Dai Vernon, The Professor, one of the most respected close-up magicians in the country, learned his first trick at seven years old. “I wasted the first six years of my life,” he said. Steve Cohen was ten when he began performing professionally. There was never any question what he would do with his life. Not only would he become a magician, but specifically, a close-up artist.
Cohen came up through Tannen’s Magic Camp (Tannen’s Magic Shop is the oldest in New York), won the close-up category award from The International Brotherhood of Magicians at 17, and flew to Japan at the invitation of a judge. Graduating in Developmental Psychology from Cornell, the young man then spent four years in Japan studying and performing.
He returned to New York and worked private parties, then, one day, had an epiphany. Cohen would perform 19th century Chamber Magic – close-up magic in an elegant, intimate environment. Private venues gave way to a suite in the Waldorf Astoria, then the show’s current home, The Lotte New York Palace Hotel. The performer has now traveled the world.
Chamber Magic is a rarity. One dresses for the Lotte where the (pre-pandemic) audience is no larger than 40 to 50 people. Cohen himself appears in a bespoke tailcoat from London. Attending his show is a special event. There may be a twinkle in his eye, but the magician is serious about his art. There are no big props, no mirrors or trapdoors.
Confronting Magic is a coffee-table book, a gift; beautifully produced with lavish color illustrations.
Part I presents the practitioners “Origin Story” photographically capturing astonishment of various audiences. Part II introduces Cohen’s greatest inspiration, Max Malini, a practitioner prepared to astonish anywhere, anytime. I once read a journalist’s description of her interview with the great man at a Los Angeles diner. I don’t recall who arrived first, but the free standing Formica table was empty, but for flatware and condiments until he placed his hat beside the menu. They ate and talked. She taped the conversation. Rising, Malini picked up his hat. There was a block of ice under it.
Cohen writes about emulating Malini’s readiness, showmanship, perception of audience, and risk-taking. He describes recreating one of his predecessor’s feats: Asking a volunteer to choose a card, Cohen made it vanish. The stranger’s jacket and inner pockets were found to be empty. “Thinking like Malini, I countered, ‘Sometimes tricks don’t work the way I expect…’” Much to the stranger’s shock, the magician took out a knife and cut into the man’s jacket lining. The top of his card showed, but couldn’t be removed. It was sewn into the lining!
Part III, True Tales From The Millionaires’ Magician, is comprised of recollections surrounding signature effects often performed before notable people. Anyone who’s ever been to a Cohen show talks about the kettle in Think-A-Drink which produces three or four audience-chosen liquids as diverse as milk, a mixed cocktail, and fruit juice from the same spout.
Anne-Sophie Mutter watched a violin bow merge with the instrument’s strings. Michael Bloomberg “saw” the Secretary of the Treasury’s signature on a dollar bill morph to his own. Testimonials are scattered throughout the volume. A fascinating and, to my mind, too short section describes “Lost Magic,” Cohen’s first hand observing of The Indian Rope Trick in India and his attempting a Bullet Catch (in his teeth).
An Epilogue addresses research for new tricks. These are often developed based on old craft and take, Cohen says, about two years to perfect. A veritable truffle hunt.
All Photographs Courtesy of Steve Cohen and Assouline
Conjuring Magic by Steve Cohen
Forward by Guillermo Del Toro
Published by Assouline