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In 1925, Miami Beach was the hottest spot in America. Thousands flocked to this narrow spit of land between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean to be part of the trendy vacation scene -- grand hotels, bathing beauties, speedboat races, polo matches. Yet just fifteen years earlier, this magical playground by the sea did not exist -- not the hotels, not the mansions, not even the ground it was built on. Everything -- even the brand new paved road to Florida -- was the inspiration of one extraordinary man.
"Mr. Miami Beach" is the story of Carl Graham Fisher, a millionaire promoter and entrepreneur from Indiana who risked everything he owned to turn a thousand acres of Florida swampland into an American Riviera. Fisher's Miami Beach was just one of many fantastic obsessions in a life lived close to the edge. A fast-living, speed-craving dreamer who raced to realize his many improbable ideas, Fisher lived life at full tilt until it was cut short by drink, bad luck, and natural disaster.
"This is a classic American story," says producer Mark Davis. "Fisher was a true character of his time -- a self-made man who embodied the early twentieth-century notion that anything is possible. He was obsessed with speed and fast living. For him, life was just one hell of an exciting proposition."
Fisher was a born promoter. After his alcoholic father disappeared, Carl left school at age 12 to help support the family as a railway newsboy. Sales shot up when he began flashing a photo of a naked woman under his apron.
Over time, Fisher's salesmanship grew more revved-up and fine-tuned. By age 20 his daredevil stunts as a bicycle racer had made him the most successful bicycle dealer in town. Later, he promoted his automobile dealership by floating over Indianapolis in a car suspended from a helium balloon.
Stunts like these caught the eye of a local girl, Jane Watts. It was love at first sight. He courted her in his flashy roadster, and they married in 1909. She was 15; he was 35.
"He was all speed," Jane Fisher wrote later. "I don't believe he ever thought in terms of money. He made millions, but they were incidental. He often said, 'I just like to see the dirt fly.'"
Fisher loved the automobile and believed it would become an American institution. He made a fortune manufacturing the first bright headlights for cars, then put his tremendous energy into the construction of an automobile race track -- a concept few thought had any merit -- and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was born. Later Fisher helped launch the Lincoln Highway, the first coast-to-coast paved road from New York to San Francisco, and the Dixie Highway, which led conveniently from the upper Midwest to Miami.
At the age of 40 he discovered Florida, and poured his considerable fortune into the creation of Miami Beach. To the astonishment of the locals, he dredged up sand from Biscayne Bay to fill in the swampland, shipped in hundreds of tons of topsoil from the Everglades, and then began to build fantastic hotels with polo grounds, yacht clubs, and golf courses on his new waterfront property.
"It was a world to suit himself," says Helen Muir, a friend of the Fishers, "with more imagination than I can even think of anybody else having at the time. He thought so big you wonder where it sprang from."
To attract attention to his development, Fisher brought in a circus elephant, imported a polo team from England, dressed young women in risque bathing suits, and started taking pictures.
"The national press just ate that stuff up," says Howard Kleinberg, a columnist for the Miami Herald. "You couldn't pick up a paper in the United States without seeing a picture of either the elephant or some group of bathing beauties standing by the beach.... Miami Beach all of a sudden became the place to go."
The promotion of Fisher's tropical paradise helped spark the national hysteria of the Florida land boom. Six million people poured into Florida in three years. By the end of 1925, Fisher was worth more than fifty million dollars, but his personal life was in a shambles. Devastated by the death of his only child in 1921, Carl became a heavy drinker and womanizer. In 1926 his marriage to Jane ended in divorce.
Desperate for a new venture, Fisher borrowed heavily against his Florida assets and set about building the "Miami Beach of the North" at Montauk Point on the tip of Long Island. But then a devastating hurricane struck Miami Beach in 1926, and Fisher's financial house of cards began to collapse.
"His marriage is broken, the boom is busted, the hurricane has caused him tremendous damage, he's got cash flow problems. And as a result, at the end of 1926, this man was not on good footing, emotionally or financially," says Kleinberg.
The stock market crash in 1929 sealed Fisher's fate. By 1933 he was wiped out. Living alone in a small Miami Beach house, Fisher faded into obscurity and died in 1939. A simple statue in a Miami Beach park is the only reminder of his legacy.