Written, Produced, and Directed by
Mark J. Davis
Nathan Z. Hendrie
Director of Photography
Voice of Jane Fisher
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"On the Beach With You,"
written by Tot Seymour & Jesse Greer,
courtesy of Words & Music, Inc.,
performed by Ben Selvin & His Orchestra,
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Emmett F. Fields
"Miami Beach: A History" Howard Kleinberg, 1994, Arva Parks & Co.
"Fabulous Hoosier," Jane Fisher, (C) 1947 by Robert M. McBride and Company, renewed 1975 by Crown Publishers, Inc.
THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Post Production Editor
On-Air Promotion Producer
VINCENT J. STRAGGAS
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LIZARD LOUNGE GRAPHICS, INC.
Series Theme Adaptation
HELEN R. RUSSELL
DAPHNE B. NOYES
©1998 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reseved
Mr. Miami BeachThe man who turned Florida swampland into an American Riviera.
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.
Written, Produced, and Directed by
David McCullough, Series Host: Good evening and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough.
An entrepreneur, according to the dictionary, is a person who organizes, operates and assumes the risk for a business venture. The key is the risk. Our film tonight, Mr. Miami Beach, is about a flamboyant American entrepreneur who had an idea on which he was willing to risk everything. Carl Fisher had made a career of betting on the future -- the future of the bicycle, the future of the automobile. Then, a millionaire by his early thirties, he bet on the future of a sandbar offshore from Miami, which itself wasn't much then. Fisher was a super salesman, "You couldn't be with him more than half a minute without feeling that life was a pretty damn exciting proposition," a friend remembered. What Fisher had discovered, said Will Rogers, was that sand could hold a real estate sign. The 1920's were a big spree for many Americans. There seemed no end to the possibilities for getting rich and having fun. And what better fun than heading off for a Florida vacation in one of Henry Ford's new cars.
Like most resorts catering to a wealthy clientele at the time Miami Beach was restricted to whites and gentiles. Jews were not welcome, not at first -- though Carl Fisher was happy to sell real estate to wealthy jewish friends of his like Bernard Gimbel and Julius Fleischmann.
In the spirit of the advertising maxim "sell the sizzle, not the steak," Fisher sold the glamour of Florida, using every ploy of showmanship from bathing beauties to elephants to the President of the United States.
Yet, Fisher was never trying to sell something he didn't believe in. And when his luck turned against him, ... well, you'll see...
Mr. Miami Beach
Narrator: It's 1925, and Miami Beach is the hottest spot in America. Boom time millionaires -- and thousands of others who wish they were -- have discovered a magical playground by the sea. There had never been anything like it before. Overseeing it all from the upper deck of the Flamingo Hotel is the wizard of this tropical Oz... a fifty-one year old businessman from Indiana, named Carl Fisher. He's barely known to the people down below, but without him they wouldn't be here...because Carl Fisher invented Miami Beach... from its bathing beauties to the ground it was built on. He risked everything he owned turning a thousand acres of swampland into an American Riviera. But at the moment of success, he stood to lose it all. Miami Beach was just one of many fantastic obsessions in a life lived close to the edge of disaster.
Howard Kleinberg, Author: If you look at Fisher's entire life, it's a marathon. It's a race. It was a race to achieve the top of whatever field he was in at the time. Everything he did he went into it with his heart, his soul, his money, and he would not stop until he reached the end. He wanted to be there the quickest and first... the type of person that I don't think this generation could create or endure.
Narrator: Years after Carl's death, his wife, Jane, recalled the remarkable first encounter with her future husband.
Jane Fisher: It was October 30, 1908. I was walking along Meridian Street in Indianapolis when I noticed all movement had stopped. Horses, carriages and drays were halted. Every person on the street was staring into the sky. I looked up. Against the clouds, thousands of feet above me, I saw Carl Fisher for the first time. He was in a white automobile hung beneath a vermilion balloon... drifting over the business section of Indianapolis. I heard a man say, "Another of Carl Fisher's stunts. The man is crazy!"
Narrator: Carl Fisher had a knack for publicity. If he wasn't flying a car over the city, he was racing it against a horse or pushing it off the roof of a downtown building. This stunt attracted national attention to the Stoddard-Dayton automobiles he sold in his downtown showroom.
At thirty-four, he was an enterprising young businessman doing his best to overcome a rough start in life. His mother, Ida, raised Carl and his two brothers in near-poverty after her alcoholic husband abandoned the family. The shame haunted Carl for years. As a child he was called "Crip" because he stumbled when he walked, and he was considered the stupidest boy in school. No-one realized that he was half blind from astigmatism... especially since he was the biggest showoff on the playground -- running, running backwards, standing on his head... even tightrope walking on his mother's clothesline.
At the age of twelve, frustrated by the blackboard he could barely see, Carl abandoned the classroom and announced to his mother, "From now on, I'm supporting this family." He began his working life on the Indiana railways, peddling newspapers, cigars, and peanuts... and developing a flair for salesmanship. Under his apron, he kept a picture of a naked lady. A quick flash got the customer's attention. He won a national prize selling pamphlets by Colonel Bob Ingersoll -- an inspirational orator who preached a creed of self reliance... and whose words Carl memorized: "Happiness is the only good... the time to be happy is now... the way to be happy is to make others so." Carl Fisher took those words to heart in a life where every pleasure became a business opportunity, and nothing could happen fast enough.
In the 1890's he fell in love with the bicycle...formed a racing team with his friends...and barnstormed county fairs. He talked a wealthy manufacturer into advancing him a thousand bicycles on credit. Soon, Carl was in business, making a name for himself with spectacular promotional stunts. He once rode a bicycle across a tightwire twelve stories above an Indianapolis street. By the time he was twenty, he was the biggest bicycle dealer in city. At the turn of the century, Carl fell in love again...this time with the automobile.
Joseph Freeman, Automotive Historian: Well, it was a tremendous thrill. I mean the idea that you could go as fast as you wanted, pretty much, pressed an accelerator and away you went, that was a great feeling.
Narrator: In the early days of auto racing, only the most reckless would even attempt it.
Joseph Freeman: The cars were unpredictable and dangerous. Ah, the road surfaces or the tracks that they raced on were exceedingly dangerous. It attracted folks with a lot of guts and just a fierce competitive spirit. Carl Fisher was prototypic of those kind of guys...just loved going fast, hell bent for leather. That was Carl Fisher. Don't stop, don't look around, just go. On the other hand there is a certain element of control, which he, and all race car drivers had to exercise. You don't want to be the guy who flies over the rail. You want to be the guy who finishes first.
Narrator: In 1904, Carl held the world speed record at just under sixty miles per hour. His poor eyesight eventually forced him off the track, but the passion remained. So did the urge to turn it into business. In a glittering downtown showroom, he opened the Fisher Automobile Company, selling the finest cars of the day. At the time, not everyone believed in the future of the automobile...but Carl did. And he even imagined that people would want to drive at night. So he bought the patent for a gas powered lamp, and became the first manufacturer of bright headlights for cars. He called the company Prest-O-Lite, and it would soon make him a wealthy man.
It was around this time that Jane Watts caught the first glimpse of her future husband. A few weeks later they met at a party, and Jane was swept into the high-speed life of Carl Fisher.
Jane Fisher: "In My Merry Oldsmobile" became our courting song. We sang it in harmony riding over the dusty, rutted dirt roads around Indianapolis. Some day, Carl would say, we'll have real roads in this country -- not these goddamn mudholes! He was all speed. Altogether, I found Carl so dazzling that at first I could hardly look at him.
Narrator: Within a year, Carl shocked Indianapolis society by marrying Jane. He was 35. She was 15. He was a dynamo who chewed tobacco and smoked cigars at the same time. She was in for a wild ride.
Howard Kleinberg: Carl Fisher was a hard drinker, a hard liver...a curser...He used to love to go to boxing matches... you know things like that. He was a rough house guy. He liked to be on his boat. He liked to go fishing.
Narrator: He was also irresistibly drawn to risky business ventures. His latest dream was a professional automobile racetrack--something no-one but race car drivers saw any need for.
Joseph Freeman: There were a lot of people in Indianapolis who thought he was absolutely crazy. It was well outside of town, and a big amount of money to spend on something that was totally unproven. And after all Fisher had his own share of crackpot ideas. Throwing cars off of buildings and floating them around under hot air balloons was not necessarily main stream activity.
Narrator: Even so, Carl persuaded three partners to join him. They would build the greatest racecourse in the world, he said, and call it the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Opening day, in August, 1909, was a celebration of everything Carl loved -- lighter-than-air balloons, brass bands, and the fastest cars in the world. But as the race got underway, the tar and gravel track began to crumble under the wheels of the race cars .
Jane Fisher: The glorious day he had planned turned into a carnival of death. Cars skidded off the track and burst into flame. I watched Carl's face grow white from my box in the stands.
Narrator: By the time he stopped the race, five people were dead. The newspapers called it a disaster... and questioned whether such races should be allowed in the future. Carl was mortified. He tore up the track, and spent another $100,000 searching for a better surface, eventually repaving it entirely in brick. On Memorial Day, 1911, the Brickyard was ready for a new kind of auto race -- a one day, 500 mile event, with prizes amounting to $25,100. Eighty-seven thousand people paid a dollar apiece to watch the first Indianapolis 500. This time the track held together, and Speedway succeeded beyond anyone's expectations... except Carl's.
Soon after, Carl sold his share of Prest-O-Lite to Union Carbide for almost $6 million dollars. He was not yet 40 years old. Jane hoped he might slow down. "Hell," he said, " I don't have time to take time." He was racing balloons, building houses, race cars, and yachts. He had a special love for speedboats, and spent his summers racing them on Lake Michigan. But the boating season was short on the Great Lakes, and he began to dream of warmer water...a dream that would draw him into the riskiest venture of his life.
Some twenty years earlier, Americans had been introduced to the exotic outback of Florida. A retired tycoon named Henry Flagler built a railroad along Florida's east coast, and lured the social elite to luxury hotels in St. Augustine and Palm Beach. In 1896, Flagler's railroad finally reached the steamy outpost of Miami. By 1912, the population had jumped from 300 to 12,000, plus a small number of well-to-do winter visitors. Among them were Carl and Jane Fisher, who were supposed to be on vacation.
Jane Fisher: He promised me he would stop working. "I'm going to take things easy," he told me. But it was not in Carl to lounge in the sun. He was too restless. This was the warm water paradise Carl had been looking for -- and he imagined the same wealthy crowd that wintered up the coast in Palm Beach would flock to Miami, given the right incentive. A plan began to take shape when he came across a half finished wooden bridge on the bay.
Lester Pancoast, Great-grandson of John Collins: He saw this bridge that went roaring off from the mainland over toward the beach on the other side. And he asked people whose it was, and they said, it was John Collins' folly.
Narrator: John Collins was a 75 year-old Quaker farmer from New Jersey who owned most of "the beach"... a swampy spit of land across the bay from Miami, where he was trying to start an avocado plantation... and also sell some beach front property to help pay for it.
Lester Pancoast: The bridge was to create a possible real estate market on Miami Beach. Because just as it happened in New Jersey towns, they felt that people would like to live where they could bathe in the ocean. But I think they were about three quarters of the way across when the money became thin.
Narrator: Intrigued by the old man's venture, and with six million dollars burning a hole in his pocket, Fisher offered to help.
Howard Kleinberg: Collins needed, I believe, fifty thousand dollars to finish that bridge and so Fisher agreed to loan the money to Collins to finish the project but with a caveat, in addition to the interest on the loan. And the caveat was that Collins give him some of the land.
Narrator: Carl got two hundred acres -- a mile long strip of palmetto scrub running from the bay to the ocean. Then he made another deal with a small real estate company at the south end of the beach, acquiring several hundred acres more, including a large tract of seemingly worthless swampland. One day Carl took Jane across the bay to inspect his new real estate. She was not impressed. The bay side was a dense mangrove swamp, miles wide in places. Jane found it unbearable.
Jane Fisher: Creatures that made me shudder were lying in wait on the branches of the overhanging trees. The jungle was as hot and steamy as a conservatory.
Narrator: When they could go no farther by boat, they made their way on foot through the palmetto scrub, heading toward the ocean.
Jane Fisher: The mosquitoes were biting every exposed inch of me. What on earth could Carl see in such a place, I wondered, as I picked my way through the morass in my white shoes. I refused to find any charm in this deserted strip of land... but Carl was like a man seeing visions. He picked up a stick, and when we reached the clean sand he began to draw a plan. I know now that he was seeing Miami Beach, in its entirety, rising from that swamp.
Narrator: Carl thought it might take six months. In fact, he would spend the next ten years and risk everything he owned turning his swampy sandbar into a man-made paradise. Now his Florida vacation was over. It was time to get back to business. He put a few laborers to work clearing the land with machetes and axes...and caught the next train back to Indianapolis. The Memorial Day race at Speedway still consumed a lot of Carl's time. So did half a dozen other ventures, from diesel engines to synthetic gasoline. Simply being rich would never satisfy Carl Fisher. Jane Fisher: 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. "
Narrator: One of his greatest ambitions was to persuade the government to start building better roads. He convinced the leaders of the automotive industry to jump-start the process by financing the first paved road across the country -- the Lincoln Highway, from New York to San Francisco. It was such a success that he went on to build another road -- the Dixie Highway... leading, very conveniently, from Indianapolis to the foot of the bridge he was paying for back in Florida.
On June 12th, 1913, the people of Miami lined up for the grand opening of the Collins Bridge. One official proclaimed that , "No more novel ride can be offered anywhere than this auto trip over the sea." Then, a parade of automobiles rattled across the two-and-a-half mile span -- the longest wooden bridge in the world. At the end each car had to be turned around and pointed back toward the mainland, because there was not yet a road beyond. Many wondered why anyone would spend so much money on a bridge to nowhere. They were about to find out. When Carl returned to Florida, he found his real estate venture in serious trouble. The laborers trying to clear the swamps were getting nowhere...and the heat, the snakes and the mosquitoes made the work miserable. Carl immediately sent back to Indiana for custom built plows and tractors.
Soon, the old landscape began to disappear. Now he had hundreds of acres of stumps that were under water at high tide. What he wanted was solid land. So he built retaining walls to hold back the ocean...and began pumping in a soupy mix of sand and water from the bottom of the bay. Gradually, the water drained away leaving a landscape as flat as a midwestern prairie. Of course, the locals found the whole thing incomprehensible.
Helen Muir, Author: They thought he was a loon. They thought he was absolutely loony. Here we have all this vacant land and this rich man is dredging up sand...?
Narrator: They thought it was a mirage. Next came hundreds of tons of topsoil shipped in from the Everglades. Then Carl told his gardeners to turn the whole place into a tropical paradise. In December, 1913, the Miami Metropolis wrote: "Transformed from a wilderness to a park, almost in an instant, as though by waving a magic wand, Miami Beach today seems a fairy land, and the story of its development reads like a romance." In January, Carl put his first subdivision on the market. It never occurred to him that people might not want what he was creating. He assembled an army of men and machines and put them to work building streets, sidewalks, sewers, and electric utilities... golf courses, yacht clubs and tennis courts...
When Jane suggested that he build a church, he said, "It's a helluva good idea. I'll build you the best goddamn church there is." Carl conceived of Miami Beach as a place for the wealthy to build homes and spend the winter season. They visited his $350,000 bathing pavilion and lounged on the beach. But they weren't buying the real estate. To Carl's upscale visitors, Miami Beach seemed a remote, unfinished place. He offered to give land away to anyone willing to build an expensive home... but even then there were few takers.
Jane Fisher: Miami Beach and Carl himself seemed unreal to our visitors. They would go away shaking their heads. "It can't last," some of them said. But Carl would risk everything he owned to prove them wrong.
Narrator: By 1917 he'd spent nearly 2 million dollars, and seemed to be headed for disaster. Carl had created Miami Beach for the social elite, thinking it would sell itself. But that wasn't the way he'd sold newspapers, bicycles and cars back in Indiana. And now he realized that wasn't the way to sell Miami Beach, either. "I was on the wrong track", he said later. "I'd been trying to reach the wrong crowd. I needed to go after the live wires."
Howard Kleinberg: He finally reverted back to what Carl Fisher was best at. That was hustling. Promoting. And he had gimmicks.
Narrator: He got a circus elephant, and started taking pictures. He predicted that newspaper editors up north would find them hard to resist... and he was right. "I'm going to get a million dollars worth of advertising out of this elephant," he said. Cheesecake worked even better. In a flash of inspiration, he created the Miami Beach bathing beauty. "We'll get the prettiest girls and put them in the goddamndest tightest and shortest bathing suits, and no stockings or swim shoes either. We'll have their pictures taken and send them all over the goddamn country!"
Howard Kleinberg: The national press just ate that stuff up. You couldn't pick up a paper in the United States without seeing a picture of either the elephant moving a log or some group of bathing beauties, standing by the beach, never getting wet but standing by the beach. And Miami Beach all of a sudden became the place to go.
Narrator: Carl created a world that could not be ignored... with national sports icons like swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and golf star Bobby Jones.
Helen Muir: It was a world to suit himself, 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.
Narrator: He spent more than a million dollars on polo fields, stables, grooms, and blacksmiths. And to make sure he got it right, he imported an entire polo team, with ponies, from England.
Helen Muir: He paid them all, as I remember, fifteen thousand dollars each to come, but that wasn't enough. He had to build a hotel where it was very horsy and English, use certain meals... Don't you see the mind at work. Don't you see the mind at work. He was a stage producer.
Narrator: The most elaborate set in Carl Fisher's production of Miami Beach was the 2 million dollar Flamingo Hotel that opened on New Years Eve, 1920. There were Venetian gondolas in the bay, and Italian singers in velvet pants strolling the grounds.
Olive Delahunt, Miami Beach Resident since 1922: We'd all sit at the dock and watch the races. And they had the tea dances there. There were women coming all dressed up beautifully in their long gowns and they would dance of course. That was fun, although we got bit up by mosquitoes but we got used to that by that time.
Narrator: No-one enjoyed playing in Miami Beach more than Carl. The only game he did not really care for was golf. "If I hit a good ball I can't see the goddamn thing," he said, "and if I hit a bad one, I sure as hell don't want to. Miami Beach had everything... everything, Carl thought, but prestige. He wanted an official endorsement, and he had a particular official in mind -- the newly-elected President of the United States, Warren G. Harding.
Howard Kleinberg: Fisher had heard that Harding was coming to Florida... as a sort of post election... vacation... before being sworn in as president. And he said, boy, I would give anything to get this guy over to Miami Beach, I want his dateline of Miami Beach in the newspapers everywhere .
Narrator: Carl would be competing with the city of Miami for Harding's attention ... so he took a cagey approach. When Harding's yacht arrived in the harbor, Carl and Jane were waiting on the dock. Harding had let it be known that he wanted to keep a low profile during his visit, and he planned to stay on his boat... but Carl had other ideas.
Howard Kleinberg: So there this yacht sails into the middle of Biscayne Bay and the Mayor of Miami comes over and reads his proclamation. Mmm... thank you very much and good-bye, and the Mayor of Miami goes off back to the mainland, and Fisher says, okay Warren, let's get at it.
Narrator: Before Harding realized what was happening, he was whisked off to Miami Beach in Carl Fisher's boat.
Jane Fisher: Carl shanghaied the President right out from under the pip-squeak Miami reception committee and took him up to the Flamingo Hotel penthouse where a poker game and a bottle of scotch were waiting.
Narrator: For the rest of the week, the nation's newspapers featured the president-elect at play in Miami Beach. Better still, Harding told reporters, "This beach is wonderful. It's developing like magic. I hope to come here again. " From that moment on, Miami Beach began to draw the clientele Carl was looking for.
Howard Kleinberg: The Midwest nouveau riche were now looking at this place that Carl Fisher was creating. Palm Beach was for the New York-Philadelphia rich. The old rich. The hoity-toity rich... okay. But this was a different group. These were guys who were fixing flat tires on bicycles twenty-five years earlier who suddenly were millionaires and Fisher was able to say to them, fellas, wait till you see what I'm doing down here in the South.
Jane Fisher: Carl made many of his best sales aboard his boats. On the deck of the Shadow K he sold Albert Champion half a million dollars worth of property at the flip of a cigar. He drove customers over Biscayne Bay and pointed to a spot in the smooth water. 'I'm going to build an island right there. Might be a good spot for you to buy.'
Narrator: They built lavish homes on Carl's prime real estate ... and brought their version of high society with them. At their house on the beach, Carl and Jane entertained constantly. They had a staff of twenty, and their grocery bills were a thousand dollars a month. But to Jane's dismay, Carl was indifferent to Miami Beach society.
Howard Kleinberg: Fisher hated... social events. His wife, Jane, loved them. She wanted to go to this party, that party, this party. Fisher hated it. He wanted a cigar, a deck of cards,... and a couple of stiff belts of booze.
Narrator: Carl's attitude frustrated Jane, and put a strain on their marriage... and to make matters worse, his six million dollar fortune was almost gone. Even though sales were picking up, Carl was spending far more than he took in. For the first time he was borrowing to stay afloat. Still, the Fishers might have weathered all of this if not for a devastating blow that came toward the end of 1921.
Howard Kleinberg: They had a great tragedy. They had a baby, and the baby died in the first week of its life, I believe and... this set back Carl Fisher terribly. Jane, hoping that it would break him out of it, adopted a child. It had an opposite effect. Fisher wanted no part of the child, wouldn't give the child his name. Just had nothing to do with the child and subsequently, had less and less to do with Jane. And so things just unraveled from that point on.
Jane Fisher: We had entered separate worlds, Carl and I, and neither would hold for us anything we really wanted. .. I went in for society in a large way. Carl started drinking.
Narrator: On the verge of success in Miami Beach, Carl was at the lowest point of his life ... but his money problems, at least, were about to disappear. Primed by years of Carl Fisher ballyhoo, people all over America began to empty their bank accounts... pack the family car... and join the exodus rolling down Carl Fisher's Dixie Highway to Florida. Six million of them came in three years... all determined to get their share of the Florida miracle. When they arrived they found a real estate gold rush in progress. Overflow crowds slept in the parks, and pored over Sunday papers with 500 pages of real estate ads. Caravans of buses from the upper mid-west brought thousands of prospects on tours of new developments. Seventy-five hundred real estate licenses were issued in Miami in 1925. Subdivisions sold out the day they went on the market. One office sold thirty-four million dollars worth of property in a single morning. Prices soared, and speculators rushed in. For $100 dollars down, anyone could get in on the action, buying and selling land without ever setting foot on it.
Olive Delahunt: They set up card tables for real estate offices and sold property and one minute you buy a piece of property. Ten minutes after you sell it to somebody else.
Groucho Marx: Florida, folks, sunshine, sunshine, perpetual sunshine all the year round. Let's get the auction started before we get a tornado...
Narrator: Florida real estate soon became synonymous with fast-talking con-men.
Groucho Marx: ... 800 wonderful residences will be built right here. Why they're as good as up -- better. You can have any kind of a home you want.... why, you can even get stucco. Oh, how you can get stucco! And don't forget the guarantee, my personal guarantee -- if these lots don't double in value in a year, I don't know what you can do about it.
Howard Kleinberg: There were a lot of sleazy guys and guys who just wanted to sell some property and then run back to wherever they came from. Ah... Fisher wasn't that way. When you talk about a guy being a promoter... he was a promoter. He wasn't a huckster. He wasn't trying to sell you something he couldn't deliver. Remember he built a home in Miami Beach, and he's very proud of what he was doing.
Narrator: Still, being honest didn't prevent Carl from cashing in on the Florida boom. In just three years he sold thirty-seven million dollars worth of property... and saw Miami Beach blossom. By the end of 1925, there were 56 hotels -- five of the largest owned by Fisher -- and more than 800 private residences... 8 bathing pavilions... 3 polo fields... 3 golf courses... and the best goddamn church in Florida. His friend, Will Rogers, called Carl "the man who took Florida from the alligators and gave it to the Indianians."
Back home in Indianapolis he was hailed as The Hoosier Genius. He was now worth more than fifty million dollars. He was also drinking too much, sleeping with his secretary... and watching his marriage fall apart.
Jane Fisher: Our home filled with a rudderless crowd come to bask in Carl's sun. Hard riding, hard drinking, overly rich.... So many people pulling us from every side in this whirlpool of success ... There was too much going on... Too much of everything ...
Narrator: Carl and Jane were divorced in 1926... and Carl was left with a nasty hangover. The happiness he yearned for was eluding him. He'd accomplished everything he'd set out to do... and he was bored. He needed something new. He found it in a rather unlikely spot... on Montauk Point, at the tip of Long Island, New York. On 10,000 acres of windswept dunes he decided to build Miami Beach all over again -- golf courses, polo fields, luxury hotels.... a summer home for his Miami Beach friends. Some of them were alarmed. Carl's assets were mostly on paper, and he had to borrow heavily to make Montauk happen. But he was adamant: "What the hell do I care about money? Miami Beach is finished, and there's nothing left for me to do there but sit around in white pants looking pretty, like the rest of you goddamn winter loafers!" In September, 1926, Carl Fisher finally ran out of luck. One of the worst hurricanes of the century took Miami Beach completely by surprise.
Olive Delahunt: Most of the people were here from the North. They never knew what a hurricane was. Nobody knew what it was, so we didn't know what to do. Well the wind started blowing. The rain start coming and it was frightful. You could hear glass breaking. You could hear the wind roaring all through the night. When it got daylight we thought well we'll go out and see if our business was still there. There wasn't much left.
Narrator: Carl rushed back from Montauk. He found his city buried under three feet of sand. There were over a hundred dead, and hundreds more missing... and the wreckage of the south Florida boom was strewn for miles in all directions. Carl would need a million dollars in cash for repairs. The value of his holdings had plummeted. His financial house of cards began to collapse.
Howard Kleinberg: 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.
Narrator: Carl tried to repair the damage done to the image of Miami Beach by the boom and the hurricane... but things were never quite the same again. Chicago gangster Al Capone moved in with casinos and speakeasies. Carl was losing control ... of Miami Beach, and of Montauk, as well.
Howard Kleinberg: He raided the treasury to pay for Montauk Point. Ah... Montauk Point unfortunately did not take off like Miami Beach did... and Fisher's money was pretty much going down a sinkhole.
Narrator: When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, millions in loans were coming due at Montauk, and Carl's investors bailed out. He was a physical and emotional wreck. He mortgaged or sold everything he owned ... but it was hopeless. The race was over. By 1933 he was wiped out, living alone on a side street of Miami Beach, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and sixty years of hard living.
Howard Kleinberg: I don't think that Carl Fisher ever really complained about what was happening to him. And he was a crapshooter from day one, and so he rolled the dice and this time they came up snake eyes and... that's the way it goes. He had a wonderful fling. Thank you very much. Good-bye.
Narrator: As for Jane, life after Carl was something of a let down.
Jane Fisher: I divorced. I married again and again. 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; there was something exciting going on every minute of the day. Sometimes it was very good; sometimes it was very bad. Still, it was living. It was excitement that I never found again.
Narrator: One day in 1939, shortly before Carl died, an old friend in the tire business invited him to take a ride over Miami Beach. The man who always seemed to see the future before anyone else, contemplated his creation one last time.
Helen Muir: He was the man, let no one forget it, who made Miami Beach. Without Carl Fisher, none of this magnificent nonsense would have occurred.