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The Fine Art Of Hocus Pocus by John Booth

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1996)


John Booth is something of a one-man magic institution at this point in his long, lauded career. His first book, Super Magical Miracles, was published in 1930. That's a long time ago and a lot has happened in magic since, much of which Mr. Booth has borne personal witness to in his numerous books and extensive contributions to conjuring journals. His early books, Forging Ahead In Magic and Marvels of Magic among others, have served as standard texts to at least a generation of magicians. And his autobiography-by-installment. Memoirs of a Magician's Ghost, has been running continuously in Linking Ring magazine since something like 1863 (okay, give or take a century).

In this, his latest volume, published by the celebrated dealer and collector Ray Goulet (who has previously published, among other works, the Great Wizard of the North, the biography of J. H. Anderson), Mr. Booth once again casts his net widely upon the seas of his interests; here and there, he pulls in everything from trophies to the occasional old boot. Within a somewhat mysterious organizational scheme of some nine "parts," nineteen "chapters," and 52 subtitled segments, Mr. Booth wanders hither and yon across time and space, much as he himself has travelled the globe lo these many times over.

Among the highlights of the book for me were historical and biographical profiles of, among others, Ralph Read, Fantasio (albeit neglecting mention of his most recent, comedic act), Burling Hull, Stuart Cramer (author of the wonderful Germaine books), Nicola, and particularly McDonald Birch, about whom there is a frustrating lack of material in the literature.

In his preface, the author states that, "Later in life, I find it particularly unsettling and distasteful to have to explode myths that have become almost sacred to some people." But I confess that I suspect the author of protesting too much, for elsewhere one detects more of an individual's personal agenda than a dispassionate historian's perspective, particularly in the author's extended discussion of Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini. Mr. Booth reveres the former and seeks to elevate him to a status of "World's Greatest Magician." The author maintains a pretense of not "injuring the reputation of either performer," and hence would likely protest any accusation of a lack of objectivity concerning Thurston; after all, he acknowledges that Thurston was "not a saint," for example. But he accepts Thurston's flaws as quickly as he can name them, brushing past in order to embrace his strengths. On the face of it, it seems a reasonably objective account—until one considers the author's take on Harry Houdini.

Here, Mr. Booth's intent appears clear; despite his protestations that he is interested in fairness and in the accuracy of the historical record, the author seems to veer beyond these academic defenses and reveal a personal animus, as yet unresolved, toward Houdini. Along the way we do discover some interesting information; in fairness to his subject, Mr. Booth debunks an oft-repeated story about Houdini's Vanishing Elephant, explaining that the cabinet was not usually wheeled off stage by many more assistants than first wheeled it on. Mr. Booth makes excellent points about the differences between the markets that Thurston and Houdini played—the former travelling with a full- evening show for much of his life, the latter being a consistent vaudeville headliner—and cites, among much other evidence, the interesting point that this is why Thurston left so much "paper" behind, i.e. lithographed posters and such, while so little such evidence remains of Houdini's performing career. But Mr. Booth's pretense to fairness is belied by his choice of punchlines. He concludes his chapter on Thurston with the text of a telegram that John Northern Hilliard sent to his friend while Thurston was playing in Chicago: "If all the people you have given pleasure to should bring a rose today, your way from the theatre to the hotel would be barred by a Himalayan range of flowers." Very nice, indeed. But as the author's chapter on Houdini draws to a close, after backhandedly acknowledging that "His gifts, however wrongly defined, have provided the art with a human symbol almost universally recognized," the writer concludes with a quote from Russell Swann, who, after seeing Houdini perform, is reported to have said, "Wish I hadn't seen Houdini work; I'd rather believe the myths." Clearly we know where Mr. Booth stands from these deliberate and frankly rather transparent choices. Yet the bulk of Mr. Booth's "evidence" against Houdini seems to amount to the kind of petty character assassination just recounted. Surely he could just as easily have obtained such quotes to include in his paeans to some of his contemporary subjects, including David Copperfield, Siegfried and Roy, or Ricky Jay. For that matter, he might have just as well included Guy Jarrett's famed scatological review of Mr. Thurston's show.

Mr. Booth also continues to discuss such nonsense theories as the claim that executed murderer Gary Gilmore was a bastard son of Houdini's, along with speculation, most recently by Ruth Brandon in her deeply flawed biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (reviewed in Genii , February 1995) that Houdini was perhaps impotent. But Mr. Booth at least has an imaginative twist on these themes: he proposes that Houdini lived "chastely" with his wife Bess, and that if perhaps Gilmore was indeed a Houdini offspring, then this would provide evidence that the great one was not in fact impotent! But that's not all; he then proceeds to provide a way of embracing both theories simultaneously, by proposing that "Houdini could have sired Gilmore, and then started fiddling with the youngest (Gilmore) brother Leopold's x-ray equipment, thus becoming infertile." This is not even worthy of an Oliver Stone paranoia party, much less of being called "history."

A rather bizzarre "postscript" is appended at the close of this volume: a biographical chapter about the author which, while written in the third person, appears to have been written by the author himself. After an overlong detour about the author's investigation, circa 1959, concerning in what church Paul Revere actually hung his famous lanterns, the author asks rhetorically, "What has all this to do with magic...?" What, indeed. He defends a connection by likening the public's frequent preference for myth over fact to the myths which still prevail concerning Harry Houdini. Myths that, earlier in the book, the author decries for having "...shaped a man who never lived. But done so, sadly at the expense of reality and the generally overlooked victim." Strong language, that. Who is the victim, we might ask? Well, it is none other than the author's hero—and personal friend, we might note—Howard Thurston.

Elsewhere, but in similar vein, the author goes to great lengths to prove that Robert- Houdin was not "the Father of Modern Magic." His inquiry into precedents for that master's contributions is an interesting one at times, but he seems unaware of Sam Sharpe's book, Salutations to Robert-Houdin, which, among other things, points out that the latter never claimed to be the first to modernize the magician's costume. The author also trivializes his own subject by his inveighing against the use of the oft- repeated moniker; one might as well draw one's self up in self-righteous wrath and explain to the rest of us that, after all, George Washington was not in fact the father of his country. Really, it would be so kind if Mr. Booth could acknowledge that such a statement would come as little in the way of revelation to most of us; and while it is eminently important for the historical record to point out that, for example, Mr. Washington never did chop down that cherry tree, Mr. Booth seems to do little more damage than that in attempting to chop Mr. Houdini down to size. The author's case would be far stronger were it not undermined by his simultaneous attempt to confer sainthood on Mr. Thurston, when in fact, the very moment anyone begins to seriously discuss labels like "world's greatest" I fear their motives must always be questioned. After all: Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? It is a foolish and overly simple question if you truly know and care about baseball. The concept of "best" is a juvenile concern foisted upon an unthinking public by an ever-simplifying and sensation-hungry media; it is an utterly uninteresting idea, devoid of intellectual validity.

That Houdini was not the greatest magician of all time should come as a surprise to few magicians. That the public may still think of him this way is to his credit, and I suspect is a fact only helped along, but far from entirely due, to the post-mortem assistance lent by Bess Houdini, Edward Saint, and Tony Curtis et al. Houdini captured something in the consciousness of his own time and of time beyond his time, and for that he deserves all the credit; more than an entertainer, he became a symbol that spoke to deeper things than mere entertainment—and a durable symbol at that. Emil Jarrow, a vaudeville headliner and Houdini contemporary, was among the greatest comedic magicians of all time, and for my money deserves as much attention as Howard Thurston in the collective memory of magic. Some of Mr. Booth's points about Houdini are well taken, if not entirely newsworthy, but they might carry more weight if the author's intent was not merely to chip away at Houdini's crown, but to then attempt to confer it upon another. For a self-styled historian to turn the legitimate curiosities of history into a ping-pong match between dead idols does more to sully his own standing than that of his subjects. Sam Sharpe, in his aforemention work on Robert-Houdin, observes that, "...the first necessity for an historian is a mind free from prejudice; and so an avowed debunker is never a reliable historian because he is pretending to judge a case that has already been tried and the sentence passed—at any rate so far as he himself is concerned."

I do realize that Mr. Booth's fans are legion, and they will no doubt enjoy this book as they have its predecessors. I did enjoy portions of it myself, and I certainly learned some historical facts. I also enjoyed a number of the photographs included; the author's personal snapshots are sometimes a treat, such as his 1941 photo of Bess Houdini and Edward Saint, and a photo of Rajah Raboid, the mentalist who agreed to become partners with Thurston (the project never came to fruition due to the latter's death).

Mr. Booth is fond of reminding us of many things in his curriculum vitae, including the length of time he has been recording his life. He reminds us that his 1938 book, Forging Ahead in Magic, was "later named the 'Business Bible' for the field for decades afterwards." Interestingly, the great book reviewer and publisher, Paul Fleming, in his original review of the 1941 Booth volume, Marvels of Mystery, observed, "We seem to detect, also, a regrettable tendency on Mr. Booth's part to indulge in self-praise....we learn that the author's Forging Ahead in Magic is 'a book now generally accepted as the 'Business Bible' of the magic world.' Now this may all be true as gospel, but we should rather read it in Mr. Booth's or the dealers' advertising matter than in a book that can scarcely be classed as a selling medium." Mr. Booth has indeed been at this for a very long time. His has been an interesting life, and for some, that will be enough to justify the hefty purchase price of this book; for others, its limitations may well obviate a purchase.

6" X 9" hardcover with laminated dustjacket; 298 pages: illustrated with photographs, handbills, drawings, etc.; 1996; Publisher. Ray Goulet's Magic Art Book Company