For a magician, William Robinson was a surprisingly indelicate man, detailed in this suitably beguiling portrait from Steinmeyer (Hiding the Elephant, 2003).
Though Robinson was to gain international notoriety as the Chinese conjurer Chung Ling Soo, he cut his teeth as a creator of magic tricks and as an assistant to such greats as Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann. Steinmeyer, a designer of illusions himself, is clearly taken with Robinson for his technical proficiency, imagination and originality; he’s also dexterous in handling Robinson’s convoluted life (although he isn’t especially impressed with this aspect of the man). Robinson was a philanderer, a secret sharer who had what amounted to three families at the same time, ultimately never giving much satisfaction to any of them. He engaged in espionage, shuttling tricks from one player to another, even stealing Ching Ling Foo’s great show from under him. One of Steinmeyer’s own neat tricks is explaining Robinson’s illusions in a way that doesn’t deflate the reader’s pleasure. Robinson’s work, from his black arts (so called because the careful adjustment of stage lights allows a black backdrop to dematerialize black objects in front of it) through the tricks from China that he managed to deconstruct into his own marvelous mechanical concoctions, are unfurled to let their hidden brilliance shine. Steinmeyer is equally captivating in tracing the changes in Soo’s image as seen by the public. At first, he fit snugly into the Victorian-Orientalist fantasy of old China. Later, he had to contend with the prejudice fostered by the Boxer Rebellion, an event that he dealt with in his “Condemned to Death by the Boxers” routine—a routine that would be the death of him—to demonstrate his loyalty. In the end, he showed how even a faux Chinaman could subvert the discrimination of the times through being honored as a Chinese artist.
In Steinmeyer’s capable hands, Robinson becomes a walking, talking illusion and a reminder: never trust appearances when in the presence of a magician.