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'Glorious Deception' in Magic


The early 20th-century magician Chung Ling Soo is the subject of a new biography by Jim Steinmeyer. We have a review from Teller. He's the smaller, quieter half of the duo Penn & Teller.

ARTHUR TELLER reporting:

On the night of March 24th, 1918, the spectators in London's Wood Green Empire Theater were on the edge of their velvet seats. They were watching the celebrated magician Chung Ling Soo. Chung Ling Soo spoke no English. He did slight-of-hand, fire-eating and lavish stage illusions, all in inscrutable silence. Silently now Chung stood on one side of the stage; on the other side stood two marksmen. They loaded marked bullets into their rifles. Chung faced them and held up a porcelain plate like a shield. If all went as usual, Chung would miraculously catch those bullets on his plate. The marksmen raised their weapons and fired. The plate shattered, blood exploded into the spotlight. As his knees buckled, the man who had not spoken on stage in 18 years said in perfect English, `My God, bring down the curtain. Something has happened.'

What exactly happened? Why? And who was the man who died that night? Jim Steinmeyer answers these questions in his lush new biography "The Glorious Deception," subtitled "The Double Life of William Ellsworth Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, Marvelous Chinese Conjuror."

You see, the man who was shot was not Chinese at all; he was a New Yorker named Billy Robinson. His Scottish-American father had made his living singing ballads in bowery saloons. Most magicians practice deception only on the stage where the audience expects to be deceived. For Robinson, deception was a way of life. When reporters interviewed him, he appeared as Chung in Chinese makeup and communicated through a translator. For family pictures, he posed in costume with borrowed Asian children. Even apart from show business, Robinson lied almost compulsively. He was a bigamist with a mistress on the side. If you knew he wasn't actually Chinese and asked where he was from, he'd ask where you was from then he'd claim to be from somewhere near your home town.

On stage, though, Robinson's deceptions were pure poetry. He materialized a woman in a spinning lantern of glass in midair. He resurrected living animals from the bedraggled skins of dead ones. Biographer Jim Steinmeyer is also an illusion designer, so when he describes the performances of Chung Ling Soo, you simultaneously thrill to them from the best seat in the house and watch the trapdoors work from underneath the stage.

Because Robinson was a conjuror, some bookshops may shelve this fine biography in the magic ghetto alongside the riddles and games. Don't be deceived. "The Glorious Deception" is a true detective story and a sparkling cultural history. Billy Robinson was not a card trick or a crossword puzzle; he was a genuine enigma.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Glorious Deception" by Jim Steinmeyer. It was reviewed by Teller of Penn & Teller. The duo performs nightly at the Rio in Las Vegas.

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SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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