The Man Who Invented
With a wave of his plastic wand Carl Fisher transformed a tangle of mangrove swamps into a peculiarly American resort
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
Actually, Fisher did not believe in high-pressure selling. He would not allow his agents to make a pitch to a visitor in his hotel lobbies, and, as business boomed, he ordered Pete Chase and other salesmen to raise the price of any lot that did not sell and to keep on raising it until they sold it. Fisher frowned on selling to real-estate speculators; he wanted to sell only to people who were going to build a home of their own on the lot. He had a reputation as a scrupulously honest businessman, but he became hot-tempered and mean when he thought he was being double-crossed. When Miami Beach was getting crowded, Fisher leased property on the government-owned island of Soldier Cay, three miles to the south, and built there at a cost of twenty-five thousand dollars a dock and a home as a hideaway where he could rest and think. Without his knowledge the government sold the island from under him to a private buyer who asked Fisher to leave and offered him three thousand dollars for the house and dock. Fisher went to the island with a load of dynamite and blew up both house and dock.
Fisher hated personal publicity. One evening at a yacht-club dinner, when he was praised for boosting motor-boating, the commodore asked him if he would like to say a few words. “I would not,” Fisher snapped without moving from his chair. At another dinner he heard Miami Beach being described as “Fisher’s Dream” and interrupted testily: “Wasn’t any goddamn dream at all.” Yet he was always thinking up publicity schemes to get the name of Miami Beach on northern newspaper pages. He kept on the beach an elephant named Rosie who became nationally known from pictures showing her helping with construction work and welcoming visiting celebrities. When the genial President, Warren G. Harding, was entertained at Miami Beach after his inauguration in 1920, he played golf, with Rosie serving as his caddy for a few holes. Pictures of Harding with the elephant carrying his golf bag landed on front pages across the country.
As a publicity stunt Fisher staged a race on Biscayne Bay between ten identical motorboats, each one piloted by a famous automobile-racing champion who had never driven a boat before. The racers included such stars as Tommy Milton, Ray Harroun, Pete De Paoli, Louis Chevrolet, and Harry Hartz. The race turned out to be a disaster—six of the boats collided and sank—but the publicity was widespread.
Fisher was one of the first Florida developers to put Venetian-model gondolas with singing gondoliers in his canals and lagoons. On a European trip Jane had a red, gold, and black gondola shipped from Venice to Miami, complete with fringed pillows, and remembered to enclose with it one gondolier’s costume. Fisher made copies of the boat and the costume and hired natives to operate a fleet of gondolas in Venetian garb, singing and strumming guitars. The flashy Mizner brothers, Addison and Wilson, did Fisher one better when they built a canal designed after the Grand Canal of Venice at their Boca Raton retreat for millionaires. They had electric-powered gondolas made to order in Venice. Wilson Mizner insisted that authentic Venetian gondoliers should be imported from Italy. It was pointed out to him that there was no need for an oarsman in an electric boat, and, besides, there might be trouble if the gondolier tried to push the boat one way while the skipper was at the wheel steering it in the other direction. “We’ll have him use a fake oar,” Wilson said. “Then the son of a bitch can’t do any harm.”
The Florida boom became dangerously inflated by the mid-twenties, when property on Flagler Street in Miami rose to the price of $70,000 a front foot and a lot in the business section of Miami Beach, bought for $800 a few years earlier, was sold for $150,000 in 1924. Five ocean-front lots on the beach jumped in price within months from $16,000 to $150,000. The Miami Daily News , loaded with real-estate advertising, printed an issue of 504 pages, the largest in newspaper history. Real-estate dealers found no office space available and rented tables in hotel dining rooms between meal hours. Everybody went into the real-estate business; freight cars stood unloaded in the Miami yards because the freight handlers were buying and selling lots. Alarmed by the near-hysterical situation in Florida, a group of northern banks ran newspaper ads warning depositors against going there to buy and sell, because they would find themselves trying to sell lots “to the other fellow who is going to Florida to sell lots to you.” A magazine article on the boom reported that a man in Jacksonville had parlayed two quarts of bootleg gin into $75,000. He swapped the gin for an option on a piece of land near Bade City and made $40,000 by selling the option to a subdivision operator. Putting the $40,000 into another land speculation, he ran it up to $75,000.