Dai Vernon, the person and the magician

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby Guest » 01/21/03 04:11 AM

I was researching an article on Dai Vernon and noticed how little has been written on the man him self. I think myself very unfortunate to have never met him and would love to hear from anyone who met him or saw him perform.

I also read he had said negative things about Houdini but I could not find any notes on what he said.

Thanks in advance

Darren
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Postby Dale Shrimpton » 01/21/03 05:40 AM

just popped something over to you that may help..
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 01/21/03 09:38 AM

If Vernon liked you, he shared great magic and stories with you. If he didn't like you, he didn't give you much of his time.
Fortunately, he was fond of me and we had some enjoyable time together.
As a friend in magic, he was a good friend.
The other side of the coin is that:
1) He was a man who was proud of the fact that he never worked a day in his life. He was lucky that there were other people around to pay his rent.
2) He didn't give a crap about anything but magic and his magic friends. He saw very little of his family and didn't seem to care much at all about his kids. I met Vernon's grandson once in 1987 at a roast for Vernon at the last Symposium in New York. I said to him that it must have been great to have Dai Vernon as your grandfather. The kid was already in his teens and he responded, "I wouldn't know. This is only the second time I've ever met him."
People in magic absolutely hate to hear this stuff because they have put Vernon on a very high pedestal (and, in the world of magic, he deserves to be there).
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Postby Lance Pierce » 01/21/03 11:22 AM

Indeed...wasn't it on the television documentary, "Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic," where his son said, "As a father, my dad was a great magician?" And who was it who said, "It was worth a million dollars to me to meet Vernon, and it's worth a million dollars to never meet anyone like him again?"

Vernon had an obsession like no other. In the early days when he lived in the midwest, he thought nothing of leaving his family for weeks upon weeks at a time to chase down a whisper of a rumor of someone who could do a bottom or a center deal, sometimes with little or no advance notice. He was remarkably irresponsible, and the fact that he had to pay rent never impinged itself on his mind.

He was an extreme artist, for there was little room for anything else in his life but his art. Everything was put aside for magic. This made him both a great artist and an insufferable partner for anyone who didn't share his passion. Vernon had a wife and children, but his true family was a network of grifters, cardsharps, manipulators, sleight-of-hand artists (both novice and professional) and high-class entertainers.

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to be so consumed, so involved that absolutely nothing else exists -- and what fruit can come from that degree of disbalance. In Vernon's case, magicians all over the world for generations are thankful, even if his family isn't. He had only one true love, and he lived in service of it alone.

Do I want to be like that?

Well...

No.

And yes.

L-
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Postby Guest » 01/21/03 02:00 PM

Originally posted by Lance Pierce:
Indeed...wasn't it on the television documentary, "Dai Vernon: The Spirit of Magic,"...
Speaking of this documentary... there are a couple of short clips here:

http://www.michelehozer.com/daivernon.html

HappyTrickster
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Postby John Smetana » 01/21/03 03:40 PM

Seems to me that Vernon lived a life devoted to experience rather than aquisition. A rather romantic, and sometimes desirable notion,I would say. The question is was Vernon a happy and/or contented man? I'd like to hear from folks like Richard and other people who were close to him,for an answer to this question.

Best thoughts,
John Smetana :cool:
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 01/21/03 05:44 PM

Vernon seemed to me to be the picture of contentment. From 1963 when he went to California until the end of his life:
1) Bill Larsen gave him a place to hang out and become a god.
2) Bill Larsen let him live in the Magic Castle rent free for the first few years, and then moved him into an apartment a few steps away and paid his rent.
3) Bill Larsen paid for all of Vernon's booze at the Castle and sometimes other delights elsewhere.
Vernon did only what he wanted, went to sleep when he wanted, woke when he wanted, bathed when he wanted (not as often in later years as the rest of us would have preferred--Vernon claimed he never perspired and did not need to bathe as often as others). He ate what he wanted and drank what he wanted and hung around with his friends and did magic till the sun came up.
It was, to use a cliche, the Life of Reilly.
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Postby Bob Coyne » 01/21/03 07:22 PM

It would be great if a real biography of Vernon was written someday (soon). Is anyone working on one? The Vernon Chronicles volume on his life is interesting (as are the various anecdotes that get passed around here and other places) but it's so much less than a real in-depth biography would be.
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Postby Dustin Stinett » 01/21/03 08:01 PM

David Ben is working on a biography of Vernon.

Originally posted by Richard Kaufman:
He was a man who was proud of the fact that he never worked a day in his life.
Well, he worked part of a day, but it damn near killed him!

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Postby David Alexander » 01/21/03 08:54 PM

Vernon's claim of "never working" is nonsense. Vernon worked when he had to. There is, in Genii I believe, perhaps an old Sphinx, a picture of Vernon in the hospital with both arms in casts, broken when working at some job, around or during WW II, if memory serves.

Vernon's forays into professional performing weren't particularly successful. He had awful stage fright (related to me by Faucett Ross) and a fondness for the flowing bowl that would have hampered any possible success on stage.

Vernon was a first class silhouette artist, not the best who ever lived, but an excellent artist who cut a wonderful little art deco-like bust. The one surviving artist who worked the Chicago World's Fair with him in 1933 laughed when I mentioned Vernon's name. "Dave was always fooling with card tricks and not paying attention to business."

Vernon's silhouette work was influenced by artists he saw as a yong man, even though I heard him claim he was self taught. Well, he may have figured out how to cut by himself, but he clearly had been exposed to and influenced by the artists he saw. Veron taught Larry Gray and Paul Fox to cut and their work shows his influence.

Vernon cut silhouettes at department stores, parks, amusement areas (Pikes Peak for one) and did private parties through the booking office of Frances Rockefeller King. Sometimes Mrs. King's clients let him do "card tricks."

As for "never making any money," I was told by one of Vernon's closest friends that he had nearly a quarter million dollars in the bank...and this was a guy in a position to know the facts.

A "biography" written by his wife, "I Married Mr. Magic," was in the possession of his son and daughter-in-law but is supposed to have been destroyed because they thought the world should believe the legend not the truth...or at least the truth from the perspective of a wife who had been abandoned, but never divorced. What could be the market for such a book?

His son, Ted, took care of him during his last years and was probably a better son than Vernon deserved. Certainly, what Ted achieved - successful family, command rank in the military, was done without any help from his father.
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Postby Richard Kaufman » 01/21/03 10:11 PM

David, I stand corrected: I don't believe Vernon worked after he broke both arms. With the help of Dr. Jacob Daley and others (still alive, so they shall remain anonymous), he was able to spend his life from after WWII without ever holding a job or worrying about financial matters.
I recall quite well when it was discovered that he had managed to squirrel away $100,000 in the bank. Needless to say, some people at the Magic Castle were quite taken aback that the old man had so much money and the Magic Castle was paying his rent. From my point of view, he brought such cache to the Castle in terms of attracting other magicians that he was worth many times the meager amount of his rent and sundries.
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Postby Kevin Baker » 01/22/03 02:22 AM

There are also several references in The Phoenix to Vernon working cruise ship voyages to South America.

As a matter of interest, did he work these as a magician or silhouette artist?

Kevin
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 02:31 AM

In my research for my article I have read references of him working, did he not fall of some scaffolding and damage his hand?

What was his performance and patter style like? Did anyone see him perform for Laymen?

Darren
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Postby Lance Pierce » 01/22/03 05:52 AM

Originally posted by dk the magician:
In my research for my article I have read references of him working, did he not fall of some scaffolding and damage his hand?

What was his performance and patter style like? Did anyone see him perform for Laymen?

Darren
No, he fell several floors and broke both arms. Doctors tried to persuade him to consent to having both amputated due to the threat of gangrene, but he would have none of it. According to Vernon, this was the first and only time he ever worked a regular job, and it was only half a day at that. Before moving to NY, he'd served in the Canadian Royal Air Force, and he later became known for his silhouette-cutting, but except for the one time, I don't know of any occasion where he was part of a hired workforce of any kind.

While in NY, Vernon did shows and worked gigs in restaurants (and even worked cruises), but this was to be relatively short-lived. To put it succinctly, he'd much rather practice than perform. As mentioned, he did experience stage fright from time to time, but with his debonair manner and dashing looks, he and his close-up magic were shoo-ins for the socialites, and Leipzig's wife once complained that Vernon was taking all the good engagements away from her husband. When it came down to it, though, it probably seemed like "work," and not something he fully enjoyed. Most of us accept that if he'd stayed with it, he would have been one of the most successful performing magicians who ever lived.

His performing style was, for the most part, expository. He seemed to give credit to the audience for being intelligent and talked to them as if they knew what was going on. In his cups and balls or linking ring routines, for instance, he admitted to certain ploys and acted as if it could be taken for granted that everybody knew about them, and in so-doing he would set them up for the next fooling moment. In this way, he was constantly complimenting his audience, implying that they're sharp enough to see through almost anything...anything except, of course, what he just fooled them with, and this made him a gentleman magician.

Cheers,

Lance
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 06:54 AM

Ken Brooke in his Foreword to Further Inner Secrets of Card Magic gives an example of Vernon's compassion towards other magicians. The entire Foreword in fact makes for interesting reading. I've reproduced it below and highlighted in bold the relevant section.

HappyTrickster

[Note from RK: Very sorry to have to delete the excerpt from the book, however this is copyrighted material and reproducing it without the written permission of the publisher--that would be L&L at this point-- is illegal.]
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Postby Lisa Cousins » 01/22/03 09:45 AM

At Magic Collectors' Weekend in 2001, David Ben lectured on Dai Vernon's wife, and he shared excerpts from "I Married Mr. Magic" - so this can't have been destroyed. It also had a subtitle that was something along the lines of "Laughter Is My Only Shield."
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Postby Jon Racherbaumer » 01/22/03 11:49 AM

After spending four years living in the French Quarter, keeping a journal, writing, and hanging out with artists, magicians and other Quarterites, I jotted this in my notebook:

"In the Quarter, everybody knows everything about everybody else except who they REALLY are."

I'm sure only a few people really knew Vernon.
Otherwise, the Professor lived a unique life primarily of his own choosing, literally "following his bliss" and exercising his considerable charms. He was also the main character in his own "play" (bio), and because he could weave wonderful tales, mixing fact with fancy and vice versa, this, in part, is how his legend took root. This does not mean that he completely fabricated stories, but he knew how to cast a spell and weave stories out of his own biography. The rest grew organically and in subtle increments.

Lawrence Durrell had one of his characters utter:
"We lead lives of select fiction."

This aptly applies to the Professor.

The current magic scene (sub-culture) does not lend itself to the development of this kind of character. Consider the following short list of characters that once peopled magicdom: Duke Stern, Karrel Fox, Bob Hummer, Jack Chanin, Senator Crandall, Eddie Fields, Frank Thompson, Jay Ose, Frances Caryle, Al Goshman, Tony Slydini, Jimmy Grippo, Al Flosso...and of course the fabled and factual Dai Vernon. The list is much longer...but the cast of characters of bygone times was indeed rich and diverse.

IMHO, there are only a handful of "characters" today...

(Unless of course I'm suffering from a terminal case of "nostalgia"?)

Bottom Line: Writing a bio about Vernon will be deeply challenging. If it only halfway succeeds, it will be a helluva book.)

Onward...
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Postby Steve Bryant » 01/22/03 12:05 PM

It's not a biography, but "Zambolini"'s memoirs deserve publication. I'm still in awe that Vernon was captain of his hockey team. I'd love to have asked him about his athletic years.
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Postby John Smetana » 01/22/03 12:50 PM

Many thanks for your generous response Richard. Ahh..to be able to live the Vernon kind of life..it warms the cockels(whatever they are)of my heart.
Please guys, don't stop writing now...this is really great stuff. This is the type of information that makes one feel good to be involved in magic.
Much, much better than some of the stuff that's happening in magic today.

Best thoughts,
John Smetana :cool:
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Postby Pete Biro » 01/22/03 02:52 PM

OK Roc... who's on your "characters of today" list?

Jay Marshall :D
David Williamson :eek:
Juan Tamariz :p

to name a few...

You missed Richard Himber and Ken Brooke, oh and Roy Benson... and??? :rolleyes:
Stay tooned.
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Postby Pete Biro » 01/22/03 02:54 PM

Heba Haba Al
Eddie Fechter
Johnny Paul
Cardini
Goshman
Stay tooned.
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Postby Pete Biro » 01/22/03 02:55 PM

Bob Driebeek :eek:
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 05:08 PM

Originally posted by Jon Racherbaumer:

Lawrence Durrell had one of his characters utter:
"We lead lives of select fiction."

This aptly applies to the Professor.
It might have been Alfred Hitchcock (but I'm not sure) who said "Fiction is life, with the dull bits left out."

I'd pay an arm and a leg (but not a hand, haha) to read a real, detailed bio of Vernon. Unfortunately, he's not around to interview, to help edit, to have someone say to him "Yes, yes, nevermind that, what about....?"

His contemporaries are mostly dead now, so they're little help. The man's real life is already shrouded in legend and obfuscation, and will probably only become more so. It's a pity. He was one of the great artists of the 20th century. People whose impact is much less have had several biographies attempt to explain them.

Best,

Geoff
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 05:13 PM

Originally posted by Jon Racherbaumer:
IMHO, there are only a handful of "characters" today...

(Unless of course I'm suffering from a terminal case of "nostalgia"?)
P.S. Maybe. In those days we called them "characters". Now we call them "neurotics" and give them pills....

Best,

Geoff
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 05:37 PM

When the Magic Castle first opened (Jan 3, 1963) we had no scheduled shows, no close-up room, no stage, no dining rooms, no basement, no Dai Vernon. Those improvements came with time. We had a house magician, Jay Ose. When he determined that there were a few people eager to see some magic he would gather them around the table and perform. Oh, how he would perform.

Many people brought guests and those of us who were magicians would do our thing at the table sometime during the evening. I was there every evening from about 10:15 on and I reckon I performed every night during the first three months of the club's existence. Dai Vernon was one of several magicians from other parts of the country who migrated to Los Angeles because of the Castle. He stayed, as did Jay Ose, upstairs in what was to become the dining room area. Some of us who were members at that time were fortunate enough to take lessons from him. (and from Jay).

There is little I can add to what has been said about Dai's personality except to note that in about 1969 I commented to friends that Dai never put down a rich man. He could be quite caustic in discussing other magicians who were making a name for themselves.

Dai could discuss card magic as thoroughlyas any man living. I have been in the room while he was on the phone talking to a like minded magician in New York. He had no cards in his hand but was describing sleights -- and being understood (which says also a great deal about the young man on the other end -- at that time a college student -- now a professor.)

Dai had less interest in perfecting his presentation than in achieving something new in the way of a card sleight. Although he was not noticibly interested in magic not done with cards, he was willing to share something new when he had been amazed. When the Dam Trick first came out -- long before it was available in stores. Dai came rushing into a room where I was sitting with Aldini and showed us this marvel of a quarter penetrating a sheet of rubber and dropping into the glass. He left and Aldini and I puzzled about it. We concluded that it must be based on the self-sealing gas tanks in fighter planes. That was the only occasion when I saw Dai do any magic other than cards. And I saw him nightly for years and years except when he was away on a trip.
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Postby Guest » 01/22/03 05:53 PM

Originally posted by Geoff Latta:

It might have been Alfred Hitchcock (but I'm not sure) who said "Fiction is life, with the dull bits left out."
Almost... Hitchcock said: "Drama is life with the dull bits left out." :-)

HappyTrickster
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Postby Guest » 01/23/03 05:20 AM

For someone as young as me (a mere 29) I treasures some of this posts, Most of us know his magic, but only a few knew him, and this is where we can find out more about him, please keep them coming. Did anyone see him lecture in the UK?
I also would love to read a bio on Vernon, my article was only going to be a brief introduction so all new comers could read and understand why he was so important to our magic, a factor I feel is being missed by so many today “magic history”. Now everyone can say we should look forward, and I agree, but we should also not forget what has got us to where we are today?

Darren
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Postby Dale Shrimpton » 01/23/03 05:36 AM

Mate, i think that some of your answers will be found if you have a chat with Bobby Bernard next time you run into him.
He has / had some nice photographs of the Harlequin act.
One thought,didnt Harry Stanley film Vernons lectures?
I am sure that these may be available somewhere on video.
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Postby Guest » 01/23/03 05:53 AM

My god! videos of Vernon lectures! what a tantalising thought!

Does anyone know of non-professional recordings of the man - akin to the videos of Marlo released in the last few years?
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Postby Lance Pierce » 01/23/03 06:33 AM

Probably the closest we'd come to a Vernon biography right now is a collection of all the Vernon columns from Genii Magazine. Vernon contributed columns with hardly a break from 1968 right up to (I believe) the time of this death. For the most part, these were transcribed from audiotapes, so the reader can easily hear Vernon's "voice" coming from the page as he talks about things he's done, magicians he's met, and his outlook on magic (and sometimes life).

Cheers,

Lance
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Postby Matthew Field » 01/23/03 08:23 AM

I've got a review scheduled for the March Genii of a CD recording of Vernon, a reissue by Patrick Page of a cassette recorded in England.

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Postby Lance Pierce » 01/23/03 08:30 AM

Originally posted by DomT:
My god! videos of Vernon lectures! what a tantalising thought!

Does anyone know of non-professional recordings of the man - akin to the videos of Marlo released in the last few years?
Well, here's an interview for starters:

http://stevensmagic.com/shopping/shopexd.asp?id=773
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Postby Steve Bryant » 01/23/03 08:53 AM

The interview videos Lance mentions above are excellent and among my favorite videos. An AUDIO tape of Vernon's first Magic Castle lecture (circa 1964?) was commercially available. I own a set but don't know whether or where they are currently available.
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Postby Bob Gerdes » 01/23/03 09:14 AM

As a matter of fact, there's a set of the audio tapes for sale on eBay right now:

http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?Vi ... tegory=427

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Postby Guest » 01/23/03 04:33 PM

Vernon, Wilson & Son on the "Art of Pointing":

http://www.diefertigenfinger.com/english/forget.html

HappyTrickster
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Postby Brad Jeffers » 01/23/03 10:54 PM

Matthew, Where can I get a copy of that CD ( From The End of My Cigar )? I've been looking for that. As for the audio tapes that Steve mentioned (Vernon's two 1963 lectures at the Castle) - I got a set of those a few years ago from Bruce Cervon. He's the one who produced them, so he probably still has a supply left. I never had the chance to meet Vernon in person, but shared some correspondence with him in the early 70's, when I was just a teenager. Quite a fellow! One thing (of many), that I would be interested in knowing more about, is the exact nature of his relationship with Perci Diaconis. On the Spirit of Magic video, some of Diaconis's comments made me wonder.
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Postby mike cookman » 01/30/03 07:17 PM

I watched a show on PBS one night and part of it featured Dai Vernon, and on it he made a red ball vanish as he was sitting there talking to whoever was interviewing him. I've seen a lot of magic, but that one simple vanish floored me. A book or movie about him would be fascinating, I would think. He sounds to me like the Woody Guthrie of magic..revered by those involved in the same trade, though he lived a very different life than most would have thought..
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Postby Leonard Hevia » 01/30/03 08:34 PM

Hi Mike-what PBS show were you referring to? Do you remember?
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Postby Leonard Hevia » 01/30/03 08:37 PM

I forgot to mention Mike that magician David Ben is working on a biography of Vernon that all of us are waiting for. :)
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Postby Guest » 01/30/03 09:42 PM

Originally posted by Leonard Hevia:
I forgot to mention Mike that magician David Ben is working on a biography of Vernon that all of us are waiting for. :)
Can you give any further details?

Best,

Geoff
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