Jim Steinmeyer will make you long for the days when magicians competed to build bigger and better illusions and dazzled audiences with floating princesses, disappearing assistants and rabbits pulled from hats.
In the early days of the 20th century through the heyday of vaudeville, magicians by the dozens traveled the country with displays of magic large and small. They did card and coin tricks and staged intricate illusions.
In “The Last Greatest Magician in the World,” Steinmeyer argues that Thurston, who started with card tricks, was the most amazing of them all — far outstripping Harry Houdini in stagecraft and magic.
Thurston’s illusions — he traveled with 40 tons of apparatus and costumes — were incredible: He produced bowls of water from the air which then spurted rings of fountains; turned a statue into a live woman; made a horse vanish; and, in a real show-stopper, had an assistant disappear from an Egyptian mummy case then reappear in a painted trunk that hung from the theater’s ceiling.
Steinmeyer, a designer of magical illusions and theatrical special effects, presents the illusions and tricks in fascinating detail, as he also does with Thurston’s efforts to master them and improve them.
The magician captured the world at the height of his career — touring the Far East and headlining in London. But his childhood was one of hard-scrabble living and crime. His father beat him. He ran away from home, hopped freight trains and lived in hobo camps, and frequently supported himself as a petty thief.
His early career was almost equal parts con artist and struggling magician, mainly in saloons across the West. It was one of the things Thurston tried to cover up later in life, making sure it wasn’t included in accounts of his early life.
The book also highlights the intense competition among the leading magicians of the time, and nowhere was that competition more intense than between Thurston and Houdini.
Although Houdini’s name is much better known, Steinmeyer presents a solid case that Thurston was by far the more masterful magician.
The book will delight both magic fans and biography fans, giving both plenty to enjoy.
“The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards” (Tarcher/Penguin, $26.95), by Jim Steinmeyer.