There was no better place in America to experience the Jazz Age than Palm Beach. Celebrities and socialites flocked to the oceanside escape. A land boom ensued, a rash of clubs and resorts sprang up, and Palm Beach flourished. Today, while some of the mansions built during the 1920s remain, the best place to get a feel for just how wild the time and place were is the grave of Johnnie Brown, the Human Monkey.
But in order to understand who Johnnie Brown was, we need to understand his owner, eccentric architect extraordinaire Addison Mizner. Mizner was born in California, the son of a lawyer/the U.S. Minister to Guatemala. Mizner traveled the globe pretty extensively, from South America to Alaska to Hawaii, and showed artistic talent from a young age. He began an apprenticeship at a San Francisco architecture firm and began building his reputation. He moved to New York for a bit, designing summer homes across Long Island and even working on the Adirondack retreat that Calvin Coolidge would later use as his summer White House.
At the age of 46, he moved to Palm Beach, where his career further flourished. Wealthy clients lined up to have him design their Mediterranean Revival mansions along the ocean. As he said, he wanted to “make a building look traditional and as though it had fought its way from a small, unimportant structure to a great, rambling house…I sometimes start a house with a Romanesque corner, pretend that it has fallen into disrepair and been added to in the Gothic spirit, when suddenly the great wealth of the New World has poured in and the owner had added a very rich Renaissance addition.” Very eccentric.
Addison’s most constant companion was Johnnie Brown, a spider monkey who was just as popular and bizarre as Addison. Addison was the kind of pet owner who hand-sewed silk-lined sombreros for Johnnie. Johnnie Brown often sat on Addison’s shoulder, and a macaw usually occupied the other shoulder, so he quickly became well-known across town. His antics were legendary; whether running for Mayor of Palm Beach, feuding with actress Marie Dressler, or just hassling the milkman every morning, he was an icon in his own right. Johnnie Brown even received his own personal invitation to the famous Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee in 1925.
But simply being a super rich, super famous architect with an awesome spider monkey sidekick wasn’t enough for Addison. He and his con artist brother, Wilson, started scheming. Their ultimate plan was to transform Boca Raton from a rough patch of land into “the Venice of the Atlantic.” Their shady land dealings were highly criticized, and then a hurricane decimated Boca. Wilson fled to Los Angeles, and Johnnie Brown died a few years later, in 1927. He was buried at Via Mizner, Addison’s fortress-like home/old-school shopping arcade. Addison died shortly after, in 1933, penniless. Via Mizner was sold to a socialite couple, Rose and Morton Sachs, who buried their beloved pet dog, Laddie, next to Johnnie Brown. Today, Via Mizner is a shopping center with restaurants, galleries, and shops, so anyone can pop into Pizza Al Fresco, sit in the courtyard, and pay respects.