An appreciation of one of The Pentacle Clubs most famous sons.
Posted on November 18th, 2008 by John
AS THE PENTACLE CLUB OF CAMBRIDGE celebrate their 90th anniversary, I was asked if I would write an appreciation of Alex Elmsley for the occasion. I thought you might like to read the following.
Alex Elmsley – Gentleman genius.
An appreciation by John Derris
I knew him for over fifty years. Intellectually he was light years ahead of me but he was a genuine friend who shared his magic, his time and his thinking with great generosity. He spoke with an upper class accent and was quintessentially English although born in Scotland and bore a strong facial resemblance to the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Around the world he was acknowledged as one of the sharpest and most inventive brains in magic for the past fifty years.
In his retirement years he was seen occasionally at London magic gatherings, recognisable by his bushy eyebrows, check sports coat, carpet slippers and a large glass of whisky in his hand. Prominent magic visitors from overseas would often telephone me hesitatingly asking if there was any way they could privately meet this magic brain of Britain. An appeal that was usually delivered with solemn deference as if asking for an audience with the Pope. He was such a gentleman that he nearly always acceded to such requests.
His writings and his originality of method were quite unique. Widely praised by the great and the good, they filled two hard-backed volumes totalling nearly a thousand pages which are among the definitive works on magic. It would be true to say that every magician who sports a pack of cards has used one of his unique sleights, in particular the cunning ploy he devised for openly counting four cards but only displaying three, a vital card being concealed.
Alex burst onto the magic scene in the 1950’s and dazzled everyone with his inventiveness. Not just devising a few good tricks but scores of them, involving new sleights and new plots that have achieved status as modern classics. Talk to any card aficionado and he will instantly recognise Elmsley gems – Between your Palms, Point of Departure, Diamond cut Diamond, En Voyage, Brainweave, The Four Card Trick and many others that take their place alongside card classics of yesteryear like Everywhere and Nowhere, The Ladies Looking Glass and The Danbury Deviler.
In ten prodigious years between 1949 and 1959 over seventy original Elmsley tricks and sleights appeared in print: few magicians achieve that kind of output in a lifetime. His skill and fame attracted the greats from the USA and many names sought sessions with him in London – Dai Vernon, Paul Le Paul, Slydini, Persi Diconis and many others who openly admitted to having been fooled.
His first magic lecture was delivered at the I.B.M. British Ring Convention, Scarborough in 1957 under the title “Low Cunning”, the lecture notes of which are now a collector’s item. Later he presented a similar lecture in Chicago followed by other US city lectures where he had further sessions with Dai Vernon, Ed Marlo and Charlie Miller. They were an outstanding success and are still talked about today.
Born in St. Andrews, Scotland, the son of a naval officer, it was during a period of convalescence following an operation for appendicitis that he became interested in – juggling! A search for juggling equipment led him to magic which quickly deposed the art of tossing balls in the air. His father died in 1937 and with little money during the war his mind turned to sleight of hand and manipulations, a skill fostered by his original interest in juggling.
Later he started developing his own tricks and presentations and soon his unique perception and inventiveness became noted by other magi. His intellectual mind and sharp brain eventually led him to be educated at Eton and following a period of two years National Service in the Army, he entered Kings College University, Cambridge, graduating with a BA degree in mathematics and physics. During this time he became a leading light in The Pentacle Club, a magic society within the university. Following his graduation he moved to London and acquired a position with a Patent agency. This location brought him into close involvement with the London magic scene when he started his prodigious period of invention and contributing his ideas to magazines.
Then in the 1960’s – he suddenly disappeared from magic.
Science fiction and the launch of computer technology supplanted his interest in magic and he was hired by a leading British computer company, travelling the world as an international lecturer in computer languages. He still kept brief contact with close magic friends like Jack Avis, Peter Warlock and Francis Haxton and he experienced a fresh interest in magic in 1972 when his work was recognized with a Creative Fellowship from The Academy of Magic Arts in Hollywood. This led to more articles for magic magazines and a new lecture which had its début in London and Monte Carlo and then on to the USA.; it was a brilliant sell-out everywhere he went.
Then in 1975 following his highly successful lecture tour – he disappeared from magic for a second time.
He cited no dramatic reason for this sudden withdrawal but with his constant travels to computer clients all over the world, plus the need to look after his widowed and now blind mother living in London, and his passion for science fiction, he said that his mind was fully occupied. Thankfully, renewed and widespread magic interest was re-awakened in 1991 with the publication of the first volume of of The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley, a magnificent book written by American author Stephen Minch and published by Louis Falanga of L & L Publishing. Stephen Minch should be thanked by every practising magician for his gargantuan task of tracing and assembling the work of Alex Elmsley, who granted permission to publish but said that he did not wish to be involved in the actual writing but passed on Xerox copies of some of his notes.
Minch went on the international detective trail with the help of many names formerly associated with Alex – Jack Avis, Roy Walton, Gordon Bruce, Milt Kort, Ron Bauer, Dr. Gene Matsuura and many others, who all gave time and contributions in helping to compile one of the greatest books ever published on the unique work of one man. The Collected Works of Alex Elmsley was followed in 1994 with a second 500 page volume containing a further 110 original Elmsley tricks and sleights including his acknowledged card masterpiece The Dazzle Act. The two volumes are rightly deemed to be classics and thousands of copies are to be found on the bookshelves of serious magicians around the world. This was later followed by the highly successful launch of four video tapes, recorded and issued by Louis Falanga and showing Elmsley performing and explaining many of his famed moves and routines. Thankfully, magic now has a permanent, visual record of the work of this outstanding magician.
On retiring he lived a recluse existence in a basement flat in Chelsea affectionately named by his close friends as “Wuthering Depths”. He loved the company of fellow magicians and one could see a visible change in him with his occasional rises to the magic surface prompted by his friends of many years. His mother and brother having passed on his only nearby living relative at that time was a nephew in Shepherds Bush. He spent his time reading detective novels, writing poetry, smoking too many cigarettes and was occasionally given a jump start into magic by friends proving that the dormant but still effective adrenaline was still there The fire was not blazing but the embers were always smouldering.
He was perhaps a too close a companion of the amber nectar of Scotland which he courted for many years, largely to quell his lifelong torment of clinical depression. Like Winston Churchill he too referred to this as his “Black Dog”. He was aware of the situation but strived to achieve a balance between his health and his lifestyle. He was utterly polite, English to the core with all the courtesies and elegance of his middle class upbringing. He was a magic gentleman and it was my privilege to have enjoyed his friendship for over fifty years. Anyone who shuffles a pack of cards should offer grateful thanks to Alex Elmsley for all that he so freely gave to the wide world of magic.
At the time of one of my telephone calls to him to advise of the next meeting of our coterie of conjurers I received no reply. The same happened on the following two days. I telephoned his hospital who contacted the police; they broke into his flat and found him lying dead on the floor. An autopsy revealed that he had died of cancer, a condition about which none of us had any inkling as at no time had he given any verbal or physical indication of his illness. An example surely of the stiff upper lip stoicism inherent in his middle class background.
We contacted his nieces and nephews living in Ireland and invited them as special guests to a tribute evening to Alex at The Magic Circle at which we showed film clips of him together with some of the country’s leading magicians performing his outstanding magic. With tears in their eyes they revealed that he had never told them of his world status and achievements in magic; they said he occasionally did a couple of simple tricks with cards and coins for their children. A revelation to the world of the true measure of one of magic’s greatest and most modest of people. Finally they told that as a youngster he was nicknamed “Bonzo” a name that stayed with him in his family circle throughout his life.
But in magic, somehow The Bonzo Count doesn’t sound quite the same