On a marginal art
I recently profiled the Spanish magician Juan Tamariz in the New York Times (also available en español). It will appear in the magazine on Sunday, January 8. I’d be delighted if you gave it a read, even if—especially if—you don’t have a pre-existing interest in the subject.
To mark the occasion, I thought I’d share my favorite writing on magic (for a general audience, rather than the inner circle). Those few readers hungry for more will find an abundance here; the rest of you can start at the top and see if it whets the appetite.
“Secrets of the Magus.” Mark Singer on Ricky Jay in the New Yorker.
One of the greatest magazine profiles ever written, on one of the greatest artists in his medium. You may know him as a scene-stealing actor. Follow with the documentary Deceptive Practice and the HBO special Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants.
“The Magician Who Wants to Break Magic.” Jonah Weiner on Derek DelGaudio in the New York Times.
DelGaudio had a hit show, In & Of Itself, which you can stream on Hulu. His associations with conceptual art are distinctive. His memoir, Amoralman, is a good read.
“Lost Boys.” Dave Hickey on Siegfried and Roy in Art Issues.
This is not online, but if you have Hickey’s essay collection Air Guitar, it’s in there. More than just an observation of a magic show, it’s a great art critic declaring his intentions to take kitsch seriously.
“A Pickpocket’s Tale.” Adam Green on Apollo Robbins in the New Yorker.
Magic has obvious similarities to con artistry. Robbins epitomizes this, but has another intriguing quality: his interest in the psychology of deception, which has led him to hypothesize aspects of perception later proved in scientific studies.
“The Magician And The Cardsharp.” Karl Johnson in American Heritage.
The most legendary intersection of magic and crime is the pseudonymous author S.W. Erdnase’s 1902 treatise The Expert at the Card Table, which the Canadian magician Dai Vernon was known to recite chapter and verse. After discovering the book as a boy, Vernon spent the rest of his life learning techniques from crooked gamblers and applying them to magic. Johnson expanded this article, on a journey to track down a card cheat who was rumored to have developed a seemingly impossible technique, into an excellent book, also called The Magician And The Cardsharp. There is a very good documentary on Vernon from Canadian public television called The Spirit of Magic.
“How a Legendary Magician Builds Illusions.” David Howard on Jim Steinmeyer in Popular Mechanics.
Steinmeyer is the guy who figured out how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Also a historian, he wrote a marvelous book called Hiding the Elephant that makes a convincing case for stage illusions being at the forefront of technological innovation in the 19th and 20th century. If you’d rather curl up with a book than read a series of articles, that one and the aforementioned Johnson book on Vernon are your best bets, covering the two major forms of the art.
“A Couple of Eccentric Guys.” Calvin Trillin on Penn & Teller in the New Yorker.
Trillin’s wry prose style is perfectly suited to a profile of the duo.
“The Honor System.” Chris Jones on Teller in Esquire.
A different angle on the silent half of the outfit, focusing on a curious question: what claim to intellectual property can you make on a secret method?
“Seriously Silly.” Susan Orlean on Silly Billy in the New Yorker.
A particularly well-written profile of a magician who specializes in performing for the most difficult audience of all: children. (Contrary to popular belief, kids are harder to fool, because they don’t have the firm expectations of the natural world that adults have developed through experience.)
“Black Herman’s African American Magical Synthesis.” Yvonne P. Chireau on Black Herman in Cabinet.
Some of the earliest American magicians were Black, including Henry “Box” Brown, who fled slavery using escapology and became an active abolitionist, and Richard Potter, arguably the first professional magician in America and the country’s first Black celebrity. Benjamin Herman Rucker performed at benefits for Marcus Garvey; Herman Blount, later known as Sun Ra, was named for him.
“The Berglas Effect.” David Segal on David Berglas in the New York Times.
David Berglas was quite well-known to British television audiences in the mid-20th century. He is closely associated with a common “plot” for a card trick, Any Card At Any Number, abbreviated by magicians as ACAAN.
Cavett is a lifelong amateur magician (as was Johnny Carson) and was at one time a student of the great Slydini. The inline links are dead, but you can watch the master’s appearances on his pupil’s talk show here and here. They are sublime.
“The world’s greatest cardsharp reveals all.” Kevin Pang on Steve Forte in the Los Angeles Times.
Forte doesn’t do magic, but is an authority on gambling and cheating. Some magicians consider him the greatest living technician with a deck of cards.
“He Must Have Superpowers.” David Segal on Asi Wind in the New York Times.
Wind, a disciple of Tamariz, is currently performing in an off-Broadway show.
“The Real Work.” Adam Gopnik on Jamy Ian Swiss in the New Yorker.
A broad survey of close-up magic with input from a sleight-of-hand expert.
“An Insider’s Tour of New York’s Disappearing Magic History.” Sarah Laskow on Noah Levine at Atlas Obscura.
This piece takes a geographical angle, with Levine—who performs a weekly show at Tannen’s, America’s oldest magic shop—as tour guide. Reading about magic will never give you the same experience as seeing it for yourself; in fact, I’d argue that seeing it on video falls short as well. Those in or near New York looking for a real encounter with the art are advised to attend Levine’s Magic After Hours.
“Belief System.” Adam Green on Derren Brown in the New Yorker.
Mentalism is a subset of magic that simulates psychic ability; Brown is perhaps its best-known living exponent, at least in the U.K.
“Nothing Up His Sleeve.” E.J. Kahn on Dunninger in the New Yorker.
In the post-Vaudeville era, Dunninger popularized the modern conception of mentalism, in which divination, prediction, and telekinesis were presented not as demonstrations of the occult, but of skill and ingenuity. As a contemporary of his put it, “I use my five senses to create the illusion of a sixth.” Like Houdini, Dunninger made a point of debunking those who claimed to possess paranormal abilities.
“A Magical Mentorship.” Santiago Wills on David Roth in Narratively.
Roth, who died in 2021, modernized sleight-of-hand magic with coins, which had taken a backseat to cards as a result of inflation.
“Richard Turner’s Full House.” Andrew Roush on Richard Turner in Texas Monthly.
Richard Turner is a self-described “card mechanic” of almost unparalleled ability who happens to blind; he learned his technique by listening to a tape a teacher made him of The Expert at the Card Table. This brief profile was tied to the release of a documentary about Turner called Dealt, which is well worth watching.
If any readers are curious to learn magic, I advise starting where I did in my childhood, with Henry Hay’s Amateur Magician’s Handbook, long out of print but available for cheap. Hay’s heartfelt writing on the history and philosophy of the art was effectively the first cultural criticism I ever read, so even though I don’t do magic anymore, it left a lasting mark on my life. The methodology introduced in the book is sufficiently difficult that it will either inspire obsession or turn the reader off immediately. Serious students looking for a comprehensive education in contemporary card magic (which may not include anyone reading) will want Roberto Giobbi’s five-volume course Card College. There is a charming documentary about its author from Italian television called The Secret World of Magic, available on YouTube. This leads us to our bonus round: my favorite movies on magic.
House of Games (1987)
David Mamet’s classic neo-noir does not include any performances of magic, but it does feature Ricky Jay, in a story exploring the nature of deception.
Martin Scorcese’s tribute to the art of cinema revolves around the figure of Georges Méliès, the magician who invented the film edit. An affecting depiction of a passion lost and regained. It may be for kids, but it brought tears to my eyes.
This unsung action thriller is oriented around card cheating, stars an A-list cast, and is already thoroughly dated. I love it.
By the creators of Peep Show, a remarkably accurate (and dryly funny) portrayal of the subculture of magicians, set at a magic convention.
“Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” (1989)
The creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link, were amateur magicians, which gives some insight into the structure of the mysteries they wrote for the classic detective series. An earlier one, “Now You See Him,” is fine, but this 1989 episode—the first to follow the canonical 1970s run—is even better, based on a real incident in which the young mentalist Banachek fooled psychological researchers into believing he had psychic powers. The “Annemann Institute” here is named for Theodore Annemann, one of the most prolific American creators and publishers of magic in the first half of the 20th century.