Florida is where winners go to play and everyone goes in search of the good life. Yet only a century ago, much of Florida was a swampy, mosquito infested frontier. In his latest book, For Sale–American Paradise: How America Was Sold An Impossible Dream In Florida, National Geographic News Contributing Editor Willie Drye tells the colorful, captivating story of how Florida went from wasteland to wonderland. I talked to Drye about his new book.
There have been many books written about the reckless real estate speculation in Florida during the 1920s and the spectacular crash that followed. Why did you think one more book about this topic was needed?
Several reasons. Other books focused mainly on “big names” of that era—Coral Gables developer George Merrick, political icon William Jennings Bryan, Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher—and I didn’t think much had been said about the millions of ordinary dreamers who came to Florida and were caught up in the frenzied real estate speculation. I thought the story of Edwin Menninger, a young journalist who came to Florida in 1921 to shake a bad case of the flu, was a new take on this period, and I thought he brought a fresh and unusual perspective to the narrative as both a participant and a commentator.
Also, the other books all pretty much ended with the 1926 hurricane that hit Miami. This hurricane eventually became the landmark event for the end of the land boom.
But identifying this event as the end was something that I thought was determined only in retrospect, when you could look at the entire decade of the 1920s. It seemed to me that the people who were caught up in the boom, who had invested their hopes, dreams and cash in Florida, didn’t realize the 1926 hurricane meant that the good times were over and gone forever. They believed that the good times would return, and they kept working for that. And it took a second terrible hurricane and an even bigger and more spectacular economic collapse to finally convince them that it was over.
So I thought the story of the full decade of the 1920s needed to be told to give the full perspective of the events and the people who were caught up in the Florida land boom. And I didn’t think the other books devoted nearly enough attention to what happened after the 1926 hurricane. And finally, although the story takes place in Florida nearly a century ago, I think it is very much a timeless story about America and our hopes and dreams and expectations.
What made Edwin Menninger such an interesting character to you?
He was from a family that had become world renowned for scientific inquiry and analysis. His father, Dr. Charles F. Menninger, was a famous and highly respected psychiatrist, and his brothers also were physicians. Edwin Menninger had a medical career waiting for him. He was a young man just starting to prepare for that career when a horrible accident disfigured him and ended it before it began.
Still, he came from a background of analysis, diagnosis, and remedy, and that set him apart from many of the people who came to Florida during the early decades of the 20th century. And I think the same traits that would’ve made him a good doctor also made him an excellent journalist.
But I think he wavered some in the early days of the manic real estate speculation in Florida. He clearly believed much of the hype surrounding the frenzy around him in the early 1920s, when he came to Florida. When he bought the South Florida Developer and moved it from West Palm Beach to Stuart, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the effort to make Stuart and Florida grow and prosper. And he became quite defensive when outsiders questioned the stability of Florida’s dazzling economic expansion.
He also crossed paths with some of the leading figures of the day, including William Jennings Bryan; Hearst Newspapers editor and columnist Arthur Brisbane, whose name was a household word in the 1920s; and Florida Governor John Martin, who was flattered by Menninger and others into supporting their effort to form a new county that would be named after the governor.
But he also occasionally stepped back to make very perceptive analytical comments in the Developer about the events unfolding around him.
He’s also like a character in a novel because his perception evolved as he watched what was happening, and he grew a little in the process. Eventually, he realized that the dream of Florida becoming a magical paradise immune to the laws of economics and human frailties was an illusion. But instead of despairing, he rolled up his sleeves and started working diligently to help restore better times to his hometown and adopted state. He underwent a transformative experience, learned from it, and applied his new knowledge and maturity to making a better life for himself and his community. And that, in my opinion, makes him a genuine hero.
What did you uncover during your research that surprised you?
The determination with which some of the wealthy investors in Florida sought to downplay the damage from what were then the two most powerful hurricanes on record was astonishing. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands more were suffering after each storm and desperately needed help. But a small group of very powerful and apparently very greedy men went to considerable lengths to derail the American Red Cross’s relief effort because they were afraid the truth about the destruction would diminish their investments. It was stunning. Thanks to their shameless efforts, the Red Cross failed for the first time in its history to meet a fundraising goal for disaster relief. At times, I couldn’t believe what I was reading from Red Cross files in the National Archives.
There are many colorful real-life characters in For Sale—American Paradise. Do you have any personal favorites?
Oh yes, several.
The Ashley Gang were ruthless, amoral killers who were a menace to society in early 20th century southeast Florida. But you have to acknowledge their audacity and tenacity. And their using the Everglades—the mysterious, impenetrable, deadly Everglades—as their hideout only adds to their mystique and their image of tough, determined resourcefulness. But they were all such dead-end characters. There simply was no place at all for them in civilized society.
You’re tempted to admire that and even want to emulate it, but their actions were reprehensible. They were indignant that one of their own was being tried for killing a Seminole Indian. They intimidated juries to prevent them from punishing the killer, John Ashley. They killed in premeditated cold blood when it looked like John Ashley was going to be convicted of murder. And somehow they were able to rationalize it all, and actually viewed themselves as victims who were entitled to take whatever they could get by whatever means were required. They were imaginative and calculating, but I think they were truly deranged.
Carl Fisher was another remarkable character, and my respect for him grew as I dug into his life. He had a few things in common with the Ashleys—he was determined to make a fortune in Florida, he was tenacious and resourceful, and he often thought and acted outside of conventional behavior. And he certainly was not shy about exerting his will. I think the story of him scooping President Harding off a plodding houseboat as it approached Miami and speeding him away on his yacht to a waiting welcome of golf, poker and good bootleg whiskey at his hotel in Miami Beach is hilarious, and a perfect example of how he operated.
Unlike the Ashleys, however, he had some boundaries, and although he was a shameless showman and self-promoter, he also was a hardworking businessman with a clear vision. But he went down hard when the boom crashed, and never was the same, and eventually drank himself to death. That was a shame.
Finally, I loved the Marx Brothers and their zany, madcap satire of the land boom, “Cocoanuts.” The story of this period needs perceptive jesters to point out the absurdities, contradictions and hypocrisies of Florida in the 1920s, and Groucho, Harpo and Chico are perfect for this.
Some of the punchlines in the play and later the movie are brilliant, such as when Groucho, the shady real estate huckster, describes his “ideal” city of Cocoanut Manor as “the most exclusive city in Florida” because “nobody lives there.” Or how prospective buyers can get any kind of home they want, even stucco. “Oh, how you can get stucco,” he leers.
It was very funny stuff, and it perfectly described what happened.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.