America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels. Bernie Madoff? Ken Lay? Charles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style. Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.
Mizner was old school. He was the youngest son of an old line California family from Russian Hill. A beautiful place, but it was not for him. Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived. His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on. At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself. With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.
He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights. When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild. It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but in the miners’ pockets.
Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss.
Trading on the good name of Jack McQuesten, Father of the Yukon, Mizner effectively helped found Nome Alaska, setting up the McQuestion Saloon, dance hall and gambling den. Among other rackets, he worked as the assayer when panners bought the gold dust to be traded for goods and services. If a bit of it spilled on the carpet, well, too bad. Do this enough times and it became worthwhile to burn the carpet and recover the gold. (Believe that or not as you will – the man was always up for a good story.)
When not spilling gold, he organized prize fights, poker games, and with his girl friend he ran the badger game. On one occasion he organized a bear baiting in Alaska between a large brown bear and a strange looking dog with large teeth and a physique along the lines of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The show went bad when it turned out that the creature turned out to be a compliant female bear who, faced with her adversary, opted to make love rather than war. The crowd was not amused.
It was time for Mizner to leave anyway. From Alaska he went to Guatemala where his highly respectable father was doing some diplomatic work for the U.S.Government. The younger Mizner spent his time wandering the country where he picked up (stole, in many cases) artworks and artifacts which he took to New York City and sold at unconscionable markups.
New York was a natural for Mizner and the stories from that time are pure Damon Runyon (Runyon was fascinated by and made use of Mizner and his stories). He moved just as easily among the gang bosses and underlings as the journalists and show folks who spotted Broadway. Drawing on past experience, he organized and fixed boxing matches and gambling dens, and slightly more respectably, or at least legally, he managed the Hotel Rand, a place that makes the Chelsea Hotel look like a Holiday Inn (among the house rules: “Guests Must Take Out Their Own Dead”, “Do Not Smoke Opium In The Elevator”).
In 1906 he had a May-December romance with Mary Adelaide Moore Yerkes, widow of a Chicago Industrialist Charles T Yerkes just a month after that disgraceful man had died having failed to divorce her. A rich widow, it goes without saying, a mere nineteen years older than him, and a scandal at the time. He didn’t just marry her for the money, or the house on Fifth Avenue – there was also her previous husbands considerable art collection (Rembrandt, Van Dyke, etc) forgeries of which he had made and sold.
The marriage went south in about a year. No surprise there, but interestingly, he, not she, was the complainant. When his lawyer asked for the grounds, Mizner said “Isn’t ‘marriage’ enough?”
(There was also the fact that the money was not quite as large as many had assumed, and it was tied up for years in litigation. Mizner was reduced to scrounging about the mansion looking for his predecessors odd cufflinks and tie pins to pawn. The courts meanwhile whittled the estimated $US 7,500,000 estate down to $US 163,363. Mary had a nervous breakdown and what the papers called the grip which did her in in 1911, age fifty four. Not a bad figure for the times, but she had been used to living large, and this wasn’t going to cut it for long.)
Now forced to rely on his own resources to pay his considerable expenses, Mizner began to take transatlantic cruises and fleece his fellow passengers in friendly games of cards, at least until Cunard Lines started cracking down on such behavior. Settled back in New York once more, he managed Stanley Ketchel (the Michigan Assassin) and, having seen what Jack Johnson did to Ketchel in 1909, cleaned up by betting on Johnson in following year’s Jack Johnson – Jim Jeffrey’s championship fight in 1910. He was a man who judged his fellow man by the content of his character, and the power of his left hook.*
His talent as a raconteur was legendary and it was clear to his friends that somehow this gift could be monetized. The theater came to mind. His first effort, The Only Law, was the story of a prostitute and her pimp, co-written with pulp author George Bronson Howard. It was a scandal to say the least and did not run long, but it opened up a new kind of theater, “realistic” dialogue as opposed to the formal Victorian fare of, say, an Oscar Wilde. The Deep Purple (1911) a story about the Badger Game was well received and turned Mizner from a man of notoriety to outright fame. A year later, so was The Greyhound (1912), a story about a cruise ship cardsharp. (It closed when the Titanic went down and a drama set on a luxury liner seemed indelicate.)
He might have produced more, but the sad fact was that he could not write without partners (too lazy), and it was not possible to find writers who would put up with him for long. He went back to managing gambling dens in Long Island, waiting for his next big opportunity. In the early twenties, that meant one thing:
It happened that Wilson’s brother Addison Mizner, without benefit of training, was turning out to be a – let us say, striking architect. His style has been described as “Bastard Spanish Moorish Romanesque Gothic Renaissance Bull-Market Damn-the-Expense”. (One of his eventually became JFK’s White House South.)
But it was the development possibilities more than the Addison’s broad range aesthetics that attracted Wilson. Bored and in need of a score, he headed south and hitched up with Addison to buy up and build upon pristine lots of Palm Beach and the aptly named Boca Raton.
It was all one large bubble, of course, aided and abetted by the publisher/promoter/banker Donald Herbert Conkling who was sufficiently linked into the legitimate world that he could keep it going longer than the Mizners alone might have done. Other near dupes included Paris Singer, heir to the sewing machine fortune, who spotted the con in time to get out. Wilson himself was not far behind, ditching his partner and his brother (Addison died in 1933) just as the arrangement became unstuck. He was off to Hollywood, last refuge of the scoundrel, and a fit setting for his final act.
Between his louche charm and writing bona fides, Mizner fit in nicely in L.A. With Jack Warner’s money he soon opened and managed and co-owned the Brown Derby, the perfect place to hold court and reminisce about his life. Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blonds) was fascinated by the man, considered him the great love of her life (Platonically, it appears) and allegedly based the Clark Gable character in San Francisco on him.
When the Great Depression cut into the restaurant business, Mizner agreed to take on some studio work. Hollywood was mad on East Coast talent and his easy knowledge of criminal slang got him hired as a screen writer – consultant is probably more accurate – for such movies as Little Caesar and 20,000 Years In Sing Sing.
He lasted until 1934, when what passed for his heart gave out.
His plays are rarely performed and his movies the province of enthusiasts. His legacy is chiefly in the art of the one liners, sadly the most ephemeral of literature’s creations. Some have entered the vernacular: “Be nice to people on the way up, because you’ll meet them again on the way down.”
Some are commonly attributed to others, or at least contested: Are you showing contempt of court? “No, I’m trying to conceal it.”
On the death of President Coolidge: “How do they know?”
“A fellow who is always declaring he’s no fool usually has his suspicions.”
“I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.”
“A drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.”
“I can usually judge a fellow by what he laughs at.”
”I have known countless people who were reservoirs of learning, but never had a thought.”
And he kept it up to the very end. On his death bed, they asked if he wanted a priest. “I want a priest, a rabbi, and Protestant clergyman. I want to hedge my bets.”
No word on the rabbi or the vicar, but the priest at least got there in time and urged him to make his peace with God now as death could come at any moment.
“What? No two weeks’ notice?”
The above barely scratches the surface. For more, I urge you to read
Alva Johnson, The Legendary Mizners
John Burke Rogue’s Progress: The Fabulous Adventures of Wilson Mizner
*When Jones showed up in Hollywood for a bit part in some movie, Mizner embraced the retired fighter and kissed him on both cheeks.