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Review: Dai Vernon, Books in Canada

Books In Canada | April 2007

by Paul Quarrington

“The joy of the book comes from the quixotic quest at the root of Vernon’s life. In an age when mediocrity and acquiescence to the banal is the norm, Vernon’s relentless pursuit of perfection is invigorating.”

When the editors of this fine periodical asked me if I wanted to review David Ben’s Dai Vernon: A Biography, I should have pointed out, as a matter of journalistic integrity, that I know and admire the author. I should have recused myself, but I didn’t because I wanted the book. You see, as a cardcarrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, I have an abiding interest in the thaumaturgical arts. This was therefore a book I had long anticipated. Not only is its author one of Canada’s finest prestidigitators, but the subject of Ben’s book is Canada’s greatest magician ever (I claim this with a respectful nod toward the late Doug Henning.) Moreover, Dai Vernon is in some senses one of the greatest magicians who ever lived. That this fact is unknown to virtually all of his countrymen has always struck me as a great and sad shame, and David Ben, with this book, is doing everything he can to redress it.

For one thing, Ben gives the book the kind of heft such a subject might deserve. It is not made clear on the jacket, but this is merely the first volume of the biography. A friend noted the book sitting on my coffee table, and remarked on the dates in the title, “1894-1941”, That guy didn’t live very long.”

“Well, yes he did,” I corrected her, for Vernon was well-known presence at Hollywood’s Magic Castle well into his nineties. He would hold court, a gruff and scholarly man (he earned the sobriquet “The Professor” very early in life), and he would give counsel to the few acolytes who had somehow earned his respect. To those few, he would expound upon the same themes. Things have to look natural, he would lecture. The more natural things look, when it comes to thimble-riggery, the closer one comes to that which Dai Vernon sought all of his life: perfection.

The thoroughness of Ben’s research is mind-boggling, and having read the book I feel I know all of Vernon’s peregrinations, and they were many. He was born David Verner in Ottawa, Ontario. Although an athletic young man, his ambitions lay toward the visual arts. Indeed, he was a success in this regard, as the full title of the book implies. Vernon was widely acknowledged to be the finest silhouette artist of the time, travelling from place to place and rendering intricate shadows with scissors. Ben’s book, which is handsomely complemented with photographs, contains a reproduction of Vernon’s silhouette of FDR. But it was Vernon’s fortune to be a lad during the golden age of magic, when performers like Alexander Herrmann traveled the land in huge railway caravans. Vernon became obsessed with illusion, and card work in particular. When he purchased a book called The Expert at the Card Table, he discovered his life work set before him.

I shall try to explain this so that the lay person might understand. (I’m only slightly less lay when it comes to magic than the majority of readers.) The Expert at the Card Table was written by S. W. Erdnase (a pseudonym). It would have been more accurately titled, The Cheat at the Card Table. It’s a book about how to be an “advantage player”, how to manipulate playing cards so that the element of chance is eliminated. It’s about how to false shuffle, false cut, second deal, bottom deal, etcetera, and above all it preaches naturalness, to make these ersatz moves look exactly like the legitimate ones. It stresses that one must practise, practise, and practise some more—until one achieves perfection.

Vernon’s contribution to the art of magic was to marry this philosophy to the more showbizzy aspects. At least, his contribution was to bring this philosophy to the table, because he himself was unable to  successfully combine the two. His career as a performer had its highlights, certainly, but it was not where his interest lay. A passage from the book makes this abundantly clear:

Vernon once told Francis Finnerman . . .that although it might sound presumptuous, he had indeed created “the most perfect move in magic.” When asked to demonstrate the move, however, Vernon declined. “No one,” he said, “was ever going to see it.” When asked why he would bother to create such a move if he did not intend to show it to anyone, Vernon replied, in essence, that [since] his goal was to strive toward perfection, the move was irrelevant.

Such an attitude limits one’s horizons both as a performer and as a provider. It quickly becomes clear that Vernon was neglectful as a husband and father, preferring to travel around the United States (he went to New York as a young man, and stayed south of the border, for the most part) looking for advantage players from whom he might learn. He spent a great deal of time and energy, for example, searching for (and locating) a gambler possessed of a mythic “middle deal”, the ability to deal a card from the middle of the deck (as opposed to the bottom, say) without the move looking in anyway suspect. This was, in a sense, Vernon’s Holy Grail.

I was delighted by Ben’s book, but I cannot help wondering why anyone else would care to read it. On one level, it is a very thoroughly researched and wellbered written account of a man who remains an asterisk and footnote in the annals of 20th century entertainment. He influenced all of the great magicians that were his contemporaries, and this influence can be felt today, albeit by a dedicated few. Dai Vernon, for example, brought back the famous “Cups and Balls” effect from obscurity, and multitudes have subsequently been delighted by this. But magic has failed, as an art form, to pierce the armour of our collective indifference. It grieves me to say it, but we do not delight in wonder and mystery the way we might. If we did, Dai Vernon would be a household name, and we would swagger in foreign lands, proudly boasting that our frozen nation produced such a titan. As it is, only magicians really care, and magicians might have a few problems with this book. For example, Ben doesn’t reveal any of the ‘work’ involved in any of Vernon’s effects (he says nothing about the mechanics of the middle deal, and I know that he knows), and magicians are invariably eager, insistent, that secrets be revealed. No secrets are revealed here. Mind you, if they had been, magicians would be quick to condemn Ben for doing so.

The joy of the book comes from the quixotic quest at the root of Vernon’s life. In an age when mediocrity and acquiescence to the banal is the norm, Vernon’s relentless pursuit of perfection is invigorating. David Ben—perhaps because he shares the inclination—details every step and misstep in this regard. He admires Vernon, but makes no excuses for his poor performance as a husband and father. Instead, he makes us understand that there is a universe of ideas and ideals—we refer to it as ‘magic’, here on our little planet—that some people find endlessly enchanting.


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