The last greatest magician in the world
[ bookreviews ]
Aficionados who hang around joke shops and conjuring conventions eagerly buy books on stage magic for their already bulging libraries consisting of a single topic. Jim Steinmeyer's oeuvre undoubtedly thrives on those shelves, but it's not as simple as that. On the one hand he is known as the capo of the poof and presto world, advisor for TV specials and Disney Productions, illusion designer for Broadway shows and high buck acts like David Copperfield. But outside that closed world he has taken on a different reputation as an author who elevates writing about stage magic to a literary level in the way Pico Iyer writes about travel or Thomas Lynch about the funeral business.
Steinmeyer's essay collection, Art and Artifice (2006), was a masterpiece in this mode, blending philosophy, history, biography, sociology and engineering into a meditation on the nature of illusion. The same metatext runs through Artificial Conclusions (about card manipulations) as well as biographies of Charles Fort and Chung Ling Soo, the magician killed by a bullet from one of his tricks. His previous book, Hiding the Elephant, How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (2003) delved into the ultra-secret business of theatrical stage magic and how it operates with the twisted ethics of espionage.
In The Last Greatest Magician in the World, Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards Steinmeyer further explores the themes of illusion and secrecy as they apply to the psychology of the magician himself. Howard Thurston (1869-1936) was a name recognized in the early 20th century from Charleston to Allalabad. Like Chung Ling Soo, who was everything other than what he appeared, so too Howard Thurston was not really the public Thurston at all. It's the story of an obsessed and tortured man who reigned in the hell known as big time professional magic. He and his fellow magicians Houdini, Kellar, Valadon, Selbit, Blackstone and others were haunted by the same demons that drive cannibalistic tribal warriors. But they put smiles on a lot of faces.
There are daunting problems to blowing the gaff on a manufactured persona of yesteryear. First is the problem of sources. Entertainers, least of all magicians, are not known as truth-tellers. Their interviews and authorized biographies are usually fluff. Illusionists have too much invested in their false fronts to care about the illuminations of reflective thought, which would be quickly precluded anyway by the demands of gigging.
Researching a magician's life is more than just poking around and asking questions. You have to stick your nose into the ultimate business of secrecy. That means finding those rare letters of angry wives, diaries written by disgruntled assistants and out-of-print memoirs by flies on the wall horded in private collections. You won't get through the first of a hundred doors unless you know the right people. In some cases it's easier to breach Fort Knox. When it comes to secrecy, however, Steinmeyer not only has the key, he is the key to those cosseted sources just this side of non-existent. What he brings to the page is a masterful to reconstruction of the inner life of a master deceiver who turned out to be the most self-deceived people who ever lived.
Thurston's personal life was a living nightmare. He could be fist-happy with the missus and had a swearing vocabulary of near infinite scope. He was such a nervous wreck from financial problems and worries about other magicians stealing his tricks that he had to sleep with earplugs and a mask, plus a curtain around the bed. One disappearing stunt called The Unattainable Attained was so cruel on the assistant that no woman was willing to perform it so he used a man in drag. perished from an overdose of sedatives, possibly a suicide.
Few people know what goes on in a magician's dressing room, much less their hotel room. The rages, the punched walls, the broken furniture, the physical assaults. And that's just the birthday clowns. Imagine the pressures on someone like Thurston or Houdini with a whole lot more at stake, betting millions in today's currency on huge traveling shows, sometimes borrowed from loan sharks, hoping against all odds it will pay off, which it sometimes did not.
Maintaining an illusion of any kind is difficult. There always lurks that unknown factor that can give it away. Thus, control becomes an obsession and lack of it can cause an explosion. If someone so much as brushed the edge of Houdini's colossal ego he could terrify a roomful of people with rage. Harry Kellar (who studied for the ministry) was known to drag a malfunctioning illusion off the stage and into the alley behind the theater and smash it with an ax. That was on a good night. He was also known to use his props as weapons flung at his male assistant's head, then sooth the swelling by purchasing him a new pair of shoes.
Hell is other magicians, according to Steinmeyer. So intense was thievery among Thurston and his peers that they regularly used spies in each other's shows. Illusions quickly became overexposed so there was enormous pressure to acquire new ones by whatever means necessary. Thurston had as many as seven or eight fulltime engineers building new tricks, never knowing which might be a spy for Houdini or someone else. They might spend months on a design only to start over because the working part was off by an eighth of an inch. Kellar wanted to "burn down the whole damn Thurston show" and Houdini wanted to "shove Thurston right off the boards." There were accusations and denials, threats, nasty letters and a snake tangle of law suits over stolen material. They drew the line at outright homicide, but most of them seemed to kill themselves off anyway. When Thurston backstabbed the Great Fasola in one of his famous loyalty shifts, Fasola hung himself with one of the wires used in the Levitation act, by now so widely copied that it was hard to tell who did it first. Houdini's punishing schedule made him too fatigued to see that fatal gut punch that made him a corpse at fifty-one. Ever the opportunist, Thurston was using Houdini's "Buried Alive" trick within two weeks of his death.
Thurston would not have become famous if it weren't for his moneybags brother constantly pumping cash into his show. But the money, like his brother Harry, wasn't that clean. Harry was a cigar-chomping greed head once described as "one of the stupidest men anyone had ever met." But he had a gift that Howard did not. He could run an operation and turn a profit. Harry was in the illusion business himself but of a different kind. In Chicago he ran a chain of strip clubs and sleazy dime museums featuring pornographic entertainment in the back room and had the distinction of inventing the coin operated peep show booth. Talk about putting smiles on people's faces.
The Last Greatest Magician in the World has plenty of detail on the mirrors, hidden panels and concealed wires magicians use to make something appear other than what is, but beyond that are their stories that defy imagination: an underage wife doing the kootchie dance in blackface, in India the trapdoor under the stage leading down to a chamber of cobras, perfumed letters to the dressing room, and skullduggery worthy of John le Carré, financed by a fortune based on sleaze. There's interesting rare dirt on that punching bag known as Houdini. Throughout the book you'll be asking yourself, "how did Steinmeyer ever find this stuff out?"
As a backdrop to Thurston's biography Steinmeyer wheels out the big nemesis that no one can control - entertainment where thousands of acts and agents worked circuits of venues all over the world. Enough acts circulated around the US that hotels had "theatrical rates" to attract the steady stream of business. It was this ecosystem (now extinct) that made Thurston and his competitors possible in the first place. But the slow proliferation of screens (first front-lit, and now the mystery-killing back-lit kind) has been as massive and insidious as the creep of global warming. At first the novelty of seeing a two-dimensional image moving on a vertical surface was as fascinating as a mechanical illusion on a horizontal stage. So forceful was the effect of the Motion Picture that in the early days Thurston and Houdini featured it at the end of their shows. But eventually movies took over completely and the theaters that previously showed live acts showed only films.
Howard Thurston lived the life of a tragic hero, brought low by the flaw of hubris. The story of his life takes on significance because he was lucky enough to be famous. But any agent will tell you that talent is cheap. Virtually every working magician of Thurston's day lived a similar life of adventure with no less tragic consequences, some at the very hands of Thurston and his enemies. But in the end they all had one thing in common: they went to the dump at the end of Oblivion Street. The only exception might be Houdini who, ironically, was a terrible magician, but an excellent publicist known not for his awful magic but for the archetype he created of the little man who could not be restrained.
Unlike the fine arts, magic shows don't preserve well. When the magician is gone, so is the act. In Thurston's case his tons of illusions, which put smiles on so many faces, went to a farm in Wisconsin for storage after he died, where they eventually rotted in a barn. The Last Greatest Magician in the World is about of human beings locked in the all too human struggle for a chase after wind. It is a meticulously researched work of comedy, tragedy and fascination, which will indeed preserve beautifully with its deep insights into the multi-dimensional nature of illusion and how it can drive a person into damnation as well as impossible levels of achievement.