Today being the birthday of magician William Ellsworth Robinson a.a. Chung Ling Soo (1861-1918) whom we first wrote about here. Seems a fitting time for a little plug for Jim Steinmeyer’s 2005 book The Glorious Deception: The Double Life Life of William Robinson, a.k.a Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer” — a Christmas present from my wife, which I’ve held off on reading for this occasion.
In case you haven’t guessed (or haven’t read my descriptions of him in the mentioned post or in my book No Applause), Robinson was an Anglo-American magician who spent the last 18 or so years of his life masquerading as a Chinese performer, particularly intending to siphon off some of the popularity of Ching Ling Soo, an actual Chinese magician who was widely popular at the time. Ching Ling Soo was authentic and original, yet Robinson was the better technical and more spectacular magician, so the pair had a bona fide rivalry for a number of years. In addition to this remarkable fact, Robinson is legendary in show business annals for his tragic onstage death during his version of the bullet trick. Plenty here to keep a reader riveted, eh?
In addition to his many books, author Jim Steinmeyer is a practicing illusionist, so he brings a depth of understanding to Robinson’s career that a civilian historian may well not. Yet the revelations of the book extend far beyond the technical. I was particularly pleased with the book’s early chapters. It stands to reason that the early part of Robinson’s life would be somewhat buried — he spent decades changing identities and adding layers. But Steinmeyer has unearthed much fascinating information about the real guy. For example that he was the son of a veritable Renaissance man of the variety stage named Jim Campbell, and that he grew up in the saloons and dime museums of the Bowery watching his dad perform. He also presents revelations about Robinson’s private life, including the fact that he was essentially a bigamist for many years; legally married to one woman, while presenting his common-law second wife as his legitimate one. For those who are not avid magic buffs or historians, the book doubles as a de facto history of vaudeville and the magic arts as well, pausing for detours to talk about such figures as Harry Hill, Tony Pastor, and B.F. Keith, as well as early Robinson influences such as Robert Heller and Sr. Antonio Blitz, and major figures he worked with over a period of years, such as Harry Kellar and Herrmann the Great. Most of the previous biographical writing on Robinson have been somewhat vague; the current book is wonderfully detailed not just about biographical details but about what illusions he performed. There are descriptions of his act, and a clear chronology of what guises he went under (previous to Chung Ling Soo, he had been known as Achmed Ben Ali, Nana Sahib, and Abdul Khan at various times, as well as his own name).
Best of all, Steinmeyer is a real writer and not (as so many are) a mere regurgitator of facts. He has a way with words and a flare for showmanship. The book’s best gimmick (and we in show business never mean the word “gimmick” pejoratively) is to open the narrative with Robinson’s spectacular death, leaving us on the hook until the end of the book to find out what actually went wrong. Of course, you can always thumb straight to the end to get that information, but don’t do that. It will spoil the act. Get The Glorious Deception here.