- 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
In the better-organized operations, lots were sold from blueprints or models. D. P. Davis promoted development at St. Augustine with a forty-foot mock-up that featured tiny powered boats running around a minuscule island. Actually to see the lots was not possible, since they were offered “predevelopment,” before the streets had been laid, the yacht basin opened, or even the mud dredged up to raise the land above water level. Underwater lots were among the standard frauds, but customers stood in line—some of them reportedly for forty hours—to buy lots on Davis Islands in Tampa Bay and Venetian Islands in Biscayne Bay while they were still under water. (Surprisingly, these particular speculations returned a tidy profit to the investors when the operations proved successful.)
To attend the opening of a subdivision sale, one frequently needed a reservation. Many a customer, having made a down payment of ten per cent, would step up when his turn came, select a lot from the blueprint, see it stamped “Sold,” accept his receipt, and then rush out in search of a buver. In the speculative fairyland of fast turnover and quick fortunes, the careless plunger was more likely to profit than the prudent investor. No matter how outrageous the price, there always seemed to be somebody else to whom one could “pass the baby” for more money.
Even well-planned Coral Cables became more and more involved in the boom-time hoopla. Merrick soon had three thousand salesmen hawking building lots and a fleet of seventy-six buses “to take you to Coral Gables at any time you desire”—as a guest of the corporation. The Coral Gables fleet made regular runs to and from the larger southern cities and occasional runs to and from New York, Chicago, and even San Francisco. And to guarantee that prospective buyers would be in a receptive mood once they reached his heaven on the Atlantic, Merrick had band leaders Paul Whiteman and Jan Garber making sweet music at the Venetian Pool, with “When the Moon Shines on Coral Gables” one of their most popular numbers. In addition, from a platform in the pool itself, the champion of silver, William Jennings Bryan, earned a little gold by orating on the miracle of Miami; it was, Bryan declared, “the only city in the world where you can tell a lie at breakfast that will come true by evening.” For trumpeting this cheering news, Bryan received an annual salary of more than fifty thousand dollars. And just in case Bryan didn’t do the trick, he was sometimes followed by the original “shimmy girl,” Gilda Gray, who shook her chemise with such gusto that it took the viewers’ minds off the prices quoted for lots by salesmen circulating through the audience.
But the Mizners’ Boca Raton was not about to play second string to Merrick’s Coral Gables or any other subdivision in the Florida promotion game. Wilson Mizner imported an old friend, the publicist Harry T. Reichenbach, to make Boca Raton into what Wilson called a “platinum sucker trap.” The bait—overpowering snob appeal. It was announced that only the “best” people could get into the place, which meant, quite simply, only those with lots of ready cash. (Palm Beach, Wilson said, would be converted into servants’ quarters for Boca Raton.) In Reichenbach’s unmeasured terms, it was the habitat of “the world of international wealth that dominates finance and industry … that sets fashion … the world of large affairs, smart society and leisured ease.” The Mizners collected, among other celebrities, two Du Ponts, one Vanderbilt, Elizabeth Arden, Irving Berlin, Herbert Bayard Swope, James M. Cox, George Whitney, and Marie Dressier, “the Duchess of Boca Raton.” At one point sales of lots, on paper, averaged two million dollars a week.
The legends of money to be made in Florida real estate began to rival those of the California Gold Rush. Kenneth Roberts told of a strip of land in Palm Beach which was sold in 1915 for $84,000, in 1922 for $240,000, in 1923 for $800,000, in 1924 for $1,500,000; in 1925 it was estimated to be worth nearly $5,000,000. Weigall knew a New York bank clerk who went to Florida with a thousand dollars and returned three weeks later with $375,000, which he had the good sense to invest in gilt-edged securities. A New York cab driver took a passenger, who could not get train accommodations, all the way to Miami, stayed, and made a fortune speculating with the money he earned driving his cab. Land on West Flagler Street in Miami, which had been worth $30 an acre in 1910, was bringing $75,000 an acre by 1925.
But it was the “binder boys” who perfected into a fine art a method of making profits on little or no investment. The principle was to pay a nominal “binder” fee on the promise of a down payment to be made perhaps a month later and additional payments “as of one, two, and three years.” The profit then would be reaped by the simple process of trading binders which might pass through a dozen or more hands before the initial down payment was made. The practice was finally broken up by Miami realtors who caught a group of smart operators from New York on binders and quickly produced abstracts with an agreement that cash payment was due immediately.
Even the clearest vision seemed to become dazzled by all this glitter. Both Weigall and Reichenbach actually began to believe that there was genuine twentyfour karat gold to be had in speculation, and plunged in with their own savings. Roger Babson, who was to make his reputation by warning of the 1929 stock market crash (see page 90), predicted an endless rosy future for Florida real estate.