Lost it all, came back stronger

Just a dozen cool stories worth knowing. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

In 1982, political consultant James Carville was flat broke with no prospects: $47 to his name, of which $41 was going to a hotel for the night outside DC. At 38, he thought his career was over.

Then, his suitcase broke in the middle of a downpour, sending “all of my possessions … straight into the mud.” Here’s what he said happened, in the 1995 book he wrote with his wife, Mary Matalin:

“I found a phone booth, and standing in the rain, called a good friend of mine named Jim D’Spain in Baton Rouge. I said, ‘Jim, this is the most embarrassing thing I have ever had to do in my life, but I’m at the end of my rope. I can’t … I’m basically scraping money together for a train ticket to Richmond. Can you send me some money?”

As Carville tells the tale, D’Spain sent him $5,000 via Western Union, and Carville stretched it through a couple more underdog campaigns before signing on with a complete long-shot for the 1992 Democratic nomination for president, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

I kind of hate to start this with a political story, but this tale has stuck with me since I first heard it in 1995 or so.

What can I say: I love an underdog! But I really love a story about people who had it all, then lost it, and then came back stronger.

Beyond Carville, here are 11 others. For a lot of us, they’ll just be some cool stories. But I’ll bet (and hope) that for at least one or two of our 100,000 or so subscribers, they’ll be an injection of inspiration at just the right time.

1. Steve Jobs

Most people know this story, but it's important to include. Jobs co-founded Apple at 21, and was worth millions by age 23. He then recruited an experienced Fortune 500 CEO, John Sculley—and three years later, Sculley fired him.

"I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me," Jobs said in 2005. He started his second company, NeXT, which was ultimately acquired by Apple—and Jobs became CEO again. Fast-forward: Odds are good that you’re reading this on an iPhone.

2. Ulysses S. Grant

If you’ve been here a while, you know I’m a big fan of Grant, and I’m glad his reputation as president has improved over the past decade or two. Anyway, he was the 18th president of the United States, and saved the Union during the Civil War—yet he led a life full of highs and lows.

A West Point graduate, he left the Army in 1854 after being accused of drinking on duty. Then he struggled for seven years, barely able to support his family. When war broke out, Grant went back into the Army, first as a volunteer, then as a colonel, and eventually as the top US general.

Then he was elected president! But he later burned through his money. He was flat broke, and ultimately had to write his memoirs on his deathbed to provide for his family after he was gone. His publisher? Mark Twain. 

Speaking of whom...

3. Mark Twain

Recalled now as one of the greatest American writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Twain made some really bad business decisions and had some unlucky investments. He was broke and bankrupt by 1894—20 years after he became super-famous as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and 10 years after he helped Grant.

To rebuild, Twain went to Europe, went on a grueling speaking tour, and wrote prolifically.

Ultimately, he made enough money to restore his fortune and repay all of his creditors, even though his debts had legally been discharged in bankruptcy. (Sadly, Twain later suffered more tragedy and fell into a deep depression after the death of his wife and two of his daughters.)

4. Martha Stewart

A little more recently, Stewart became America's first self-made female billionaire. Yay for her! But five years after her company went public, she went to prison for conspiracy as part of the ImClone stock case.

And then she went gently into that good night...

Heck no, she didn't! Stewart launched her comeback campaign immediately after her release. Her company was profitable again within a year, and she rejoined its board of directors in 2011 and served as chairman before the company’s acquisition in 2015.

5. Dorothy Hamill

Hamill won gold in figure skating at the 1976 Winter Olympics and parlayed her performance into a $1 million-a-year income as a professional performer.

However, “after years of excessive spending, which included a weakness for expensive jewelry, and a series of bad investments, including the purchase of the fledgling Ice Capades franchise," according to Kiplinger, she filed for bankruptcy in 1996.

Did she work hard and come back? You bet your double axel she did. She kept skating, went on television, and sold a memoir. A few years later, she appeared in the 2007 movie Blades of Glory with Will Farrell.

6. James Altucher

Altucher founded a web design company called Reset Inc. in 1996 and sold it two years later for $10 million. Then he lost everything in a series of bad investments that were exacerbated by the first tech bubble in 2000.

After nearly committing suicide, Altucher eventually said he realized he couldn't judge his "self-worth by his net worth." Despite that decree, he made back his fortune as a hedge fund manager. Now, he’s a super-popular blogger and podcaster.

7. Stanley Kirk Burrell

You probably remember Burrell, right? If not, maybe this will resonate: He's better known as MC Hammer, the early-1990s artist behind megahits like "U Can't Touch This" and "Too Legit to Quit."

More than 50 million of us bought his records back then—but Burrell still managed to fall into debt. By the time he filed for bankruptcy in 1996, he owed $13 million.

Still, he rebounded, and became a true entrepreneur. He launched record labels, invested in tech startups, gave lectures, and did TV appearances. He's also become a Christian public speaker and has slowly rebuilt his music career.

8. Walt Disney

Wait, Walt Disney is on this list? Sure enough. His first company was an animation and film studio in Kansas City that went belly-up in 1922.

Disney rushed out of the city for California, where his next venture, Disney Bros. Studio, did a little bit better—including creating a cartoon character you might have heard of: Mickey Mouse, in 1928.

9. George Foreman

Foreman, one of the greatest boxers in history, was an Olympic gold medalist and twice won the title of World Heavyweight Champion—including as a 45-year-old, coming out of retirement in 1994.

(Thus making him a perpetual hero to every guy between the ages of 35 and 55.)

In the years that followed, Foreman didn't quite go bankrupt, but he had a "close call" according to The New York Times after "squandering $5 million." He recovered in part by lending his name to the George Foreman Grill, which earned him an estimated $200 million.

10. Willie Nelson

One of the most popular artists in the history of American country music, Nelson recorded 68 studio albums, 30 of which achieved gold or platinum status. However, he ran into tax problems, and at the nadir of his troubles, he owed $32 million to the IRS after it emerged that his accountants hadn't properly paid his taxes for years.

He worked hard, recorded an album, did commercials—including one for H&R Block that made fun of his problems—and ultimately paid off his debts. He's been recording and touring ever since. Honestly, he's probably more popular now than he would have been if not for his troubles.

11. Cyndi Lauper

It is a fact universally acknowledged that if you grew up in the 1980s, you liked Cyndi Lauper.

Between "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Time After Time," even "She Bop" and "True Colors," she wrote many of the anthems of the era. But you might not know that before all that, she was part of a band called Blue Angel that had so little financial success, Lauper had to file for bankruptcy.

She recovered, recorded her songs, topped the charts, and became something of an icon. Then, in 2013, she won a Tony Award for the score she wrote for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots; not long after that she was inaugurated into the Songwriters Hall of Fame alongside Toby Keith and the late Jerry Garcia.

See? The end of one story is often just the beginning of another. So, call for comments: Let me know some lost-it-all; came-back-stronger stories that I’ve missed, either famous folks or the rest of us.

Leave a comment


7 other things worth your time

  • More than 100 million US households, or 61% of all taxpayers, paid no federal income taxes last year, according to a report from the Tax Policy Center. The main reasons for the spike—high unemployment, large stimulus checks, and generous tax credit programs—will largely expire after 2022. (CNBC)

  • The State of New York slapped criminal charges on Ken Kurson, 52, former head of the New York Observer, for allegedly stalking and harassing three people he blamed for his 2015 divorce. It’s noteworthy for our purposes mainly because Kurson was indicted by the feds, but then pardoned by President Trump on his way out of office. Now, New York, where the alleged crimes took place, says “not so fast…” (NY Daily News)

  • Texas school officials think they've found a loophole in Gov. Abbott’s ban of mask requirements: amending their dress code for students to include masks. (The Hill)

  • The creator of sudoku has died. (NPR)

  • Tropical Depression Fred is wreaking havoc in the Southeast, swirling up tornadoes and dumping down heavy rains from Georgia all the way to the Carolinas and parts of Virginia: (CNN)

  • T-Mobile has confirmed that the personal information of nearly 50 million people has been stolen from the company, including Social Security numbers and driver’s license information. While 7.8 million of the affected are T-Mobile customers, 40 million others are former or even only potential customers who signed up for T-Mobile credit. (Sky)

  • A super-loyal Understandably reader named Lynne Martin Veilleux, of Ontario, Canada, entered a “Fab Over 40” contest with New Beauty magazine, and she asked if I had any ideas on how to get online votes. (Ha ha ha, do I have any ideas…) So, if you want to hook Lynne up and (maybe) get her the big prize of $40,000 cash, a spa vacation to Sedona, and a two-page spread in the magazine, click here and vote. As my forefathers in the Boston area used to say, Vote early and vote often! But the deadline is today! (New Beauty)


Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Screenshot from “U Can’t Touch This.” I wrote about some of this on Inc.com back in the day. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.