Big Friday sale

The Illustrated History Of Magic by Milbourne and Maurine Christopher

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


There has never been another book quite like the Illustrated History of Magic, such a farreaching compendium in one handy volume. There have been other attempts, but probably none quite as charming or successful. You needn't be a history "buff" to want this book, because if you owned no other works on the history of conjuring—while that would be a sad state of affairs—this is the one with a little bit of everything, that not only stretches out its arms to reach back in time, but stretches them out to reach around and lovingly and unabashedly embrace its subject. This is a glorious book.

None of which is to say the book is without its flaws. Milbourne Christopher was a magic enthusiast of the first order, and a passionate collector; he was also a performing magician, inventor, writer, reporter and producer. He was not a professional historian and probably often relied on secondary sources, hearsay, hunches and likely anything else he could get his hands on in order to create his narrative accounts of conjuring chronicles. The Illustrated History is replete with errors, probably the oldest being the erroneous claim that the Cups and Balls was first described in Egyptian hieroglyphics in Beni Hasan, Egypt (made odder still in light of Victor Farelli's dispute of this claim in the March 1955 Hugard's Magic Monthly, along with his comment that Christopher "agrees with my conclusions.")

Similarly, Eugene Burger, in his book, Magic and Meaning [page 131 ] (co-authored with Robert Neale), Hermetic Press, 1995 has examined some of the flaws in Mr. Christopher's chapter on American Indian Conjuring. But Mr. Burger also observes, "In defense of Christopher, I must add that he was not a trained anthropologist or historian of religions. Because of the extensive contemporary research into shamanism, we know far more about shamanism today" than Christopher did in his time. As Bob Neale pointed out to me, Christopher's writing reflects the nineteenth century understanding of magic and religion, not the twentieth century understanding."

Other limitations in Mr. Christopher's vision lead us to areas which are perhaps more revealing of the author than of the subject he attempted to record. Perhaps the biggest failing of the Illustrated History is the author's singleminded focus on large-scale stage magic and illusions, and his determined ignoring of intimate sleight-of-hand close-up and parlor magic. It remains simply extraordinary that, while the book was produced in 1973, the name of Dai Vernon is strikingly absent. As one ventures back in time, one's chances of garnering a mention in this category is somewhat increased—although this does not rescue Max Malini from exclusion— we do find Hofzinser and, further back and perhaps therefore with more ink accorded him, Pinetti. But moving forward again in time, Jay Marshall, with more Ed Sullivan spots than any other magician, is missing from the chapter concerning television, and Christopher's legendary friend Al Flosso is also among the missing. Perhaps familiarity does indeed breed contempt.

It is easy to suggest that Christopher simply had to draw the line somewhere, or the book would have been too massive. In fact, it is far too easy to make this suggestion, for it is not convincing, given the plethora of such names left aside. Mr. Christopher had a passion for large-scale magic, for stage performance, for grand showmen—and also for mentalism, and so he devotes an entire chapter to Joseph Dunninger, but there is no chapter set aside for smaller-scale performers.

The chapter on Dunninger, a superstar in his day, is by no means inappropriate, but it does raise the ante if one is to defend Christopher's relentless neglect of close-up magic on grounds of lack of space, rather than outright prejudice against the importance, validity and artistry of the form. (The Dunninger chapter is particularly interesting for other reasons, not the least its portrayal of Kreskin at the chapter's close. I encourage readers to consult these passages.)

But enough carping; despite its flaws, the Illustrated History is unmistakably a unique book in the annals of magic, the best single-volume general history that we have, and the author's joyful devotion to his subject goes far to mitigate the failings that hindsight compels us to gaze upon. It belongs on every magician's shelf, be they a first-year tyro or a lifetime veteran. But frankly, if you are lucky enough to find a copy of the 1973 edition—and I could kick myself for not buying extras off the remainder tables of the era—snap that up in place of the new edition, which does little honor to its predecessor.

The cover of the new edition brandishes two new names: David Copperfield, who contributes a brief new introduction, and Maurine Christopher, Mr. Christopher's widow, who is, oddly enough, given equal billing with her husband. The inside jacket vaguely informs us that Mrs. Christopher has "updated'' the volume with work on contemporary performers, but it is not until we turn to the new chapter— grandly titled "Magic Superstars Poised for the Twenty-First Century"— that we see her name attached specifically to this title. It is only by process of elimination and careful detective work that new readers will be prevented from assuming that Mrs. Christopher co-wrote the entire volume. At first I suspected that perhaps she had taken it upon herself to correct many of the inaccuracies throughout the text, a worthy task that would certainly have made a good case for conferring co-authorship—but as it turns out, from Beni Hasan forward, the errors remain uncorrected.

Billing aside, while Mr. Christopher's original work was unprecedented, namely encompassing the whole of magic history in a single volume, Mrs. Christopher's task of updating the book in a single chapter on contemporary magic seems far more manageable. Nevertheless, I must regrettably report that the task is poorly managed indeed. What we have here is largely a compilation of press kits of a mere handful of contemporary performers, with an ill-chosen overabundance of photographs. Some of the choices are obvious and justifiable, including feature segments on Copperfield, Lance Burton, Siegfried and Roy, and Harry Blackstone, Jr. Ricky Jay gets some nice coverage here, too, and this seems double the accomplishment, considering not only the notable achievements that warrant his inclusion here, but the fact that he is an intimate sleight-of-hand performer included in the volume at all. A lengthy segment on Doug Henning is also fitting, despite his having left magic, considering the mark he made in the Seventies and Eighties. (Mr. Christopher's philosophical bent was that of a skeptic, and Mrs. Christopher appropriately incorporates this perspective in her frank reportage of Mr. Henning's recent escapades.) The chapter concludes with a fitting tribute to Mrs. Christopher's late husband.

But other choices within this chapter are questionable, and in some cases indefensible. The overall glut of photographs is ridiculous when compared to the abundant variety but cautiously made selections in the original body of work, wherein few performers received multiple exposure except for clear reason, as when being depicted at various stages in their lives or careers, or with particularly famous illusions or personalities. But here everyone rates a full page of multiple photographs at very least, and many are given multiple pages, apparently assembled straight out of the promotional package. Paul Daniels receives a hearty endorsement, but once you venture overseas, where are the superstars of other European countries, of Spain and Italy and France, for example? Melinda rates a full page of intensely silly photographs and a matching quantity of text, and one wonders why every other act who has appeared on World's Greatest Magic wasn't lent similar attention. Then matters get odder still when Jeff McBride makes his quite appropriate appearance. While McBride receives a full page of photographs, he warrants only a single paragraph of text that would be insulting if it wasn't simply silly, with its references to "ear-splitting original rock music" (inaccurate on more than one count) and the closing sentence, "He is particularly popular with the under forty set." Indeed! It is one thing to reveal one's own prejudices, but quite another to attempt to pass them off as a global judgment; it seems to me the author is telling us more than we need to know about herself, and not nearly enough about her subject. But then, she is not quick to restrain an opinion, as she also brands a quote of Ricky Jay's as "pompous." While it's hard to dispute the point, its inclusion still seems jarring nonetheless. But not quite so jarring perhaps as the full-page reprint of the cover of Esquire magazine featuring David and Claudia Schiffer... words fail me. What is perhaps more outrageous than these various choices, so stunningly revealing of personal prejudice rather than of any scholarly dispassion, is the complete absence of any mention of Penn & Teller, despite two Broadway shows, two off-Broadway shows, a network special, a feature film, a British series, two successful books, and the endless array of other theatrical, television, film and literary credentials they bear. Whether their exclusion is attributed to ignorance or deliberation, it reflects poorly only on the author of the chapter. Someday readers will look back on this and laugh... especially if there's ever another reprint.

And if there is, we can only hope that the production quality will be superior to what we have had dumped on us here. For our $49.95 we receive a beautiful dustjacket wrapped around a substandard package. The book is printed on poor, lightweight paper between laminated board covers, which will certainly not last half as well as my 1973 edition has. The photographs and illustrations, stunning in their clarity in the older edition, seem not to have been re-screened here, and appear to have been shot from the pages of an earlier version, with the resulting loss of quality turning much of the illustrations to mud. Even the ones that seem to look good pale by comparison when considered against the original. This is strictly a take-the-money-and-run job. But it is far better than nothing, and the charms and value of the original are still unmistakably present. It is just too bad that the book does so little justice to its own history, compared to the justice the original author gave to the history of magic.

7 - 1/2" X 10" laminated board covers with dustjacket; 484 pages; lavishly illustrated, including eight color plates; 1973, 1996; Publisher: Heinemann