Kellar's Wonders by Mike Caveney & Bill Miesel
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2004)
The writing of history is a trouble-some task. There is a difference between gathering history by way of scholarly research as opposed to by anecdote, albeit that each may have its place. There are the challenges of too much information and too little, and the very real possibility that both conditions may be present at once. The task of selection remains for the teller, and the manner of telling, too; there is a difference between the recitation of fact, and the imaginative evocation of time and place, and—particularly in the case of biography—of a life.
Someone once said that "History is one damned thing after another." It may have been said by Lord Stratford de Radcliffe, British ambassador to Constantinople in the late 19th century. It might have been Winston Churchill, or even Harry Truman—which tells you one damned thing about history, which is that just because you read it doesn't make it true. I first heard this phrase in one of the few college courses I ever completed—a revelatory course in economics, actually—spoken by an instructor who demonstrated to me that, contrary to most of my previous history lessons, history was most certainly not one damned thing after another. In fact, things happen for a reason; but as difficult as it may be to excavate the facts, unearthing context is typically even harder.
Given these challenges, most historical accounts are invariably a frustration of sorts for both authors and their audiences alike. The world of magic history is perhaps even more so. One major book, no matter how good or bad, often ends the prospect that we will see another devoted to the same subject for decades, if ever. Source materials are often difficult to come by, especially given the vagabond nature of the professional magician's life. Those who write the history are sometimes the best qualified; other times, they are just who hap-pens to be available or who cares enough.
Thus, we tend to be grateful for every and any historical text that comes our way—grateful for the effort, and with a reasonable tolerance for error or laxity, grateful for any information we have that we didn't have (or widely have access to) before. Every book of magic history is a gift, and those who value the history of our are tend to cherish them, even if their arrival is accompanied by varying degrees of complaint or disappointment.
Within this context, Kellar's Wonders certainly qualifies as a bountiful gift. At 584 pages and a weight that mused out my five-pound limit postage scale, this is a mammoth volume. While there's plenty of white space in the design and the type is not small, these appear to be sound design choices rather than an attempt at padding, and the book seems to overflow with content. This title is Number Eleven in the "Pro-Files" biography series from publisher Mike Caveney's Magic Words, and is consistent in production quality with what we've come to expect from these books, meaning that the pages are awash in photographs. playbills, handbills, letters, diagrams and the like, along with the now requisite section of color plates. In this case the color segment comprises 24 pages and depicts 46 posters, all but nine having been produced by the legendary Strobridge Litho. Despite the fact that the reproduction here appears just a tad dark at times, collectors will have to be careful to keep from dripping on the page as they view these mouth-watering beauties.
And of course, there are the facts, and plenty of them. As the authors explain, this work began with Bill Miesel, who is well known to cardicians for his long-running semi-underground journal, Precursor (and for his generous hosting of many a late-night cocktail in the legendary "Precursor Suite" at the Fechter's convention and elsewhere). Mr. Miesel hails from Harry Kellar's home town of Erie, Pennsylvania, and some 30 years ago began collecting historical data to create a timeline of Kellar's career. Over the years his mission produced impressive results, much of which was in fact in conflict with some of Kellar's own accountings and other anecdotal records.
Eventually Mr. Miesel presented his copious collection to publisher and co-author Mike Caveney. Mr. Caveney, along with collector and bibliophile George Daily, coincidentally came into joint owner-ship of the Egyptian Hall collection (from which many of the posters depicted in the color section are drawn), which also included a wealth of material about Kellar. Thereby the foundations of this book fell into place.
Harry Kellar was America's most popular magician at the turn of the 20th century. His fame and success were rivaled by few; Alexander Herrmann was his chief rival until Herrmann's untimely death in 1896 brought a sudden end to their sometimes cantankerous rivalry. After that, as the authors observe, "Harry Kellar remained head and shoulders above every other American magician for the next ten years until his retirement" in 1908. Although his career overlapped with that of his fan and friend, Houdini, the two giants worked in very different markets, Kellar touring with a large full-evening show of large illusions, and Houdini, through most of his life, primarily operating as a Vaudeville headliner. Although Thurston would "inherit"—reach purchase—Kellar's mantle, he was never a match while Kellar was still working.
Despite Kellar's enormous fame and success, and his lasting legend in the annals of magic, he remains something of an enigma. Clearly he was not a magic originator; he built his show and reputation on the creations of others, sometimes using material purloined by question-able means, as this book repeatedly (and perhaps eagerly) points out. Yet he was more than merely successful enough to retire as a wealthy man; it is fair to say, as clearly evidenced by the abundant reprinted newspaper accounts, that he was beloved, by both the public and, in general, magicians.
What was responsible for this success that went far beyond the mere commercial? Here is where the enigma of Kellar comes to the fore, because the answer is not entirely clear—at least, not in the 500-plus pages of this gargantuan book. There are some attributes we can attest to: Kellar was hard-working, a wise businessman, ambitious, a talented mechanical thinker and builder. Although lacking a high-school diploma, he was clearly intelligent and articulate. He paid attention to derail, and if the details didn't go his way, he was capable of losing his temper. Despite that streak of temper, he was more often a decorous and self-controlled gentleman. And, clearly, he was one hell of a charismatic and personable performer.
But even though this portrait does eventually float to the top of this ocean of text, the reader will find himself compelled to extrapolate it from the facts, rather than find it explored in evocative or thoughtful detail by the authors. At times it seems like the writers find themselves at sea in the torrent of data they have amassed, finding it difficult to maintain a steady compass point to guide their story. The subject of Kellar's apparent thefts of material is returned to again and again, almost as a kind of subtext to the entire story and the character of their subject, yet many questions are left unanswered and unasked. Kellar performed many effects that were originated by J. N. Maskelyne, and there is no record of Kellar having paid for such use. The authors thereby assume that all this material was stolen—but is that claim indeed proved? The absence of evidence does not constitute proof. How is that Maskelyne, a jealous guard of his own creative rights, repeatedly and knowingly allowed Kellar into his theater to observe his performances? How is it that Maskelyne could apparently laugh about spotting Kellar with a pair of opera glasses trying to see wires from his already dose seat, without choosing to simply bar his entrance? How is it that Devant's own brother comes to America to work with Kellar when Devant is in the midst of establishing himself in his association with Maskelyne?
The answers to these questions, no matter what they may be, are of great interest. Is it really that Kellar was an inveterate thief, and if so, how did he manage to maintain such a stellar reputation in the magic community, along with keeping good relations with his peers and even these very individuals whom he supposedly misused? In the last year of his solo career (before the final tour with Thurston), Kellar arranged to purchase an effect from Maskelyne and gives credit in his programs. The authors suggest this is because Thurston was already doing the same thing and Kellar could not have avoided such an arrangement this time, but in fact the relationship was somewhat different, since Thurston was renting these effects, not buying. Why would Maskelyne have anything to do with Kellar at all if all these charges are true?
And what of the apparent competitive feud with Herrmann? Why would the two headliners even need to go head-to-head when they had the territory of the entire country at their disposal and could have remained coasts apart? After Bill Robinson leaves Kellar's employ to go to work for Kellar's rival, Herrmann, how is it that Robinson apparently returns eventually to Kellar's good graces even after tipping so much of Kellar's show to the notorious book by Hopkins, Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions? If the Kellar/Herrmann rivalry was so intense, how is it that the Kellars end up vacationing socially with Herrmann's widow, Adelaide?
And what of Paul Valadon? The obvious mystery, which the authors do acknowledge, is when did Kellar begin to negotiate selling his show to Thurston, and thus when did he decide that Valadon clearly a superlative magician and an invaluable Kellar colleague would not inherit the mantle? Was it really due to an alcoholic battle between Kellar's wife, Eva, and Valadon, as has oft been recounted? And if nor, if Kellar had begun negotiations far earlier, then to what reasoning was it due? And did Kellar really hire Valadon in order to help steal the Maskelyne levitation? If so, how is it that Kellar was already performing the levitation months before Valadon carne aboard? Did Kellar actually make an arrangement for the secret of the levitation in the year before Valadon came aboard or for that matter, did he make an arrangement with Maskelyne himself?
Make no mistake: that the authors may lack the answers to these and many other vexing questions may well not be due to any fault of their own. If the evidence is lacking, that is not necessarily their responsibility. What appears lacking to me is not merely the answers it is the acknowledgement of the questions. Whether due to a deficit of curiosity, an insufficiency of research, or merely an unwillingness to admit not knowing, it is disturbing to me that so many questions are implicitly raised in this work, and yet remain apparently unnoticed by the writers. There is, for lack of a better word, a kind of complacency, a simplicity of vision, that I find troubling as I read this book. Am I the only one who wonders about these issues? I doubt it. I think any thoughtful readers will find them-selves similarly puzzled and frustrated by the lack of notice.
The authors claim for example that Thurston paid a flat fee for the Kellar show. But elsewhere in the historical literature Thurston com-plains about the fees he continued to pay to Kellar a much more believable scenario, yet there is no mention in this book. On another front, many have dismissed the popular claim that Kellar allegedly walked onto Maskelyne's stage mid-performance to examine the levitation workings firsthand. This theory has been dismissed elsewhere by Mr. Caveney, and in fact I agree with that judgment, given Kellar's sense of propriety and decorum, but should the story, often repeated as common knowledge, not at least be acknowledged in such a work as this, if only to be debunked? Yet there is no mention.
The date of Kellar's final performance, on the farewell tour with Thurston, is given as May 9, 1908. Yet countless accounts suggest that the tour was held over at its final engagement, resulting in a date a week later. lithe authors believe the May 9 date to be accurate, should they not at least acknowledge the other accounts, and cite their evidence to the contrary?
The authors recount that in his retirement, Kellar continued work on the levitation, developing a method that did not require a trap, which he eventually sold to Harry Blackstone, Sr. Kellar, albeit not an originator, seemed to improve everything he touched, not only by his manner of performance and presentation, but through his remarkable mechanical skills and his high standards. Maskelyne, after all, had the luxury of building the levitation into his theater, while Kellar had to tour with it—and that in itself is no small feat. That Blackstone eventually toured with Kellar's trapless solution to the levitation is an accomplishment worthy of notice. Thief or not, he deserves credit for his constant ability to improve what he used.
The question of how Kellar survived and in fact he did much more than merely survive his claimed habitual thefts is an important one. Whether or not we know for sure whether he ever made deals with Maskelyne which would certainly explain Maskelyne's tolerance of Kellar, and would also make sense given the fact that they were nor competitors it is an option worthy of consideration. Did Maskelyne make no attempt to stop Kellar from lifting his magical sketch, "Will, the Witch, and the Watchman" in whole cloth? If there were no deals, however, there are still further questions to ponder. What did it mean, in his time, if Kellar had stolen so much material? I do not mean by any of this line of inquiry to suggest a defense of the practice; magicians were competitive and protective of their secrets, and the awareness of intellectual property was not a new idea. But such issues must be understood in shades more muted than mere black and white. Herrmann was doing the DeKolta Vanishing Lady shortly after DeKolta created it. Carter all but duplicated Kellar's show. The moral implications of theft do not disappear with cultural context of the time but they can and do change. H.L. Mencken's anti-Semitism cannot be excused by his time, considering that some men were aware of the wrongs of racism centuries before him, yet it still takes on a different context a half a century or more ago than if he were alive today. Newton pursued alchemy in his time yet he remains a revered figure in physics. Were he still an alchemist a century later he would be a laughing stock.
So context is king, and context is often what I found lacking in these substantial and beautiful and still richly rewarding pages. The biographer and historian's job is to research, but it is also to select. The authors themselves point out that, at a certain point in the book, they have relied solely on (lengthy) newspaper reviews for accounts of Kellar's performances (save an excellent account by Frederick Eugene Powell which actually did not see print until many years after the fact, but is appropriately provided at an earlier point in the book). Eventually they provide more informed reports (certainly for our purposes) from magicians—yet that point does not come until page 294! Until then we are treated to countless, endless, frequently unedited newspaper reviews of Kellar's shows. Certainly some of these are of value—but are they all really necessary? Imagine if Ken Silverman had reprinted every drop of ink he found about Harry Houdini in the public press! Would we have come any closer to envisioning a portrait of the person of Houdini, when in fact the Silverman biography is probably the best such portrait we have? The authors provide brief interstitial notes between many of these articles, noting the occasion-al change in repertoire or some other pertinent detail, but is it really valuable to provide any of the text beyond compact excerpts to illustrate such notable elements? Mr. Caveney mentions having had access to the collection of David Copperfield, who provides some of the posters reproduced in the color section. Mr. Copperfield reputedly holds a substantial quantity of Kellar's letters, yet there are only a handful of examples quoted from in the book. Yet would not Kellar's letters rend to reveal much more of the man than these endless pages of newspaper accounts? In the recent biography of Robert-Houdin, author Christian Fechner provides lengthy reprints of reviews in his footnotes (rather than in the body of the text, it may be noted), yet it is his subject's letters and unedited journal entries which serve to best bring the man to life.
And what of Kellar's noted friendship with Houdini? Although mentioned in this book, it receives barely more than passing notice. How do we explain this important relationship, especially considering that Houdini got along so well with few others? What of the famous letter of Kellar's imploring Houdini to avoid attempting the bullet catch (a trick that was a standard of his rival, Herrmann)? What did the friendship mean to these men? What of Kellar's relationship with Thurston? The mention of Kellar's unhappiness with Thurston after the sale of the show is only barely explored; an unhappiness certainly understandable considering that not only did Thurston sell off most of the show (much of it so Charles Carter), but also considering Thurston's horrendous willingness to, for a time, expose the levitation to audience members brought on stage in order to testify to its apparent mystery. And again, what of that sale of the show to Thurston? What really happened and why might it have been so? Doesn't it seem likely that the decision to sell to Thurston was entirely due to its being the best business deal that Kellar was able to make, rather than any concern as to who—be it Thurston, Valadon, or anyone else might best carry his legacy forward?
I confess that I am disappointed that in all these pages, a sense of who Kellar the man was only barely arises. Something had to account for his tremendous success and popularity, and the answers are not readily found in these pages. Is difficult even to detect what his actual relationship was to his art what he thought about it, what he cared about. His apparent delight in the use of David Abbott's "Talking Teakettle" long after Kellar has already retired is one of the most revealing images in the book, because it gives us a sudden due to his passion for magic. But while these complaints and unanswered questions may create the impression that I am unmoved and unimpressed with this work, neither claim would be even dose to the truth. This is the first reliable biography we have of Kellar, and nothing before it comes even close in comparison. It contains an abundance of material for readers and future historians alike, and there is much within its pages that is fascinating and revelatory. As has been said countless times before, there is no such thing as a definitive biography. I began by noting that every work of magic history and biography is a gift—and I, for one, am grateful for this one.