Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Crawford, How Not to Get Rich

Let me explain right away what this strangely titled book is about. Its full title and subtitle are How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). Alan Pell Crawford follows Mark Twain, the consummate investing pechvogel, from one doomed scheme to the next. “Twain’s passion wasn’t to work in a print shop, pilot riverboats, write for newspapers, or even—as he would do in his twenties—prospect for gold and silver out West. Twain’s goal was to make money and then make even more money. Writing books was just a means to an end.”

Twain married well, far above his station, though primarily for love, it would seem. In his thirties, he had nothing to recommend him save a bestselling book he had written (The Innocents Abroad) that “some people found amusing.” But with his marriage he finally “had money to burn.” He lived in a mansion in Buffalo, a wedding present, and was lent $25,000 to buy a third share in the Buffalo Daily Express. With the death of his wife’s father, eight months after the marriage, Twain and his bride inherited $250,000—some $4.4 million today.

Twain and his wife stayed in Buffalo for only about a year before departing for Hartford. The house they built, described as a “brick-kiln gone crazy, the outside ginger-breaded with woodwork, as a baker sugar-ornaments the top and side of a fruit loaf,” was assessed at $1,420,000 in today’s dollars. The Twains entertained lavishly, spending more than $100,000 a year on food and drink.

Twain was productive during the Hartford years, both as a writer and as an inventor. (The penchant for invention seems to have been in the Twain blood; both his father and his brother tried their hand at inventing, unsuccessfully.) His invention was a self-pasting scrapbook, on which he may have made more than a million dollars.

And he started investing, first in the Hartford Accident Insurance Company, which at the end of 18 months “went to pieces.” He passed up the opportunity to invest in the National Bell Telephone Company, whose share price in June was $110 and by December had shot up to $995. But he put money into the New York Vaporizer Company, which was a dud. And he bought four-fifths of the patent for Kaolotype, a process for book illustration that turned out to be a fraud.

Twain poured a lot of money into a publishing company that failed. But by far his worst investment was in the Paige Compositor, a typesetting machine that was “a marvel of complexity” and that was finally abandoned.

As his assets dwindled away and his creditors hovered, Twain paced the floor at night. He said: “I am terribly tired of business, by nature and disposition unfit for it.”

Twain’s good fortune was to meet Henry Huttleston Rogers, “one of the most ruthless tycoons of his day.” “At his peak, Rogers would have been worth $40.9 billion in today’s money, outranking even his contemporary J.P. Morgan.” Rogers had Twain transfer all of his assets to his wife and then steered the publishing company into voluntary bankruptcy. The compositor company was dissolved.

Twain went on an international lecture tour to pay back some of his debts. Rogers handled his money, paying back debts and making savvy investments on Twain’s behalf. When Twain died in 1910, his estate was appraised at more than $11 million in today’s dollars.

Despite all of his business failures, Twain told a group of alumni from Eastern Business College in Poughkeepsie in 1901 that he had been “well served … through the years by his own mad and endless determination to make a great fortune.”

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