Recently, I’ve been enjoying reading a few magic biographies. All three books are highly recommended, and any one of them would make a nice gift for that magic aficionado in your life.
1) “If there was any doubt that Guy Jarrett was nuts, it ended in 1936.” That’s how magic inventor and writer Jim Steinmeyer in Jarrett introduces the cantankerous illusionist, author of the eponymous Jarrett, Magic and Stagecraft, Technical. It’s not hard to see why Jim Steinmeyer was drawn to write about Jarrett. Jarrett was not just a magician but, like Steinmeyer, a stage illusion inventor of extraordinary ingenuity. Couple that with Jarrett’s eccentric life, acerbic wit, and amusing public persona and you have the kind of subject that an author loves to write about.
Jarrett enjoyed publicly trashing the magic royalty of the day. Houdini, Goldin, Thurston, —none of them were off limits. With the introduction and annotations by Steinmeyer, it soon becomes apparent that Jarrett’s curse and glory was his perfectionism. To Jarrett’s mind, the shaving of a few inches off the side of a production cabinet or table was the difference between beauty and illusion on the one hand, and utter crap on the other. Practicality and budget were excuses to him, and as far as Jarrett was concerned most of the illusionists of the day like Thurston were satisfied to settle on crap.
As befits a man who spoke his mind so openly and contemptuously, Jarrett didn’t retain a wide circle of friends. With his characteristic self-sufficiency, Jarrett published his book himself, setting all the type himself on a foundry typesetting press, pretty much as Gutenberg had done centuries before.
But the eccentric Jarrett (my favorite photo in the book is Jarrett at 74 years old standing upside down in the top of a tree) according to Steinmeyer was the real deal when it came to designing illusions. Jarrett’s efficient descriptions and drawings of such illusions as “The 21 Person Cabinet” and the disappearance of Bela Lugosi in the original Broadway production of Dracula make for entertaining reading and broadened my appreciation of illusion design.
2) Dai Vernon: A Biography, by David Ben, is the authorized biography of the man who revolutionized the study and performance of close-up magic. and it draws upon many previously unseen original sources. It has some wonderful photos, including the famous one, repeated many years later, of Vernon, cigarette in hand, staring down at the Ace of Clubs. Ben’s prose is pretty pedestrian, but it gives a fully rounded picture of the man and his times. What one really gets from this portrait of Vernon is just how tenaciously Vernon strove to carve out his own artistic path. As an art student at the Art Students’ League an artist he met told him that continuing in art school would ruin him for creativity and originality. Vernon took that to heart and never allowed himself to swerve from a life that would allow him the freedom to explore and play to his heart’s content. Many times he could have traded on his skill and connections to become famous with the general public, but at each turn he almost compulsively avoided or sabotaged those opportunities in favor of living a Bohemian lifestyle, free from the hard spotlight of fame and stultifying routine. He was a brilliant ne’er-do-well who was terrified of being tied down to any responsibility but his art.
Another wonderful revelation in the book is the portrait of his wife, Jeannie. She was a Coney Island magician’s assistant, full of practical knowledge and no mean slouch either when it came to art. She was a very creative person in her own right, an accomplished costumer and mask maker (there’s a wonderful photo of her beautifully lifelike mask of Cardini) and she was essential in costuming Vernon’s Harlequin turn. She understood her own predicament in being the creative spouse of another more talented and obsessive creative person. Once she had left Vernon she wrote her own account of what it was like to live with him in her manuscript, I Married Mr. Magic, or Laughter is the Only Shield.
This volume, the first of two, only covers the years 1894-1941, when Vernon had the construction accident which was to break his arms and change his life. Unfortunately, there is no word on Ben’s website as to when Volume II is expected (it’s been over a decade now), so we’ll have to be patient. But surely, that too promises to be fascinating, as it will cover the Magic Castle years to Vernon’s death. This is a compelling portrait of genius at work and play.
3) Milo and Roger: A Magical Life is the title of Arthur Brandon’s autobiographical account of his childhood, and his longtime partnership with Roger Coker as the comedy magic team Milo and Roger. If there is a sweeter and funnier account of one’s magical journey, I don’t know of it. Brandon devotes a lot of the book to his Norman Rockwell upbringing in small town Ohio, and he vividly brings to life the characters, the grifters, and the tradespeople who inhabited his childhood world. His parents—his mother in particular—were lovable eccentrics who were accepting and encouraging of their moony son’s infatuation with all things magical. Brandon goes on to small time fame by following his instinct and love for magic, meeting along the way his lifelong partner Roger who complements everything Arthur does. They travel the world together, much of the time only a few dollars short of broke, but somehow they always make it out to their next adventure, spurred on by their love for show business and magic. At turns nostalgic, laugh-out-loud funny, sweet, sour, and sad, this is one of the most entertaining show business autobiographies I’ve read. I can well understand why this is a favorite of many.