Here’s how an unusual kinship was sparked between Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) and Ulysses Grant, two of the most renowned 19th century Americans. In theory, the outgoing, amiable author and the guarded, decorated U.S. president would have ostensibly nothing in common, but their unlikely bond led to a watershed autobiography with both men racing against Father time as Grant neared the end of his life.
Like many Americans, Twain idolized Grant. Both hailing from the Midwest—Grant from Ohio and Twain from Missouri—they endured rough starts to their careers. Grant’s success as a general during the Civil War had ensnared the North’s attention, and as the story goes, Twain carried a copy of Grant’s letter to Confederate General Simon Buckner during the Battle of Fort Donelson in his wallet as a memento.
Their first meeting hardly augured the camaraderie that was to follow. In 1867, Twain, still a run-of-the-mill journalist, went to Washington D.C. to act as private secretary to a Nevada senator. In December of that year, he met Grant at a party while he was still in the U.S. Army. After leaving his position, Twain went back to D.C. to lobby for the motioning of a bill in 1870.
Mark’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, was published in 1969, and when his former employer invited him to the White House to meet with President Grant, Twain recognized the power disparity between the two, later writing to his wife, Olivia, about the experience: “I shook hands and then there was a pause and silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say. So I merely looked into the General’s grim, immovable countenance a moment or two, in silence, and then I said: ‘Mr. President, I am embarrassed . . . Are you?’”
Following the first meeting in D.C., their paths wouldn’t cross again for almost a full decade. In the fall of 1879, Twain was invited to a dinner in Chicago in Mr. Grant’s honor. Once everyone had finished eating, a series of speakers got up to dole out their praise for Grant. Mr. Twain, the evening’s final speaker, didn’t take the stage until after midnight. Rather than follow suit with a servile toast to Grant’s gifts, Mark decided to poke fun at the guest of honor.
Feeling a bit nervy that he’d insulted Grant, Twain anxiously awaited the reaction. Who was the first to bellow with laughter; Grant. When he was re-introduced to Mark at the end of the night, Grant recalled their first meeting, responding, “Mr. Clemens, I am not embarrassed, are you?” The two became fast friends.
After leaving office in early 1877, not yet 60, Grant had entirely too much time on his hands. He and the missus took a worldwide vacation that left him in the hole financially. What’s more, he came up short at the Republican presidential nomination in 1880, which depleted his spirits even further. A year later in 1881, Grant, flummoxed to provide for his family, agreed to join his son Ulysses S. Grant Jr, in his investment company, Grant and Ward.
Junior’s partner was a young, charismatic financier named Ferdinand Ward, known as the “Napoleon of finance.” Ward and Grant quickly bonded, and Grant had invested the lion share of his capital in the firm. Unfortunately, Ward’s outer charm could no longer hide his coup. The company was essentially operating as a Madoff-life ponzi scheme, with Ward skimming the revenue while paying out dividends. He kept up this charade for several years, until an economic downturn worsened and the company’s balance sheet was in critical condition. Grant had no choice but to borrow $150,000 from friend William Henry Vanderbilt to revive the company. But in 1884 Ward’s embezzlement was exposed in the papers and the company dissolved.
Ward was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his shenanigans, but the Grant family was forced into curtailing the plush lifestyle Ward’s deception had funded. Twain was by now a regular at Grant’s NYC abode and saw his buddy’s anguish firsthand. Years earlier he had suggested that Grant write his memoirs, but Grant was skeptical, convinced his writing skills weren’t up to snuff.
Months after the Grant and Ward falling out, Grant’s health declined significantly. After pushing his constant throat pain to the back burner for months, he was ultimately diagnosed with cancer, likely caused by incessant cigar smoking. He was now left to worry about the future financial prospects of his wife. Grant told the Century editors that he would write the book after all, and they offered him a standard 10% royalty on expected sales.
When Twain learned of the deal, he was disgruntled at the bare bones amount they had offered Grant. Twain saw an opportunity to help his friend and himself, proposing to Grant a yugely bountiful contract, including 70% of any royalties, an upfront advance and living expenses. At first, Grant was reluctant to walk back his deal with the Century and fretted over the effects on his friendship with Twain if the book went to sh*t. Eventually he agreed to Twain’s terms, and despite the constant pain that left him unable to eat, drink or even sleep, Grant most of his days working on the book while the newspapers reported on his nearing death.
As Grant hurried to complete the book, Mark started promoting it. The autobiography would be sold as a subscription of two volumes. Grant finally finished the 336,000-word manuscript in 1885. He died a week later at 63, and more than 1.5 million people attended his funeral in New York City. The first volume of the memoirs was published later that year and was an overnight success. Still considered one of the finest military autobiographies ever written, it exceeded all expectations. Thanks to Twain’s brilliant idea to include a handwritten note from Grant in each book, the first run of 350,000 quickly sold out.
Mrs. Grant would soon earn some $450,000 (more than $11 million today) from book sales. Grant was worried he would leave her penniless, instead, Twain’s deal made her one of America’s richest women. After a few roadblocks, Twain bounced back and got rich again later in life, after his publishing company went bankrupt less than 10 years after Grant’s death.