Cardini: The Suave Deceiver by John Fisher
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 2007)
In the spring of 1987, John Fisher made a pilgrimage to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City to view the defining recorded performance of the legendary magician, Cardini. With this event, the biography of Richard "Cardini" Pitchford begins, as too did the author's path toward becoming Cardini's biographer. Today, Cardini's 1957 performance, from the NBC Festival of Magic, can be readily viewed online and elsewhere, but at the time, for those who knew of Cardini solely by reputation, the first experience witnessing the legend in action was invariably revelatory and exhilarating. I, too, made that same pilgrimage (albeit across town rather than the Atlantic)—as did Lance Burton, who recalls the event in his articulate introduction to this book—and I well remember the stunning power of my experience.
Seeing it for the first time, Cardini's act was better than one could have possibly imagined; it was literally breathtaking. Not only was the card technique flawless, and the cigarette productions baffling, but the construction of the magic was unfathomable, and the misdirection inescapably effective. Equally remarkable if not more so, however, was the theatricality of an act driven by character, humor, and even a minimalist sort of plotline, rather than by the mere technical proficiency that, to this day, dominates most silent manipulative acts. As Howard Schwarzman had memorably told me in my youth, Cardini had changed the very effect of card manipulation: "Other magicians produced cards," Howie had said. "Cardini threw them away."
From the moment he viewed that black-and-white recording, Mr. Fisher veteran producer of British television, author, and amateur magician has clearly been captivated by Cardini. And he declares in this welcome biography that he intends this work not as "a technical exposé on how to perform the Cardini act," but rather as "an unashamed exercise in both celebration and theatrical archaeology ... ," as he frankly assesses it.
Mr. Fisher, eager to prove his brief that Cardini "became the definition of a magician in the Thirties" presents a spirited defense of his case. He devotes his second chapter to an overview of Cardini's achievements, establishing why Cardini was the embodiment of the chapter's title, "A Magician For His Time." There is little doubt that Cardini was one of a handful of defining images of the magician in his day, both in the public eye and magic world alike; Cardini's success was unimaginably pervasive, not only within the world of magic, but even having influenced no less than Fred Astaire in the choice of wearing extra-long tails: "The magician had the easy access of billiard balls in mind; the dancer just loved the way the tails swirled through the air as he glided across the floor."
The first section of the book, comprising eight chapters, recounts the biographical details of Cardini's life, from his birth in Wales in 1895 through his rise to the pinnacle of show business success. Born Richard Valentine Thomas, the name "Pitchford" belonged to the man who married Cardini's mother while the boy was still very young. For a time in his youth he was exposed to card cheats, pool hustlers, pickpockets and their ilk, and might even have dabbled in some if not all of such pursuits. Working as a pageboy in a hotel the role his wife would later play in the Cardini act he took his first lessons in card cheating from a traveling gambler, and learned trick pool shots from a visiting world champion. Among the first magicians that he saw on stage were Chung Ling Soo, Nate Leipzig, and Frank Van Hoven, and thus the hook was baited and set for what would eventually become a singular lifetime in the conjuring arts.
Cardini entered the military and the infamous trenches, where legend has it he began to practice card manipulations while wearing gloves as protection from the cold. In the course of military service he did two turns in the hospital, once for having been gassed on the battlefield, and a second for "shell shock." While the nurses questioned his sanity when he asked for a pack of cards and a pair of white gloves, Mr. Fisher points out that "It is a mistake, however, to assume that card manipulation while wearing gloves was first attempted by Cardini in the trenches," as Cardini would have been aware that he had been preceded in the idea by London magician Paul Freeman.
When Cardini left the military, he spent half of his 100-pound discharge money at a magic shop, in preparation for embarking on a career in magic. But the path was a challenging one, and for a time he was reduced to working the streets, a then desperate and lowly measure. Eventually he worked for a time as a magic demonstrator at the famous department store, Gamages, where he became an accomplished pitchman of the Linking Rings, among many other items.
On a more serious if mysterious note, we learn briefly of Cardini's first marriage, including the birth of a child. The marriage might not have been legally formalized, and the child was perhaps born, like himself, out of wedlock; but the child apparently died very young, and not long afterwards, the wife, still in her teens, also perished. Soon after this double tragedy. Cardini departed his native land for Australia; a family member speculates that it was as much "to drown his sorrows" as it was to seek new career opportunities.
It is in Australia, in 1924, that Richard Pitchford mounts the stage with a new name: Cardini; there are several competing explanations for how the moniker came to be bestowed on him. By 1925 the elements of the act that would make the name legendary were at least formatively in place, including silks, thimbles, cards, billiard balls, and cigarettes (including the famed Harlequin cigarette holder, invented by Australian Charles Waller). But while one can glimpse the ore that Cardini will later polish into gold, thus far it is coarsely mined. He is still a talking performer with a less than stellar delivery, striving to be comedic in the vein of British comic card magician Billy O'Connor, from whom, in his early performing years, he apparently copied material.
Cardini brought his act to America in 1926, where, thanks to 14,500 movie theaters in the U.S., vaudeville was just beginning what would be a protracted decline. But there was still time and opportunity to become a success in that world, and Cardini made rapid progress. In Chicago that same year, he would also meet Swan Sunshine Walker in the Hotel Planters, where she worked as a cashier. Cardini, always outwardly contained, readily betrayed his emotions in love letters to the diminutive Swan, his first American romance, and the next year they were married. They remained, for the next 46 years until his death, as inseparable as a couple can conceivably be. Despite having two children along the way, Dick and Swan collaborated on a joint performing career throughout their working lives. Often leaving the children to the care of relatives for extended periods, they barely even took a break—of mere weeks, at most—to pause for births.
Meanwhile, Cardini was hitting his stride professionally, and the month before the marriage, the couple would play the prestigious Palace in New York City. The Cardini's weekly salary in 1928 of $425 would amount to close to $5000 in today's dollars; by 1934 they were taking $600 a week, more than $9000 when corrected for inflation. Working at the highest strata of show business, they were represented by the William Morris agency, and played alongside the likes of George Burns, Jack Benny, Will Rogers, and countless other stars.
Adapting to the dance-floor conditions of the post-Depression nightclub era, Cardini appeared in these celebrated night spots, often situated in top hotels. In 1934, the Cardinis ran for 26 weeks at Billy Rose's popular Casino de Paree in Manhattan, while frequently "doubling up" in other theaters in town, on top of their two-a-night schedule at Rose's. And in 1935, they played Radio City Music Hall—a silent manipulative act in front of 6,200 seats—where they returned annually for the next four years. Cardini would perform three times before Franklin Roosevelt and again for Harry Truman. And in 1932 he returned to England after an eight-year absence, to play the London Palladium. The details of his career, recounted at length in this first section of book, leave not the slightest trace of doubt that Cardini was more than a commercial triumph: he was a show business phenomenon.
In the book's second section, comprising three lengthy chapters, Mr. Fisher explores and lays bare the origins, evolution, and inner workings of the Cardini act, such that virtually any reader's expectations and appetite shall be satisfyingly fulfilled. Magicians who have watched the Cardini recording sufficient times so as to be able, like this writer, to recall it virtually from memory as the technical details unfold in these pages, will feast on the banquet of detail that Mr. Fisher presents. At the same time, the author also provides a detailed record of the performance itself—the exterior as the audience saw and perceived it. It is worth noting that working pro Levent Cimkentli, who so relentlessly tracked down and skillfully reconstructed the magic of Roy Benson for the marvelous book, Roy Benson By Starlight, assisted John Fisher in comprehending the details of Cardini's work as well.
This analysis is deeply supported by a fabulous array of photographs, superbly put to use by editor/publisher Todd Karr. One is accustomed these days to seeing substantial quantities of photographs and other visual elements in historical works of this nature, but the bounty of images reproduced in this volume is nothing short of astounding. The chapter entitled "Act As Known" includes 350 screen captures, taken from the Festival of Magic video, spread over 100 pages of description. Still, this is not an instruction manual; you will not learn the details of split fans and back-palming or cigarette manipulation in these pages. Rather, it is a detailed exegesis of the structure of the act, including the placement and management of the props, the misdirection, the characterization, and how it was woven together into a seamless and unprecedented result. To say that the construction of such a record was not an easy job is an exercise in understatement, yet it was a worthy task that the legacy of its subject warranted.
However, there are yet another 475 photographs within the book's 550 pages, and thanks to thoughtful and effective design choices, there is, remarkably, no sense of redundancy or excess. The photos tell their own stories, both cooperatively with the text, and also independent of it. There are casual snapshots and publicity stills; there are photos at every stage of the Cardinis' public and private lives. A tinted 1918 image reveals the bright potential of a young Cardini, standing behind his props and table, displaying four billiard balls in one hand; while images of Cardini working aboard a cruise ship late in life, uncharacteristically dressed in comedic Oriental garb, mark the inevitable unfairness of time. There are images here that stop the viewer cold, like stunning photos of a pensive Swan in Berlin; there are images that tell entire stories in a single view, like a full-page photo of Cardini on the set of the Festival of Magic taping, the magician in fully costumed regalia seeming diminutive and aged, yet somehow noble, in the midst of technology and modernity.
As fascinating as readers will certainly find this dissection of "the act as known" (along with reconstructions of billiard ball material that unfortunately was never captured on film), the preceding chapter, "Practice Makes Perfect," is equally remarkable for its tracing of the origins of Cardini's work. While Swan may have naively believed, according to Bobby Bernard, that "Cardini had invented every single aspect of his act, every single move," of course nothing of the sort was true. Here the author establishes what had come before Cardini—what he took, what he adapted, and how he forever altered the standing and credibility the of the silent manipulative act. While manipulators before him, like Downs and Thurston, were talking performers who displayed their skills at times almost as jugglery the author declares that "the two masters and their many rivals were all predominantly demonstrators of skill" when "Cardini came to consolidate his reputation with an act from which patter was excluded, he almost single-handedly revived popular interest in the manipulative act, a form that had fallen into jaded disrepair since the heyday of Thurston and the King of Koins." Of course, Cardini was certainly willing to present his skill front and center, as with his single-ball manipulation in the Festival of Magic performance; but his act was far from a mere juggling display,. Cardini's manipulation was deceptive and utterly magical, and thus he opened the door for silent acts to come, from Johnny Thompson (perhaps the only silent sleight-of-hand performer to approach Cardini's richness of characterization, humor and plot) to Channing Pollock, Lance Burton, and countless others.
This lengthy historical investigation examines the origins of countless components that led to the Cardini act. There are details from Cardini's notebooks; descriptions of his thimble routine that was a feature earlier in his career; there is the evolution of his use of the monocle; and Dai Vernon's apparent role in encouraging and perhaps convincing Cardini to stop talking altogether on stage—which Swan apparently resented but did not deny. Meanwhile, as Cardini became increasingly visible, the phenomenon of his success created a veritable subculture of magicians discussing his work, attempting to analyze and understand it and describe it to one another. Anyone who has read the two recent books about Dai Vernon, Karl Johnson's The Magician and the Card Sharp and David Ben's Dai Vernon: A Biography, will immediately recognize the cast of scheming correspondents and reporters, led by the self-promoter Eddie McGuire, the retired maestro and secrets monger, Tommy Downs, the loyal Downs scribe, Eddie McLaughlin, and additional usual suspects.
This section closes with a chapter about the inordinate number of Cardini copycat acts and imitators that infected the industry in the wake of Cardini's success. Mr. Fisher's investigation of the technical underpinnings and evolution of the act continues here, examining elements drawn from predecessors that Cardini was generally loathe to acknowledge throughout his career. It is to Mr. Fisher's great credit that he fairly examines such issues, and students of these subjects will be fascinated to learn of Freeman's gloved card manipulations, and a relevant Ellis Stanyon manuscript in Cardini's collection; the origins of split fans and Cardini's own discovery of multi-colored fanning packs; a brief history of tonguing and cigarette manipulation; the stormy relationship between Cardini and Frakson, Keith Clark, and other cigarette workers; and entertaining tales of magicians attending Cardini's performances and divvying up note-taking responsibilities and other such misadventures. And this chapter also details the Cardinis' "little green scrapbook," filled with newspaper clippings and annotations, a bitter monument to and historical record of all the copyists and competitors that drew the couple's ire and resentment throughout their lives.
The books final section consists of eight more chapters that follow Cardini through and eventually past his peak career years, reporting on his experience as an actor in a Broadway mystery; performing for the troops in World War II; and his love/hate relationship with magic organizations and amateur magicians (later in life he despised the S.A.M. less than the I.B.M., the acronym for which he claimed more appropriately stood for "I Bother Magicians"). We learn about Cardini's work on cruise ships as well as on television, and in his later years, his skills performing casual close-up magic, as well as his continuing efforts as a master craftsman who constructed reels, billiard balls, and other precision apparatus. The book's penultimate chapter is devoted to Swan, who outlived Cardini by many years, and devoted herself to him in death as in life, with an almost perversely fierce mama-bear protectiveness of his legacy and reputation. The final chapter attempts to draw together a living picture of who the man was, and his many contradictions: "the suave deceiver" on stage, an often nervous and anti-social personality off. Emotionally reserved in public, distant from his children, Cardini held deep emotional connections with animals, outraged by performers who demonstrated any cruelty, and becoming an accomplished trainer of his own performing and card-locating parakeets.
This long-awaited and well deserved testament to one of the most important magicians of the 20th century is an inordinately welcome addition to magic's historical literature. Mr. Fisher is an able writer and researcher who has fulfilled his brief with passion and perhaps, on occasion, a tad too much of it. In his opening chapter, the author addresses "... the peril of being sucked into a morass of sycophancy," offering, "I do not wish this volume to fall into that trap." Unfortunately, he does not entirely escape. The author's unquiet presence can occasionally interfere with the reader's own objective contemplation of the material; at times he tries too hard to tell us what and how to think, editorializing, speculating, and hosing the reader into submission with superlatives, rather than simply telling us what he knows and trusting the reader to draw his own conclusions.
A far more serious miscue however is Mr. Fisher's blatantly slanted agenda regarding Dai Vernon, which often leaves the author sounding like a carping flat-earther in a Copernicusian world. In a chapter entitled "The Phantom, The Professor, and the Pretender"—respectively, Walter Scott, Dai Vernon, and Eddie McGuire—the author speciously claims that Vernon was so jealous of Walter Scott that he deliberately avoided meeting him. Yet one can find repeated references in Vernon's letters, recounted in the David Ben biography, to the clear contrary. Vernon wrote to Sam Horowitz, "I wish to thank you ever so much for your efforts to enable me to see Walter Scott work," and "if there is any chance of Eddie McGuire and his friend coming out this way I shall of course be 'tickled to death'." The letters repeatedly point to Vernon as a man who if anything was excited about the prospect that Scott had perhaps contributed something to further raise the bar that Vernon was himself constantly pressing upward. To repeat as gospel Scott's nonsensical delusions about Vernon's supposed envy of him, quoted from the dubious pages of Phantoms of the Card Table by David Britland and Gazzo, is revelation in itself of Mr. Fisher's bias against, or ignorance of, the layered worlds of magic beyond the stage. Scott barely ever met Dai Vernon, and was a two-bit con man who was not even the card cheat he claimed to be—he first met Eddie McGuire at a magic club meeting.
Regarding charges concerning Vernon's alleged theft of his Linking Ring routine, I personally researched this subject ten years ago and published some of my thoughts and discoveries in *Genii *(July 1997, in my review of a reissue of The Symphony of the Rings). There is not a shred of new evidence present in these pages, yet Mr. Fisher attempts to fan the flames of Swan's unarguable bitterness toward Vernon, despite the fact that the author himself repeatedly establishes that she was so deluded by her seemingly infinite catalog of resentments that she claimed that no less than Channing Pollack who worshipped Cardini and became his friend had "stolen" Cardini's act! Mr. Fisher writes that "One hopes this book would have pleased her," and one wonders if this is the driving motive for his campaign of character assassination against Vernon.
Regardless, I wonder if Mr. Fisher can explain or if he is even aware of how Vernon and Cardini both perform at the 1941 annual S.A.M. convention, where Vernon performed the Rings, likely using six, and yet despite rave published reviews from John Mulholland and William Larsen, Sr., Cardini—never one to hold his tongue about such matters—never raised an objection. Jump to 1959 when the Symphony routine is published, and still there are no complaints from Cardini; indeed, the two would still remain friends for years to come. How is it that all this is possible if Vernon stole Cardini's ring routine?
Even Lance Burton closes his introduction with carefully considered words that appear intended to gently but clearly remove himself as a party to the slanders to follow. Mr. Fisher's predetermined mindset compels him to incessantly attempt to position Cardini and Vernon as competitors, with the author's deck stacked heavily to assure that Cardini wins each time in his highly discolored view. Yet in fact he had no need to try to take down Vernon on slender evidence and innuendo in order to establish Cardini's greatness, and he thereby does his own subject a disservice via such transparent pettiness. It is ludicrous to set these two giants at odds, a doomed attempt at competitive comparison, when they were if anything peers—which was in fact the actual basis of the close friendship they shared through most of their lives, before the Cardinis allowed themselves to be soured by their own obsessive resentments in Dick's last years and Swan's ever darker later ones.
It is a ironic to read the author's mean-spirited and ill-informed attempts to prove his subject's greatness at the expense of another who was, if not his equal, his better. For if Cardini's influence is implicitly present in the existence of every silent manipulative act today, such influence pales in comparison to that of Dai Vernon, whose presence is explicit in the work of virtually any and every living magician today, professional and amateur alike—and as Max Maven has said, echoing the words of the late Jackie Flosso, "whether they know it or not." It has been a long time since Lance Burton gained fame as a manipulator in the Cardini path, and there are precious few such acts on the professional scene today, outside of magic contests. But the great magicians of every class of contemporary magic all owe and routinely acknowledge profound and explicit debt to Vernon. From Doug Henning, who revived stage magic in the 1970s, to our great living maestro Juan Tamariz, Vernon's imprint is profoundly felt in all walks of the art—and if the author fails to recognize this fact, he merely provides testimony to the limits of his own understanding.
Indeed, Vernon is substantially responsible for the revolution in British magic that occurred as a direct result of his presence and influence overseas in the 1960s, as seen in the work of men like Alex Elmsley, Roy Walton, and countless others. And if we are forced against our wills to consider a comparison of influence, no matter the incomparable artistic perfection of Cardini's work and success, how can we, after all is said and done, compare a man who spent his life polishing 15 minutes of material with a man who profoundly influenced every branch of magic extant? Cardini may have been a member of the New York "Inner Circle," but what did he contribute in that arena that has lasted, compared with the records of the other six men in a memorable photograph reproduced in these pages (including, in this incarnation, the mysterious Arthur Finley, previously missing in action from the image in The Secret Ways of Al Baker). That Cardini could entertain his friends with impromptu magic, or managed to fill cruise shows with standard magic and routines often contributed by his friends and colleagues, does little to compare with Dai Vernon, an artist who spent his life exploring, creating, thinking, teaching—and leaving his mark as the single most significant individual influence in all of 20th century magic. Has the author even considered the dense scholarship of the two recent biographical works about Vernon, one of which demolishes once and for all the myth that Vernon was not a commercially successful magician in the middle of his life? These titles are missing from Mr. Fisher's lengthy bibliography, and the omission renders his stance all the more foolhardy.
The author's decision to target Vernon on insubstantial grounds is an unfortunate distraction that necessitates substantive response, and there will doubtless be much more discussion to come, for I have addressed a mere portion of these issues here. But I hasten to add that if this flawed material was summarily excised from the book, the balance, aside from an occasionally intrusive author's voice, is a truly wonderful production. Beginning and ending with its physical properties, from a spectacular color cover to a 20-page index, and laden with a surfeit of thrilling revelations and eye-opening insights, this is the book that Cardini fans—and who among us does not count himself as a member of that legion?—have been awaiting for decades. Every time I watch the Cardini act, I still marvel at how, while other magicians display their ability to cause a silk knot to magically dissolve, Cardini instead keeps trying desperately to tie a knot that somehow magically defeats him—as he literally beats the handkerchief in punishment and hilarious frustration. Cardini was one of the greatest performing magicians of all time, and this volume is guaranteed to cast his spell the instant you enter its magical pages.