Jim Steinmeyer
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Spring 2005

THE GLORIOUS DECEPTION

Early this summer, Carroll and Graf of New York publishes my new book, The Glorious Deception. It’s the first full biography of one of the most intriguing—and bewildering—figures in the history of magic, William Robinson, who was known to the public as the great Chinese Magician Chung Ling Soo. You can order the book now through Amazon.com, by clicking here.

Here’s the publisher’s description of the book: In a biography woven from equal parts enchantment and mystery, Jim Steinmeyer unveils the astonishing secrets behind the enigmatic performer Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer”—a magician whose life of intrigue and daring remains unparalleled to this day. He learned his art during a revolutionary era in show business, just as minstrel, circus and variety saloons were being stirred together and distilled into a new concoction: vaudeville. Soo’s infamous death in 1918 mystified the world: he was killed during a performance of Defying the Bullets, where he attempted to catch marked bullets on a porcelain plate. Suddenly, the magician's deceptions began to unravel. It was discovered that he was not Chinese but, rather, a fifty-six-year-old American named William Ellsworth Robinson, a former magicians’ assistant and the husband of Olive Robinson. But even William Robinson was not who he appeared to be, for he had kept a second family with a mistress in a fashionable home near London.

The Glorious Deception takes place at a time when wonders were still a commodity, and could be acquired for the price of a theater ticket; when a boy from New York could successfully recreate himself the world's greatest Chinese magician. Here is a one-of-a-kind look at the education of a magician amid the rough-and-tumble world of entertainment, the West’s discovery of cultures from the Orient, and Chung Ling Soo’s strange descent into secrecy as he rose to stardom—written by the foremost chronicler of magic’s history and culture. Due to the scandals that followed Robinson’s death, the full story has never been told. For the first time, Steinmeyer has uncovered William Robinson’s overlapping deceptions, his dazzling “smell-of-the-greasepaint” life story, and his explosive, tragic finale.

If you click here, you’ll find an excerpt from the book, as well as many additional illustrations that do not appear in the book—pictures of Soo’s posters as well as the cast of colorful characters. Take a few minutes and read Chapter One by clicking here.

MORE ON HIDING THE ELEPHANT

Hiding the Elephant was released last autumn in England, published by Heinemann. The response was great and the reviews were wonderful. You’ll forgive me if I immodestly reproduce a sample here.

The Times Literary Supplement: “Hiding the Elephant succeeds actually succeeds in providing its readers with something that is far harder to pull off on the page: a crafty lesson in the pleasures and dangers of sleight of hand.”

Time Out: “An intriguing history of the evolution of magic... Steinmeyer has gift for translating stage performances to the page.”

The Sunday Telegraph, “An extremely entertaining history of magic. Yet Steinmeyer goes deeper than that, into an examination of the importance of magic in people’s lives.”

The Daily Mail, “An impressively accessible book, entertaining to readers not utterly gripped by the idea of magic.”

The Telegraph: “A winning book.”

The Manchester Evening News, “A magic box of a book.”

The Fortean Times, “A magical read.”

I was able to do some publicity in London for its release. After that, I did a brief tour and book signings for the US paperback of Hiding the Elephant, including Chicago and New York.

TANAGRA POSTER

Designer / Fantasy Artist / Wildlife Illustrator / Painter / Poster Artist -- William Stout has perfected his technique over many different categories and become renowned for a wide range of projects. I’m proud to say that he was the illustrator of the magician portraits that open chapters in my book Hiding the Elephant, and each picture has a wonderful intensity that expertly characterizes these performers. Just take a look at that odd gleam in Houdini’s eye! Years ago my friend Jay Marshall told me that a good caricature is better than a photo, because it shows you something about the person, implying movement or energy, implying not only how they look and move, but the elements that you remember about them. William Stout (an expert caricaturist, by the way) has managed to put these touches of caricature in his portraits, with an amazing effect.

In 2003 he produced the poster for our 8th Los Angeles Conference on Magic History, Tanagra. I’m proud to say that Stout’s Tanagra poster has now won the Silver Medal in the Entertainment category from the Society of Illustrators of Los Angeles (SILA), and the 2004 Silver Medal from Spectrum (The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art) in the Advertising category. I think that it’s one of the most beautiful, unusual contemporary magic posters ever produced, and evidently illustrators and art directors agree. You can still order it in the Catalog of this website.

ALAN WAKELING

Finally, I’m sorry to say that my good friend, Alan Wakeling, died on November 10, 2004. Alan was one of the great inventors of magic of all time. His creations have become highly regarded by magicians around the world for their elegance and “performability,” excellent showcases for skillful magicians. Alan’s work had made the reputations of many magicians, and continues to be featured by many professionals.

Personally, he was a wonderful friend and a continual inspiration. I had the pleasure of writing his book on magic -- which includes his Billiard Ball Routine and the Wakeling Sawing in Half illusion -- and working with him on creating several effects, including the illusion Windshear. He was a gentleman, a rare creator, a kind, helpful friend, and magnificently insightful about magic. He will certainly be missed.

JAY MARSHALL

Exactly six months after Alan Wakeling’s death, on May 10, 2005, my friend Jay Marshall died. This is what I wrote about Jay for MAGIC Magazine.

I grew up as one of the kids standing at the counter at Magic Inc., which meant that I spent a lot of time with Jay. But not as much time as I would have liked. He loved books. He loved buying them, collecting them, talking about them. When we worked together on a book project, Jay had a grand time and I had a unique education. But Jay never started or ended a discussion. It was as if you were having one conversation with him that transcended years and surroundings. I don’t think he ever said good-bye. He would smile and say, “Okay, Jim,” or, “Good deal,” his beautiful voice rising with an inflection that meant that the conversation was to be continued. And then he’d drift away.

Max Maven once told Jay that he spoke in Zen Koans. It often seemed that Jay’s mind was filled with strange non-sequiturs, organized in profound ways. Jay couldn’t tell you what Hardeen did onstage, but he would show you the peculiar way he cocked his head as he started every illusion. He’d imitate the way that Thurston held his hands when he was too old to perform, and explain how Mulholland murdered the Vanishing Birdcage or why Walter Gibson wrote his books on multiple typewriters. It wasn’t trivia. These were flashes of insight, bits of caricature that were astonishing and delicious. When I think of Thurston, I still remember the day that Jay demonstrated the “Thurston Egg Palm,” and I can see Thurston as clearly as I can see Jay.

That flinty, slightly Edwardian exterior was part of the show—Groucho out of make-up mixed with Noel Coward. It was another bit of presentation that made Jay all the funnier by keeping people at arm’s length. Jay actually had an enormous heart. He selflessly nursed friends through cancer, operations, family tragedies, always leading with the flinty exterior—the smartass remark—always following through with his heart—gentle jokes, a ride to the doctor, a bag of sandwiches he’d picked up on the way, because he knew they’d like the roast beef from a particular joint on the North Side. I never heard him talk about these good deeds. Never. He just did them.

About twenty years ago, Jay developed an odd habit of crying at inopportune times. You’d find him laughing in response to a joke, then the laughter turning to tears of joy, and then strange, deep sobs of regret. I came to understand that this was a result of his prodigious memory and his many friends. Every one of those laughs reminded him of someone he’d lost, or an opportunity he’d missed. And now I know how he felt: happy memories and sad memories at the same time.

“Good deal.”

Stay tuned and thanks for your interest.
Jim Steinmeyer

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