GREENWICH, Conn. — Mark Twain is best known for his novels, which are mainstays of American literature and high school curriculums. But he also fell on hard times and performed comedy on a world tour to repay his financial debts.
“This is a man who almost literally ruined his career, his family life and his reputation and eventually saved himself,” bestselling author Richard Zacks told an audience at Greenwich Library on Tuesday night. “Most people think of the witty author of ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ the man who fought racism and imperialism — those are all true — but he was also an eternal bad boy. He fought his own demons.”
Twain was known for smoking, drinking, cursing and gambling. But he also made several bad investments in startup companies that went sour.
He dove into business deals without minding the details and once asked his accountant to provide a profit and loss statement that his daughter could understand. She was 2 at the time, Zacks said.
One of Twain's investments was in the Paige typesetter, which he thought would revolutionize typing. It didn’t.
The oft-broken machine just happened to function for him when he saw it. “Twain had the misfortune of seeing it on a day it did work,” Zacks said.
He also lost $80,000 on his own publishing company. The venture started out publishing bestselling novels but soon released titles such as “The Art of Sketching” and “The American Claimant.”
“These were not exactly going to be blockbuster titles,” Zacks said.
Left with these bad investments and mired in debt, Twain embarked on a live global whirlwind comedy tour. He traveled more than 122 performances in 71 cities at age 59.
“It would be an exhausting trip even for a young man,” Zacks said.
He mined his stories from his early funny days and performed in a “deadpan” style without much expression, Zacks said.
After his tour, Twain lived in Europe for two years and repaid his debts. He received a hero’s welcome when he came home to New York.
Zacks said Twain's reputation was restored.
“No one paid their debts. Most people hid behind bankruptcy laws or whatever legal loophole they could find,” he said. “Twain paid his debts.”
Zacks wrote "Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour." Twain, who had mansions in Hartford and Redding, died in Redding, where he started the Mark Twain Library.