wisdom, and ultimate triumph.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Jean on 08-16-16
The Master Storyteller
In 1895 Mark Twain set off on a round the world speaking tour. The depression of the 1890s was in full force and Twain’s publishing company along with his investment in a new style of typesetting machine was forced into bankruptcy. His wife, Livy, took over the finances not only of her own estate but his also. Twain may have been the master storyteller but he was a terrible businessman. The world speaking tour was to help raise income to help them get out of debt. Mark Twain thought he would write a travel book about the trip to create more money. Mark Twain’s wife Livy and daughter Clara accompanied him on the trip. Daughters Suzy and Jean stayed home with an aunt. As the trip was nearing the end, Suzy came down with meningitis and died. I found it most interesting that after the trip Mark Twain received lots of admiration from the public not only for his writings and speeches but because he had paid his debts in full.
The book is well written and meticulously researched. Zacks used letters, newspaper accounts and Twain’s notebooks to tell the tale. The trip revived interest in Mark Twain’s books as well as make money to reduce his debt. I found this book a delight to read and learned more about the personal life of Mark Twain. I have read Mark Twain’s books as a child and an adult and enjoyed them and in many ways they provided me with a glimpse of life on the Mississippi in the 1800s. It is a shame that many places today have banned his books.
Zacks is a well known biographer and he does an excellent job in presenting Mark Twain’s trip and family life. George Guidall does an excellent job narrating the book. Guidall is probably the most famous of audiobook narrators and was one of the early pioneers of the field.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful
By Tad Davis on 10-26-16
Well-researched, a great listen
Richard Zacks' book joins Michael Shelden's "Mark Twain: Man in White" as a unique and illuminating look at Twain's last years. It provides the most detailed account I've read yet of Twain's financial troubles and the world lecturing tour he undertook in an effort to pay his debts.
Twain himself wrote up that tour in his last travel book, "Following the Equator." (An excellent recording of that book, narrated by Michael Kevin, is available from Audible.) I'd read "Equator" years ago and thought I had a pretty good grasp of the details, but Zach's book is full of surprises. Many of them involve Twain's health. He spent much of the tour in agony from carbuncles, infected blisters that appeared on various parts of his body and resisted treatment. The accommodations were often cramped, mildewey, and infested with roaches. His discomfort was magnified by the presence of his wife Livy and daughter Clara, who came with him; two other daughters remained behind. Despite his physical torments, he forged ahead, driven as much by Livy's sense of honor as by his own sense of guilt.
He did succeed in paying most of his creditors in full, although Zachs - whose research is thorough and wide-ranging - digs out some documents indicating that one of them was shortchanged several thousand dollars. But it came at a terrible price for his family: when they arrived in England and were making preparations to return to America, they received news that their daughter Susy, who had stayed behind, was deathly ill. Twain received the news of her death by cable after Livy and Clara had already departed for the States: he had no way of letting them know what awaited them when they arrived. He spent months alone in England writing his promised book about the trip, trying to convey a jocular tone with only partial success.
"The Last Laugh" is a book that I started listening to in pieces but found myself eventually sitting and listening to for hours at a time. George Guidall's narration makes it easy to do this: there are fewer more soothing voices in the business.
Zacks includes a postscript that takes the story up to Twain's own death. It's a sad tale, but fortunately it's not the last word: Shelden's book provides a useful contrast to Zachs. If you're interested in Twain, I recommend reading them both.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful