The Last Greatest Magician in the World by Jim Steinmeyer
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2011)
Jim Steinmeyer will require no introduction to readers of this column or this magazine, who have no doubt read his popular books on magic history, for both magicians and the public, his influential works of magic theory and trickery for the trade, and his always refreshing installment series, "Conjuring," currently running in this magazine.
Mr. Steinmeyer's latest offering is a biography of the magician, Howard Thurston, whose career spanned an era in which his competitors included the likes of no less than three famous Harry's: Kellar, Houdini, and Blackstone. Most magicians will be familiar with Thurston his name, his posters, his souvenir throw cards (that he could hurl to the audience with uncanny distance and accuracy), and of course, his inheritance read, "purchase" of the figurative and literal mantle of "world's greatest magician" from Harry Kellar, America's most famous magician at the turn of the century.
But beyond that, many magicians know little more of Thurston, the man, or the magician. He was an early master of Dr. Elliott's backpalm manipulations: True. He studied for the ministry and became an ordained minister: False, and false again.
Some writers claim that Thurston is simply the greatest magician of all time, and it's a damn tragedy that that boorish Houdini guy still gets all the press when really it should have been this other guy the one known to your layman friends as "Howard Who?"
The truth is far more interesting, and Mr. Steinmeyer, an equally masterful researcher and storyteller (a rare combination in this game), gives us plenty of new truths to face. Thurston never studied for the ministry, but he did manage a graduate degree from the university of hard knocks, having "actually been schooled as a pickpocket and confidence man." The truth about Howard Thurston is a lot more colorful, if often morally debatable, than the straight-arrow mythology. When the young Fred Keating (who would go on to become a successful night club performer in his own right) went to work for the Thurston show, the impressionable Keating fell for Thurston's affect of faux sophistication, and came to believe that Thurston "... was a man of affairs, a leader of men, who could rub elbows as an equal with the builders of industry ... ." But Mr. Steinmeyer provides a sobering correction: "[Thurston's] audience indeed, even Fred Keating—could never have imagined him as a poorly educated street urchin, a carnival confidence man, a failed performer wiling his time on a Union Square park bench, or a magician so desperate that he would pawn his entire show to a loan shark. Those were the real secrets." Thurston got through many a lean time relying on his gnfter skills, well into his adult career; many a hotel bill was skipped out on by leaving behind a cheap watch and a tall tale in its place. The story of Howard Thurston in fact inventories a lengthy "list of problems: his unpredictable temper, his criminal past, his shaky finances, failed marriages, and a tie to low-life show business that he could never quite shake ... ."
But The Last Greatest Magician in the World is no work of character assassination; far from it. On the contrary, Mr. Steinmeyer does a fine job of humanizing Thurston and his story. Facts and caricatures long familiar to magicians rise from two-dimensional simplification and come to life as three-dimensional lives. The author has a knack for bringing new human perspectives to old familiar facts; recounting the tale of the final joint tour publicizing Kellar's handing over of the show to Thurston, Mr. Steinmeyer muses, "That final season together seemed to grant Kellar—an argumentative, poorly educated, and self-made Pennsylvania street waif—the exalted status as the approving monarch. It seemed to christen Thurston, a confidence man and sideshow talker, with the title of crown prince. Behind the scenes, it was a ragtag partnership, but in the bright lights of the stage, it had transformed both men." As someone who has read so many versions of these events, I experienced a palpable sense of feeling the pieces finally falling into place as I read Mr. Steinmeyer's version.
The lengthy subtitle of "Last Greatest" whets the reader's appetite for competition and conflict between Thurston and Harry Houdini. Houdini does appear from time to time, but while the relationship between the two is interesting, this is no potboiler, and Houdini is simply one of a substantial cast of conjuring characters who engage in the subtitle's "battle of the American wizards." This cast of competitors, allies, and some playing both roles include Dante (whose career Thurston launched into stardom at the front of a second unit Thurston show), Harry Blackstone, Charles Carter, P.T. Selbit, David Devant, and more (including Fergus Grenwood, known by the stage name "Fasola," who would eventually commit suicide, possibly hastened by Thurston's ever fluid sense of personal and professional loyalty).
It is the sum total of these (sometimes literally) backstage intrigues that certainly contribute to the engaging nature of Mr. Steinmeyer's narrative, far beyond any particular focus on Houdini, who no doubt appears on the cover in order to help sell a few more books, since his name is virtually the only one among the catalog of wizards mentioned whose name will be recognized outside the magic community. However, the Houdini appearances are interesting because he and Thurston were true contemporaries, first meeting in their obscure and struggling youth, bragging about future greatness that, remarkably, both would actually achieve. Over the course of their lives, the relationship would veer from the personal to professional, the competitive to the collegial. They were bound by hardscrabble struggle, shared ambitions, mutual successes—and ultimately, by history. The author gets in a few requisite kicks against the dead horse that is Houdini's ragged reputation as a magician, and in the book's penultimate page, concludes that: Houdini's legacy was Houdini. After his death, scarcely a handful of performers managed to achieve success as "escape artists." The category existed solely for Houdini. Without the force of his personality, there was no special artistry in escaping.
But Thurston's legacy was much more complicated. Just as he inherited the tradition of the great magic show from his predecessors, it continued after Thurston, in the performances of Dante and Blackstone. Is Thurston's legacy more complicated, or more mundane? It is certainly true that escape artistry came to life in Houdini and only barely survived him, never matching his impact again. Contemporary escape artists still have only one name to invoke when promoting themselves, and they never tire of competing with a man who died before they (and often their fathers) were born.
In his introduction, Jim Steinmeyer offers a reasoned perspective, commenting on the seeming contrast between Houdini's brash performances and his diminutive physical stature and "New York East Side mannerisms." Mr. Steinmeyer acknowledges that the apparent dichotomy "was also a key to success: people sensed the conflict suggested by his performances, recognizing his overreaching as appealingly human. We root for the little man who tries hard." It's hard not to notice that this was a little man who did not simply try, but so wildly succeeded that his name is still recognized the world over, long after the last world's greatest magician has been forgotten by all but the cognoscenti.
The Last Greatest Magician in the World is to be appreciated for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because it manages to bring to life more tales of magic's storied history, and perhaps to a new and growing public audience as well. Enhancing magic's reputation and artistic standing is always a welcome vantage, and this well told tale offers new answers and provokes old questions, and we can ask no better of any biography, much less that of an all but forgotten stage magician. If the book serves such ends for lay readers as well as aficionados, then Mr. Steinmeyer has managed yet another great trick in his litany of magical successes.