The Man Who Invented

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Stories of option and binder deals—a binder is an option on an option—made Fisher leery of the boom. Shady speculators called binder boys were weakening the real-estate market by buying options, rather than property, and reselling them at fancy profits. A dealer could get an option on a lot for a 10 per cent down payment on an agreed purchase price. The second payment, which would close the purchase, was not due until at least thirty days later, after the title search and the recording of the deed. In the meantime the option holder could sell the option to somebody else; sometimes an option was bought for a thousand dollars and then sold and resold five or six times, reaching a price of perhaps sixty thousand dollars before the deed to the lot itself changed hands. Late in 1925 there began to be many deals in which the closing payment was never made; after a series of fast option sales the original owner found himself still owning the property. That started the deflation of the swollen Florida real-estate bubble.

Fisher tried to stop option swapping on Miami Beach by raising the down payments and enforcing his rule against selling to anybody except prospective homeowners, much to the indignation of his own sales staff, who had done a $23,000,000 business over the previous year. Seeing widening cracks in the boom, Fisher began to unload some of his own property. In 1925 Jane and he had separated, and she was living in Paris. He sold a piece of land that he had given to her earlier and wired her $86,000. She spent the whole $86,000 in one afternoon on jewelry in a shop on the rue de la Paix, the Parisian Lincoln Road.

By that time Fisher had lost interest in Miami Beach and was busy planning to build “the Miami Beach of the North” at Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island, a hundred and twenty miles from New York City. With a small group of backers, including his old partner in Prest-O-Lite, Jim Allison, he had bought nine thousand acres at Montauk for two and a half million dollars; he was building an enormous hilltop hotel, the Montauk Manor, and a six-story office building, and was digging a channel between Great Pond and Lake Montauk. At fifty-two Fisher was starting another performance like the one at Miami Beach, gambling a fortune on an opulent resort before a lot was sold.

In collaboration with the Pennsylvania Railroad, which then owned the Long Island Railroad, Fisher was also concocting a scheme to make Montauk a transatlantic-passenger-ship port. He was certain that travellers arriving on ocean liners from Europe would be delighted to disembark at Montauk and travel from there to Manhattan by train, thus cutting a day of travel time from their journey. But Fisher and the Pennsylvania never had an opportunity to test their theory; the Montauk development didn’t last that long.

The bottom fell out of the Florida real-estate boom in 1926, and in September of that year Miami Beach was demolished by a disastrous tropical hurricane. Worrying about losing their tourist trade, the local businessmen tried so hard to hide the storm damage from the rest of the country that the Red Cross had trouble raising money for urgently needed relief work. Fisher halted work at Montauk to put his diminishing funds into repairing hurricane destruction. Then came the Wall Street crash of 1929, and the Montauk project was never resumed.

Fisher spent his remaining years in poor health at Miami Beach, watching his property there passing into the hands of Montauk bondholders. Nobody knows for certain how much money Fisher made at Miami Beach—estimates of his holdings at the peak of the boom run from twenty million to a hundred million dollars—but it is certain that he lost most of it at Montauk. When he died in 1939, he left forty thousand dollars. Fisher ended up in a small house on a side street. When he was forced to move out of his previous Miami Beach home, a huge castlelike mansion with a tower overlooking Biscayne Bay, he said with a shrug: “Hell, it was too far for me to walk to the front door.”

Miami Beach, a resort dedicated to perpetual youth, is a city with no cemeteries. But after Fisher’s death the city council proposed to pay him a rare honor. It offered a mausoleum in a park bearing his name so that his would be the only dead body on the beach. Fisher’s family decided, however, to bring his ashes back to Indianapolis, his real hometown. Like most people at Miami Beach, even its creator had gone there originally only as a visitor on a vacation.