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The Wizard in the Wings

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

Book Review: The Last Great Magician

"You have to realize that, in their day, Howard Thurston was every bit as well known as Harry Houdini," magic enthusiast Walter B. Gibson (creator of "The Shadow") once told author Jim Steinmeyer. But "as each year passes, Houdini becomes more and more famous, and Thurston is forgotten."

Steinmeyer, a magician himself, attempts to correct this inequity in his entertaining biography of Thurston, who held audiences spellbound for four decades with a parade of startling illusions that came to be known as "The Wonder Show of the Universe." In The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards, Steinmeyer chronicles the eventful life of this "immaculate, elegant, ministerial" performer. He also conjures the bygone era in which Thurston flourished, when the stately magic of the Victorians gave way to the electrified glitz of vaudeville.

Thurston came to prominence at a time when "World's Greatest Magician" was a hard-won title. The American public, Steinmeyer explains, "seemed to accept only one great magician at a time," and Thurston appeared destined to fill the role. In his press materials he embroidered his early life, claiming that he had been "stolen by the Mohammedans" in Algiers at age 3 and schooled in the mystic arts.

The truth was no less remarkable. Born in 1869, Thurston spent his teen years as a drifter, eventually falling in with a gang of thieves in New York's notorious Bowery district, where his compact size enabled him to clamber through doorway transoms. At age 17, Steinmeyer recounts, Thurston had a sudden — perhaps too sudden — epiphany on hearing an inspirational lecture at a downtown church, as if "the very vibration of the words" had stirred the better angels of his nature. Either the young Thurston was genuinely moved by the speaker's words, Steinmeyer speculates, or he scented an opportunity: "another transom swinging open, through which he could maneuver a convenient, wriggling exit."

Though he did not go so far as to train for the ministry, as he later claimed, Thurston turned away from the petty crime and confidence tricks of his youth and found a more socially acceptable form of deception as a professional magician.  Both extremes — the con man and the conjurer — were captured nicely by a double-edged catchphrase he often uttered in his later career: "I wouldn't … deceive you … for the world!"

Steinmeyer is an accomplished historian of magic; his books about the art include Hiding the Elephant and The Glorious Deception. He is also a noted designer of illusions, having worked with such headliners as Doug Henning and David Copperfield, and he brings an infectious enthusiasm to his descriptions of Thurston's miracles. "It seemed as if gravity had been suspended," he writes of "The Levitation of Princess Karnac," a complicated floating-lady effect. The hovering form appeared to be "no longer a person, but a flower petal turning pirouettes in a spring breeze." Steinmeyer anchors this rhapsodic account with a telling detail: Princess Karnac got a bit of backstage help from the Otis Elevator Company.

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