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The Glorious Deception: The Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer Paperback – April 11, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In the boisterous heyday of the vaudeville music hall—an era that featured renowned magicians like Herrmann the Great and Harry Houdini—the mysterious and exotic Chung Ling Soo was considered among the greatest. Thus, his shooting death on a London stage in front of a packed house in 1918 was cause for scandal and rumor. In this affectionate and informed biography, Steinmeyer (Hiding the Elephant) tantalizingly picks along the trail of the magician's life back to his birth—not in China but New York. As a stunned public would discover, Soo was really William Ellsworth Robinson. That Robinson was able to maintain the fiction for so many years in the relentless spotlight of worldwide fame might have been a delicious tale. Unfortunately, there's no rabbit in this hat. Steinmeyer quotes Robinson himself to the effect that the public probably suspected and didn't care. Fans of the magic arts will appreciate Steinmeyer's intimate and colorful portraits of craft. The author is less successful in unraveling the complex riddle of Robinson's personal life; his forensic speculations and judgments are underexplored or simplistic. Who was William Ellsworth Robinson? That question remains unanswered. B&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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All of these illusionists were thieves and liars to some degree...but Chung Ling Soo carried out the ruse on and OFF the stage. A quick check of his Facebook page would have blown the lid off all his nonsense!
Yes, Steinmeyer shares several secrets of these century old magicians, but not for revelation's sake. The secrets are part of the story and the era. Audiences in the 1900's really wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a live tiger and a man wearing a tiger skin?? Well..I guess not. They also couldn't tell the difference between a white dude wearing yellow grease paint and a real 'Chinaman'! This was a time before magicians had to remind an audience that there's "nothing up my sleeve" because that level of exposure hadn't occurred yet.
As the story unfolds, it seems as though ALL of these magicians took turns being 'the Masked Magician' of their era. Hire their rival's assistant so they could steal his tricks or...sell his secrets to magic magazines and book publishers.
4 stars because once he gets shot in the first chapter, it takes a while to get going. Over the next few chapters, there are so many names and stories thrown at the reader, it gets overwhelming and hard to follow. But, the pieces fall into place making this a fascinating read!
1) It's a great story about a complicated and interestingly flawed person. Will Robinson was an ambitious showman, who recoginzed the flaws in his professional self and worked tirelessly to overcome them, but failed to overcome the flaws in his personal self, leaving an estranged wife and an abandoned son behind him. That he's a world-class illusionist and turn of the century entertainer makes him a lot more interesting.
2) The author is a great historical writer, and he brings turn of the 20th century vaudeville to life in a real page-turning way. He does a great job exploring not just the main character and his wives and children, but the giants of magic at the time. Will Robinson spent a lot of time going back and forth between the two greatest magicians of the day, who were also bitter rivals. You learn so much good stuff about Kellar and Herrmann that the book feels like it's two or three books in content, without being two or three books in length. The author must've worked really hard to keep the book this packed and this short and accessible.
3) And to me, this is what earned the 5th star in a big way: the author actually explains how the cutting edge (at the time) illusions worked. In detail. With no warnings about how "the brotherhood of magicians would kill me if they knew" or other such blather. He warns us at the beginning that illusionists don't protect the secrets from the audience, but the audience from the secrets. Once you know how it's done, you a) don't enjoy the trick anymore and b) feel foolish for not figuring it out yourself. So, knowing that ahead of time, when he reveals all the ingenious stuff the magicians build and skills they learn, he does it in a way that makes you feel like an insider, like a performer or production assistant. It makes you (well, it made me... your mileage may vary) feel like a part of the story somehow, since the discovery, invention, and espionage behind illusions is an important, sexy, and treacherous part of being a professional conjurer in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Anyway, that's why I love the book and give it a perfect score. Can't wait for his next one.
Society of American Magicians
National President 1999-2000