GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

One December night in 1920, the famous escape artist, Harry Houdini, found himself in an unusual spot: he was in the audience. And he'd been invited to the Folly Theater in Brooklyn to see a performance by his great rival and occasional friend, the magician Howard Thurston.

Mr. JIM STEINMEYER (Author, "The Last Greatest Magician in the World," Magician): (Reading) It was Thurston who presented the magic show of our collective memories: the bright, fast miracles that complimented the 1920s, the floating princesses, the painted boxes suspended over the heads of the audience and the gunshots that caused handfuls of fluttering showgirls to disappear.

RAZ: That's Jim Steinmeyer. He's the author of a new book about Howard Thurston. And on that December night in 1920, Thurston invited Houdini up on stage, and he revealed to Houdini the secret of his famous levitating girl illusion. Now, it sounds collegial, right? Well, not exactly.

Houdini actually wanted to be a stage magician rather than an escape artist. And by bringing Houdini up on stage in front of an audience, Howard Thurston could be assured that his rival would lose face if he ever stole that famous trick. Thurston effectively put an end to Houdini's dreams.

That's the story told in Jim Steinmeyer's book. The book's called "The Last Greatest Magician in the World." And he says that while Houdini's the guy we all remember now, back in 1920, well, the biggest name in magic was Howard Thurston.

Mr. STEINMEYER: It was a name that was known like the name Ziegfeld, like Ringling Brothers, like George M. Cohen. It was - his show was an absolute theatrical commodity that toured the Northeast and into the Midwest of the United States every year and was an attraction that was built like the circus or like any traveling Broadway show.

RAZ: Can you describe what - at the height of his fame, what a Howard Thurston show would be like for somebody in the audience?

Mr. STEINMEYER: Well, it was a really lavish show. He traveled in eight railcars with a cast of over 20 people and 40 tons of equipment and scenery. He knew that he depended on new features to bring the audience back every year. So 1926, 1927, he was making a horse disappear on stage, lines of showgirls. His great feature was always the levitation illusion that was included in every show. Later, he added the vanishing automobile to his show, the Indian rope trick, anything that would be - could be turned into a poster and it could attract audiences back again.

RAZ: Did the audiences at the time think that this was magic, or was there a kind of a wink and a nod and an understanding that this was entertainment?

Mr. STEINMEYER: No, no. It was all done with a wink and a nod. And Thurston had a very strange kind of brutal honesty about that the way he talked about it. You know, he used to say to people, I wouldn't deceive you for the world, which was a strange thing for a magician to say. But there was a kind of honesty. There was a kind of really wonderful mysterious charm to him that the audience respected.

RAZ: On stage, as you mentioned, he would tell the audience, I wouldn't deceive you for the world. But you write that a lot of his early life was based on deception.

Mr. STEINMEYER: Well, the surprise was that, Thurston, who impressed all of his friends and associates as an upstanding businessman and a pillar of American society, he actually started his career as a criminal and conman. He sold newspapers and he sold racing forms at the racetracks and used to go from city to city on freight trains, hopping freight trains, a very dangerous childhood.

And he eventually worked his way into a street gang by the time he came to New York. And he was small and nimble, and they used to throw him through transoms so that he would open the door. He was known as the Nimb Kid. And he was picked up in New York City for picking pockets and was just ready to be institutionalized. He was described as a very tough customer, and he had a very public conversion in front of the head of the New York Prison Association.

And there's a question as to how honest that was and how genuine that was as well. And like many things about Thurston, it's puzzling, because he was a man of kind of mysterious faith all through this life. But he did use those abilities as a conman throughout his career, even though he denied them all in later years.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Jim Steinmeyer. He is the author of the new book on Howard Thurston. It's called "The Last Greatest Magician in the World."

Jim Steinmeyer, Howard Thurston essentially decides to become a magician. You just sort of describe this process where he's literally clawing his way to the top. I mean, in the early days, he's not a great performer, he's traveling in a covered wagon around mining towns in Montana, and even then he didn't leave his criminal past behind him entirely.

Mr. STEINMEYER: No. I think what's amazing about his story is the slice of American show business that it tells. I mean, he had the roughest existence in those early years. And those skills as a conman were never far behind. I mean, that was really what pulled him through in many situations.

He had a little trick: he would carry a jewelry kit - by jewelry kit, what I mean is he had a beautiful watch that was well-made and then he had a number of duplicate watches that had very cheap works inside of them. Very often, he would skip out on a hotel bill by offering the proprietor his watch. And, of course, it took the skills of a magician. The man would open up the watch and check the works and decide it was a good watch, and a few seconds later it would be switched for the cheaper watch and Thurston would be on to the next town.

It's interesting that in the 1920s, having left all of that behind and becoming an upstanding man of the theater...

RAZ: Right.

Mr. STEINMEYER: ...he did a show for Calvin Coolidge in the White House, a Christmas show, and one of the features was supposedly smashing Calvin Coolidge's watch and putting it back together again. We know that was exactly the skill that he used in the mining towns (unintelligible).

RAZ: Wow. As we mentioned earlier, the other great magician of the era was Harry Houdini. He and Thurston were fierce, fierce rivals. But they obviously knew each other. They also had a friendship. What was that relationship like?

Mr. STEINMEYER: They were contemporaries. Thurston was a few years older, and they met in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago where they were both doing side show exhibits. I mean, they really were at the bottom. And even then, they were a little bit in competition. And Houdini always aspired to be a great magician. He always wanted a big, acceptable magic show in the great tradition. But he just was never cut out for it. And so he became famous as an escape artist, getting out of tanks of water and getting out of handcuffs.

And that's really how we remember him today, and that's how audiences recognized in the teens and the '20s. Thurston was the one who pioneered the big magic show and then who toured across America as a great magician.

RAZ: In his day, he was more famous than Houdini, but he - was he also jealous of him?

Mr. STEINMEYER: I think everyone was always jealous of the attention that Houdini got. Houdini was a great publicist. A writer that I knew who used to work with Houdini said that he was both his own Barnum and his own freak. At the same time, it went both ways, because Houdini was fiercely jealous of Thurston's success as a magician, that he could do traditional magic and attract an audience, which was something Houdini had never quite learned to do.

RAZ: But ultimately, of course, it's Houdini who everybody remembers and not Howard Thurston.

Mr. STEINMEYER: Absolutely. We have to remember, you know, Houdini was probably the first celebrity who had a publicist hired for him after he died to keep his name in the papers. He always had a sense that he wanted his name to live, and his name did live. And as a writer told me who knew both men, he said, you know, all of Thurston's publicity was about getting you into the theater. And all of Houdini's publicity was about creating a legend. And they both, of course, got exactly what they wanted.

RAZ: That's Jim Steinmeyer. His new book is called "The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston vs. Houdini in the Battles of the American Wizards."

Jim Steinmeyer, thank you so much.

Mr. STEINMEYER: Thank you.

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