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Broadway Bound (1904)

New York was the world's vaudeville capital. Both Sondheim and Wise Guys librettist John Weidman say (in various interviews published in "The Sondheim Review") that they plan to use elements of vaudeville to convey the terseness, speed, and recklessness of the Mizner brothers' lives. And for most of the 20th century's first two decades, the Mizners lived in hectic, rambuctious New York, whose social-climbing denizens were flush with money and sometimes were suckers for clever con artists.

Addison got to New York first, selling swag from his Guatemala trip from a shop on Fifth Avenue. In 1905, Wilson showed up at a horse show where the gay Addison was ensconced in a pricey box with wealthy widow Mary Adelaide Yerkes. Addison pretended not to see Wilson, but the younger brother charmed his way into the box. Thereafter, Wilson worked speedily. He spent the night with Mrs. Yerkes, reportedly borrowing $10,000 the next morning.

Within a short time the 29-year-old, penniless Wilson and the 80-year-old Mrs. Yerkes were fodder for New York's tabloids, the two having quickly married and just as hastily divorced. Wilson's rakish lifestyle, however, soon made him a New York celebrity. He managed the Rand Hotel, one of the city's most notorious canvasaries. "Guests must carry out their own dead" exhorted a sign prominently posted by Wilson. After designing the Rand's elaborate bar, Addison receded into the background, his lack of a formal education in architecture hindering his aspirations to design buildings for New York's wealthy.

Wilson's career as a hotel manager soon ended and the snappily dressed, witty Runyonesque Wilson managed boxers, working in cahoots with New York underworld's to fix the outcome of prize fights. (Wilson's love of boxing stemmed from his youthful days in Benicia, California, where the Mizner family home was a hangout for San Francisco sportsmen. Before arriving in New York, Wilson managed fighters in Nome and Dawson and on tours of Western towns.) In New York Wilson managed, then famous, Stanley Ketchel, whose violent death occasioned one of Wilson's more memorable quips: "Tell 'em to start counting ten over him, and he'll get up."

Wilson's chums in New York included actress Marie Dressler (who later helped the Mizners sell real estate in Florida and who won an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1931). Another of Wilson's New York contemporaries: Ben Hecht, who also helped the Mizners promote Florida real estate and who became a famous Hollywood screenplay writer.

Irving Berlin was an even better-known New York pal. At various times in his long career Berlin tried to write a musical based on Wilson's life. "Unsung Irving Berlin", a recently released CD, includes several songs composed by Berlin for his musical, known at various times as "Wise Guy", "Sentimental Guy", and "The Mizner Story".

One of these songs, "You're a Sucker For a Dame", takes dead aim at Wilson's con artistry which such lyrics as:

"You know the percentage on roulette"
"I've seen you playing poker with three aces, a hand of which you're very fond" and
"You're selling real-estate that's underwater".

But as the song constantly reminds us, when a gorgeous woman was involved, the sucker was usually the macho Wilson.

Perhaps Wilson's greatest achievement in New York was the co-writing of his Broadway plays including The Deep Purple which opened in 1910 and which was lauded by a Chicago critic as "the greatest melodrama since Sweeney Todd' (much later of course, Sondheim adapted the Sweeney story for the musical stage.) The New York critics weren't nearly as enthusiastic as their Chicago counterpart about Wilson's depiction of the seamier aspects of life, as depicted in The Deep Purple, The Greyhound and other plays.

Withal, Wilson's career as a playwright was doomed by his laziness and by an increasingly severe addiction to opium. After being beaten up and left for dead in a New York alley, Wilson was given morphine to ease the pain in his broken jaw. Wilson soon became addicted to this strong drug.

Meantime, depressed by his lack of success in New York and by health problems, Addison fled to Palm Beach, where the Florida land boom was about to erupt. Alarmed by news of Wilson's addiction to morphine, Addison brought Wilson to Palm Beach where Wilson managed to kick his habit. Wilson became Addison's partner, raking in millions during the Florida land boom. When the boom crashed, however, Wilson abandoned Addison. The callous Wilson sped away to Hollywood, leaving behind the ailing, impoverished Addison. The most cynical con job perpetrated by Wilson was to be on his helpful brother.

Florida Land Boom (1920s)

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