Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review - The Last Greatest Magician In The World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & The Battles Of The American Wizards

"The function of the magician has characteristics common with those of the criminal, of the actor, and of the priest...and he enjoys certain special advantages impossible for these professions. Unlike the criminal, he has nothing to fear from the police; unlike the actor, he can always have the stage to himself; unlike the priest, he need not trouble about questions of faith in connection with the mysteries at which he presides." - Edmund Wilson

The name Houdini has become synonymous with magic. Though he was arguably the best escape artist and one of the most dynamic stage performers in history, Houdini wasn't the greatest magician in the world. In Jim Steinmeyer's new book, The Last Greatest Magician In The World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & The Battles Of The American Wizards, the author posits that Thurston deserves the accolade. Why isn't Thurston's the name we associate so closely with magic now? According to Steinmeyer, Houdini publicized himself to create a legend, while Thurston was simply trying to fill theater seats.

Thurston's beginnings were criminal, starting out as a hobo and confidence man at a young age. He traveled the countryside by freight train, made a living as a pickpocket, potato peeler salesman, and eventually was inspired to become a magician after seeing a performance by Alexander Herrmann (The Great Herrmann) in 1893. Along the way he spent time in reform school and a Christian school for boys, the effects of which would last a lifetime.

Thurston became a tireless practitioner of prestidigitation, mastering the art of palming and producing cards and coins. He worked as a barker at the Columbian Exposition, on the midway at the Chicago Worlds Fair. There he honed his stagecraft and presentation skills, often exchanging tricks and jabs with an also young Harry Houdini, who shared his passion for magic.

Always a hard worker, Howard's efforts began to pay off in the early 1900's, after touring the western states. The advent of Vaudeville brought new venues to play and new audiences eager to be mystified and entertained. Thurston's magnificent voice and smooth way with digital manipulations made him a popular act, and bookings increased as word spread.

Steinmeyer is a great storyteller, though much of the drama is extrapolated from the magician's letters and second or third-hand accounts of some events. He's fond of comparing passages from Thurston's autobiography (of which Thurston himself wrote nothing - just another sleight of hand from the master) with a more balanced account of events he uncovered through research, which gives additional insight into not only Thurston but the people with which he surrounded himself.

Thurston eventually eschewed Vaudeville to create his own traveling show, which swelled to fill eight train cars with props, animals, and personnel. His show became so popular that he had to turn down bookings overseas, so he took on a franchise performer, Dante, and sent him abroad to perform the show with his blessing - for a substantial financial consideration.

As he ruled the world of theatrical magic, Howard Thurston's personal life was never stable or wonderful. His brother Harry was almost certainly a part of the Chicago mob, running hoochy-kooch shows and other unsavory businesses, his wife had chronic health problems, and his fellow magicians stole tricks from his repertoire, or took pot shots at him for sharing secrets with kids at his shows.

Though he began as a criminal, Howard Thurston became an accomplished actor, and in his own way a priest - he never lost the faith he found as a young adult and always played shows at childrens' hospitals and orphanages for free, which had the added bonus of being great free publicity for his regular performances.

He was, as Steinmeyer asserts, The Last Greatest Magician In The World, if only for the amazing transformation he performed upon himself. His legacy is that of one of the best card handlers of all time, as well as one of the best performers onstage. Though he created very few of the illusions he performed, Thurston dealt fairly with his fellow practitioners, licensing tricks from other magicians and inventors rather than stealing them. The battles alluded to in the title of the book refer more to his dealings with Harry Blackstone and a few other magicians who stole his tricks than his relationship with Houdini.

Howard Thurston died of a stroke in 1936, ten years after Houdini passed.

The Last Greatest Magician In The World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & The Battles Of The American Wizards is a bit long, but it was written for completists. It's an entertaining record of Thurston's career and a welcome addition to Steinmeyer's other volumes.

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