A novel about a man who is tasked with spending every penny of a million dollar inheritance within a year. 1903.
Brewster’s Millions came into my world in a roundabout but serendipitous way. It started when I found a battered first edition of Jane Cable at a local thrift store. In spite of its disintegrating condition, I’m a sucker for old hardbacks, especially those I’ve never heard of but are named after a leading lady (*cough* Lucy Carmichael, Sara Dane, Katherine Wentworth). And then there was that long name on the spine, worn to the point of being barely visible: George Barr McCutcheon. It’s sort of a memorable name.
I did a little research and quickly discovered that McCutcheon was a highly successful and prolific early 20th century writer. We’re talking eight of his books were bestsellers. His fame was first established as the creator of Graustark, a fictional European country that features in a series of his novels. But as I scrolled through the list of his works, the description of a different book stuck in my mind. The next morning I awoke to a just-posted review of the book over at Leaves and Pages. The book gods had spoken! I was sold.
Apparently, I’m the only person in the world who had never heard the title Brewster’s Millions. It’s been adapted for screen something like ten times. But I would wager that most people who’ve heard the movie title don’t know that it’s based on a 1903 book. (Some sources say 1902.) It’s a shame, really, because it’s a delightful book, and a story that obviously has some sticking power.
Montgomery Brewster is a typical sort of genial young man (think Bertie Wooster, but with brains) who inherits a million dollars when his grandfather passes away. He’s been expecting an inheritance, so he takes it in stride. But not long after accepting the million dollars, Brewster discovers he’s received a second inheritance. This one is from an estranged uncle who lived out West somewhere doing something eccentric (commerce! oh my). The uncle was very wealthy and left Brewster a total of seven million dollars, but with lots of strings attached.
The first condition is that, as the uncle had a family grudge against Brewster’s grandfather, the uncle does not want his hard-earned millions mingling with the grandfather’s million. So, within the approximate year remaining until Brewster’s next birthday, Brewster will have to spend all of his grandfather’s million. He will have to do this in a responsible manner, showing good business sense and giving only modestly to charity. Oh, and he can’t tell anyone about the uncle’s will!
The executor of the will is going to hold Brewster accountable for all of this. If the executor decides the rules have been broken, or if Brewster possesses even a penny of his grandfather’s money by his next birthday, Brewster won’t get the seven million. And then he will be totally broke.
Brewster is faced with a choice: he can either take the bet to potentially win seven million dollars, or settle for his one million fortune. Brewster decides to accept the challenge. And boy, does it prove to be a challenge! He has lots of good friends, who cringe at his sudden spendthrift lifestyle. This kind of spending cannot be maintained! they tell him. Yes, that’s the point! he wishes he could answer. Brewster makes some high-risk investments, even does a small bit of gambling, and yet he keeps winning it back. His friends rejoice. He stresses out and enters his profits into a backwards accounting tally, in which he “profits” from losing money and “loses” from gaining it back.
There’s also the matter of two young ladies, one of whom Brewster likes at the beginning, and another whom he grows to love throughout the adventure, when all his other friends begin to forsake him as a lost cause but she sticks by his side, trusting that he knows what he’s doing.
The big question, of course, is whether or not Brewster will be successful at winning the seven million dollars. Considering this book is over a century old, it’s even more fun if you convert the grand prize into contemporary value. I used an inflation calculator and discovered that Brewster’s initial $1 million inheritance would be worth about $27 million today. Now, can you imagine spending THAT in a year? How about if your prize was…(calculating)…a whopping $189 million??
It’s also pretty interesting to see the price tag on things like a furnished New York apartment, a talk-of-the-town dinner party, and a yachting cruise. Brewster lays this all out for us, as he must lay it out in his accounting to the executor. Of course, I’ve read novels describing this kind of high-class extravagance, but I’ve never really seen it from such concrete financial grounds. Let me tell you, it was quite an education!
Brewster’s Millions is pretty darn funny all throughout. (The tone reminded me again of P.G. Wodehouse.) I especially loved the part when Brewster’s million dollar fortune first becomes widely known. He has all these men approaching him about sure-fire investments and schemes and all that—-men who may as well have “scam” written across their foreheads. Brewster doesn’t fall for it (which is good, since this would, according to the executor, be reckless spending, making him ineligible for the $7 million). But the scammers made me laugh because they reminded me of those awful spam emails, the ones that start with “Dear Madam/Sir” and contain more spelling and grammar errors than it seems ANYONE would fall for. It’s heartwarming, really, to see that those guys were around loooong before the Internet was invented. The age-old phrase “a fool and his money are soon parted” springs to mind…Incidentally, McCutcheon also wrote a book with that title!
Another McCutcheon fact, just in case you’re not yet sold on this fun read: Brewster’s Millions itself arose out of a bet. McCutcheon had just become famous with the publication of his first novel (the first in the Graustark series). He and his publisher were talking about whether people would buy his next book just because he was a bestselling author. McCutcheon held that a story could sell under one name just as well as another. So he published Brewster’s Millions under the name Richard Greaves.
And McCutcheon won his bet! Brewster’s Millions was outrageously popular at the time of its publication. And now? Now, I guess, the story’s main premise has been made into some pretty successful movies. But come on, you know what they say…The book is always better than the movie!