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THE RETURN OF THURSTON
In February, Penguin / Tarcher published my latest book, a biography of the American illusionist Howard Thurston. The book is available in the online Catalog section of this website.
Reviews have been wonderful, and the book’s gotten a lot of attention.
HOUDINI VERSUS THURSTON
“The Last Greatest Magician in the World” was about a year in the works, but I couldn’t have done it without the help of a number of talented and generous collectors and magic historians, who respected Thurston and were anxious to have his story told.
I was more than a little surprised to find that I’d evidently riled some Houdini writers and collectors, who presumably see it as their duty to defend their man against accusations that he may not have been perfect, nor the unparalleled phenomenon in the history of show business.
In fact, Houdini deserves a great deal of credit, and he receives it in my book. But let’s be honest, neither Harry Houdini nor Howard Thurston were faultless — they had flashes of ego and pride which often worked to their advantages and sometimes made them look foolish. And I would suspect that it’s the truth about Howard Thurston — his background as a petty thief and confidence man, his ties to the sideshow, his undefined faith, and his sometimes-careless attitude about the people who worked with him — that really provide the revelations in this book.
Since there’s always interest in Houdini, let me address Houdini’s legacy and his faults. When I spoke about the new book at the Magic Castle, I was asked about Houdini, and I made the comparison with his own book, “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.”
Houdini’s been attacked for “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.” I remember the interview we did with the French filmmaker and magic collector, Christian Fechner, when I produced the A&E documentary, “The Story of Magic.” Fechner was devoted to Jean Robert-Houdin’s memory, and had studied his contributions and legacy. He was very dismissive about Houdini’s attitude, and concluded that his efforts in the book were a symbolic way that that Houdini was “killing his father” in order to surpass his legacy.
Christian Fechner’s observations were chilling and dramatic. But I would say that real motives of the “Unmasking” story were complicated, perhaps too complicated for much speculation. These motives demonstrate Houdini’s understanding of history, and how it was sometimes subverted by his personal interests.
In fact, I think that the “Unmasking” was motivated by a noble cause. There were many magicians, immediate predecessors and contemporaries of Robert-Houdin, who had been neglected.
I draw the analogy to a bright light, pointed directly at you. Robert-Houdin is the “bright light” of European magic from the 1840s to 60s. His magic is distinctive and brilliant, and it is easy for us to recognize its importance. Unfortunately, that “bright light” prevents us from seeing anything else near him—or, more to the point, anyone else. Magicians will recognize this optical phenomenon as an element of an important principle, Black Art, in which a light directed at the audience seems to accentuate the shadows near it. (I wrote about this in, among other books, “The Glorious Deception.”) It is the clarity and brilliance of Robert-Houdin, told through his own books, that seems to place magicians like Phillipe, Robin, and Frikell, into the dark shadows.
This is unfair. It is unfair that important performers have been neglected, and it is equally unfair to be critical of Robert-Houdin for his brilliant career or his easy, graceful skills as a writer.
So, writing about 75 years after Robert-Houdin’s greatest successes, Houdini initially sought to rectify this situation, explaining the importance of these other European magicians. Unfortunately, his research became muddled by his personal tone — a vendetta that was refined in the rewriting between The Conjurer’s Magazine and the finished book, “The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.” The tone is childish and perverse, especially since Houdini took his own stage name from Robert-Houdin. The situation certainly gives validity to Christian Fechner’s psychological diagnosis.
But let me give Houdini the benefit of the doubt. His initial motive was probably very good, and it could have produced a brilliant book on magic history.
I would say that, similarly, Houdini is now the “bright light” that prevents us from discerning the figures in the shadows, standing near him. Writing from the perspective of 80 or 100 years, I think that some of these other magicians need to be saved from the darkness and recognized once again. If I had written “The Last Greatest Magician in the World” with the naïve tone of Houdini’s book, fans of Houdini would be right to be critical. But I did not write “The Unmasking of Harry Houdini.” Instead, I’ve tried to put Thurston’s story in perspective by telling it in conjunction with Houdini.
Houdini’s a fascinating figure because he is, really, the first modern celebrity. His eye to his legacy, his interest in writing about criminality to enhance his own reputation (“The Right Way to Do Wrong”) and his realization that danger and controversy breeds publicity, have been recognizable in late-20th century popular culture. I think that this point is really demonstrated in the biography by Larry Sloman and William Kalush, “The Secret Life of Houdini.”
But I’d also say, cynically, that on any given week, I can turn on “American Idol” and meet ten more of these modern celebrities, who have been taught to seek stardom by establishing a legacy and surprising their way into the headlines.
And now, I confess, I’m bored with modern celebrities, and much more interested in the way that Howard Thurston thought about fame and success. He started his career on sideshow platforms, driving covered wagons through mining towns, and slowly developed his specialties of sleight-of-hand. He wasn’t proud of his criminal past. He worked very hard to cover it up. He denied his confidence-man roots, and convinced his friends that he was a pillar of the community and an upstanding businessman, an institution in the American theatre. Much like spies, confidence men and card cheats, the people who talk about these skills don’t do them. The people who do them don’t talk about them.
I think about my friend Dorny, the well-known Chicago magician, who used to be a good friend of Thurston’s. He revered the stately, elegant “Governor,” and insisted that “Thurston was a gentleman, pretending to be a magician.” But now I know that Dorny was wrong. Thurston did not let his friends know who he really was, or where he came from.
Thurston’s story bridges the most amazing changes in American popular culture and show business. His sensibilities, his secrecy and shifting persona, provide the insights into this era and the puzzles behind this fascinating character.
In their own day, Houdini and Thurston were friends, enemies, and competitors, but they each shared the public’s attention. It’s my hope that Thurston won’t be relegated to the helpless, permanent shadows, as his story is one of the most astonishing in American entertainment.
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