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Wilson Mizner

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Wilson Mizner
Born(1876-05-19)May 19, 1876
Benicia, California, U.S.
DiedApril 3, 1933(1933-04-03) (aged 56)
Los Angeles, California
Resting placeCypress Lawn Memorial Park, Colma, California
OccupationWriter, entrepreneur, con man
Years active1908–1933
1909–1912 (as playwright)
1931–1933 (in Hollywood)
Notable worksOne Way Passage
20,000 Years in Sing Sing
The Little Giant
RelativesLansing Bond Mizner, Ella Watson (parents)
Addison Mizner (sibling)

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 part of the failed project of his older brother Addison to create a new resort in Boca Raton, Florida. He and Addison are the protagonists of 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 for a year, the brothers spending their free time robbing churches, they later claimed.[citation needed] Both brothers made up unverifiable details about their foreign experiences.

In 1897, Addison and Wilson, with brothers William and Edgar, traveled north to the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada, which he spent bilking miners rather than looking for gold. As he himself told it, 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!"),[2]: 25  and grub-staked prospector Sid Grauman, later of Grauman's Chinese Theatre.[citation needed] He also claimed to have met Wyatt Earp, who became a lifelong friend. In Skagway, Alaska, Wilson met Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith, whom Wilson considered his mentor.[3]

He followed gold seekers to Nome, Alaska when the Nome Gold Rush started in 1899. As he told it (there is no confirmation), he was known as the "Prince of Nome", established McQuestion, a saloon/casino, and was appointed deputy sheriff, where his "primary duty" was "to warn Eskimos that they'd have to smell better."[2]: 25 

After leaving Alaska, he claimed to have run a banana plantation in Honduras for a few months, but returned to San Francisco to resume his career as a professional gambler.[2]: 25  Once Addison had established himself in New York, Wilson joined him, and became a New York dilettante, raconteur, and Broadway playwright. He married Mary Adelaide Yerkes, widow of industrialist Charles Tyson Yerkes, in 1906. Wilson was penniless (and 29 years old), while his new wife, aged 48,[4] brought between $2 million and $7.5 million to the marriage and a $4 million mansion on Fifth Avenue, as well as several artistic masterpieces by Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and others, that Wilson duplicated, selling the copies as originals. The marriage did not last long, as the publicity generated "numerous" letters from California and Alaska warning the new Mrs. Mizner about her husband's past criminal activities;[2]: 26  their divorce was finalized in May 1907.[5]

He then made his living by gambling on luxury liners between New York and London, until the companies prohibited it.[2]: 26  Wilson then managed the Rand Hotel on West Forty-ninth Street in New York,[6] posting signs that read "Carry out your own dead"[7][8] and "No opium smoking in the elevators."[8] He managed several boxers, fixing the fights to enhance his gambling revenues. One of his fighters, Stanley Ketchel, the greatest middleweight of his day, was murdered,[2]: 26  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 convicted in 1919 for running a gambling den on Long Island, and received a suspended sentence.[2]: 26  After he was nearly beaten to death – the details are unknown – at Addison's invitation he followed him to Palm Beach, Florida, where Addison and other investors were announcing a new resort, Boca Raton, Florida.[9]: 53  Wilson was secretary and treasurer of the Mizner Development Corporation created in 1925, in effect working for his brother.[2]: 24  Unfortunately Addison's plans were financially unsound and the Corporation was forced into receivership within a year, and bankruptcy soon after.

Addison could no longer pay Wilson, so he returned to California. 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 glass-bottomed boat."[10] Several of the brothers' friends from New York, including Marie Dressler and Ben Hecht, helped him in his later escapades.

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," "Never give a sucker an even break" (also attributed to W. C. Fields),[11] and "When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research."[12] When President Calvin Coolidge died in 1933, Mizner's comment was "How do they know?"[13] (Coolidge was known as taciturn.) Mizner has suffered the same fate as Dorothy Parker; both are vividly remembered today for their witty repartee rather than for specific literary works.

Irving Berlin (a friend of Addison) wrote a song about Wilson: "Black Sheep Has Come Back to the Fold".[2]: 26  He began but did not complete a musical based on Wilson's life.[citation needed]

Anita Loos and Robert Hopkins based the character played by Clark Gable in the movie San Francisco on Wilson Mizner,[14] whom Loos described as "America's most fascinating outlaw".

Biographer 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.

That Wilson was a ballad singer, medical lecturer, "general utility man in a segregated district," songwriter, and a roulette-wheel fixer are all undocumented except in Wilson's own unreliable words.

Warner Bros.[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.[15] While at the studio, Mizner had hardly any respect for authority and found it difficult to work with studio boss Jack Warner.[15] Mizner, however, would indeed become a valuable asset to the studio's films.[15] As time went by, Warner became more tolerant of Mizner and invested in the Brown Derby restaurant.[15]





Taken from IMDb:[16]

Year Film Activity (if not main writer)
1914 The Greyhound from his play
1915 The Deep Purple (lost) from his play
1917 The Law of Compensation story
1920 Outlaws of the Deep (short) scenario
1920 The Five Dollar Plate (short) scenario
1920 The Deep Purple (survival unknown) from his play
1929 The Cock-Eyed World story
1932 The Dark Horse
1932 Winner Take All adaptation
1932 One Way Passage
1932 Lawyer Man uncredited
1932 20,000 Years in Sing Sing
1932 Frisco Jenny
1933 Hard to Handle
1933 Strictly Personal story
1933 The Mind Reader story
1933 The Little Giant original screenplay
1933 Heroes for Sale
1934 Merry Wives of Reno uncredited
1957 "One Way Passage" (episode of Lux Video Theatre) original screenplay


  1. ^ Seebohm 2001 p. 22
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i Vickers, Raymond B. (1994). Panic in Paradise. Florida' Banking Crash of 1926. University of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817307230.
  3. ^ Johnson, 1953. p. 84.
  4. ^ Johnson, 1953. p. 104.
  5. ^ MIZNERS DIVORCED in The Tacoma Times; published May 18, 1907; via Chronicling America
  6. ^ Fadiman, Clifton (October 31, 2009). The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes. Little, Brown. ISBN 9780316084727.
  7. ^ Collins, Paul (April 24, 2012). The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Crown. ISBN 9780307592217.
  8. ^ a b Pietrusza, David (September 13, 2011). Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465029396.
  9. ^ Silvin, Richard René (2014). Villa Mizner: The House that Changed Palm Beach. Star Group Books. ISBN 978-1884886744.
  10. ^ Bubil, Harold (January 27, 2008). "Architect Addison Mizner: Villain or visionary?". Sarasota Herald Tribune. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
  11. ^ Benicia Historical Society (May 19, 2014). "The Mizners. A Very Interesting Family". Retrieved January 4, 2018.
  12. ^ Johnson, 1953. p. 66.
  13. ^ Tully, Jim (July 1938). "California Playboy". Esquire. {{cite web}}: Missing or empty |url= (help)
  14. ^ David Thomson, "Have You Seen...?", Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, ISBN 978-0-307-26461-9, p.751
  15. ^ a b c d Thomas (1990), pp. 89–92.
  16. ^ "Wilson Mizner – IMDb". IMDb. Retrieved June 9, 2016.


  • 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.

Further reading[edit]

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