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The Great Raymond by William Rauscher

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


The Great Raymond

On the heels of the recent Carter the Great biography, now comes a biography of the Great Raymond (born Morris Raymond Saunders, and known later as Maurice F. Raymond). These two greats—and Greats—in fact shared more than a few common traits. Affable personalities on stage, they were not creative innovators or inventors, but skilled showmen who could put a trick or illusion over with sufficient humor and personality to take them both around the world many times over. Contemporaries, and in fact friendly competitors, Raymond and Carter both did little business in the United States, save late tours of reduced shows in the waning days of vaudeville. Rather, they spent most of their lives overseas, producing extravagant shows of two hours' duration or more, travelling with literally tons of equipment.

Carter achieved some of his greatest and most oft-repeated success in the Far East; Raymond achieved similar conquests in South America. (Raymond purportedly performed his show in as many as seven languages, and clearly had excellent command of Spanish and French.)

Even some of their repertoire overlapped, reflecting the popular illusions of the day, just as at present it seems impossible to see an illusion show without the inclusion of a Head Twister, Girl Without a Middle (with increasingly elaborate self-animated cabinetry; funny, I thought the goal of illusions was to make the cabinet smaller, plus try and convince the audience that the performer is doing the trick to the prop, not the other way 'round. But I digress.), Steinmeyer Interlude, Steinmeyer Origami, and some-damn-thing-or-other with a car. Accordingly, both Carter and Raymond presented Gone! (the instant visible vanish of a woman from a simple chair suspended in the air; Raymond wryly titled it "The Divorce Machine"), glass-lined trunk, rapping hand, levitation, and sawing, among other items. And Raymond even boarded Carter's pet lion, "Baby," for several weeks one summer in Raymond's garage.

But there was one important difference between Raymond and Carter. Carter, an attorney and former agent, was a skillful businessman and money manager. Raymond, far more typically among artists in general and magicians in particular, was much more at a loss in such matters. And this difference crystallizes in some of the most telling and memorable elements of this book.

A man of versatile skills, Raymond achieved early success as an escape artist and self- described "handcuff king." A contemporary of Houdini's, Raymond doubtless was quick to pattern himself after the latter's success, escaping from handcuffs, jails, and straitjackets (this latter being a Houdini original), using publicity stills with himself wearing more chains and manacles than clothing; and the Substitution Trunk would be a staple of his show throughout his entire life. (While Houdini invented neither escapes nor the trunk illusion, the issue of these contemporaneous overlappings between the two performers is not explored in much depth in this volume. If anything, one detects a dismissive attitude toward the similarities, pointing out Houdini's competitiveness concerning such material, but failing to trace exact comparisons concerning the timeliness of the two magi's use of similar material. A cursory consideration suggests that Raymond was likely capitalizing on Houdini's notoriety elsewhere in the country, and following the latter's use of such material by perhaps a year or two.)

One of this book's greatest attributes is the wealth of high quality photographs of Raymond, taken throughout his life. And in comparing the escapology poses of Raymond to similar photos of Houdini, one is instantly struck by the single distinct difference: In contrast to the invariably somber Houdini, Raymond is almost always wearing a winning, open smile. Houdini is rarely seen smiling in photographs unless joined by his wife (or, as it happens, rabbits). He expressly forbade emcees to make jokes when introducing his act; for Houdini, escapology was serious business, and that was probably a contributing factor to his success and eventual rise as a cultural icon. By comparison, in the first eight exquisite photos in this volume, one sees an eager and charming young performer—he would have been about 21—obviously possessed of an easy and comfortable physicality, lighting up the pages with spirited good humor. As the author notes in a later caption for an escapology photo: "Shackles were a sporting challenge to master, not a torture to be suffered."

In fact, that innate good humor served Raymond well throughout the vicissitudes of the show business life. As author William Rauscher explains, "Raymond had a positive attitude. He would not be deterred from success even though bankruptcy was a constant threat... It was an up-and-down world of finances, where a strong sense of self-respect was needed to support the knowledge that you were self-employed and totally responsible for your own future." And these observations, simple as they may appear, characterize much of the life of the Great Raymond.

Raymond was also a good promoter, who took a strong personal hand in designing his extensive catalog of posters and banners produced via the stone lithography process, from leading firms of the era such as Otis. The publishers of The Great Raymond have done a fine job of providing a section of color reproductions of 18 Raymond posters and one Great Leon piece which has Raymond's name inserted, a common practice of the era (sometimes with permission, sometimes not). The Raymond material is fabulous, and thankfully, has been well-reproduced here.

There is much here to enjoy, between the posters, the photographs, and the very human story of a life—actually several lives, because the narrative comes to focus on Raymond's second wife, Litzka, who played musical interludes on the harp in Raymond's show, helped manage the business and remained by his side throughout his travels and life. After Raymond's death, the story remains with Litzka, following her subsequent marriage to Raymond's friend, the famous writer Walter B. Gibson, her survival beyond Gibson's eventual death, and her remarkable lifelong dedication, love, loyalty and strength with regard to both of these unusual men.

The narrative structure of the book, it must be said, leaves something to be desired. While the author lacked the extensive records that, for example, Mike Caveney had access to for the Carter book—Raymond and Carter differed in another way, in that Raymond wasn't a pack rat and compulsive record-keeper—nevertheless the reader will find himself dragged back and forward through the same time spans over and over again, as one reads different parts of the story in independent, tandem chapters. Hence the tale is never integrated into a single cohesive narrative; instead it is broken into discrete mini-narratives, concerning Raymond's first wife, or the business of touring, or the material in his show, or his relationship with his father, his involvement with the Masons (a rather over-extended discussion that will mean little if anything to younger readers—beyond providing probable amusement at the photographic depiction of men in odd hats—and seemingly colored by the author's own involvement with this anachronistic movement), and so forth.

Nevertheless, the story builds momenturn as it develops. The final chapter recounts in interesting detail how the Raymond props, printing, and other memorabilia, after more than half a century in storage—much of that strewn hither and yon in storage spaces across the country, steadfastly paid for by Litzka in her unswerving attempts to retain the integrity of the collection—finally came to light in 1994 and, eventually, came to be purchased by two pairs of collectors who began by competing and ended up splitting the materials between them. Some readers may recall reading one key step in this adventure in the October, '94 issue of Magic magazine, wherein Mike Caveney established his historical conquest of being the first, along with George Daily and Bill Schmeelk, to break open the trunks and literally bring the Raymond materials out into the light of day. What readers of this book will now discover is that apparently what was missing from Mr. Caveney's account was the name of David Copperfield, for whom Caveney et al apparently served as emissaries, according to Mr. Rauscher. No deal was reached with Copperfield, and the details of this and ensuing events make for fascinating reading.

Eventually a portion of the collection came to be owned by David Baldwin, who published this book, and who provides, in a second color section, beautiful photographs of props and costumes in both his own collection and those of the other key parties. The book seems a bit steeply priced at $150, given that the Carter book came out at $85, but one is inclined to attribute this project as a labor motivated more by love than by profit, and I suspect that the publisher is earning barely a modicum of profit, for whatever the reasons and costs.

The story of Raymond, and in some ways that of Litzka as well, eventually becomes a stirring tragedy. Eventually Raymond was, like so many others, swept beneath the swells of moving pictures. Enveloped in the vortex of vaudeville's death, his flow of bookings dribbled to a stop. By 1933, "Raymond was 57, the country was in the Great Depression, he was back to a vaudeville-type act, and ticket prices were only a nickel better than they had been three decades earlier." In between, he had reaped substantial ticket prices a hundred-fold higher, filling tremendous halls to capacity—but the money was gone, and now so were the bookings. Despite the fact that through much of his career, as he once wrote in a letter to his father, a "laugh and that absolute confidence in the future no matter how dark the present might appear has carried me around the world through some mighty difficult and dangerous places..." the laugh and confidence would eventually no longer suffice. A page devoted entirely to a mute and poignant photograph of a single pawn ticket—$10 for a pair of cufflinks pawned five months before Raymond's death—offers literally stunning evidence of the ephemeral nature of show business success.

(Note to treasure hunters: Dropping in on Tannen's the other day, I discovered a supply of Litzka Raymond's little book on palm reading—despite the nonsensical nature of the subject, there is some commentary from the author about Raymond, published in 1950. Apparently the shop has come into sizable inventory of Walter Gibson titles as well, including several of the "Maxwell Grant" books.)

"I have lived and thought and talked and practiced conjuring till it has become part and parcel of my being. I no more could give it up than I could cease to breathe and yet live."—Maurice F. Raymond, The Great Raymond

8 - 1/2" X 11" cloth cover hardbound, foil stamping, multicolor laminated dustjacket; 346 pages; 80 full-color illustrations in two sections, 16-page section depicting 19 posters, 24 - page section depicting 61 "Pieces of Magic, "plus 151 black-and-white illustrations; 1996; Publisher: David M. Baldwin

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