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Carl Fisher's Riviera: Turning Miami's Swamps into Sunshine
The Roaring Twenties conjure up images of flappers, speakeasies, and wild parties. But no city embodied the decadent spirit of the Jazz Age more than Miami Beach. And no figure did more to transform Miami Beach from a mosquito-infested swamp into the iconic party town than Carl Fisher.
Fisher was a classic American go-getter. He embodied the rags-to-riches ethos that anything was possible with enough hustle and chutzpah. A serial entrepreneur from childhood, Fisher dropped out of school at 12 to open a bicycle repair shop. His first fortune came from selling Prest-O-Lite headlamps to early automobile makers.
But it was in Miami Beach that Fisher's talents as a shrewd businessman and master promoter came together. Fisher single-handedly transformed the worthless strip of mangrove-choked land into the playground for the rich and famous.
Fisher's success owed as much to his flair for publicity as he did to his business acumen. The P.T. Barnum of Miami Beach turned hype into profit through clever marketing and audacious stunts.
Fisher floated a car across Indianapolis in a hot-air balloon to promote his car dealership. He built a lightning-fast racetrack that attracted 80,000 spectators. Today, it's the Indianapolis 500.
But it was in transforming Miami Beach that Fisher’s promotional genius shone. He hyped Miami Beach as an American Riviera.
Before 1913, this narrow strip of land was a worthless jungle. It was a wilderness of mangroves, sea grapes, and scrub Palmetto infested with snakes and mosquitoes.
The only way to reach the beachfront was by ferry or excursion boat.
Just 12 years later:
"the island, ten miles long and from one to three miles wide, became a world of moneyed industrialists, boulevardiers, and stars of stage and screen; its atmosphere gay, carefree, and expensive."
His publicist created ads that depicted attractive young women frolicking about Miami Beach.
One bore the caption:
"Turalura Lipschits and Her Twin Sister Tondalaya Are in Miami Beach Enjoying 78 Degree Sunshine on December 21!"
During a freezing New York December, his iconic billboard in Times Square proclaimed, "It's June in Miami."
But Fisher understood that Miami needed more than weather to attract tourists and investors. He connected South Miami Beach with the Miami main line with the trolley line. He built the Flamingo and Lincoln hotels. He joined the island to Miami by railway. He constructed leisure facilities for golf, polo, and tennis. Fisher imported polo pros from England. He organized flamboyant racing events and golf tournaments.
He even acquired Rosie, a winsome baby elephant who offered lighthearted photo ops for the press.
Fisher’s vision and shameless promotion worked. By 1925, Miami Beach had become a buzzing tourist mecca. Its hundreds of homes, shops, and luxury hotels catered to wealthy industrialists, celebrities, and socialites. At the height of the Florida land boom, Fisher’s fortune reached an estimated $50-$100 million.
But Fisher's Midas touch disappeared when real estate crashed in 1926. As quickly as it had boomed, Miami Beach busted. Fisher divorced his wife of 17 years. He failed to replicate his Florida success on Long Island.
With the onset of the Great Depression, tourism evaporated. Fisher's health and finances deteriorated rapidly. The once-vigorous entrepreneur became a frail alcoholic, his body swollen with fluid. On July 15, 1939, Fisher died penniless at age 65 from internal bleeding.
His epitaph in the "Miami Daily News" read:
"Carl G. Fisher, who looked at a piece of swampland and visualized the nation's greatest winter playground, died ... in the city of his fulfilled dreams."
Fisher, however, looked at Miami Beach differently.
"Wasn't any goddamned dream at all," he once said. "I could just as easily have started a cattle ranch."
In her book "Fabulous Hoosier," Jane Fisher wrote of her ex-husband, Carl Fisher:
"I don't believe he even thought in terms of money.... He often said, 'I just like to see the dirt fly.'"
[NV1]Gregg M. Turner. The Florida Land Boom of the 1920s. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[NV2]Knowlton, Christopher. Bubble in the Sun: The Florida Boom of the 1920s and How It Brought on the Great Depression (p. 117). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.