I was happy last week to spend four days in Orlando, Florida, attending the 2019 Genii Convention. For a comprehensive, contemporaneous, blow-by-blow audio account, click on the triangles below.
Day One: Intro, Tom Gagnon, Paul Vigil, Sara Crasson, Jonathan Neal
Day Two: Michael Chaitlin, Hector Mancha, Jim Steinmeyer, Paul Vigil, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Hector Mancha, Raymond Crowe, Eric Jones
Day Three: Gaeten Bloom, Bill Cheung, Michael Vincent, Hector Mancha, Alexandra Duvivier, Terry Ward, Hannibal, Penn & Teller, Pat Hazell, Jonathan Neal, Gaeten Bloom, Read Chang, Piff the Magic Dragon
Day Four: 49 Boxes, Eric Jones, Gaeten Bloom, Dominique and Alexandra Duvivier, Nick Diffate, Lucy Darling, Romany, David Kovac, Jay Johnson, John Archer, Summing up
And here’s another installment of books I’ve been reading in the last few weeks, all recommended.
Impossible Vacation by Spalding Gray: Monologist Spalding Gray for years went around performing a one-man show called Monster-In-A-Box, his attempt to wrestle his unwieldy manuscript into a novel. The result was Impossible Vacation. I’d been in a period of non-reading recently, but I picked this up in a used bookstore, and it got me reading again. It’s a first person account of the life of a narcissistic and badly depressed actor/performer (a thinly disguised Gray), and while the language is not distinguished, this portrait of a would-be artist in the 1970s rang a lot of bells for me. You can see Gray trying to wrestle meaning out of this, and it ends fairly arbitrarily as if he needed to stop somewhere, but I found the book to be truly affecting in parts and often funny.
Trouping With Dante by Marion S. Trikosko: In this memoir, a teen-age boy gets to troupe with the great magician Dante’s large illusion show throughout the country, while learning the inside story about show business and magic. It’s a difficult life, but he seems to have a lot of fun along the way. Decades later, Trikosko’s account confirms that Dante was a generous but exacting taskmaster, and Marion’s enthusiasm allowed him to gain, in a relatively short period of time, more and more responsibility in assisting the show. The author does a great job of setting up the context of the rigors of touring a large illusion show at a time when that way of performing life was starting to come to an end, and for magician readers there’s lots of inside information about the workings of the show. If you’ve ever wanted to run away and join the circus, or become Blackstone’s assistant, you’ll be charmed by this book.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle: I can’t think of an author whose work I enjoy reading more. Doyle, like most of the authors I admire most. has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and the language is vivid and memorable. While it’s a slight story—the limited rise and limited fall of a thrown-together Dublin bar band—the characters are humorous, sympathetic, and fun to read about. The short novel is a very quick, well-paced read, and I don’t even fault it’s feel-good ending. It feels like a film treatment, and of course it was made into a film, which I will immediately put onto my Netflix cue.
Williamson’s Wonders by Richard Kaufman: David Williamson is one of my favorite magicians, and here he tips some of his best routines, including “51 Cards to Pocket,” “Torn and Restored Transposition,” and the real work on “The Striking Vanish.” Kaufman’s written descriptions and illustrations are very good, and while these are not beginner’s tricks, most of them seem to be attainable by the average magician after some work—at least the mechanics. Kaufman does a good job of laying out the nuts and bolts, but to really get the full potential of these items, it really pays to look up some of Williamson’s performances; not to copy him, but to get an idea of the entertainment that can be wrung out of these items.
Humans of New York: Stories by Brandon Stanton: This is a follow up to Stanton’s Human of New York. This time the portraits of New York City street life are accompanied by descriptions of the people photographed, accompanied by the subjects’ own words. They present a fascinating and sometimes moving collage of the life of the city.
In 1953, Frank Olson, who without his knowledge had been slipped a dose of LSD some days earlier, flew through a plate glass window of New York City’s Statler Hilton Hotel, ending up dead on the sidewalk, ten floors below. His son, Eric, says he was pushed; The CIA, Olson’s employer, said it was suicide. The CIA said they should know, since the only other person in the hotel room at the time of the death was another CIA agent. When Olson’s body was later exhumed by the family, an autopsy showed blunt instrument trauma to the middle of his forehead.
Olson was a victim of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, a program meant to investigate and utilize all manner of covert weapons that could be useful in the interrogation and manipulation of the minds of enemy agents. LSD, a relatively new drug at the time, was seen as a leading candidate for such duty. There was one major problem, however: the covert administration of the drug, and chemicals like it, required a certain measure of sleight-of-hand, artifice, ruse, and subterfuge. An expert in the highly specialized technology of deception was put onto the CIA payroll, his charge to write a manual of trickery to be used by The Company’s field agents. The expert’s name was John Mulholland; he was, at the time, perhaps the most well-known and knowledgeable magician in the world.
Writer Michael Edwards got wind of this story, meeting with Eric Olson, Frank’s son, and through Edwards’s major investigative reporting utilizing the Freedom Of Information Act, and the records from The Rockefeller Commission’s 1970s investigation into the CIA’s illegal domestic spying, Edwards was able to piece together many of the details in this story of conjuring and CIA history. His report was published by Richard Kaufman in the April 2001 issue of Genii Magazine, the world’s best-selling monthly magic magazine. Two years later, in the August 2003 issue of Genii, Kaufman published the text of Some Operational Applications of the Art of Deception, the title of Mulholland’s CIA manual.
In 2008, Ben Robinson, a student of magician Milbourne Christopher, a contemporary and friend of Mulholland, published a book called The MagiCIAn: John Mulholland’s Secret Life. Robinson’s book, is really three books in one, and it’s hard for me to say which is the most fascinating: the bio of scholar-magician-collector John Mulholland; the story of CIA covert ops in the 50s and onwards; or the intersection of the two, how Mulholland provided service to the CIA through the utilization of his conjuring knowledge.
Much of the material for the last two parts was similar to what Edwards had already written, but independently verified based on Mulholland’s personal files. On Christopher’s death, Maurine, his widow, had given over to Robinson certain personal papers and effects of John Mulholland’s that had been in Christopher’s possession, relevant to the story.
Robinson’s book, which I recently finished reading, is engrossing, and anyone interested in the history of conjuring will be enthralled by it. The meat of the story—Mulholland’s involvement with the CIA—is put into its proper context, situating Mulholland as the perfect person in the perfect places at the perfect time. Robinson also gives a very good overview of the MK-ULTRA program and the subsequent experiments in Psi and ESP that the agency obsessed over.
But a couple of things were more than curious to me as I read Robinson’s book. First off, there is no mention of Edwards at all in the main text of the book. The only mention of him is in an alphabetical listing of acknowledgements that includes around one hundred names, and, later, a reference in the extensive bibliography. This seems to me remarkably ungenerous as Edwards’s lengthy article was the first to approach the story from a magician’s point of view. Edwards’s name does not appear in the index. Stranger still, the first 2008 edition of Robinson’s book makes no mention that the text of the Mulholland manual had already been printed in Genii five years earlier. To read the book, one would think that the text was unavailable to the public.
And again: in the 2010 revised edition of MagiCIAn, no mention is made of Genii‘s printing the text of Mulholland’s manual. But the strangest part is that Robinson describes a lecture he gave about Mulholland to an audience that included former CIA agent Robert Wallace and CIA head (and magician) John McLaughlin. Following that description, Robinson points out that Mulholland’s manual had been recently published in a 2009 HarperCollins edition that was edited by the same Robert Wallace, with a forward by McLaughlin.
Surely this must be a first in CIA history, the printing and authorization of one of its covert manuals for the general public. So the CIA is celebrating the outing of one of its covert programs? How can this make any sense other than to believe that they are hoping to take control of the narrative? Robinson hints that there was a second manual written by Mulholland, but the CIA wouldn’t approve its release. Is there any other information that the CIA is still seeking to keep secret about Mulholland’s participation, the Olson affair, or the MK-ULTRA program? A few days before Olson died, after he had ingested the LSD, he became extremely paranoid and agitated, and told family members he wanted to quit the CIA. Two CIA men took him to see a Dr. Abramson, who was affiliated with The Agency. What was Abramson’s method of “calming Olson down”? He gave Olson a bottle of bourbon and the barbiturate Nembutol, an obviously potentially deadly combination. The next day, Olson was taken to Mulholland “to cheer him up.” Three days later, Olson was dead on the NYC sidewalks.
Those of us who grew up in the Nixon years may recall Tricky Dick’s method of covering up insalubrious activities: “the limited modified hangout.” That is, you give them part of the story—the part they already know, in order to pacify them, and then claim the story has been told, nothing to see here, move along. We’ve seen how the CIA has been doing exactly the same thing recently with its attempt to cover up its involvement with the psychologists of the American Psychological Association who participated in torture at Guantanamo; they persistently did “the limited modified hangout,” as each new piece of damning evidence appeared. Fortunately, the efforts of Arrigo, Reisner, Soldz, and others were able to penetrate the fog and get to the truth.
Now I am not suggesting that Mulholland helped to kill Olson. What I am saying is that I am not happy with a book that lays out as much information as Robinson’s does and yet then makes a blanket statement that “Mulholland was a patriot” and “Conclusively, John Mulholland was incapable of murder” even while saying “He did nothing wrong by teaching covert operatives the world of sleight of hand. While he may have trained people to kill, he did not ever commit murder…” I do not believe these are the words of an objective scholar; Mulholland is certainly entitled to the presumption of innocence in the absence of other evidence; but that should not mean that the book is closed either on Mulholland or MK-ULTRA. The CIA’s covert programs have done much harm to Americans as the Rockefeller Commission detailed. And just as there are real ethical questions about whether psychologists should lend their knowledge to the torture of others, there are real ethical questions about magicians teaching the technology of deception to those who have such a long record of abuse of that information.
So get a subscription to Genii and get access to all the back copies and read Edwards’s article and the manual. And get a copy of Robinson’s book for an incredible overview of the life of John Mulholland and his employment by the CIA.
If you are a New Yorker of a certain age, you remember the fabulous Christmas windows of the now defunct carriage-trade department store B. Altman, on tony Fifth Avenue. The memory of that upscale firm need not concern us any further for our purpose except to notice that at one time, the President of B. Altman was a fellow by the name of Lewis Kaufman. And Lewis Kaufman is on our radar screen only because he was the father of arguably the most important and influential non-professional in the history of contemporary magic, Richard Kaufman.
Kaufman’s name is well-known to magic fans, but I think sometimes the really remarkable, irreplaceable extent of his contributions to magic has been overlooked. In a sense, it was Kaufman more than anyone else who dragged magic kicking and screaming into the latter part of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and made it respectable. Especially with regard to close-up magic, his writing, illustration, and publishing brought a new professionalism to the publication of magic materials. It set a standard to which all magic books and magazines in the future would have to live up to. The announcement of a new publication from Kaufman was, and is, a guarantee that a quality product was being produced.
Kaufman started off as a magic prodigy, illustrating Harry Lorayne’s Afterthoughts for 75 cents a drawing at the age of sixteen. The two continued to have a love/hate relationship over the years (now reconciled) and it was Kaufman who designed and produced the first year of Apocalypse, the monthly magazine he co-edited with Lorayne. After breaking with Lorayne, he put out his own magazine for three years called Richard’s Almanac, which he later published in a hardbound collection called The Collected Almanac. He then went on to write and illustrate books of his own, introducing and highlighting the work of such important magicians as David Roth, Jay Sankey, Ron Wilson, Gene Maze, Derek Dingle, Dr. Sawa, David Williamson, Brother John Hamman, Gary Kurtz, Steve Draun, Tom Mullica, Larry Jennings, Rene Levand, Criss Angel, and David Berglas. If we add to the list the books that Kaufman was involved in publishing as well, the roll becomes truly breathtaking: Jon Racherbaumer, Tony Andruzzi, Darwin Ortiz, Eugene Burger, Jeff Sheridan, Eugene Burger, Michael Weber, J.K. Hartman, David Kaye, John Bannon, Chris Kenner, and really, at this point it almost becomes easier to say who he hasn’t published than to keep listing names. The names are impressive in themselves, but in a world where many magic secrets had been self-published in awkwardly photocopied manuscripts bound with plastic spiral comb, and illustrated with murky photographs or illustrations with two left hands, the Kaufman books were always superbly turned out.
But perhaps the greatest achievement of Kaufman’s may be his stewardship of Genii magazine since 1998. Genii was a magic magazine with a long history, run by several generations of the Larsen family. Like so many magic magazines, it didn’t always come out on time, and the quality was erratic. The Genii of my youth—for some reason my local library carried it—seemed very clubby to my young eyes. There were only one or two items of interest to me per issue, with seemingly large sections devoted to the likes of reports of Ring 234 in Plano, Texas. Kaufman upgraded the contents of the magazine substantially, gave it an international flavor, and produced years and years of an excellent on-time and timely magazine.
Kaufman was the first magic publisher to produce, along with the print version of his magazine, a digital one which boldly incorporated video content and access to digital archival material.
But my favorite part of the magazine is Kaufman’s introductory column where he not only introduces the issue, but more amusingly shows us the latest magical toys that have crossed his desk. There you see his true enchantment with magic, and you see the boy who at the age of five received a set of magic tricks from his uncle and has taken boyish delight ever since.
Magic is famously an art where the amateur has contributed as much as the professional has. No professional amateur has contributed more to the art of magic than Richard Kaufman. The clarity of his writing, the relevance of his illustrations, the taste and foresight he has brought to his choice of publications has been a standard that no one in the field can ignore. I am going to have a very happy holiday curling up with his Collected Almanac.