Review of new Max Malini book in Genii Magazine

April 4, 2022


February 2022

by David Britland

Dai Vernon probably did more than anyone to ensure that Max Malini was celebrated among magicians. Vernon was a child when he first saw Malini perform at a club in Ottowa and considered Malini the first great magician that he saw. Malini’s skill and his distinct lack of special apparatus “made an indelible impression.” In 1962, Vernon produced a book, Malini and His Magic, that celebrated his hero’s magic. It was a slim volume and though perhaps light on technical detail it was filled with stories from those who knew Malini and provided an excellent introduction to Malini the man and the promoter.

Vernon continued to praise Malini in his “The Vernon Touch” column in Genii. He was particularly struck by the way Malini made the magic seem spontaneous. “This is what Malini did,” said Vernon. “He’d make the trick occur. Just occur. You can see how strong it is. It looks casual. It doesn’t look as if you brought your own props.” When you read press articles about Malini’s performances, the same sentiment is expressed. The press noted how there was no stage. No props to speak of other than the articles Malini borrowed. No barrier between Malini and his audience. Yet the magic still happened and the stories of Malini’s seemingly impromptu miracles abound. If Malini picked up a kid’s ball in the street, a cop would call for Malini to do a trick with it. Instantly, the ball would vanish and reappear under Malini’s hat. What’s more, Malini knew how to engineer these seemingly impromptu stunts. As Vernon recalled, if Malini was in a bar he’d buy a drink for 50 cents knowing that he’d be given a half dollar in change. Taking the coin, he’d say, “Let me show you a little trick with this.” And magic would happen. Malini not only exploited opportunities, he also created them.

Steve Cohen also holds Malini in high regard and has now produced his own book on the great magician, entitled Max Malini: King of Magicians, Magician of Kings. I first met Steve Cohen at the Essential Magic Conference in 2012. Steve is best known for his shows in New York, and he gave a very candid interview on how those shows came to be. He also shared his fascination with Malini, showed some photographs, and explained his work on Malini’s production of a block of ice from a hat. A decade later and we have this substantial book from Steve, much bigger than the Vernon book, with many more details about Malini’s life and dozens of his effects.

In the Introduction to the book, Steve points out one thing he has in common with Malini. “I was regularly hired to perform close-up magic for the most demanding of audiences—the decadent rich,” he says, adding, “This is what it feels like to be Malini, for Max Malini too performed for the ‘decadent rich,’ politicians, industrialists, scientists, celebrities, aristocrats, and monarchs across the world.” Steve Cohen’s fascination with Malini began when he read Ricky Jay’s Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Since then, he has collected information about this itinerant performer and even performed many of Malini’s effects. Max Malini: King of Magicians, Magician of Kings is the sum of that knowledge to date, the largest volume devoted to the self-styled Napoleon of Magic.

The first part of the book is Malini’s history. Steve begins by examining the distinctive way Malini spoke. He was noted for his accent and vernacular, a characteristic that made him instantly different not only from other performers but from those he entertained. Steve calls in “Yinglish,” a Yiddish-accented English that he recognizes from his own relatives. Malini’s son Oziar famously asked his father to improve his English. Knowing how much his manner added to his character, Malini replied, “If I talk good, you don’t eat.”

To date there has been no definitive description of how Malini, born Max Katz Breit in Ostrov (near the then Polish/Austrian border), became a magician, but the book provides a lot of interesting information about Malini’s background, his early years, and how he became interested in magic. How he went from selling matchbooks to busking and working in Frank Seiden’s bar, playing his first out of town dates, and ultimately becoming one of the most publicized close-up workers the world has ever seen.

What is well-documented is that Malini’s career got a huge boost when, in 1902, he tore the button from Senator Mark Hanna’s jacket and then magically restored it. This much-reported performance, in the halls of the Capitol, was a major steppingstone in Malini’s career. Malini gained a huge amount of publicity and, because of Hanna, was performing for the President the very next day. It was, writes Steve, a “watershed moment” that led to more invitations for private performances. Malini was 29 years old at the time. However, as Steve explains, Malini’s encounter with Senator Hanna was far from spontaneous. It was an opportunity that Malini grasped and knowingly made the most of. This preparedness for spontaneity was one of Malini’s most powerful traits.

The notion of this “little Wizard from Austria” playing to the world’s most prestigious personalities was one the press could not resist. Wherever he went, and he traveled extensively, Malini became a story because, as Steve points out “despite being diminutive, he possessed a striking oversize stage persona” that captivated audiences “through the sheer force of his personality.”

We see Malini’s unique personality brought to life through the many stories told in the chapter titled “Chutzpah: Tales of Boldness.” You’ll read how Malini cleverly exploited performing situations, how he secretly loaded a card into a hat, performed the Miser’s Dream in a church, met a challenge to reveal how much money was in a guest’s pocket, and persuaded a noted portrait artist to paint a picture of him for nothing, and an art dealer to give him a previous ivory carving of which only two existed in the entire world.

It is difficult to tell whether the stories Malini told, or were told about him, are entirely true. Steve takes a guarded approach to decoding the many press articles that Malini generated. What matters most is that the stories exist, and they exist because that was Malini’s intention. The book contains some excellent reports of Malini in Japan, Malini performing at San Quentin Prison, his association with the mercenary “Two Gun Cohen,” and his friendship with Enrico Caruso. In addition to the showbiz stories there is a chapter devoted to more domestic matters, his homelife, which gives additional insight into Malini’s real character.

The production of a block of ice is one of Malini’s best-known tricks. Ricky Jay liked to tell journalists about it and, on one famous occasion, even recreated it. It wasn’t always a block of ice that emerged from the hat. It was whatever suitable size object Malini could pick up at, or on his way to, the venue. This included a brick, still encrusted in dry mortar, a pork chop from the kitchen, or in the case of visiting Houdini’s home, an alarm clock he had swiped from a shelf.

This brings us to the second half of the book, the description of many of Malini’s tricks, some of which Steve had used in his own shows. This includes the block of ice production, which Steve had performed about 20 times. How many times Malini performed it we do not know. But, as Steve says, you only need to perform it once to start a legend.

Steve describes the challenges of the ice production, and methods born from his experience of performing the trick at the Waldorf Astoria otel. If you want to try the trick, then you have more than enough detail here to set you on your way. The most important factor is timing, says Steve. “Performed at the proper time, later in the evening when everyone around the table can confirm that he [Malini] never once excused himself from the room, the ice production rises to miracle status.”

Another iconic Malini effect is Button Biting, the trick that fooled Senator Hanna. Steve takes us through the history of tricks in which buttons are torn from jackets, describing several versions, and adds some tips of his own. In addition to the tricks you might already associate with Malini, there are some exceptional and little-known routines of Malini’s included. One of my favorites is “The Mesmerizing Watch,” an effect I’d love to see. A borrowed pocket watch chimes to reveal the name of a selected card. It is a wonderfully enchanting presentation. Enough to make you wish pocket watches were back in vogue. Similarly, Malini’s handling of an old trick in which a walking stick is seemingly attracted by static electricity is worthy of further consideration. You can follow it up with Malini’s handling of the walking stick suspension which is described in detail. Another trick I thought special was Malini’s stunt of divining how many matches a spectator had removed from a matchbox. The method is simple, the execution bold. One of the lessons from these descriptions, particularly those given by the press, is how Malini could transform the simplest trick into a memorable mystery.

Steve has taken a close look at Malini’s techniques, particularly those with cards. Malini added his own touch to everything, and the book covers the Peek, Top Change, Side Steals, Color Changes, Forces, Palms, and many others. Steve draws on contemporaneous accounts of Malini’s work to give us an idea how and why these effects succeeded. Effects include “Card to Mouth,” “Siamese Aces,” “General Card,” “Card on Chair,” “Card Under Spectator’s Collar,” “Rising Card,” “Blindfolded Card Stab,” and “Card on Ceiling,” among others. There are also detailed programs showing how Malini arranged the various tricks into a show.

The description of Malini’s Egg Bag routine includes a previously unpublished manuscript by the late David Alexander. Malini didn’t leave behind a description of his Egg Bag routine, and it is rarely mentioned in newspaper reports, but David Alexander spent a good deal of time studying what was available, including a routine of Malini’s friend Charlie Miller. After 35 years of performing the Egg Bag, Alexander put his thoughts on paper and now they are in Steve Cohen’s book.

As I mentioned earlier, Steve Cohen has used several Malini effects in his professional work and, in this book, he describes exactly how, like Malini he managed to teleport a selected card into the lining of a volunteer’s jacket. Also, how he performs Malini’s “Challenge Card Calling” in his Chamber Magic show. In this effect 16 spectators each choose a card and then the performer finds each one as requested by the spectators. It’s a classic effect that was later popularized by Ricky Jay.

The book contains a tremendous amount of material but not everything. There is no mention of the card force that Bob Stull described in his 1948 series on Malini published in New Conjurors Magazine. And we can only guess at the method Malini used to break and, presumably, restore a large mirror. Steve includes a brief reference to the trick but so far has not found any further details. Likewise, Steve hazards a guess when repeating a description from The Cincinnati Enquirer which claimed that, in 1895, Malini borrowed some handkerchiefs from the ladies at a private party and then fashioned them into little figures. That done, Malini clapped his hands, shouted, “Take your partners” and the handkerchief homunculi stood up and danced. You’d have thought that a trick worth keeping in the repertoire, but that news article seems to be the only time it was ever mentioned.

Many people have claimed to be Malini’s manager. There’s a list of them in the book, from Eddie McGuire in the U.S. to Scott Colville and Harold Cocking in New Zealand and Jamaica. Steve says he would be surprised if any of them earned more than a free ticket to Malini’s show for their work. While Malini may have engaged people to sell some tickets in the different parts of the world he played, he seems to have successfully managed his career by himself. Many others have told less self-serving stories about Malini and their interactions with him and some are collected in the book, including the reminiscences of Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Eddie Joseph, and Okito.

Photographs and memorabilia are plentiful, many from Steve’s personal collection. Malini didn’t have posters, but he did have brochures filled with testimonials. For historians, the book contains several valuable appendices. These include a selection of press articles about Malini, a timeline of Malini’s life, and a transcript of the fascinating speech made by his son, Oziar Malini, at the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History at the Beverly Garland Hotel in 1989.

If you are not a collector or historian, you might wonder why you’d want to know about a magician who performed in the early part of the 20th century. My answer is that there is much to learn from Malini. He was regarded as a very modern performer in his day. Working so close to the audience was different from anything audiences had seen. He was doing 100 years ago what every magician is doing now. When I read Malini’s presentations I’m amazed at how good they are. Even the most commonplace trick has been thought through. Take a look at his Eggs in Glasses routine for instance. That would work just as well now as it did then, and probably be better than anything you’ll see currently. Another reason to read about Malini is to assimilate his faculty for creating spontaneous miracles. Magicians often debate the meaning of wonder and the nature of organic forms of magic. Malini didn’t leave us with fine philosophical notions. But you couldn’t ask for better examples of how powerful the right kind of magic can be.

Eric de la Mare once wrote that Malini did a two-hour show with two-dollars’ worth of items you’d find around the home. Malini conjured with any item that came to hand: coins, matchsticks, glass tumblers, hats, pencils, handkerchiefs, walking sticks, and cigars. He took small tricks and made a big production out of them, finding the perfect moment to play out each effect, the perfect volunteer to mystify. He gave performances that would be talked about and remembered. Just as we are remembering Malini now.

The book concludes with “Five Malini Lessons: Travel Light, But Always Be Ready, Focus on Showmanship, Aim High, Be Bold, and Be Patient.” Steve sums up Malini’s legacy when he writes, “Malini was more than his tricks; he was a singular character whom people hear about as if a mythical figure and spoke about long after he was gone. This is a worthy goal for entertainers of any era.”

Steve Cohen has provided a fitting tribute to one of magic’s most lauded performers. The book provides a seamless tapestry of history and techniques that, lavishly illustrated and passionately researched, brings Malini’s story to life. It is a book to enthuse any lover of magic and whether you are a performer or historian, you’ll find much to enjoy.

Max Malini: King of Magicians, Magician of Kings • Steve Cohen • 8 x 10 inches • hardback • photographically illustrated • 526 pages • Squash Publishing • $125

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