- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

One of the enduring, unlikely and profitable relationships in post-Civil War America existed between Ulysses S. Grant and writer Mark Twain. Maybe this was a case of how opposites attract.

Twain, a man of style, loved the grand entrance. He preferred to write by day at Washington’s Willard Hotel when in the nation’s capital. Then, in white tie and tails, he would float down the grand staircase for an evening of libations and frolicking with companions. Grant dressed plainly, a reflection of his simple roots in the rural Midwest. Even when he rode to Wilmer McLean’s House in Appomattox, Va., to take Robert E. Lee’s surrender, he wore a private’s uniform with his rank indicated only by the shoulder straps.

Twain was a revered writer, but, more than that, he was a performer. He “speechified” through America and Europe and greatly enjoyed his fame and fans. Grant, to the contrary, would have thought it unseemly to conduct himself with the kind of showmanship that Twain reveled in.

While president, Grant enjoyed a quiet evening walk to the Willard Hotel, where he could enjoy a cigar and a drink. Grant was quiet and thoughtful. Twain was outgoing and comedic.

Despite these conflicting personalities, Grant and Twain became friends and seemed to enjoy an intellectual attraction and admiration. Twain wrote: “The first time I met General Grant was in the Fall or Winter of 1866 at one of the receptions in Washington, when he was General of the Army.

I merely saw and shook hands with him along with the crowd but had no conversation.” The second time it was President Grant shaking Mark Twain’s hand. Twain recalls: “I shook hands and then there was a pause and silence. I couldn’t think of a thing to say.” For Twain, speechlessness was rarely a problem. Twain said, “Mr. President, I’m embarrassed. Are you? He smiled a smile that would have done no discredit to a cast-iron image and I got away under the smoke of my volley.”

Ten years later, in 1879, Twain ran into Grant again. “In the meantime, I had become thoroughly notorious,” Twain said. He shook the president’s hand, and again, inexplicably, neither could think of a thing to say. Finally Grant said, “I am not embarrassed. Are you?” Twain said this remark showed that “he had a good memory for trifles as well as for serious things.”

For the next six years, the last of Grant’s life, the two were fast friends. The families frequently visited at the other’s home. During this period, Grant lost nearly all his family wealth in a stock swindle. Never a keen businessman, Grant started to listen to publishers interested in the financial possibilities of his memoirs. Now, the historical details get a little vague. Some sources believe Twain actually overheard a publisher boasting that he had convinced Grant to write his memoirs and that the publisher planned to keep most of the money.

Twain, aware of his friend’s financial troubles, approached Grant with a much better offer. Whether or not this story is true, the two did end up discussing the memoirs and the financial deal they would entail. Whatever the root of the idea, Twain, in effect, became Grant’s publisher and business manager.

In Grant’s last years, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, and he rushed to finish his book. Doctors encouraged him to drink liquor or champagne to deaden the pain, but liquor only caused him more pain. He told Twain he had, frankly, lost the taste over the years. His beloved cigars also burned his throat.

Grant spent his final days, frequently outdoors and wrapped in a shawl, writing. Finally, in ever increasing pain, he was forced to dictate the final chapters. The occasional slander that Twain wrote much of the memoirs has been refuted repeatedly — such would not have been in Grant’s character, and the style of the work is the style of Grant himself. Five months after Grant died, Twain had the memoirs ready for sale. The memoirs sold in a two-volume set, beautifully bound in dark brown leather, with a gold circle on the front cover.

The circle features Grant’s profile, and the set sold spectacularly. Grant’s wife, Julia, received the profit of $450,000 from her husband’s friend, Mark Twain. And a classic of history became part of American literature. • John E. Carey is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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