The Real-life Wise Guys
Addison and Wilson Mizner are the two "wise guys" in Stephen Sondheim's new musical. The two brothers were born in Benecia (northwest of San Francisco), Addison in 1872, and Wilson in 1876, The Mizners were the black sheep in an otherwise respectable family, whose forebears included the English landscape painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds.
The Mizner brothers were a picaresque pair. Wilson's remark, "You sparkle with larceny" (catalogued in "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations") is an apt way of describing the two sometimes famous - and almost always notorious - brothers. Indeed, the two were only in their teens when their father was named to an ambassadorial post in Guatemala. Addison bragged that he and Wilson robbed Guatemalan churches. In 1897, the brothers were lured northward by news of the Alaska Gold Rush where the youths spent most of their time bilking unwary miners. When the Alaskan venture ended, Addison returned to Guatemala, buying relics and colonial-era furnishings at a pittance. Addison shipped the merchandise to New York where he resold the loot (at fantastic markups) from a 5th Avenue shop.