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Stanley Collins: Conjurer, Collector, and Iconoclast by Edwin A. Dawes

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2002)


Stanley Collins was a giant of magic in the first half of the 20th century. His last and largest book, A Conjuring Mélange, was published in 1946 by critic-turned-publisher Paul Fleming and became a standard textbook of the era. The book reflected Collins' lifelong career as a professional magician, one who was experienced and adept at a broad range of magical styles, from state-of-the-art close-up card work to apparatus magic, large-scale illusions to pocket tricks, mentalism and math puzzles to children's performances. Collins was as eccentric as he was eclectic, too; a sardonic observer of the conjuring condition, ever prepared not only to see the dark side, but to point it our with sardonic glee. And Collins was considered one of the most renowned collectors of his time, an expert on both the ancient and international literature of conjuring—yet there were those of his time and beyond who raised doubts as to whether the famed Stanley Collins library collection actually existed.

Fine books have been built on for more slender foundations than that alluring mix, and Mr. Collins provides more than sufficient groundwork for what by now has be-come the de rigéur Eddie Dawes treatment, in this thorough biography commissioned by publisher Richard Kaufman. Thanks to access to a remarkable quantity and quality of resources, Professor Dawes has been able to piece together a tremendous amount of detail about the multi-faceted Mr. Collins. And, as a bonus, this volume includes not one but in fact two unpublished Stanley Collins manuscripts. All in all, the book overflows with an abundance of new fodder For those who share any of Mr. Collins' interests, as well as an interest in the man himself.

An articulate and outspoken intellectual, Collins was a sophisticate who often found himself pained by the circumstances of magic—be it his audiences or his conjuring colleagues. Claiming to abhor performing, he nevertheless clearly did a more than credible job in a career that spanned five decades. An early brochure, pictured in the book, includes a tag lint that reflected the erudite wry wit of its subject: "Had you as many eyes as Hydra, I would deceive them all." Those were the days.

Editing and writing for Will Goldston's The Magazine of Magic, along with preparing the catalog for Goldston's magic business and writing instruction sheets for his marketed tricks, Collins was also the ghost-writer of several of Goldston's many books; we may never know for certain how many. One most speculate on how the high-minded, sharp-tongued Collins managed to get along with the ever self-promoting. loosely principled Goldston, but the relationship certainly gave Collins an early opportunity to write at great length in the magic world.

Collins would in fact publish his first magic book, in 1915, Original Magical Creations, before he turned 35, which introduced his "Omega (Four) Ace Experiment," and proved to be one of his best-known creations, revolutionizing (for the time) the manner in which the Aces were vanished from each packet. The trick eventually became known simply as the "Collins Aces," and Collins continued his interest in Ace tricks throughout his career; in 1920, Nate Leipzig declared the Collins trick to be "the finest four ace trick in existence." (Late in his life, Collins wrote to John Braun that "I have seen only two real ARTISTS in conjuring, Leipzig and L’Homme Masque.) The book also introduced a new principle of a double-lined container with which to achieve a liquid vanish: Stanley Collins had invented the Milk Pitcher. The book was well received, and led rather rapidly (for the time) to another title, Deceptive Conceptions in Magic, published in 1919. Fully six pages of the bibliography Prof. Dawes' provides here are required just for Collins own writings. Meanwhile, Collins continued a successful career as both a high-society performer as well as a children's magician. He became friendly with the wealthy industrialist J.P. Morgan, often riding socially aboard Morgan's yacht, as well as being booked to entertain in Morgan's upper-class circles. But the accounts of Collins' actual performances are sketchy, since he primarily worked in private settings.

Despite his successes as performer, inventor, and author, in many circles Collins became best known for his extraordinary collection of magic literature by 1937 allegedly totaling some 5,000 volumes in numerous languages, along with memorabilia, props, an unusual collection of magicians' book plates, magicians advertising tokens including coins, stage bills, and playing cards, and so on. There seems little doubt that Collins was a passionate and expert collector, as well as one who traded in books and other rarities, but there is also some controversy over the actual size of the library, and even in some circles, over its very existence. The trail is far too convoluted to recount meaningfully here, but the intricate path, dusted over by time, is far from totally obscured, and Prof. Dawes has done his usually thorough detective job, nose to the course, tracking the truth that ever remains his quarry.

Yet, another investigative story is reconstructed in the account of the Bibliography of Books on Conjuring which involved, unhappily in the end, an assorted cast of characters of various degrees of renown, including Carl Jones, Adrian Smith, James Findlay, Trevor Hall, and Collins. As the author comments, "it is a complex story which warrants a monograph in its own right," but the narrative is done justice here, in all its meandering mysteries. In the end, few if any of the players emerge unscathed, for when the tale concludes it has be-come more about ego and greed than about the scholarship and passion for the art amid which it begins. The desire for control and for credit—and the infinite acquisitiveness of collecting—result in unflattering portraits of all concerned.

In the title of this volume we are given three labels to consider for Stanley Collins, those of "conjurer, collector, and iconoclast." Evidence of the latter will be found throughout the pages of this book, and often make for the most entertaining, if sometimes puzzling, material. There is an entire chapter late in the book entitled "An Iconoclast's View of Conjuring and Magical Literature" that will turn some treasured notions upside down, while at other times one is tempted to cheer aloud for Collins outspoken passion. "I very much doubt if there are a hundred magicians in the whole world. In my fifty years as a professional conjurer I haven't seen a down 'magicians'." The few strongly worded sentences that lead up to this conclusion are almost worth the price of the book. That said, his attacks on the literature of magic leave very few survivors standing. Other than Erdnase, everything from Expert Card Technique to Our Magic rate a thorough drubbing from Collins, along with many ocher hallowed titles. One wonders what Paul Fleming himself, the man who published A Conjuring Mélange, must have thought of Collins' attacks on the Fitzkee trilogy, which Fleming in fact published—although here, one cannot disagree with him entirely.

As mentioned, this volume includes two previously unpublished manuscripts by Collins; one is a small draft of a book for the public, which is done quite smartly and far better than most such fare, including clever ideas for linking together multiple tricks with related props (such as five consecutively routined effects with a matchbox). The very first item in this book, by the way, describes the basis of the "Portable Echo" in Henning Nelms' Magic and Showmanship, and thus the foundation of David Roth's exquisite "Tuning Fork," one of the most marvelous close-up magic creations of the late 20th century.

The more substantial book, Gems of Personal Prestidigitation, sees publication long after Stanley Collins' unsuccessful attempts to get it published in his own lifetime, and his widow, Margaret's, frustrated attempts to follow through on her husband's wishes. Collins' three-page foreword makes for terrific reading, and it is striking how relevant his remarks are today, whether he's commenting on the outdated nature of the magic wand, or wartime flag waving: "Flag-wagging, usual as conclusions of conjuring exhibitions of yesteryear, is alas coming into vogue again after a most welcome absence. Doubtless this recrudescence is but one of the hysterics common with mass war-jingoism and will be short lived." We can only hope.

Other segments of the book reflect Collins' wide-ranging tastes and expertise. In the card section, Collins affection for Four-Ace tricks extends to include a version of an Ace Assembly done on plat-form with jumbo cards contained in envelopes, an unusual approach. Collins once again states his favorable view of Erdnase, and endorses the Buckle Count and the Curry Change as two of his favorite sleights; the man was clearly a first-rate card handler, and offers the suggestion that the "Curry Change with two cards offers no more difficulty than with a single card." He points our that, as Erdnase describes it, the Charlier Pass should be executed from the palm of the hand and not at the fingertips—as is similarly recommended in the Encyclopedia of Card Sleights, reviewed elsewhere in this column.

There is much other material of interest, including a clarified description of the back-and-front palm of a coin that Collins contributed to Bobo's Modern Coin Magic, and the explanation of a fake, controlled coin flip that I have seen put forward as an insider's gambling dodge. A trick entitled "You Can't Do As I Do" seems a forerunner of sorts to "Vernon's Variant." A fabulous chapter entitled "Don't" includes a list of invaluable proscriptions that performers would be wise to embrace today. "Don't call your tricks experiments. Your work should progress beyond the experimental stage before it dares public criticism." And this: "Don't say 'Between you and or 'Will someone lend me their watch.' These and similar liberties with the English language make educated people shudder. Fowler's Modern English Usage is a much better investment than the average conjuring book" Permit me to add that the 3rd Edition of Fowler's was released in 2000 and is readily available.

Of course, if you're not familiar with Collins' writings, you should also try your best to obtain a copy of the aforementioned A Conjuring Mélange, as it perhaps best portrays Collins array of abilities. Included there is his original invention, the "Acrobatic Elastics," better known to most any beginning magician as the "Jumping Rubber Band" that leaps from one pair of fingers to another. One can also read about the Double Coin-Roll, a feat I would have found un-believable when I first read it had I not seen it in my youth in the masterful hands of Earl "Presto" Johnson make that both hands. And among the book's many sections, that on illusions includes "Le Mystére Électrique," based upon an ingenious switch which Doug Henning (with the help of Charles Reynolds) used effectively.

If some of Collins' magic seems dated and has not always withstood the test of time, seeing him in the eyes of his contemporaries and his juniors can serve as illuminating reminders of his justly deserved status. No less than William Larsen, Sr., already editor and publisher of Genii, wrote to Collins in 1953, "You, to me, are a sort of god; a classical figure commingled with all the 'greats I have ever known or read about." Collins was a complex, multi-talented, multi-faceted individual, and his story is recounted here in many brief chapters, each devoted to a particular area about which evidence and information remains. Thus we learn, piece by piece, about Collins as a songwriter, a poet, the creator of an unusual book test, a devotee of puzzles and mathematical recreations, and more. In the end, I am not certain that we achieve a complete portrait of the man; perhaps it is a feat no biography can fully manage. But we get a fascinating jigsaw puzzle with most of the bits found, as we are left to wonder about how it all fits together.

Stanley Collins: Conjurer, Collector, and Iconoclast • Edwin A. Dawes • 8.5" x 11" hardbound with dustjacket • 352 pages • Illustrated with photos, handbills, and other memorabilia • 2002