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The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards Hardcover – February 3, 2011

4.7 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Expanding on his chapters on Howard Thurston in his history of magic, Hiding the Elephant, Steinmeyer produces an engaging full-length biography of the man Orson Welles called œthe master. While Houdini™s daring stunts were legendary, Steinmeyer says Thurston was the public™s favorite, captivating audiences with his œself-assured grandeur. Hailing from Columbus, Ohio, Thurston gained fame in the early part of the 20th century with his œRising Card Trick, in which he levitated cards named by audience members. He successfully changed with the times, going from street performances to wagon tours through the West. He then became a top vaudeville star, but wisely left the vaudeville circuit to produce more ambitious spectacles involving 40 tons of magic apparatus and colorful costumes, a variety of animals, and more than two dozen assistants. Tracing the magician™s rise to fame, this volume neatly juggles his marriages and his magic with his triumphs, travails, showmanship, and marketing ballyhoo (œThe Wonder Show of the Universe). Steinmeyer recovers, from the shadows of his greatest rival, a figure whose grandiose productions were an American institution for almost 30 years. (Feb. 3)
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“There is no greater expert on the history of stage magicians than Jim Steinmeyer. His deep knowledge of the subject, combined with a remarkable mastery of magical know-how, makes this book a smart, fantastic read. I can't recommend it enough!”

—Neil Patrick Harris

 “Steinmeyer produces an engaging full-length biography of the man Orson Welles called ‘the master’…Steinmeyer recovers, from the shadows of his greatest rival, a figure whose grandiose productions were an American institution for almost 30 years.”

—Publishers Weekly

"Few historians of magic are as qualified as Jim Steinmeyer to bring Howard Thurston back onstage.  The Last Greatest Magician in the World vividly conjures up Thurston's troubled life and great illusions."
—The Wall Street Journal

“Magician and author Jim Steinmeyer rescues a forgotten American icon from Houdini’s shadow.”
—AARP: The Magazine

“Thurston may have been forgotten, but The Last Greatest Magician In The World ably resurrects his legend and his awe-inspiring magic.”
—The Onion A.V. Club

"An erudite, challenging text full of difficult questions"
—Kirkus Reviews

"Jim Steinmeyer knows the outside-in world of magic from the inside; he is a celebrated 'invisible man' - inventor, designer and creative brain behind many of the great stage magicians of the last quarter-century... Steinmeyer writes about events a century ago as vividly as if he had been there; and in a sense, he has been... No author has ever better conveyed the way the love of conjuring consumes a magician's life with magic's joys, terrors and longings."
—Teller (of Penn and Teller), The New York Times Book Review

"Steinmeyer's combination of enthusiasm and erudition is a joy."
—Neil Gaiman --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Tarcher; First Edition edition (February 3, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1585428450
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585428458
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.2 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #343,121 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By B. Robinson on February 3, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jim Steinmeyer's excellent new biography of Howard Thurston (1869-1936) is a welcome addition to the literature of the theatre and that of the history of magic. The dogged research by the author is noticeable on every page as we find our subject first on the outskirts of society as a petty thief and then rising to the heights of being an American institution -- parading the largest touring magic show ever. Thurston made his success in Europe at the turn of the century at the same time another young Hungarian emigre named Erich Weiss also left for England to seek his fortune. Of course, Erich had changed his name to an appropriation of France's greatest magician: Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, and began calling himself brazenly HOUDINI. That HOUDINI has become a legend is undeniable, and this book seeks to settle a score, if only for historical accuracy, that, in their day, the early 1900's Thurston was the King of Magic. Thurston was never eclipsed by the syllable accenting American Houdini. In fact, it is clearly shown by this expertly written tome that Houdini was a top of the bill vaudeville star with his name spelled in letters twice the size of any other act, while Thurston appeared in legitimate theatre and at the White House several times. Thurston made woman float in the air, and sawed women in halves, and gave a three-hour extravaganza that took several train cars to carry, even providing a full orchestra as well. The problem that brought his downfall was the Great Depression and the rise of the "flickers" which we all know today as the movies. Thurston was as much a part of the Roaring Twenties as Al Capone or Babe Ruth and that his star has faded is a shame.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Steinmeyer's THE LAST GREATEST MAGICIAN IN THE WORLD is a supremely entertaining historical biography that rescues Howard Thurston, a show-business legend who has been overshadowed over the years by the legend of Harry Houdini. History may be myopic in its appreciation of this master magician, but in his day, he was more popular than Houdini. Steinmeyer, who is not only an acclaimed author (HIDING THE ELEPHANT) but also a historian and designer of magic illusions, has an infectious enthusiasm for his subject matter. He's particularly adept at recreating Howard Thurston's exciting early years when he spent parts of his youth traveling through America--riding the rails, hobo style. Steinmeyer writes: "Today the public has forgotten the name Thurston....when most people imagine a great magician of the 1920s, they summon the name Houdini. But few understood what Houdini's show really looked like--gazing at a curtained cabinet and waiting for him to escape... It was Thurston who presented the magic show of our collected memories, the bright, fast miracles that complimented the 1920s--the floating princess, the painted boxes suspended over the heads of the audience, and the gunshots that caused handfuls of fluttering showgirls to disappear." This is a smashing page-turner--colorful, exciting, and full of historical facts. This is not a dry biography--it reads like great fiction and would amke a tremendous movie! If you're a fan of magic, vaudeville or historical biographies...pick up this great book!
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Format: Hardcover
You might expect if you go to a magic show that the magician will, among other things, make himself disappear, only to reappear somewhere else. Jim Steinmeyer has performed this feat on the behalf of the great Howard Thurston. Steinmeyer, himself a magician, a designer of magic effects for others, and an explainer of magic and magicians, has written a full biography of Thurston, a magician who has disappeared into the mists of history but who, before radio, movies, and television, performed the world's largest magic show and was well known all around the world. The title of the book is no exaggeration: _The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston Versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards_ (Tarcher / Penguin). Thurston outlived Houdini and was performing at a time when there were battles among magicians, not only for fame but also over tricks, priorities, and patents. There are still famous magicians, but in the Golden Age of American magic, everyone wanted to see Thurston's "The Wonder Show of the Universe."

There were good reasons for this; Thurston would tour with tons of secret equipment for his tricks, and his effects could be spectacular. Part of Steinmeyer's story is how Thurston would collaborate with technical assistants (such as Steinmeyer himself) to pull them off, and how the secrets got stolen or betrayed to other magicians as assistants moved from the camp of one magician to another. Except for his obvious talents, he was otherwise a fairly ordinary fellow. He could levitate a woman on stage, but he could find little happiness in marriage, although he tried four times. He was an awful businessman, and was constantly borrowing from Houdini, or from his brother who organized hootchie-kootchie and other midway offerings but who had money to lend.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Howard Thurston in the first three decades of the 20th Century gradually created what became the standard great touring magic show, a mix of pure sleight-of-hand, hilarious audience-interaction bits, and huge stage illusions. Every top US magician since, such as David Copperfield or Criss Angel, has eventually mounted a "big show" that mirrors Thurston's closely. Yet, while magicians remember and revere Thurston, the general public today has never heard of him. Why?

Walter Gibson, who knew and worked for both Thurston and Houdini, explains it well in a quote within this book. Thurston's massive publicity engine was focused on selling people on the desire to attend Thurston's live stage show the very next time it passed nearby... whereas Houdini's publicity was focused entirely on emphasizing that Houdini was a miracle-man who could by sheer strength and skill escape from any and every restraint. Today everyone has heard of Houdini, while Thurston was forgotten as soon as he ceased to tour... felled by a stroke.

Author Jim Steinmeyer does a good job of reconstructing Thurston's strange and somewhat shady life. It's an effort to do this today, because all of the "autobiographical" material generated by Thurston's publicity men or presented to reporters and developed through interviews during his magic career was almost entirely fictional, and Thurston particularly needed to conceal his early life, in which he was a fairly successful pickpocket and thief known as the "Nim Kid." Even counting up Thurston's many wives is a bit tricky.

Thurston's complex relationships with his fellow magicians, from senior mentor Harry Kellar, through numerous competitors and hired idea-men, are also detailed as they figure in throughout the story.
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