The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” by by Jim Steinmeyer
In a biography woven from equal parts enchantment and mystery, master illusion designer and today’s foremost magic historian, Jim Steinmeyer, unveils the astonishing secrets behind the enigmatic performer Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” — a magician whose life of intrigue and daring remains unparalleled to this day. He learned his art during a revolutionary era in show business, just as minstrel, circus, and variety saloons were being stirred together and distilled into a heady new concoction: vaudeville. Soo’s infamous death in 1918 astonished the world: he was killed during a performance of “Defying the Bullets,” his popular act in which he caught marked bullets on a porcelain plate. After his death, the deceptions began to unravel. It was discovered that he was not Chinese, but rather a fifty-six-year-old American named William Ellsworth Robinson, a former magicians’ assistant, and the husband of Olive Robinson. But even William Robinson was not who he appeared to be, and for the first time, Jim Steinmeyer has uncovered the truth behind Robinson and the magic world’s most glorious deception. (via Goodreads)
Interwoven with the tale of William Robinson and his transformation into Chung Ling Soo is the history of a very dangerous trick: the bullet catch. Honestly, before this book, I wasn’t sure if any magician had ever died doing a bullet catch illusion. There are layers and layers of stories around magic and magicians. Some of these stories are…not true. This is obviously the case with Robinson. He spun the persona of Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese conjurer, around tricks that suited his incredible technical aptitude in order to hide his awkward stage presence. As long as he was able to lose himself in a role, he was a very fine magician. His secret, like most secrets in magic, was half-kept. Professional magicians knew what was going on (his biggest rival was the a real Chinese conjurer, Ching Ling Foo), but the general public did not.
Similar layers of truth and falsehood surround dangerous magic tricks*. Many of Houdini’s death-defying acts were very well planned and prepared, only seeming to be potentially fatal. When a magician claims that something is dangerous, that it may be fatal, I only half believe. But the bullet catch, historically, has been both. It involves not entirely safe modifications to firearms and a blurring of reality that has led audience members to disregarding the whole trick aspect of the trick.
I debated buying this book for a while. I had already read Steinmeyer’s Hiding the Elephant and The Last Greatest Magician in the World, both of which cover the same era in stage magic. I didn’t think I could justify a biography of Chung Ling Soo as more research material. My correspondence with Chicago magician Neil Tobin helped make the decision. He suggested it since Robinson (aka Soo) was once almost arrested for being involved with a sham seance during the Chicago World’s Fair. While Robinson did write a book on spiritualism, his involvement isn’t delved into too much in The Glorious Deception. Ultimately, this book wasn’t a hugely useful resource aside from providing more information about the time period.
I was also worried that the stories, and Jim Steinmeyer’s writing, might get a little stale. The major magicians of the late 1800s and early 1900s knew each other, were friends and rivals (often both). Robinson, before he became Chung Ling Soo, worked for the Herrmanns and Harry Keller as an assistant and stage manager. Howard Thurston (the subject ofThe Last Greatest Magician) was associated with Keller and tried to impress Leon Herrmann, a story in which Robinson plays a role. Tales overlap. I was worried that I might get tired of reading them. But I didn’t. All the little stories snap together; little clusters of puzzle pieces fit together into a richer picture. Currently, I have a lot of enthusiasm for magic history.
Steinmeyer is a talented writer. I’ve said it before, he has obvious love for the subject matter and that comes through in his work. Looks like I’m going to be asking for the rest of his books for Christmas.
* See also, Penn & Teller’s nail gun trick.
Why did I choose to read this book? I really like Jim Steinmeyer’s books; it was also suggested to me by a magician as good research material.
Did I finish this book? (If not, why?) Absolutely.
Craft Lessons: Man, I really do envy Steinmeyer’s way with words. I read. Why don’t I use words better?!
Bookmark: Business card from SteamCrow.com
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