- Historic Sites
The Bubble In The Sun
Under the Florida palms William Jennings Bryan orated and Gilda Gray shimmied while real-estate promoters hawked lots. It was the greatest land boom in our history
August 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 5
Not far from the Everglades Club were the Via Mizner, the Via Parigi, and the Worth Avenue Arcade, where Mizner created Old World alleys of little shops and sidewalk cafés with gay pink, blue, and cream-colored fronts. Up and down Palm Beach his talent ran riot, spawning a city of palaces with great watch towers and thick walls, cloistered arcades, high galleries, vaulted ceilings, and tiled pools. These edifices have been called by some the work of a quack, by others, including Frank Lloyd Wright, that of a genius.
Addison Mizner soon had a million dollars, he claimed, salted away in government bonds, but it was inevitable that he would be drawn into the subdivision madness that swept up from Miami. He was joined in that adventure by his scapegrace brother, Wilson, a latter-day Sir John Falstaff who had come down from New York in 1921 to manage the Mizner Industries. He was a master of the pulverizing phrase and was credited by some with the quip, “Never give a sucker an even break.”
As the boom roared into fantastic excesses, Wilson found himself more and more at home in the Florida wonderland. The Mizners got a late start, but they made up for it by projecting the most ostentatious subdivision of all at Boca Raton (Rat’s Mouth), a little stop on the Florida East Coast Railway south of Palm Beach. The plans featured El Camino Real, a highway 219 feet wide and only about twelve times as long, with twenty traffic lanes and a “Venetian canal” with powered gondolas running down its center. There was to be a hotel, an airport, a polo field, two golf courses, a yacht basin, and a church that was to be a memorial to Mama Mizner and a source of satisfaction to the Mimers’ other brother, an Episcopal priest—the white sheep, as it were, of the family. Unfortunately, little of it got off Addison’s mental drawing boards. “Beaucoup Rotten,” the rival realtors labelled it, and so it turned out to be, for it got under way as the boom roared to a collapse. The only structure completed was the hotel, the Cloister, one of Addison’s masterpieces.
At mid-decade the boom spirit soared to its peak. The Gold Coast, of which Miami was the heart, was geared to a winter-resort economy; from April to November it subsided into lassitude. But in 1925 the season never ended. The swarms of “tin can” tourists continued to arrive in their flivvers throughout that summer. Kenneth L. Roberts, covering the scene for the Saturday Evening Post , estimated that 4,000 people a day entered the state by automobile, supplemented by another 3,000 on trains and 200 on ships, making perhaps more than 2,500,000 in the boom year.
The new arrivals included a liberal sprinkling of real and psendo celebrities. Indeed, the number of celebrities a town or subdivision had was considered a good barometer of its prestige. Thus Miami Beach boasted that it was the resort of “America’s wealthiest sportsmen, devotees ol yachting and other expensive sports.” The subdivision of Floranda had the Earl and Countess Lauderdale, Lord Thirlestane, and the exKing of Greece; Gene Tunney regularly appeared at another subdivision; Bobby Jones was at Davis Islands in Tampa Bay; while Helen Morgan and Elsie Janis could be seen at Hollywood-by-the-Sea. And Florida’s famous visitors did not have to go around thirsty in the sun just because of the Eighteenth Amendment. Liquor was as readily available as it was in Al Capone’s Chicago. The primary source for this cheer was the Bahamas. Jn 1922 a friend just back from Nassau reported to a horrified William Jennings Bryan, “The Bahamians are very proud of the fact that Prohibition in the United States has made their country independent. They boast of the fact that theirs is the only government known to be out of debt, with millions in the Treasury and a monthly income of more than $500,000 in revenue from the sales of whiskey alone.”
Amidst this combination of boom times, dazzling celebrities, and free-flowing booze, the most ludicrous scenes became commonplace. At the Miami Western Union office those unable to reach the desk wrapped their messages in rocks and tossed them over the heads of the crowd. Every evening on the streets of Miami, charabancs of “realtors” passed slowly through the crowds shouting out their bargains to the accompaniment of trombones and saxophones. One of the most conspicuous features in promotion was the boom orator. There were all kinds among these spellbinders: side-show barkers, auctioneers, and free-lance orators willing to talk on anv subject for a minimum of ten dollars an hour. Bible-Belt gospel shouters, many of them carried away with a semireligious enthusiasm for Florida, earned lhe premium wages. “It was a common sight,” Weigall reported, “at any wayside barbecue on the Dixie Highway, to see some purple-faced orator mounted on the back seat of his car under the blazing sun bellowing of the land of hope to an awestruck audience standing round him in the white dust.”
It was scarcely an exaggeration to say that everybody in Miami was “in real estate” in one way or another. The city was finally forced to pass an ordinance against making sales in the street or on the sidewalks. Since all ordinary office and salesroom space was taken up, the realtors had to operate from partitioned sections of hotel lobbies and warehouses, in cleared basements, enclosed porches, and boxed-in spaces between buildings.