Jim Steinmeyer's "The Last Greatest Magician in the World"

Poster for Howard Thurston the great magician the wonder show of the universe, c1914.
Poster for Howard Thurston the great magician the wonder show of the universe, c1914.
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By Dennis Drabelle
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:00 AM


Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards

By Jim Steinmeyer

Tarcher/Penguin. 377 pp. $26.95

Roll over, Houdini, and tell Orson Welles the news: Howard Thurston was the best magician of them all. Or so suggests Jim Steinmeyer, who has had a career of his own in magic, inventing illusions for David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, and Welles himself (a longtime dabbler in magic).

Thurston (1869-1936) slogged away as a potato-peeler salesman and sideshow barker before making it as a magician of both skill and charm. He could deliver his slogan, "I wouldn't deceive you for the world," with such conviction that the audience was inclined to believe him. He wasn't the first magician to saw a woman in half, but he polished someone else's crude version of the trick to perfection. On the strength of his good looks, glib tongue, tireless practicing and an innate sense of how to shape and pace a trick, he built up a towering reputation - not as easy as it should have been because he had to overcome the odor given off by his sponging younger brother, Harry, who worked the seamy side of showbiz as an impresario of hoochy-kooch shows.

Steinmeyer takes pains to explain how hard it was even for someone as light-fingered and ingratiating as young Howard to become and remain a headliner. Magic was a competitive and evolving business, and keeping an act fresh meant getting hold of gizmos and materials that could be hard to build, buy or even find. At one point, we see Thurston going from farm to farm near the burg in which he is to perform that night, desperately seeking a rabbit. It took him years to become financially secure, and even then his urge to outspend his rivals on new tricks could plunge him back into debt.

One of the best stories in the book comes from these early years; it shows how legerdemain can come to a magician's aid offstage. Thurston was trying to skip out on his bills, but a policeman was on to him. The cop followed Thurston and his entourage from town to town on the assurance that money would be awaiting them at the next stop. In Colorado Springs, Thurston claimed there'd been a mix-up - the money had been sent to Lamar, Colo., which they'd just left. Would the policeman mind going back to fetch it while the Thurstons got ready to perform in Colorado Springs? The cop made a wise counter-suggestion: "Maybe we ought to wire Lamar to make sure the money's there." Thurston readily agreed. Soon he had his answer, which he handed over to the cop. "Yes, $200 received via wire for you. Operator Lamar." Satisfied, the cop went off to collect, leaving Thurston and his wife to abscond. Mrs. Thurston, who knew that nobody in his right mind would wire them money, asked how the hoax had been played. Thurston opened his hand to reveal the telegram's torn-off top, which showed that it had originated a few towns back, in Cripple Creek. "Thornton," Steinmeyer explains, "had sent the message to himself, from Cripple Creek to Colorado Springs," where he surreptitiously lopped off the telltale portion before handing it over to the policeman.

Thurston could make someone disappear or float in mid-air, he could saw a woman in half without bloodshed, but he was probably best at sleight-of-hand, above all at turning playing cards into projectiles. A card would appear between his fingers and then fly out into the audience, directly to the member who had summoned it out of the deck. After years of barnstorming, Thurston became a headliner in vaudeville, but he was more ambitious than that. Eventually, he and his retinue were a show unto themselves, held over in New York and London.

Steinmeyer breaks the magician's code by explaining how Thurston accomplished some of his effects. But not only do these appear to be tricks that have dropped out of most magicians' repertoires; the techniques are so complicated that what you really get from the descriptions is a good sense of how hard Thurston worked at his craft.

The book is too long, the author too intent on taking the reader through every loop-de-loop of Thurston's convoluted career. Also, the rivalry with Houdini to which the subtitle alludes never quite comes off. Houdini became renowned as an escape artist, not a magician, and most of the time he and Thurston were on friendly terms. Overall, however, "The Last Greatest Magician in the World" does justice to the Golden Age of Magic and to a man who, in the author's words, was "a distinctive mixture of ignoble confidence games, personal desperation, and a masterful talent to amaze and surprise."

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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