The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards by Jim Steinmeyer
Here is the seminal biography of the magician’s magician, Howard Thurston, a man who set the standard for how stage magic is performed today.
Everyone knows Houdini–but who was Thurston? In this rich, vivid biography of the “greatest magician in the world,” celebrated historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer captures the career and controversies of the wonder-worker extraordinaire, Howard Thurston.
Thurston’s story is one of the most remarkable in show business. During his life, from 1869 to 1936, he successfully navigated the most dramatic changes in entertainment–from street performances to sideshows to wagon tours through America’s still-wild West to stage magic amid the glitter of grand theaters.
Steinmeyer explores the stage and psychological rivalry between Thurston and Houdini during the first decades of the twentieth century–a contest that Thurston won. He won with a bigger show, a more successful reputation, and the title of America’s greatest magician. In The Last Greatest Magician in the World, Thurston’s magic show is revealed as the one that animates our collective memories. (via Goodreads)
Houdini. Houdini, Houdini, Houdini. If I asked you to name one non-contemporary magician (i.e., not Criss Angel, David Blaine, Penn & Teller, or even David Copperfield; in other words, a long-dead magician), Houdini would probably be who you’d name. Harry Houdini masterfully built his own legend on a basis of spectacle, controversy, and no small amount of talent as an escape artist. If I were to ask you to describe the prototypical old-timey magician, you might think of a man in white tie and tails, dignified yet amusing, pulling a rabbit from a hat, levitating a princess, or maybe chastely sawing a lady in half. That magician that you’re thinking of? That’s Howard Thurston.
In Hiding the Elephant, Jim Steinmeyer presented the history of stage magic through the lens of one trick. In Last Greatest Magician, he turns his focus to tell the story of Howard Thurston, warts and all. As a young man, before he delighted kids and parents with magically-produced bunny rabbits, Thurston hopped trains and conned people into buying fake watches until he was caught and put into reform school. He was married three times. He was absolutely terrible with money. Like many front-men, he was not the architect of his more elaborate tricks.
Where he excelled was on the stage. He was charismatic performer with a minister’s voice. He had a sense for putting on a memorable show, even if he suffered from the-bigger-the-better syndrome late in his career. He was incredibly adept at close-up magic and could “sell” an apparatus better than anyone else. Behind the scenes, he bought the best tricks and hired some of the best engineers to shore up weaknesses. Magic is an industry reliant keeping secrets and obtaining them. Thurston was shrewd and more than occasionally conflicted about decisions he made to keep his business afloat.
Jim Steinmeyer gives Thurston all his shades of gray and writes about the man and the magic with the same palpable love that oozes from Hiding the Elephant. Thurston’s story would make a great AMC / History channel series. While this isn’t a “reveal” book, the secrets behind some magic tricks are discussed. As a designer and inventor, Steinmeyer doesn’t shy away from nuts and bolts when telling his stories.
History is all about who gets remembered. Many, many other magicians have pulled rabbits from hats and made ladies float. Even Houdini did some of these tricks though, by most reports, not very well. Despite invoking Houdini’s name to give Thurston some street cred with modern audiences, it’s Thurston who has given us the cultural memory of “magician.”
As for the rivalry between Houdini and Thurston? It’s there. The two exchanged many letters. Houdini had a mercurial personality and was always in conflict with someone, and usually someone notable. If the general public remembers Thurston in relation to Houdini, there are worse things. If I’ve learned one thing about magic, it’s that it’s a continual narrative. Every magician, every trick, every performance is the sum of its history and often defined by its associations and lineage. It’s a concept that is very appealing to me.
Genre: Non-fiction. Biography.
Why did I choose to read this book? Research! But also because I find that I really enjoy Jim Steinmeyer’s writing and magic history.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Yes.
Format: Trade paperback.
Procurement: Won from Take Control RAT raffle!
Bookmark: Yellow note card with notes from my current project on it. Well, pre-rewrite notes.
Related to my current writing project and as a further example of defining by association, this is an anecdote related by Jim Steinmeyer in an article about the magician Joseffy:
Joseffy was once asked to present [Balsamo, The Living Skull] to Howard Thurston and his staff. He obliged, placing the skull on a table between Thurston’s knees. “You’re not going to work it this close?” Thurston asked.
“But I am Thurston!”
“Yes, but I am Joseffy,” the wizard responded.
(Jim Steinmeyer. Magic. September 1999, Vol. 9, No. 1. pg. 46)