Wilson Mizner

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Wilson Mizner
Wilson Mizner.jpg
Born (1876-05-19)May 19, 1876
Benicia, California, U.S.
Died April 3, 1933(1933-04-03) (aged 56)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Occupation Playwright, entrepreneur

Wilson Mizner (May 19, 1876 – April 3, 1933) was an American playwright, raconteur, and entrepreneur. His best-known plays are The Deep Purple, produced in 1910, and The Greyhound, produced in 1912. He was manager and co-owner of The Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, California, and was affiliated with his brother, Addison Mizner, in a series of scams and picaresque misadventures that inspired Stephen Sondheim's musical Road Show (alternately known as Wise Guys, Gold! and Bounce).


Wilson ("Bill") Mizner was born in Benicia, California, one of eight children including brothers William, Edgar, Murray, Addison, Henry, and Lansing and sister Mary.[1] Sir Joshua Reynolds was their great great uncle. Their father, Lansing Bond Mizner, was named Benjamin Harrison's Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Central American states, and the family moved to Guatemala, the brothers spending their teenage years there—robbing churches, they later claimed.

In 1897, Addison and Wilson, with brothers William and Edgar, traveled north to the Klondike Gold Rush, which they spent bilking miners rather than looking for gold. Wilson operated badger games, managed fighters, robbed a restaurant to get chocolate for his girlfriend "Nellie the Pig" Lamore (saying "Your chocolates or your life!"), and grub-staked prospector Sid Grauman, later of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. He also met Wyatt Earp, who became a lifelong friend. In Skagway, Alaska, Wilson met Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, whom Wilson considered his mentor.[2]

Addison and Wilson fled Alaska for New York, where Addison opened a Fifth Avenue shop where he sold Guatemalan relics and colonial-era furnishings at dramatic markups. Wilson became a New York dilettante, raconteur, and Broadway playwright. He married Mary Adelaide Yerkes, widow of industrialist Charles Tyson Yerkes, in 1905. Wilson was penniless (and 29 years old), while his new wife, aged 48,[3] brought between $2 million and $7.5 million to the marriage, as well as several artistic masterpieces that Wilson duplicated, selling the copies as originals.

The marriage did not last long. Wilson then ran the Rand Hotel, posting signs that read "Guests must carry out their own dead" and "No opium smoking in the elevators." He managed several boxers, fixing the fights to enhance his gambling revenues. One of his fighters, Stanley Ketchel, was murdered, and Wilson joked, "Tell 'em to start counting ten over him, and he'll get up."

Wilson's playwriting career was undermined by his laziness and an opium addiction that started when he was prescribed painkillers after an assault. He was arrested in 1919 for running a gambling den on Long Island. He and Addison then traveled south to Florida, where a land boom made it possible for the brothers to swindle some of America's wealthiest men before they were exposed in 1926 by General T. Coleman du Pont. Their customers began defaulting on their loan payments, and a railroad embargo on building materials led to the collapse of the brothers' Florida venture, the Mizner Development Corporation.

Wilson returned to California, leaving Addison behind holding the bag. There, he obtained backing from Jack L. Warner and Gloria Swanson and bought into and managed the Brown Derby, and wrote screenplays for some of the early talkies. His best known film work is the screenplay for the Michael Curtiz film 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. Wilson called his Hollywood years "a trip through a sewer in a glassbottomed boat." Several of the brothers' friends from New York, including Marie Dressler and Ben Hecht, helped them in their later escapades. Another friend, Irving Berlin, started, but did not complete, a musical based on Wilson's life.

Wilson Mizner is noted for many bons mots such as, "Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down," and, "If you copy from one author, it's plagiarism. If you copy from two, it's research."[4] Mizner has suffered the same fate as Dorothy Parker: both are vividly remembered today for their witty repartee rather than for specific literary works.

Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins based the character played by Clark Gable in the movie San Francisco on Wilson Mizner,[5] whom Loos described as "America's most fascinating outlaw".

Alva Johnston wrote:

[Wilson] Mizner had a vast firsthand criminal erudition, which he commercialized as a dramatist on Broadway and a screenwriter in Hollywood. At various times during his life, he had been a miner, confidence man, ballad singer, medical lecturer, man of letters, general utility man in a segregated district, cardsharp, hotel man, songwriter, dealer in imitation masterpieces of art, prizefighters, prizefight manager, Florida promoter, and roulette-wheel fixer. He was an idol of low society and a pet of high. He knew women, as his brother Addison said, from the best homes and houses.

At Warner Brothers[edit]

Around 1931, Warner Bros. head producer Darryl Zanuck hired Mizner to work as a top screenplay writer for the studio's First National films.[6] While at the studio, Mizner had hardly any respect for authority and found it difficult to work with studio boss Jack Warner.[6] Mizner, however, would indeed become a valuable asset to the studio's films.[6] As time went by, Warner became more tolerant of Mizner and invested in the Brown Derby restaurant.[6]



  • The Only Law, 1909
  • The Deep Purple, 1910
  • The Greyhound, 1912


  • "The Discord of Harmony", The All-Story Magazine, November 1908
  • "Three Saved!", Collier's, December 26, 1908
  • The Cock-Eyed World, (1929)
  • "You're Dead!", Liberty, May 3, 1930
  • "You’re Dead!", Argosy (UK), May 1937 (Reprint)

Famous quotes[edit]

  • "Stealing from one is plagiarism, stealing from many is research"
  • "I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education."
  • "To my embarrassment, I was born in bed with a lady."
  • "I've spent several years in Hollywood, and I still think the movie heroes are in the audience."
  • "A good listener is not only popular everywhere, but after a while he knows something."
  • "Be nice to people on your way up because you'll meet the same people on your way down".
  • "Those who welcome death have only tried it from the ears up."
  • "Working for Warner Brothers is like fucking a porcupine: it's a hundred pricks against one."[7]
  • Referred to his experiences as a Hollywood writer as "a trip through a sewer in a glassbottomed boat."
  • "Treat a whore like a lady — and a lady like a whore."[7]


  1. ^ Seebohm 2001 p. 22
  2. ^ Johnson, 1953. p. 84.
  3. ^ Johnson, 1953. p. 104.
  4. ^ Quoted by Stuart B. McIver, Dreamers, Schemers and Scalawags, Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida, 1994. ISBN 1-56164-034-4
  5. ^ David Thomson, "Have You Seen...?", Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-26461-9, p.751
  6. ^ a b c d Thomas (1990), pp. 89–92.
  7. ^ a b Talbot, Margaret (October 1, 2012). "The Screen Test". The New Yorker: 32–37 (requires paid subscription). Retrieved 26 September 2012. 


  • John Burke, Rogue's Progress, New York, 1975, ISBN 0-399-11423-8
  • Alva Johnston, The Legendary Mizners, Farrar, Straus and Young, 1953. (Reissued in paperback 2003, ISBN 978-0-374-51928-5)
  • Stuart B. McIver, Dreamers, Schemers and Scalawags, Pineapple Press, Florida, 1994. ISBN 978-1-56164-155-0
  • Caroline Seebohm, Boca Rococo, Clarkson Potter, New York, 2001. ISBN 0-609-60515-1
  • Edward Dean Sullivan, The Fabulous Wilson Mizner, The Henkle Company, New York, 1935.

External links[edit]