Three Magic Biographies

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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.

 

The Speed of Thought

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I just finished reading Red Rosa, a graphic biography of the revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg. (The novel is graphic in both senses of the word.) You probably never read about her in high school, and maybe not in college either, unless you followed things Marxist, but she was an incredibly influential figure in the period leading up to and during World War I. At a time when women’s roles were severely constricted in Western society, Rosa was living the life of a free, committed revolutionary woman. She traveled from Poland (where as a child, she wrote, for a school contest that was supposed to praise him, an essay excoriating the Kaiser ) and on to Germany where she became a key figure in the Social Democratic Party of Germany. She forged her own political views, and produced some trenchant analyses of capitalism. She was suspicious of the anti-democratic line of the Soviet Marxists, but also contemptuous of the socialist-in-name-only leaders of the Social Democratic Party who led the party into war and the arms of the bourgeoisie on the eve of World War One.

The author and illustrator Kate Evans does a very good job of packing in a large life in 179 pages, and one gets a sense of what an extraordinary woman Rosa was. But I’m not really here to talk about politics but rather to fixate on one particular aspect of the times that Rosa lived in. And it is this. The Speed of Thought. How was it that revolutionary thought spread so quickly, and so far in that time? The whole of Russia, England, and Germany were in an uproar, and revolutionaries like Rosa spread Marx’s ideas across large swaths of land with little but words: smuggled in handbills, street corner lectures, and newspapers laboriously set in type in secret.  It seems in today’s world an almost impossible feat. No Facebook, Twitter, Internet, Social Media, cellphones. And I don’t mean this in a jocular way. It just seems amazing to me that ideas could have spread so quickly.

I suppose one can say, look at the rapid spread of Darwin and Freud’s ideas in roughly the same period; true, but those were ideas that were circulating in small scientific and psychoanalytic communities, specialized formations. But ideas that actually resulted in  the material re-organization of society—well, that seems more impressive to me.

My wife is doing a literacy training, and the teacher said something very interesting to her class: People who can’t read have trouble listening. If you want to teach people to read, you must teach them to listen first. And the flip side of that is that writing is talking. In order to write you must find your voice.

Simple and remarkable I think. And one step more. How do you get people who don’t listen to listen? This: By listening to them. When people feel heard, they can in turn start listening to others. and then they can begin to understand what reading is all about. And after that, they can find their own voices.

Revolutionaries like Rosa arise at certain times in history. They have listened to themselves and the masses who at key moments in history desperately need to be heard. The masses in turn are ready to listen because they have been listened to. The sound of a book is about unchaining oneself. How fast from seeing the words on the page to the lips? How quick is it from the thought to the action?  How far from a book to a new society?

These are the questions that came up for me when I thought about the vast stretches of the Earth that were on fire in 1917. I wonder if there could be a comparable experience again today. Because with social media, that experience of worldwide sharing has become both common but also commodified as the most banal mass culture, and hence, unremarkable, and certainly not revolutionary.  Can we still be moved in a deep, societal-changing way by a few profound ideas?