Max Malini: King of Magicians – Magician of Kings By Steve Cohen
Review by Michael Close
One benefit of having been on the planet for almost seventy years is I’ve had the opportunity to meet and watch many of the best magicians of the late twentieth century: Dai Vernon, Charlie Miller, Harry Riser, Johnny Thompson, Ross Bertram, Michael Skinner, Roger Klause, and Larry Jennings among them. But there are many before my time whom I never saw, but whom I wish I could have watched perform: Harry Houdini, T. Nelson Downs, Nate Leipzig, Paul Rossini, and, at the top of the list, Max Malini.
I had, of course, read and studied the Malini material in Stars of Magic and Malini and His Magic (by Lewis Ganson and Dai Vernon). While I gained some understanding of Malini’s methods, what I couldn’t understand is how he was able to gain such success and notoriety among presidents, kings, and society’s elite. It’s one thing to understand how to apparently bite a button off the jacket of a U.S. senator; it’s another thing to understand how to do that without getting your lights punched out.
As a teenager, Steve Cohen learned of Max Malini; his interest in Malini eventually became an obsession, mainly due to similar life situations. As Steve writes:
“At the impressionable age of fifteen, I was gifted Ricky Jay’s freshly published book Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women. Jay devoted a chapter to Max Malini titled ‘Last of the Mountebanks,’ which provided my first exposure to this extraordinary character and his seemingly mythic escapades. A young, eastern European Jew from New York could travel the world, perform close-up magic, and befriend elite members of society while living in luxury hotels? Count me in.
“I, too, was a young, eastern European Jew living in New York with a keen interest in close-up magic. I had been exposed to wealth by attending school in the affluent hamlet of Chappaqua, but my family was certainly not from that social standing…In a manner that could only be described as Darwinian, I was regularly hired to perform close-up magic for the most demanding of audiences – the decadent rich…I recall thinking, ‘This is what it feels like to be Max Malini.’”
For decades, Steve gathered every bit of information he could find on Malini the man and Malini the performer. He also researched Malini’s magic and methods, most of which had only been sketchily explained in the literature. Because Steve incorporated many of Malini’s routines into his own repertoire, he has been able to “fill in the blanks” with handlings and strategies that, while possibly not exactly the way Malini performed the effects, are practical and true to the technical limitations of the early twentieth century.
The result of all this hard work is the magnificent book Max Malini: King of Magicians – Magician of Kings. To give you some idea of the scope of this book, the final Appendix, which is nineteen pages long, is a timeline of Malini’s life, beginning with his birth on March 14, 1875, in Ostrov, Galicia (on the border of modern-day Poland and Austria), to his death on October 3, 1942, in Honolulu, Hawaii. This timeline includes the dates and places of performances and departure and arrival dates as Malini traveled the world.
The book is divided into two large sections; the first details Malini’s life, including stories of his remarkable audacity (chutzpah in Yiddish), his early success capturing the attention of the media, and his family life. (Malini was married twice, and had two children: Oziar, who, in his youth, performed with his father; and Bernice, who was placed into foster care shortly after she was born.) Malini’s ability to hit a town unannounced, encounter and impress powerful people with seemingly impromptu miracles, turn those encounters into press coverage, and use that free advertising to fill theaters and ballrooms could easily generate a healthy skepticism in a reader, were it not for the fact there are so many examples of his success in doing this.
As I read these exploits, one thing became clear: a great deal of Malini’s success was due to the fact he understood his own strengths and weaknesses. As Ricky Jay wrote in Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, Malini “stood five feet two, had short arms and unusually small hands, dressed like a dandy, [and] spoke English with a comically heavy Eastern European accent.” It would seem these would be detriments to breaking into the realms of the rich and powerful, but Malini used them to his advantage. His appearance stimulated curiosity; his accent, combined with a razor-sharp sense of humor, allowed him to be forgiven for his audacious behavior. Malini also used shrewd thinking in the manner in which he adapted standard sleights to fit his physical limitations. He was also a master of preparation and patience, as is clearly explained in the second part of the book, which discusses Malini’s magic.
This part of the book (which is 300+ pages long) is divided into three sections: Impromptu Magic, Card Magic, and Platform Magic. All the Malini routines you’ve heard of (the Blindfold Card Stab, the Egg Bag, the Brick/Block of Ice Production, Button Biting, the Magnetized Knives) are included, plus much, much more. Concerning this material, Steve Cohen writes:
“With the passing of Oziar Malini in 2002, Ricky Jay in 2018, and Johnny Thompson in 2019, we lost the final authoritative links to Max Malini. There is not a single living magician who can confirm the precise methodology of Malini’s tricks and techniques, save the references that have been scattered across the literature, and a few more shared orally. As I immersed myself in the preparation of this book, I made inferences based on an understanding of early twentieth-century conjuring literature. I have offered suggestions where necessary to enable future magicians to actually perform the tricks described, as opposed to viewing them as relics…Some Malini effects have long been part of my Chamber Magic repertoire, and I will share specific details of my interpretations of these effects.”
Steve has done a fantastic job fleshing out these tricks with insightful, useful, and practical information. He has also included information from performers who have personal experience with the effects. (For example, Bob Sheets discusses the Card Stab routine.) Without going into detail, there were many times I thought to myself, “Ah…that’s what I didn’t understand; that’s why Malini did what he did.” If you have previously studied Malini’s material, I’m sure you’ll do the same.
The book concludes with chapters on “Malini the Storyteller” and “Five Malini Lessons,” a transcript of Oziar Malini’s speech at the Mulholland Library Conference on Magic History in 1989, selected newspaper articles from 1902 to 1942, and the aforementioned timeline of Malini’s life.
Max Malini: King of Magicians – Magician of Kings is a beautiful book, with a design replicating the magic books of Malini’s time. There are hundreds of black-and-white and color photos.
There is much more I could discuss, but one of the joys of a book like this is discovering the brilliant nuggets of insight scattered copiously throughout, and I would not deprive you of that pleasure. For lovers of magic history and close-up magic, it is a must-buy. Max Malini: King of Magicians – Magician of Kings is an extraordinary accomplishment of obsession and love. I give it my highest recommendation. ♦