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)