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The Wizard in the Wings

Magician and author Jim Steinmeyer rescues a forgotten American icon from Houdini’s shadow

As a young man, Thurston occasionally worked as a carnival "talker," using a slick line of patter to lure people inside to see the show. Steinmeyer deploys much the same technique in his book's subtitle, which appears to set the stage for some serious fireworks with Harry Houdini.

Thurston first crossed paths with the budding escape artist at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, where the 19-year-old Houdini was working in dark greasepaint as an "authentic Hindu" mystic. In the ensuing years the two men developed a healthy rivalry that simmered occasionally but never quite boiled over into a full-scale "battle of the American wizards." Most readers will forgive the smoke and mirrors; Steinmeyer's opening scene, in which Houdini must be coaxed onstage to inspect Thurston's floating-lady apparatus, is worth the price of admission.

The real fireworks occur in Steinmeyer's account of Thurston's friendship with another illusionist: Harry Kellar, "the Grand Old Man of Magic." Kellar was the undisputed "World's Greatest Magician" as Thurston was making his name in the early 1900s, and the younger man managed — through a combination of hard work, flattery and a business partnership in which Thurston essentially bought his way into the show — to establish himself as the anointed successor.

It proved to be a fragile bond.

"Kellar had been devoted to magic," Steinmeyer writes. "He fussed over it, defended it, and loved bringing it to his audiences." Thurston, by contrast, was more concerned with showmanship and presentation. "Magic," he told his colleagues, "comprises only about thirty percent of a magic show." At one point, angered at a perceived slight, Kellar exploded: "You see this match? I wouldn't waste it to burn down the whole damned Thurston show!"

Even so, both men saw value in their alliance, which culminated in a joint tour in which Kellar literally passed over his magician's wand to his successor. "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," Steinmeyer writes. "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."

Or perhaps Thurston — at age 38, with more than 25 years of magic still ahead of him — had scrambled through his final transom. As if in a puff of smoke, the street urchin had vanished. All that remained was the world's greatest magician.

Daniel Stashower, author of The Beautiful Cigar Girl, is a 30-year member of the Society of American Magicians.

 

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