I am one of the many who hold the works and wisdom of Dai Vernon in highest regard. Indeed any practitioner of close-up owes a huge debt to Vernon, for it was mainly through his efforts that the art acquired its modern form. While performers like Malini used intimate sleight of hand wonders as a means to draw audiences into their larger shows, Vernon recognized the value of intimate magic as a thing unto itself. More, it was his efforts to achieve naturalness in sleight of hand – a philosophy espoused by Dr. James Elliot whom Vernon held in highest regard – that truly transformed magic. He did away with or streamlined that which was cumbersome; he identified and refined the most direct path between points A and B. He was an artist, expertly stripping away the extraneous and creating wonders which continue to inspire and astound today. On The Spirit of Magic documentary, Max Maven says that Vernon essentially created the template upon which modern magic is built, and that’s a particularly apt observation.
If you study the life of Vernon at all – and if you haven’t yet read book one of David Ben’s Vernon biography you’re missing out on one of the most entertaining and enlightening biographies of a magician ever written – you soon come to realize that in many respects Vernon was a contradiction in terms. Here was one of the most brilliant magic thinkers and sleight of hand artists the world has ever known, and yet he seemed to care very little for performing. For Vernon it was all about the next thing – the next move, dodge, subtlety. He would meticulously deconstruct a move or trick, identify and correct its flaws, master it…and then move on to something else. Once mastery had been achieved, the thing no longer held his interest and he was ready for something new to sink his teeth into.
Vernon was no mere move junkie, however. Anything but. His ability to identify and correct the weaknesses of a piece weren’t limited to mechanical considerations alone. He seemed to have an almost instinctual ability to identify the best presentational approach as well. Further, he was attractive, charming, and at his ease among groups of people. So how does one reconcile his abundance of attributes with his disregard for performing?
I’ve had correspondence with a couple of people I respect who say Vernon couldn’t have made it as a working magician, that he lacked the discipline a professional must have to perform the same act over and over. I don’t agree that he couldn’t have done it. When Vernon chose to work he plied his trade in the most exclusive venues around at the time, and always garnered glowing praise from the critics. So he clearly had the ability to make it as a professional. In the Ben book there are letters written by Vernon’s friend Faucett Ross where he exhibits a nonplussed attitude in regards to Vernon not working as a magician, saying in effect that he could put all the other guys working out of business if he so chose. So what was it?
I think first you have to consider that when he did work as a magician, Vernon’s approach was very unorthodox. The traditional approach of the working professional is to develop a core act and do that same act, with minor variations, over and over again. You know exactly what you’re going to do, what you’re going to say, when to hurry, when to pause, etc. etc. Everything’s been mapped out to render maximum reaction, constantly building to a hopefully stunning and fulfilling climax.
Vernon, on the other hand, improvised. Now I don’t mean there was no set order of what tricks he would do and what he would say – I mean, with a deck of cards in hand, he improvised the tricks themselves as he went along. It was like playing Jazz. He knew so many moves and subtleties that he was able to literally make it up as he went along.
There’s no way in hell one magician in a hundred could perform in such a fashion and make anything but a mess, and yet Vernon was most comfortable performing in this way. It’s just another testament to what a brilliant magical artist he was. But I think it also explains his disdain for performing, at least to a degree. The fact is he did get bored when he had to do the same tricks over and over. When he was doing his legendary Harlequin act he kept trying to add new effects and change existing ones – something the people who’d engaged him to do the act didn’t much care for. Even when he was working New York’s top night spots and afforded the freedom to improvise, he invariably got bored with the grind of coming in night after night and performing. But was it just a lack of discipline?
Here was a man who practiced sometimes for seemingly days at a time. Every night, all night, relentless in his pursuit of perfection, he would work to master a move or trick. Such behavior doesn’t denote a lack of discipline. I think it’s much closer to the mark to say his fascination overrode practical considerations. For most magicians practice and mastery are but a means to an end – culminating in the ability to wow others with our magic. In Vernon’s case the fascination with and work to master something was the end. He didn’t care about using what he had to make a buck. Others stole his ideas, published and profited from them, and Vernon never seemed to really get upset. Maybe it was because he knew there was always going to be something else to capture his interest, that anything he worked on was transitory and eventually something else would claim his all consuming fascination.
I have no doubt that he could’ve made it as a working magician; he just chose not to. And in a very real sense we’re all fortunate that he followed the path he did because it was his willingness to immerse himself in his art, to give himself up to it, that has given us, his magic descendants, so much we might never have known.
Now, there are those who look at Vernon’s life and say he was selfish. It’s true that he didn’t chase money or the spotlight; it’s true that his wife and sons endured many hardships due to his utter disregard for practical considerations, like paying the bills and providing a place to stay. But I don’t believe this was due to his simply being a self-centered person. Again I think his fascination with magic overrode all other considerations. Vernon was one of the most gifted silhouette cutters of the twentieth century, and yet he never seemed to view his extraordinary talent with scissors as anything other than a means to survive, as a way to keep going in pursuit of another elusive move.
Saying he was selfish or irresponsible is too easy and doesn’t adequately portray the man. I guess those who want to dismiss him in such terms, and there are many, derive some secret satisfaction from being able to make a chink in the armor of a legend by casting such aspersions. I think it’s much more a case of a man giving himself up so completely to his art that there was little left over for anything else. An artist who does that, and they’re few and far between, isn’t merely a weak or selfish person, but an extraordinary one. And magic will forever benefit from his contributions.