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William Robinson in a poster as Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese magician
William Robinson in a poster as Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese magician (From "The Glorious Deception")

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Sunday, June 4, 2006

Tragic Figures

Alexander Cruden's life's work "has never been superseded, and . . . has never, in more than 250 years, been out of print," writes Julia Keay in Alexander the Corrector: The Tormented Genius Whose "Cruden's Concordance" Unwrote the Bible (Overlook, $14.95). In 1737, Cruden published, in his words, "an Index to the Bible, wherein all the words used through the Inspired Writings are arranged alphabetically, and the various places where they occur are referred to." It took him 12 years of solitary work; the finished project was 1,200 pages long and measured 2.4 million words (three times the King James Bible's 774,746). And yet, writes Keay, "Cruden is remembered because, according to everyone who has ever written about him, he was mad." Whether such an achievement as Cruden's Concordance is a mark of dedication or compulsion, Cruden was thought to be mad because he spent a considerable amount of time locked away in madhouses. But Keay argues in this meticulously researched biography that Cruden was never actually crazy. Unscrupulous people -- a powerful Scottish family fearing exposure of an incestuous scandal, a rival suitor, his scheming sister -- forced the timid Scotsman into the straitjacket to suit their own ends. He spent his entire life trying to prove his sanity when, at worst, he was just "singularly addicted to the study of the Scriptures."

The man known as the Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo was singularly addicted to mystery -- so addicted that when his greatest trick, "Condemned to Death by the Boxers," went tragically wrong, even his closest assistants couldn't say why. On March 23, 1918, in London, he fell victim to one of his own illusions when a gun that wasn't supposed to fire inexplicably did. According to Jim Steinmeyer in The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo the "Marvelous Chinese Conjurer" (Carroll & Graf, $16.95), when Soo fell to the ground, he cried out, in perfect English, "Oh my God. Something's happened. Lower the curtain." With his death, writes Steinmeyer, "his secrets began to unwind and fray, destroying beautiful patterns that had been carefully woven over the course of a long career." It turns out that the "Marvelous Chinese Conjuror" was really William Robinson from Westchester County, N.Y., and his beautiful assistant, the Chinese princess Suee Seen, was his wife, Dot, born in Cleveland. But she was his wife in name only since he'd long ago taken up with another woman -- oh, and he'd never divorced his first wife. "Robinson would be considered one of the great transitional figures in the history of magic," writes Steinmeyer, "if he weren't remembered today for suddenly becoming someone else."

Dean Reed could only be himself. Toward the end of the Cold War, he was so famous that fans would "just write DEAN REED, EAST BERLIN on a postcard and it would get to him," writes Reggie Nadelson in Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union (Walker, $14.95). His albums "went gold from Berlin to Bulgaria." When he performed at Red Square, there were "people plucking at his clothes, throwing flowers, begging for autographs." He was the biggest thing east of the Iron Curtain, but few Americans had ever heard of him. Then, in 1986, Mike Wallace did a story on the socialist rock star for "60 Minutes"; six weeks later, Reed was dead. Nadelson saw that original piece and has been fixated on Reed's life and mysterious death ever since: "Here was a Cold War sideshow invested in one handsome American boy from Colorado who, guitar on his back, struck out in search of fame and fortune and found it on the other side of the world."

From Our Previous Reviews

Soldiers trusted the journalist Ernie Pyle because "he lived the life they lived, and he reported it honestly," wrote Jonathan Yardley in his review of Ernie Pyle's War: America's Eyewitness to World War II, by James Tobin (Free Press, $15). Now Pyle "has had the good fortune to fall under the scrutiny of a sympathetic, unsentimental and scrupulous biographer" who has produced "a thorough, revealing book." Lynn H. Nicholas's Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web (Vintage, $17.95) is "a thoroughly researched and incisively written account of horrendous crime, suffering, folly and indifference, as well as of heroism, sacrifice and the will to survive," according to our reviewer, Ruth Kluger. "Anyone who assumes that powerful adults are bound to come to the aid of helpless children will be sorely disabused by this book." Angel of Harlem , by Kuwana Haulsey (Ballantine/One World, $13.95) is a fictional account of the life of May Edward Chinn, the first black female physician in New York. The result is "an extraordinary life rendered in extraordinarily poetic prose," reports Grace F. Edwards.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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