Theo Lippman Jr.


August 30, 1993

COLIN POWELL is going to write his memoirs. The first thing he ought to do is what Dwight Eisenhower did (see this column, Aug. 26) when he decided to write his memoirs.

Read Ulysses S. Grant's.

As head of the Union armies during the Civil War, Grant became the most popular military leader since George Washington. Then he was elected president twice.

After he left the White House he eventually settled in New York City. He invested all his money in a brokerage firm. His partner was a swindler, and soon Grant was broke. Then he contracted incurable cancer. To raise money for his widow he agreed to write his memoirs.

Books about him had been popular. He had turned down bids for his autobiography earlier on the grounds that he was no writer and did not need the money.

Now he did. Morning and afternoon in late 1884 and early 1885, the former president sat at a desk in a house on E. 66th Street with a view of Central Park and, though often in considerable pain, wrote "Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant."

Adam Badeau, a professional writer and old comrade in arms, did some advising, as did Grant's wife Julia and son Fred, who handled the detailed research. There was one other principal adviser of sorts. Samuel Clemens.

Clemens had just gone into the publishing business. He planned to publish only his own books, written, of course, as Mark Twain. When he heard that Grant was writing his memoirs he went to him -- they were friends -- to discuss getting him the best deal, as he explained in his autobiography. He found U.S. and Fred going over a contract with a publisher, preparatory to signing. He advised them not to sign for the stated royalty of 10 percent, but, given Grant's stature, insist on 20 or "better still, 75 percent."

Grant thought that "robbery." Clemens said robbing publishers not only was not a crime but entitled authors to two halos in heaven.

Then Clemens tried to get Grant to go with another publisher who offered 20 percent. Then he suggested he publish the memoirs himself. This was the outcome.

The book dealt with Grant's military career, not his presidency. It was widely praised. Twain himself said it was as good as Caesar's "Commentaries" -- "the same high merits distinguish both books -- clarity of statement, directness, simplicity, unpretentiousness, manifest truthfulness, fairness and justice toward friend and foe alike, soldierly candor and frankness and soldierly avoidance of flowery speech."

Critics and the book buying public agreed. The book eventually earned the Grants some $450,000.

About six months after Grant died in the summer of 1885, Clemens gave Julia Grant a royalty check larger than any ever before written, $200,000. That was far, far larger than the first check Clemens himself got for his firm's other big success of the era, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

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