Blackstone: A Magician's Life by Daniel Waldron
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii October, 1999)
The past few years have seen the publication of a number of the most detailed and well-researched biographies in the history of the literature of magic, along a sort of continuum from Mike Caveney's tome Carter the Great and Eddie Dawes' precise Bertram and Stodare works, to worthy volumes such as Kent Blackmore's Levante and Gary Brown's Al Flosso, on to, at the minimalist end of the spectrum, Chuck Romano's recent study of Paul Rosini. All of these books have had their merits, be it many or few, but none have been as purely readable as this superb new biography of Harry Blackstone, Sr.
The dustjacket informs us that the magic show of Harry Blackstone, Sr. has been "the consuming interest" of the life of the author, Daniel Waldron, and it seems not the slightest hyperbolic to say so, with 28 pages of footnotes—a prerequisite of any biographer who wishes to be taken seriously—serving as only the least of supportive evidence for the claim. But all the consuming interest in the world will not create writers of this caliber, and it is refreshing and joyous to read such skillful prose, all the more so in a book about conjuring. By the time you complete the brief prologue, you are filled with anticipation for the story to come, accompanied by the confidence that it will be told by a master.
I could barely put it down, and whether or not you are as a rule interested in the history of magic or the stories of its great practitioners, no matter the specifics of your magical concerns I urge you to read this book. Mr. Waldron carefully sets the stage throughout his tale, portraying not merely the facts and acts of his subject's life, but the time, the place, the character, and person that was Harry Blackstone, Sr. Where a recently reviewed biography might have expended a single opening sentence about setting and historical context, this author fills paragraphs with richly evocative detail of not only the world outside magic, but the lively, breathing world within, of which Blackstone was a reigning dignitary.
And yet while Blackstone became part of magic's royalty, he retained always a common touch. He was (and still is) frequently compared with Thurston throughout the latter's life, and even Harry Kellar, who had sold his show to Thurston and embraced him as his successor, later endorsed Blackstone unreservedly, declaring that he would "have to wait for no one's mantle—his own ability will be his crown of glory," and stating publicly that "Blackstone is the greatest magician the world has ever known." Yet as Mr. Waldron tellingly points our, "Perhaps the greatest indicator of the difference between Thurston and Blackstone lay at the stage door. Lads looking to speak with Thurston often got turned away. Blackstone would talk with anyone. He was the most approachable of men. People admired Thurston. They loved Blackstone."
And Blackstone loved his public, and loved magic too, always ready to trade tricks and talk with fellow magicians, working and playing side-by-side with his crew during the summers of repairing, rebuilding, and repainting props. One gets the sense that every bite he took of life was big and juicy and smiling all the while, no matter if his pockets were empty or his next show unknown. He seems bigger than life on and off the stage, and it is a compliment to both him and his biographer that as I read this book I became filled with regret that I never had the chance to know him.
The book never reveals a conjuring secret to its reader, but it reveals much of Blackstone's life both in public and private, and the backstage accounts are detailed, verifiable, and collected from many sources. The author tells the story graciously yet thoroughly, and pulls few punches when it comes to Blackstone's well-known womanizing, as well as the similar proclivities of one of his wives, Inez. Without judging anyone, the truth is laid bare before us, and this is not only the work of responsible biography but invariably the best tribute to a hero, who falters little from the simple fact of his humanity.
The book is supplemented not only with detailed foot-notes, but with two chapters of detailed reminiscence by Nick Ruggiero (now of Collector's Workshop), who traveled with the show in 1949/50, and George Johnstone, who accompanied the show from 1939 through 1943. A Blackstone timeline and several detailed programs are included, along with a 10-page index, two 16-page sections of glossy photographs along with other assorted illustrations throughout. The book is beautifully produced by David Meyer Magic Books, with lovely photographic end-papers and a truly beautiful dustjacket. If you read one magic biography this year, make it this one. Blackstone had passion and enthusiasm that was infectious—he loved his audiences, his women, his magic, and even his animals—and you too will doubtless fall sway to his charms in the pages of this magi-cal yet authoritative account.