Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig by Lewis Ganson
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 2000)
It might be said that a book like this comes along only once in a lifetime—except that, through the miracle of reprints and republications, sometimes it comes around again. L&L Publishing continues to re-issue the Vernon/Ganson titles published by Supreme Magic in the 1950s and 60s with Lewis Ganson's recording of Dai Vernon's recollections of one of his heroes and eventual colleagues, the incomparable Nate Leipzig.
Leipzig was one of the genuine stars of magic in the vaudeville era, a fact made all the more astonishing when one recognizes that Leipzig was essentially a performer of intimate close-up and parlor magic, who managed to per-form on large vaudeville stages with the assistance of a committee of four spectators, along with a compelling degree of personal magnetism. But the story is even better than that, for Leipzig worked professionally as an optician well into his late 20s, whereupon he switched to show business and was an almost immediate success, soon being booked into the legendary Keith Circuit by no less an agent than William Morris, and later represented to the New York rich and famous by Francis Rockefeller King—who also maintained one other magician in her stable, by the name of Dai Vernon. [Note from Editor Richard Kaufman: As will be made clear when David Ben eventually publishes his epic biography of Vernon, Francis Rockefeller King hired Vernon specifically to cut silhouettes, not perform magic.]
Vernon, who was 20 years younger than Leipzig, was a mere boy when he first approached Leipzig backstage after a show, and the two became colleagues and friends for life. Having seen Leipzig perform countless times, Vernon knew the act by heart, move for move and line for line, and hence it is with the benefit of Vernon's careful attention that we are gifted with this exquisite record of a great performer's work. While in the recent Canadian documentary on Vernon, Persi Diaconis recounts that Leipzig's widow complained about Vernon's acquisition or perhaps publication of Leipzig's secrets, the fact is that were it not for Vernon's tireless promotion of the magicians he had seen and known—notably Leipzig and Malini, but countless others as well—so many of them would have barely become footnotes to magic history, rather than monumental figures whom will now never be forgotten.
The book describes Leipzig's stage act in detail—opening with thimble manipulation, and then, after inviting the committee of four to take seats upon the stage, consisting entirely of card material thereafter, including color changes, the Slap Aces, various card locations, the Card Stab, and finally the classic version of the Cards Across known as The Twenty Card Trick. Included in this segment is a fairly detailed description of Leipzig's work on the Color Change and the Side Steal, a move which is now generally credited to him (he likely invented the Coin Roll as well). Quite simply: There is not a single item amid this program of card material that a close-up or small platform magician could not make a living with today.
The book then continues with a substantial quantity of close-up material of which Leipzig regularly made use. This includes now legendary pieces like the Cigars From Purse (rarely seen but a longtime staple of John Carney's repertoire); the Torn and Restored Cigarette Paper (a close-up favorite of the late Michael Skinner's, but without the sucker repeat phase); the Ring on Wand (which Ten Ichi would later obtain by trading the secret to his original handling of the Thumb Tie); plenty of additional card material including now-standards like Leipzig's Opener and the Matching-Up Trick (one of several tricks that were taught to Leipzig by Vernon, and in this case, also used by Vernon throughout his life); and a substantial quantity of coin magic, including a wonderful coin quickie entitled Right There (that was a staple of my repertoire in my youth and is well worth the effort required to master its elegantly brief execution, complete with the all-important script); Penny Out of a Glass of Beer, in which a coin dropped into a glass by the spectator mysteriously rises to the top and then jumps out of the glass (a trick with which a young Leipzig fooled the great Horace Goldin, and which half a century later was a staple of Steve Spill's repertoire [now proprietor of Santa Monica's Magicopolis] during his magic bartending days); the Copper and Silver Transposition in a Spectator's Hand (also a staple of Malini's repertoire); and Leipzig's Pride, better known as the Stack of Quarters. Also notable is the inclusion of Leipzig's Slow-Motion Coin Vanish (an indelible memory of which I shall always retain, having seen Dai Vernon per-form it for me at one of our first one-on-one encounters; the early 1980s would see a small resurgence of interest in this plot, notably by John Cornelius, Derek Dingle, and Geoff Latta). Yet again I can state unequivocally that here is a list of material with which any professional close-up worker could make a living.
L&L has, by and large, done a nice job with this reproduction, adding (as they did with the Malini reprint) a lovely dustjacket, and thankfully returning to the glossy paper of the original edition, which they unfortunately abandoned with the Malini reprint, much to its detriment. They have, as is their habit, made no change to the original text in any manner, including failing to correct for any typographical errors, as in the misspelling of "boomerang" in a title. In this volume they have added on a biographical piece written by David Goodsell and originally published in the February 1997 issue of M-U-M (Leipzig was a past-president of the S.A.M.). The piece is an interesting addition, for while it does repeat some material from the book, it also draws on other sources and provides facts and anecdotes that the reader will not encounter in the original text. However, it would have been nice had this contribution been re-written for the purpose, not only to eliminate redundancies, but also to have removed this now bizarre opening sentence: "Unless the magician of today happens to own a copy of Dai Vernon's Tribute to Nate Leipzig, it is likely that Nate Leipzig is no more than a casual name from the past." Reading this from the very book that one is holding borders on the surreal.
Anyone who read this book in their youth—over and over again as so many of us did—cannot forget two remarks attributed to Leipzig on the opening page of Chapter One. The first is this: "They (an audience) like to feel that a gentleman has fooled them." And then this: "If they like you as a person, they'll like your act." The first sentence defines what set Leipzig apart from other performers. The second is a universal fact to which any experienced professional will attest. These lessons appear on the first page, and many more follow thereafter. If you have not yet had the opportunity to cherish these pages then this should, without dispute or delay, be the very next book you purchase.