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Servais Le Roy: Monarch of Mystery by Mike Caveney & William Rauscher

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii June, 2000)


Servais Le Roy was undoubtedly one of the giants of early 20th century magic. Possessed of an inventiveness matched in his time only by the likes of P.T. Selbit and DeKolta, armed with an artistic sense perhaps comparable to that of Karl Germain, and creator of the most conceptually rich idea for a magic show in this century—namely, the Le Roy, Talma & Bosco show—Le Roy deserves to be lionized by magicians who too often abuse his inventive legacy while being all but ignorant of the historical facts of its origins.

Born in Belgium in 1865, Le Roy emigrated to London at the age of 10, running away from home to live with an "adopted uncle." Subsequently living in France and Wales, the young Le Roy mastered sleight of hand, began to invent his own methods, and struck out into professional performance when barely 20 years old. His career would take him around the world, from Australia to the United States, and during much of its zenith he would be widely considered one of the world's greatest magicians—if not its very great-est. This was not mere hyperbole. Men no less the stature of Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini sang Le Roy's praises, in tones that at moments reflected bald admiration and at other times perhaps even a twinge of intimidation.

And it was no wonder. The creative and original nature of his work was unparalleled. The inventor of numerous illusions still popular today, virtually no other performer could touch Le Roy in his constant improvements and out-pouring of unprecedented effects. At a time when the public and critics were extremely aware of what comprised a standard trick, and constantly on the lookout for something novel, Le Roy delivered fresh material time after time, whether in his full evening shows or when doing a vaudeville turn. Forget for the moment (as many already have) that he created the Three Graces, the Palanquin, the duck vanish that became known as Where do the Ducks Go?, the duck pan, and the duck tub—just think about the fact that Servais Le Roy invented the Asrah and the wedge base!

He was also a stylish performer. He would enter the stage in an overcoat and top hat, carrying a cane and smoking a cigar. In moments, the cigar would vanish, then the cane, then the hat, then his trousers would transform into knee-length breaches, the coat would be discarded and there he stood, in formal dress, with his tightly curled moustache and goatee, every inch his nickname for a time, "the devil in evening dress" (actually derived from his use of a devil costume in one illusion). The photographs in this new biography bear unarguable witness to the fact that this was a distinctive and electrifying performer. When, later in his career, he would agree to take out one of Horace Goldin's "sawing units" on the road (like Harry Jansen, who would later become Dante), Le Roy agreed to all the conditions of the deal, with the exception of having to use Goldin's straight-forward presentation. Le Roy stood fast in his insistence upon using his own original presentation—including dressing the stage assistants in medical uniforms, long before the time of the late Aldo Richiardi.

Eventually Le Roy would marry Mary Ann Ford (whose sister cooperated significantly in providing William Rauscher with much of the source material for his original monograph on Le Roy, later expanded into this book in collaboration with Mike Caveney) who undertook the study of sleight of hand and adopted the stage name of Talma. In the time of T. Nelson Downs' reign as the original King of Koins, during which Downs was faced with hundreds of copyists and competitors, Talma became the one and only Queen of Coins. Even Downs, complaining about the copies in his book, Modern Coin Manipulation, would grudgingly admit that "she was far and away in front of any of the others."

After working the American Keith circuit in vaudeville with comedy magician lmro Fox and classical conjuror Frederick Eugene Powell as "The Triple Alliance" at the turn of the century, Le Roy would return to England determined to pursue the concept of a trio of performers. He completed the partnership of himself and his wife Talma with the addition of Leon Bosco, who had started as an acrobat but was now a portly comedian. Thus was born the Le Roy, Talma and Bosco show, which would meet with worldwide success for close to three decades to come, with Le Roy as the man of mystery and illusions, Talma as the beautiful and delicate sleight-of-hand artist, and Bosco as the buffoon, who took pratfalls and provided comic relief, while also performing startling magic in his own right, as well as when on stage with the ensemble.

Like so many magic biographies, Servais Le Roy. Monarch of Mystery, is a mixed package—enthralling at times but frustrating at others. Certainly a great deal of effort has been expended in producing this beautiful volume. The photographs are wonderful, plentiful, and many are reproduced in substantial size. The 16 pages of full-color reproductions of posters is little short of extraordinary, with unique items from many different collections, including those of the authors, John Gaughan, Marlo Carrandi, Edwin Dawes, David Stahl, Milbourne Christopher, and more. There is nothing to complain about in the production.

As to the text, the amount of information is at times quite slender. One hopes that this is due more to limitations of the source material rather than to any deliberate withholding of details. One is caused to wonder about this however, as frequent references are made to the authors having had access to Le Roy's original notebooks and his first draft of an incomplete autobiography. As one reads these references, and is reminded by the authors that segments have been assembled from such sources, one longs to see sample transcriptions in the raw, along with facsimile pages—anything that will help the reader to recreate a sense of the man being portrayed. For that matter, there are startlingly few pages about the men who filled the Bosco role, which in fact was portrayed by as many as nine men over the course of Le Roy's career (and at one time by the legendary American cardman, Dr. James Elliott); one can only imagine the kind of detail that a scholar of the stature of Edwin Dawes might have produced in this area. Also, in many cases the details of the tricks seem remark-ably brief, and again one wonders if this is due to the limitations of the source material or to the authors wish to withhold detail. Granted, it is made clear that Le Roy was so secretive that he often withheld the secrets from his own journals! But in other cases, where we do understand the details—the duck vanish, as just one example—one cannot help but think that in a biography of a magician, by magicians, for magicians, perhaps a bit more magical detail would have been appropriate.

The writing style at times seems a somewhat awkward pastiche between the two authors. One recognizes the naïve humor of William Rauscher from having read The Great Raymond biography (reviewed December 1996 Genii), and the rather dry litany of names, dates, and places that we know from Mr. Caveney's tome on Charles Carter The Great (reviewed January 1996 Genii). And perhaps both collaborators are equally responsible for the rather overwrought prose of a late chapter entitled "Nightmare at the Heckscher Theatre 1940," in which an aged and infirm Le Roy was sadly coaxed out of retirement to perform for an S.A.M. banquet in New York City. Clearly, and from all accounts, the show was an unmitigated disaster and an unfortunate smudge on a stellar career. But those who saw that show are gone now, and the degree of weight it carries in the collective memory of magic is not insignificantly the work of these very authors. Yet in their desire perhaps to bring the book to some sort of dramatic conclusion, they belabor the reader with portents of imminent disaster, eventually declaring that "What the audience ... witnessed that evening was the destruction of a great man and a great magician." You would think from all the histrionics that somehow this one night could cancel out the staggering achievements of a lifetime of greatness. There is no doubt, as the firsthand accounts demonstrate, that the night was a humiliation for all concerned—but really, it was one night—a sad one at that, but only one, in a lifetime of success matched by few before or since. The authors, by exaggerating for effect, do a disservice to the legacy of their subject.

In the end, like so many such works, I am grateful that a book like this exists. Le Roy deserves all the accolades we can heap upon him, all the memories we can preserve of him. I can do little but encourage one and all to read his story, to savor it, to try to conjure up an idea of the likes of Servais Le Roy—for we are not likely to see his kind pass this way again anytime soon.

Servais Le Roy: Monarch of Mystery • by Mike Caveney & William Rauscher • 8" x 11" hardbound with dustjacket • 320 pages • profusely illustrated • 1999