Reviewed by Marco Pusterla
In the history of magic there are only a few truly legendary performers, artists who were attracting regularly public to their shows, who were widely known in their days, whose name came with an aura of mystery and raised the interest of the newspaper reader (or of the television viewer, in recent times). One of these magicians was Max Malini (Max Katz Breit, 1875-1942), a diminutive American Jew, born on the border of Austria and Poland, and immigrated as a child to the USA, whose career spanned more than 40 years of world travels as a performer of seemingly impromptu magic for the rich and famous. The magic of Malini was legendary and a few of his feats, like the production of a large block of ice under a borrowed hat, in a seemingly spontaneous situation; or the trick where he ripped a button off the coat of some politician to then re-attach it magically a few seconds later; or the stabbing of 10 selected playing cards while blindfolded, are still discussed today in magic circles.
The magic of Malini was sought after by amateur magicians during his life, and he kept his secrets well-guarded: he was too busy performing for rich audiences and did not have the time to fraternize with the amateur. After his death, a book about his magic was compiled by Dai Vernon (written by Lewis Ganson and published by Harry Stanley in the UK), based on his first-hand knowledge of Malini’s methods and from the information obtained by Charlie Miller who was close to Malini for a few years.
However, the book was found lacking in information and details, but this did not prevent it to be religiously studied by generations of amateur and professional magicians eager to capture some of the success Malini had in his life, and to learn the secrets of his innovative approach to magic.
Now, New York professional magician Steve Cohen, probably the person who more than anybody has followed in the steps of Max Malini, has put a lifetime of research, study and his large collection of Malini memorabilia between two covers, for both the magic historian – to discover and follow Malini’s life – and, especially, for the true student of the practicalities of the art of magic, who will get an in-depth analysis of the methods behind each and every trick of the great magician.
The book is almost 550 pages long, with many photographs of Cohen explaining the tricks of Malini (in three sections: Impromptu Magic, Card Magic, and Platform Magic) and many other photos of Malini from contemporary programmes and newspapers. I should warn the reader interested in the history of magic that this is not a biography, or an historical book: it most definitely is a technical book of the magic of an individual, filled with personal anecdotes on Malini. There is no such a thing as a biography, as Mr. Cohen has taken the approach of gathering from various coeval sources, accounts of Malini’s magic and explains, the stuff that created his legend. The reader will thus learn to appreciate the most fantastical side of the magic of Malini, learn about his incredible boldness and chutzpah, learn about some of the greats that were amazed by Malini. I have to confess that I quite like this approach, less didascalic than what we find in magic biographies, as it may increase the interest in the reader to the more spectacular aspects of the magic performance, rather than trying to delve on the personality of the magician or his itinerary.
This approach has the defect that trying to create a coherent narrative is almost impossible: anecdotes are often grouped by subject rather than chronologically, and this makes it very difficult to follow the growth, both personal and artistic, of Malini. Indeed, you would struggle to find the birth date of Malini: this is first found on page 428, in the translation of a Japanese obituary.
The book contains three important appendixes for the magic historian: first of all, a transcription of the speech given by Oziar, Malini’s son, at the Conference on Magic History of 1989 (what will become the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History), a document very little known. Then, a timeline of Malini’s life, with most – if not all – his recorded performances, which should prove invaluable to any researcher looking to investigate in depth some episodes. Sandwiched between these two, a large collection of significant newspaper articles, in chronological order, on Malini. While most of them tell similar stories, as indeed Malini’s strategy was one of opportunism and his repertoire was very well defined, this is an exceptional resource that will save long hours of digital research.
Mr. Cohen explains carefully 95 Malini tricks and methods, basing his research on contemporary writings by witnesses, earlier descriptions of the tricks in books Malini had probably studied (in primis, Edwin Sachs’ Sleight of Hand), and from his own discoveries.
I believe that contemporary magic historians often concentrate too much on the lives of magicians of yore, rather than on their work, on their secrets, on how magicians of the past have advanced the art of magic, and I welcome the approach by Steve Cohen on gathering all recorded tricks by Malini and to study their workings. This is an excellent way to gain value from the study of the history of magic and I applaud this approach, which will help new generations of students to enhance their repertoire and to learn strategies to grow their reputation, by making their magic as memorable and as legendary as Malini’s.