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The Incredible Journey

Cover story

He'd been dumped, he'd been demoted, so he dropped out and took a trip around the world with his brother. That's when life got good.

January 23, 2005|Robert Salladay | Staff writer Robert Salladay is based in The Times' Sacramento bureau.

On the morning of his would-be wedding day, Franz Wisner woke up in bed with John Dawkins. A raging party had left his friends scattered around him, including at the foot of his bed. Wisner wandered through the sprawling rented house on the scraggy Sonoma coast and surveyed the damage: empty Cabernet bottles, stains on the chairs, a broken deck rail.

Wisner's girlfriend of nearly a decade had dumped him only days before, sending him into shock. Left at the altar with caterers and bagpipers and family in limbo, Wisner had become a cliche of romance novels and the object of pity among his friends. Dozens of them drove up Highway 1 to the crunchy-hippie splendor of Sea Ranch, the planned site of the wedding, without much idea of how to comfort him except to drink, chill in the hot tub and be there.

It wasn't too long before Wisner began crafting his revenge--against the woman he was supposed to marry that day in November 1999 and against the life he was leading up to that point. He won't acknowledge it, and neither will his friends, but what happened next has become a tale of personal reprisal, California-style, all the way through the last pregnant reel.

Dumped by his fiancee and demoted at his soulless high-paying job for the Irvine Co. in Orange County, Wisner packed it in. He left California and went on a cathartic journey with his recently divorced brother, their own relationship having become a bit soulless. They traveled and traveled, to 53 countries in two years, and Wisner returned to write a book about it: "Honeymoon with My Brother," due out in February. A few months ago he was ready to write a sequel on the somewhat creepy subject of dating and mating women across the globe, with a working title of "Around the World in 80 Dates."

The first reaction to which might be: Why should we feel sorry for this playboy? Young, white, privileged Tufts graduate goes on a mind-changing bender--sells everything and uses the pile of money to find himself, traveling around the world and having romantic encounters with beautiful women, then turns his story into a national media event, with a book tour, network television appearances and a Vanity Fair photo shoot. A sweet movie deal too. Let us weep for this poor soul on his solipsistic journey.

Yet among Wisner's close circle of friends--an eclectic group in their 30s that includes a bikini-wax maker, a hip-hop artist, a documentary filmmaker, a world-champion swimmer, a charismatic prankster and an "Animal House"-quoting Republican flack--that journey became the subject of awe and envy. They often thought about doing it themselves, just dropping out.

"Only if I'm daydreaming," says the Republican flack, H.D. Palmer, now working for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "A lot of people, I suspect, lived vicariously through Franz, saying secretly to themselves, 'I wish I had the stones to do something like that, if I weren't married.' I mean, shuck it all down--the car, house, job, everything--and be able to do that. But very few people are willing to hit the eject button."

For this story, it's best to begin by invoking Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day," a moral fable so finely tuned to modern anxiety that it carries spiritual significance for some. Caught in a reincarnating spiral of sameness, Murray says at one point: "I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster and drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over?"

Wisner would set out to live that day. Until something got in the way.

Franz Wisner is 38, and handsome in a George Clooney kind of way--prematurely gray, with hazel eyes and U.S.-brand white teeth. He's confident and easygoing, and tends to attach nicknames to everyone around him. He grew up in Davis, the leafy college town near Sacramento, the eldest son of a dermapathologist father and a mother who was a school nurse.

He is two years older than his sister, Lisa, and a year older than his brother, Kurt, who is much more reserved than Franz and looks a little like a young John Kerry. A year before that day at Sea Ranch, Kurt divorced his wife and started coasting in Seattle, where he sold real estate and owned low-income rental properties. The day Franz called him about being dumped, he flew to Orange County and has been living with or near his brother ever since.

Wisner met his future fiancee while working in Washington for then-U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson. Tall and thin, with cobalt eyes, she had a wry sense of humor. Wisner fell in love. They were both 23. Wilson's election as California governor in November 1990 brought them from Washington to Sacramento, and that's when the trouble began.

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