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.
Though Addison lacked formal training in architecture, he is still remembered for his architecture, especially for his pseudo-Spanish colonial designs for structures built during the 1920s Florida land boom. Working in cahoots with Wilson, Addison swindled some of America's wealthiest, until the brothers were exposed in 1926 by the angry Gen. T. Coleman DuPont. A few months later the boom collapsed.
Earlier, during the first two decades of this century, Wilson gained fame as a New York dilettante, quipster and Broadway playwright. Wilson also managed several boxers, rigging their fights so that Wilson and his cronies cleaned up on bets. Following his 1919 arrest for running a gambling joint on Long Island, Wilson joined Addison in Palm Beach just before the 1920s land boom got underway. After the land boom burst, Wilson left Mizner in Florida and went back to California. Settling in Hollywood, Wilson managed and co-owned the Brown Derby Restaurant. He also wrote screenplays for several early talkies.
Curtain down for both brothers came in 1933. The 62-year-old Addison died in February. Three months later Wilson - only 57 and unrepentant - also died, a quipster even at the very end.
North to Alaska (1897)