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The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  416 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Here is the seminal biography of the magician's magician, Howard Thurston, a man who surpassed Houdini in the eyes of showmen and fans and set the standard fro how stage magic is performed today.

Everyone knows Houdini-but who was Thurston? In this rich, vivid biography of the "greatest magician in the world," celebrated historian of stage magic Jim Steinmeyer captures th
Hardcover, 384 pages
Published February 3rd 2011 by Tarcher
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Feb 15, 2011 rated it liked it
Jim Steinmeyer knows magic, and he knows magicians, and he knows how to write about them. Put those three things together, and what you get in The Last Greatest Magician is one of the most intriguing and exciting biographies I've ever read.

To be honest, before reading this book, it had been AGES since I last read a biography. It's not that I'm not interested - reading about the lives of interesting or well-known (or sometimes not well-known) people has always fascinated me, but I've often found
Josh Steiner
Jul 08, 2011 rated it liked it
The story of the now-forgotten World's Greatest Magician Howard Thurston was both entertaining and frustrating, a dichotomy that Thurston seemed to experience with each new day of his career.

Steinmeyer works quickly to deconstruct two illusions for his audience. First is the strange case of the magician's struggle with his own identity. In one hand was Thurston's lifelong dedication to the character he created for the public. He was the personification of serenity and fair play, a cultured gentl
Charles Moore
Jan 04, 2014 rated it liked it
I enjoy a good magic show. Lots of fun being entertained and mystified. Steinmeyer's biography of Howard Thurston, a name you probably never heard of, is well written, very well researched, and really interesting about a man and times we don't think too much about.

Thurston lived and lived and entertained in the early 1900s. He is accordingly given more respect as an illusionist opposed to the fame of Houdini, an escape artist. There is a distinction that Steinmeyer makes often and helps form th
Jake Stains
Jul 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The story of the great Howard Thurston is more than just the story of a magician. It is the story of a teenage delinquent, a con man and pickpocket on the streets on New York. It is the story of a drifter who risked his life and limbs hopping freight trains and traveling the country. It is the story of a wayward youth who joined the circus, and the bizarre world of freak shows and oddities he there encountered. It is the story of a pioneer, who loaded up his stagecoach wagon with magic tricks an ...more
Oct 06, 2011 rated it liked it
I love books about this time period. It's all about circuses, magic shows, and vaudeville. The seediness of the popular entertainment industry is just so fascinating.

Steinmeyer highlights the intense rivalry between magicians at the time, when they stole and backstabbed and engineered feats of amazement. Howard Thurston, whom most have never heard of, lends a strong center to the book. His escapades, questionable character, and powerful charisma drive the story, but every aspect is intriguing.
Dec 12, 2013 rated it liked it
Closer to 2.5 stars. Howard Thurston was an interesting guy with an even more interesting magic show. What perplexed me about the book (and perplexed is probably too strong a word) is that human relationships were reported as matter-of-factly as the mechanics of magic tricks, and this worsened as the book went on. One of his brothers was murdered, but that's covered in a couple of paragraphs, then we and Thurston move on. As another example, his relationship with his third wife seems to be diffe ...more
Meghan Wilson
Aug 29, 2011 rated it it was ok
Very interesting subject and very interesting man, but I was disappointed in the writing this time. The other Steinmeyer book I have read about Chung Ling Soo was much more engaging. This one seemed extremely disjointed- just paragraphs stuck together willy-nilly at times. Regardless, I read it and finished it and am glad I did.
Oct 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
So Ill admit I came into this book (a goodreads giveaway I won) expecting something like "The Prestige". No such luck, however I did get a fascinating look at the world of early 20thcentury magic something I didn't know much about. well written and fascinating but don't go looking for a thriller here.
Sep 25, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
**won in goodreads giveaway** Was looking for the prestige and got a dry bio. Good as a bio but if are looking for more thrill and show you will be disappointed. Other wise good.
Nov 29, 2012 rated it it was ok
Too much information. Thurston was an interesting character, but this was like digging to the level of what he had for breakfast.
Feb 02, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2013
Interesting book about an interesting man; however, it just didn't capture my attention that much.
Ronnie Cramer
Jul 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I have almost no interest in magic or magicians, but this book was so well done that it held my interest and then some.
Mar 19, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Before reading this book I had never heard of Howard Thurston but after finishing it I wish I had had a chance to see one of his performances. Picking himself up by the bootstraps and leaving behind teen years spent on the wrong side of the law, Thurston doggedly pursued his chosen profession of magic. He certainly paid his dues in order to eventually reach the top of the magic world. Starting off playing in some of the roughest places he slowly honed his craft and learned from books and other m ...more
Aug 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Fun read about the slimball reality of being a full time magician in the early years of the 20th Century. I used to buy stuff from Gerald Heany, one of the people who ended up with a lot of Thurston's gear after he died. Heany always tossed in extra stuff for me and wrote long letters to me about the things he included and how to best perform them. Years later I learned that was not at all like his usual behavior. Oh well, it was good for me.
Mike O'Connor
Apr 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Not as good as the same author's "Hiding the Elephant," and the title is a bit misleading as the book is really a straight biography of turn of the century magician Howard Thurston rather than elusively about his rivalry with Houdini. Nonetheless it's well researched, and I found the first half of the book whcih concentrated on Thurston's early life and career as a con-man grifter (which he later tried to whitewash away when giving his life's biography) to be pretty engaging.
Megan Hex
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfic-2017
Very enjoyable account of the life of Howard Thurston, a stage magician in the early 20th century. Despite the title, Houdini and other magicians are only mentioned when they are part of Thurston's story; it's really a biography. I also appreciated the chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the author's sources at the end.
Scott Potter
Aug 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
I really enjoyed this book. Life of a magician was not easy. I thought it was very interesting. I thought it was a cool cultural change in that "talking movies" became the rage and live acts became less popular. Pushing magicians out. And he was a local guy...Columbus, Ohio.
Matthew McClintock
Feb 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
It surprised me to find this one appealing all the way through! Neither magic nor biography is an area that usually grabs me, but this one had just enough of both (along with interesting general history of the period) to keep me turning pages.
Apr 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
The only way that I can describe this book is magical. When you think of a famous olde time magician you probably think of Harry Houdini, this book goes over the life on a forgoten magician. Howard Thurston, the last magician to hold the title of the Greatest Magician in the world. The book tells how his audiences loved his illiousions, and more importantly the book goes into great detail how each trick worked. Every magician of the time loved Thurston, even his enemies cried when they learned t ...more
Oct 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
I am a big fan of a certain type of American history, and so this book caught my eye even before I saw the recommendations from Neil Patrick Harris, Neil Gaiman, and Teller. I like anything related to Houdini and the early part of the 20th century.

The book starts off saying Thurston's goal was to be the biggest magician in the world, and Houdini's goal was to create a legend. Both got what they wanted, but now no one remembers Thurston. We are also told Thurston is the person who created the i
David Ward
Mar 12, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, thrillers
The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards by Jim Steinmeyer (Penguin 2011) (Biography). The 1920's were the heyday of parlor magic in the US and England; the two superstars of the day were Howard Thurston and Harry Houdini. They were contemporaries who grudgingly respected each other; the book is an interesting report on their time. There were a couple of interesting pieces of trivia that I gleaned from this book. The first is ...more
Apr 17, 2012 rated it really liked it
The title is a bit misleading, as the rivalry between Thurston and Houdini doesn't play prominently in the book. But clearly, Thurston was the better magician, if not the best magician of his age. It's sad that he is no longer remembered.

I started liking Thurston better in the book as he gets older. His early years were spent as a small-time hood, and his awful brother Harry, who capitalized on Howard Thurston's fame, never shook his connection with the underworld. With age, Thurston becomes mor
Tom Schulte
Aug 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio, history, theater
authored by a magician, this has a respectful and revelatory tone. we get tricks revealed and tradecraft exposed. Despite the subtitle, this is Thurston's career with much about Kellar, Hermann, and other contemporaries. There is not much about Houdini. What is there diminishes Harry. He comes across as a self-aggrandizing image manipulator in control of associations and publications for his benefit. This makes the book offer a side of Houdini he sought to suppress and highlight the career of an ...more
Mark Potts
Jul 15, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: magic
Fascinating read. Of all the great magicians of the late 19th and early 20th century, Howard Thurston was the one that I knew least about. Seemingly, always overshadowed by Houdini's publicity machine, Thurston was, by far the better magician. Then again, Houdini was, actually, quite a poor magician, technically-speaking.

A true rags to riches tale (some of it even true) Thurston did achieve his dream, taking over from Harry Kellar but, it was never going to be that simple. Intrigue, duplicity, y
Dec 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This turned out to be a book about growing giant pumpkins, oddly enough. It did make me want to learn sleight-of-hand and to travel back to the early 1900's to see a vaudeville show. A quote from John Northern Hillard, Thurston's friend and publicity agent, stuck with me more than anything else. Speaking to his friend Doc Brumfield several days before his death, Hillard said, "Doc, I think that the greatest tragedy in life would be to die, and suddenly wake up and realize that you had never live ...more
Apr 01, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Captures an era of American history in the persona of the greatest magician you never heard of: Howard Thurston. There are great dramatized biographical scenes, careful construction of his personality through correspondence, and a reverence and understanding of magic that could only been written by a knowledgeable magician themselves.

I particularly liked the retelling of Thurson's stage shows which, while Steinmeyer reveals how Thurston did the illusions, are treated as magical.
Apr 06, 2011 rated it liked it
The early part of the 20th century was the Age of Magic, and Steinmeyer captures its essence in this volume. His subject, Howard Thurston, was the most famous stage magician of that era, bigger than Houdini or Blackstone, but until reading this book, I'd never heard of him.

The author also takes us inside some of the more famous illusions, revealing just enough to be tantalizing, but not enough to give away all their secrets.
Mar 21, 2014 rated it did not like it
Shelves: given-up-on
I have now placed this book in the given up on my book lists. I just can not get into it. It was interesting for the most part but I felt slow moving. There is sections that I felt didn't need to be in the book and they were making the book longer than it needed to be. plus I have many more books to read and there is no point to reading this book slowly when I can read several books in that time that are more enjoyable and a faster read. Maybe try to finish this book in the future.
Jeffrey Anderson
Sep 19, 2011 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly enjoyable fleshing out a great magician whose poster I wore on a T-shirt when I was a teen and whom I read just a bit about in "Walter Gibson's Encyclopedia of Magic" in those same years. It was fun to read again also of Houdini. Reading this makes me want to read his biography of Robinson as well, another magician I know a little of from Gibson's work. This was fun.
Sep 19, 2012 rated it liked it
Very interesting, not very exciting. The book is best when it's revealing the mechanics of the tricks themselves, how they were designed, how a tour was put together, who stole what from whom, how the shows were promoted, etc. Thurston's personal story isn't compelling, but the intricacies of this line of work are.
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Jim Steinmeyer was born and raised just outside of Chicago, Illinois, and graduated in 1980 from Loyola University of Chicago, with a major in communications. He is literally the man behind the magicians having invented impossibilities for four Doug Henning television specials, six touring shows, two Henning Broadway shows, and numerous television and Las Vegas appearances.For one of David Copperf ...more

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