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Mr. Miami Beach | Article

Carl and Jane Fisher

Carl Fisher:
In her book "Fabulous Hoosier," Jane Fisher wrote of her ex-husband, Carl Fisher: "I don't believe he even thought in terms of money.... He often said, 'I just like to see the dirt fly.'" Indeed plenty of dirt flew during his fast-paced life. Before he built Miami Beach, he built racetracks and roadways. His early love of bicycles and automobiles culminated in a desire to create destinations.

Carl Fisher

Born in 1874 in Greensburg, Indiana, Fisher quit school at age 12 and five years later opened a bicycle repair shop in Indianapolis. A successful entrepreneur, Carl made millions in 1909 after he sold his Prest-O-Lite automobile headlamp business to Union Carbide.

Carl loved speed and broke a record in 1904, driving an automobile two miles in 2.02 minutes around a track. As much as speed, he loved publicity and gimmicks. In 1911, after his Indianapolis Motor Speedway failed to attract large numbers, he built a 500-mile track and drew more than 80,000 people to a race onlookers described as "the greatest spectacle in sports."

Soon Miami Beach caught Fisher's eye. Foreseeing the automobile's impact on American life, he was instrumental in the construction of the first transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, from New York to San Francisco, in 1913. People questioned his next project, the Dixie Highway. What need could there be for a highway running from Indiana through the Deep South and terminating in Miami Beach?

Fisher couldn't convince people of the value of Florida real estate. Even when he was literally giving land away in the late teens, he had no takers -- until a president and a pachyderm came along. Gimmicks, which Carl relied on from time to time, would propel Carl Fisher to success.

Carl had acquired a baby elephant named Rosie who was a favorite with newspaper photographers. In 1921 a picture of Rosie as a "golf caddy" for vacationing President-elect Warren Harding "fixed Miami Beach in the public's mind as a place you had to see to believe."

Publicity stunts worked; the population ballooned some 440 percent from 1920 to 1925. At the height of the '25 land boom, Carl Fisher's fortune was estimated at $50 to $100 million. Ever restless, he decided to build a northern Miami Beach at the tip of Long Island. He envisioned Montauk as a Miami for the summer, but it was doomed. In the wake of Fisher's southern success, the resort market had become saturated.

Carl Fisher's downward spiral began in 1926. He and Jane divorced after 17 years of marriage. The boom leveled off, and Miami Beach began to experience a backlash in the northern press, which regularly ran stories on shady land deals and charlatans.

Nature had its own plans for Miami Beach. In September, a major hurricane slammed into the city. Structural damage was terrific; 113 people were killed in Greater Miami. The storm generated still more negative publicity for Miami Beach, and tourism dropped in 1927. The following year the city rebounded somewhat, but the boom was gone for good.

Carl Fisher couldn't rebound. He had borrowed against his Miami Beach properties to build Montauk, which was completed in time for the stock market crash. By then Miami Beach couldn't get him out of his hole. When the Great Depression hit, tourism -- and Fisher's fortune -- dried up.

The Pancoasts, Fisher's former partners in the Miami Beach Improvement Company, offered the entrepreneur a salaried position. He took it, fruitlessly dedicating himself to reviving Miami Beach's reputation. Shortly before his death, Carl built Key Largo's Caribbean Club, a fishing club for men of modest means, "a poor man's retreat." It became a gambling establishment after he died.

The self-made Fisher had become self-destructive. During Prohibition Carl was drinking heavily and was bootlegging. Transporting alcohol was a challenge, but drinking it became an addiction that would cost him his life. By 1938 Carl had cirrhosis. Periodically his body had to be drained of excess fluids, up to 20 pounds at a time. Desperately seeking a cure, Fisher consulted a veterinarian who specialized in the liver and lungs of animals.

On July 15, 1939, at age 65, Fisher died of a gastric hemorrhage. His epitaph in the "Miami Daily News" read: "Carl G. Fisher, who looked at a piece of swampland and visualized the nation's greatest winter playground, died ... in the city of his fulfilled dreams." Carl, however, hadn't looked at Miami Beach as romantically. "Wasn't any goddamned dream at all," he once said. "I could just as easily have started a cattle ranch."

Jane Fisher:
On Jane Fisher's first trip to Miami in 1910, her husband, Carl Fisher, drew a picture in the sand and told her, "'I'm going to build a city here. A city like…you read and dream about but never see." Touring the mosquito-infested jungle and swamp, Jane couldn't see it herself, but she knew better than to doubt her husband's visions.

Miami Jane Fisher.jpg
Jane Fisher

Once Carl's sand drawing evolved into reality, Jane loved Miami Beach. In 1915 they moved to their newly built "The Shadows" estate there. Jane was frustrated by Palm Beach's social supremacy, and longed for society in Miami Beach. It was still in its infancy. "They thought we were just scum," she said years later. "We were nouveaux riches, you see. New money from the Midwest…. They were old money from the East.."

Carl was spending -- and losing -- a fortune on Miami Beach. To attract investors, Carl flooded the press with pictures of Miami Beach's good life. Jane claimed to have inspired his wildly successful "bathing beauties" campaign. After she appeared in public without the long black stockings standard to women's bathing attire of the time, ladies began to uncover their legs, most sensationally in Fisher's publicity photos. "[W]hen a Miami minister used [Jane's] bare knees as a living example of the depravity of Modern Woman, Carl said, 'By God, Jane, you started something!'"

Despite their 20-year age difference -- when they married in Indianapolis in 1909, Carl was 35, Jane 15 -- the Fishers seemed well matched in spirit. Their marriage, however, was troubled. Carl was a womanizer and a budding alcoholic, and he had no interest in society, as Jane did. In 1921, the relationship deteriorated further after the death of their infant son, Carl Jr. After 12 years, Jane had become pregnant. Tragically, the baby was born with an obstruction at the base of his stomach, and he essentially starved to death before he was a month old.

Carl and Jane's marriage was in free fall. The following year, in December of 1922, Jane adopted a two-year-old boy, Jackie, in an effort to repair her marriage. But Carl refused to take part in the adoption. Carl and Jane divorced in 1926.

Jane continued to live the high life, and to marry. Her last marriage was to a man known in Miami as Alberto Santos, but in New York as Alberto Guimares. Shortly before their divorce, Guimares was questioned in connection with a murder that had occurred in New York in the early '20s -- not exactly an everyday occurrence, but not the kind of excitement Jane was after, either. "I married again and again," she wrote. "I couldn't stay married to them because life was just too drab.… You see, living with Carl Fisher was like living in a circus…. It was excitement, aliveness, that I never found again."

In 1939 Carl died, broke, alcoholic, and nearly forgotten, in the city he built. He had married again, but when Jane returned to Miami Beach after his death, she dethroned his true widow, Margaret Collier Fisher, "by sheer force of personality."

Jane petitioned the courts to reclaim the name Jane Fisher. With her former identity intact, she began to do radio broadcasts and write articles about her late husband. Eventually she published a book, "Fabulous Hoosier," in which she told the story of Carl's early years. "Story" was the operative word; Jane was renowned as "a gifted storyteller who never let dates or details interfere with the sweep of her narrative."

By the end of Jane's life (she died in 1968), Miami Beach had changed dramatically. She said it was "growing into a big, ugly city. I don't think it's what Carl would have wanted."

Jane had changed, too. Her opulent lifestyle long gone, she spent her so-called golden years much as Carl had: "alone, unrepentant, her mind full of schemes to recoup her fortune." In one final stab at glory, she lent her name to a promoter pushing prefabricated houses in Puerto Rico. It was a venture, she said, that would be "worth millions."

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