3/11/13 - the era in which america conquered the world

In today's selection -- in the mid-to-late 1800s, when America's economy emerged as the largest in the world, the face of America was not so much Washington and Lincoln, nor perhaps even business titans like Carnegie and Vanderbilt, but instead America's spectacularly successful entertainer/businessmen such as P.T. Barnum, Harry Houdini and the man who edged out Houdini as the Greatest Magician in the World, Howard Thurston. Thurston's background of poverty and crime, his obsessive desire for greatness, his exaggerated biography, and his mastery of sleight-of-hand and confidence games was the archetype of America's rags-to-riches spirit as it emerged as the world's economic colossus. A product of dire circumstances, when very young Thurston had been been a pickpocket living in flophouses in the Bowery. As a teen he was a hobo riding the Ohio rails, and as a young man he was a desperate flim-flam artist fleecing small towners in the West. Below we find Thurston at the point where he had finally found success in American vaudeville, and then been called to London's famed Palace Theater to find even greater success:

"[His first wife] Grace was thrilled at Howard [Thurston's] success and stardom [in London]. His 9:25pm performances [at the Palace] left him time to accept private bookings at clubs and salons in London. If he arranged his schedule carefully, he could supplement his income with two or three well-paid shows each night. Edward, the Prince of Wales, was a fan of variety as well as magic, visited Thurston sev­eral times backstage, and chatted with Grace. Thurston offered the prince brief lessons in sleight of hand, showing him how to back-palm a card.

"As the famous American magician, featured in newspapers and magazines, Thurston was also in demand at parties, banquets, and balls, and Grace en­joyed mixing with high society. He was invited to a private party thrown by the Shah of Persia, where he pulled a duck from a spectator's collar and dropped it in the shah's lap. Thurston was also invited to the home of Baron Rothschild and performed his act. Rothschild returned the favor by perform­ing some of his own favorite card tricks. '[Howard] fitted in as if he had been born to dukedom or educated at Oxford,' Grace marveled. 'He could not spell a word longer than 'cat,' but he could talk like a man with a doctor's degree.' She credited his smooth skills from being a confidence man. Now, instead of charming the customer to sell a cheap watch with paste diamonds [as he had early in his career], he was selling himself. 'Howard Thurston's a great man,' W. C. Fields remarked to Grace. 'Only one I ever knew with complete confidence in his own con.' ...

"He also produced Howard Thurston's Card Tricks, a slender book that was pub­lished in London early in 1901 to capitalize on his success. ... Thurston's Card Tricks also started a series of nicely sanitized, highly exagger­ated biographies of the magician. In this little booklet, and later interviews and articles, Thurston was standardizing his imaginary life story. He was now a nephew of U.S. senator John Mellon Thurston of Nebraska. His father was now the vice-consul in Algiers, where, at the age of three:

'Thurston was stolen by the Mohammedans, and for three years all of North Africa was hunting for him in vain. Strange as was his sudden disappearance, his return was even stranger, for three years from the very day he was kid­napped, he was mysteriously returned to his parents --how it was never ascer­tained. While in the hands of the Mohammedans, they never once mistreated him, nor did they seek ransom, though large sums of money were offered for the boy's return. The only thing which seems to have affected the boy was that, at times, he would sit for hours in silent meditation, no one ever fathoming his thoughts. As a child of six, he began to show powers which appeared to those about him little short of miraculous.'

"Thurston and Grace accepted offers from the Continent. He opened at the Winter Garden in Berlin, where Thur­ston's "Zenda Waltzes" was played by a fifty-two-piece orchestra -- including twenty-one violins. Thurston performed a private show for the Kaiser, and in April went on to Copenhagen, where Howard and Grace met four monarchs -- King Christian IX of Denmark; his son King George I of Greece; Edward VII of Great Britain; and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia"


Jim Steinmeyer


The Last Greatest Magician in the World


Penguin Group


Copyright 2011 by Jim Steinmeyer


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