“To succeed in business…avoid my example”—Mark Twain (1901).
Journalist Crawford (Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, 2008, etc.) offers up a zesty financial biography of Twain (1835-1910) the businessman, noting that his subject tried to be “an Edison as well as a Shakespeare,” as one of his great nephews recalled. The author chronicles Twain’s adventures as an entrepreneur, investor, and inventor; like a diligent accountant, he carefully itemizes Twain’s wins and losses in today’s monetary values, making them all the more shocking. When Twain went to Carson City, Nevada, as a novice writer, he also had a hankering for a quick buck. After all, he believed the mountains were “literally bursting with gold and silver.” Though the mining didn’t pan out, as a “resourceful and ingenious” fellow, he had “cause for hope.” He struck pay dirt when he married Livy Langdon, whom he deeply loved. The young bride’s wealthy father built them a huge, furnished, fully staffed house as a wedding gift; when her father died, Livy inherited more than $4,400,000. After they moved to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1872, to another formidable house, Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and invented the Self-Pasting Scrap Book. It sold well, but his partner swindled him, and he went on to invest in other projects: odorless rubber cloth, a vaporizer to extract steam from coal, a Fact and Date board game, and the Kaolotype engraving process to create book illustrations. Twain then started his own publishing company, and after giving Ulysses S. Grant’s widow an unheard-of royalty, he published her husband’s Memoirs. It sold like hot cakes, and she made $11,000,000. However, his company’s other major book, The Life of Pope Leo XIII, was a flop. Fortunately, Twain was a “superb manager of his own image,” a talent that kept his family fed.
Light and frothy, this humorous biography is a lively read.