Wednesday, January 25, 2012

An Unhappy Devotion (Dedicated to Peter Schilling, Sr. and Jr.)

From a very early age Maraini had been singularly, almost frighteningly obsessed with divining all of the secrets of magic. He was fortunate in one particular regard: as a boy he had lived in a large industrial city in New Jersey, and located on the already beleaguered main street was a cramped and dusty old magic shop whose owner was only the second proprietor the establishment had known in its more than seventy years of operation.

This would have been somewhere around 1963, and the owner of the store was very old. His name was Gaylord Shattuck, and he had recently retired from the professional practice of magic and was devoting what was left of his life to writing a scrupulously researched history of the genesis and evolution of every trick and illusion known to him. Among his small and dwindling circle of confidantes, Shattuck would boast that - at least in the world of magic - there was now nothing he had seen that he did not understand or could not place in an historical context. When Maraini first set foot in the shop - still called Sharpovsky's Magic after the original owner, and still crowded with posters and other relics from its early years - he was ten years old, already a serious boy and a serious student of magic who had virtually memorized every book on the subject that he could find in his hometown library or at the New York Public Library, which he visited a half dozen times a year with his mother.

Gaylord Shattuck had seen youngsters parade in and out of the store for forty years; they paid the bills many months, and he had a rote patter that he used to sell them the basic gags, pocket tricks, and simple routines with which they could amuse their schoolmates. Maraini, at ten years old, was having none of Shattuck's auto-pilot shtick.

"I already know all that," the boy said, and Shattuck would later recall being struck by Maraini's peculiar focus. The boy didn't smile. He wasn't there to horse around. No, Shattuck said, this was a kid who was looking for the real thing, the best kept secrets and latest wrinkles. Shattuck, of course, had a long list of customers he had first encountered as children who later went on to distinguished careers in magic. A couple of them became minor legends, at least among other magicians. But he'd never had a kid as young as Maraini come through the door so clearly determined to break through every wall and build new, and higher, walls of his own.

Shattuck sold Maraini his first doves, then eventually let him through doors he'd opened for fewer than a dozen customers in his decades in business. The last time, the last door, Shattuck had immediately regretted. Maraini, who was by this time twelve years old and was already capable of performing the acts of men who had made a good living off magic and were now in the twilight of their careers, seemed utterly unimpressed, and had instinctively grasped the illusion from the set-up to the execution. At this point Shattuck pointed Maraini in the direction of another retired magician in Newark, a legendary eccentric who was rumored to have devoted the last decade to attempting something that had never been accomplished.

More than that no one had been able to discover or to coerce the old man to disclose. This man's name was Cabbott Sandor - the Great Sandor - and Maraini was said to have served a brief but fruitful apprenticeship with him. Sandor's memories of the boy - recorded when Maraini's career was still in its relative infancy - jibed almost exactly with Shattuck's. Against his parents' wishes, Maraini dropped out of high school at sixteen, and is said to have undertaken a long pilgrimage in Europe at around this same time. In Paris, in London, in Prague and Munich, in Madrid and a small village in Portugal, there were legendary magicians, most of them old, who recalled his visits and his impatient interrogations. He reportedly performed his act - excellent, highly skilled, but still relatively conventional - in public places and local theaters and nightclubs whenever he could persuade someone to give him an opening set, usually preceding some singer, comedian, or cabaret performance.

He traveled for varying lengths of time with itinerant circuses in Spain, Germany, and the Czech Republic. Maraini was still at this time a teenager, and no one who encountered him during this period recalls much about the boy beyond his severity and what someone once described as his "unhappy devotion to magic." He apparently had no close friends, no romantic relationships, and seemed to subsist on little beyond water. There are some who claim that Maraini developed a pernicious drug habit during this time in Europe, but there has been no evidence to support that claim.

A grainy photograph of him appeared in a cheap but influential magic newsletter in the early 1970s. The photo showed a tall, unsmiling, virtually emaciated young man staring into the camera with an expression that simultaneously conveyed boredom and malice. The headline above the brief article that accompanied this photograph read: "A potential legend, or a legend of potential?" The article documented Maraini's pilgrimages to the shops and homes of legendary and obscure magicians all over Europe. Around this same time Maraini stopped performing entirely, but he continued to travel and visit magicians, all of whom were said to be impressed with his intense curiosity and restlessness. Maraini, despite scant evidence that would support such claims, was persistently suspected of hatching something that would prove earthshaking in the world of magic.

Then, in 1975, another brief article - this one bearing Maraini's byline - appeared in an influential magic publication. It was unclear where exactly Maraini was at the time - India or Africa, people surmised - but he claimed in the magazine that he had been traveling with a "merchant of cobras," that he had assembled a collection of living scorpions, and that this merchant's company, he hoped, would facilitate the "procurement of an elephant or some even more spectacular beast."

The article also included this strange quote: "I've spent the last fifteen years looking for magic, and what I have found is an endless series of cheap puppet shows performed in cemeteries overrun with plastic flowers and slack-jawed zombies. Make no mistake: magic as you've known it is dead. A new magic will only be found in the oldest, most disreputable form of magic: miracles. That, then, is where I'm turning all my attention. Upward."

After this rare, uncharacteristic, and utterly inexplicable public pronouncement, Maraini was not heard from for over two years.

Years later reports would be pieced together regarding Maraini's activities and whereabouts during the two years he seemed to disappear entirely from the radar. Many of the sources of these reports were unreliable at best, or from notoriously disreputable sources at worst. There is no doubt, however, that he spent at least several weeks with an old, internationally known magician in Singapore. This man was a German ex-pat who had settled in Singapore in the early sixties, and he was regarded in the magic community as something of a crackpot, a man who had for the last thirty years refused to even acknowledge a magic community, or to claim membership or fraternity in anything that, in his own words, "continued to propagate the same old transparent frauds and patently bogus gee-whizzers that had reduced magicians the world over to a bunch of slick practitioners of the usual hocus-pocus hokum."

The man, whose name was Einer Schulz, professed that his one remaining hopeless goal in the time remaining to him was to obliterate every deck of cards on the planet. During his last known stint as a performing magician in Europe, Schulz was doing an act in which his hands were bound and he worked exclusively with his feet. It is also claimed that today's risk-taking, extreme marathon stunts of confinement, isolation, and deprivation had their origins in the mind of Schulz, who somewhat presciently saw that the future of magic, its next frontier, was not properly magic, but suffering.

At any rate, Schulz, who was as frequently despised as he was grudgingly admired by serious magicians and historians of magic, accepted Maraini as a visitor. The old man died before Maraini made his big splash, but he did recount some details of the younger magician's visit in a journal that surfaced after his death. In one entry he wrote that "the young man is strange, and may be crazy. Who am I to say? He's clearly looking for something, another dimension that I myself have not yet been able to conclusively conclude exists."

Elsewhere he seems perplexed with Maraini's obsession with obtaining an elephant.

"I told him, of course, that Houdini had already, in New York in 1918, disappeared an elephant on stage at the Hippodrome," wrote Schulz. "An illusion Houdini learned or stole from Charles Merritt, the Yorkshire alcoholic hypnotist and  illusionist who had performed a similar stunt with a donkey. The fellow, who is almost alarmingly gaunt, brushed this off with disgust and the sputtering indignation that seems to be his primary mode of communication. 'That,' he said, 'was nothing but a cheap box-and-mirror trick, and an even cheaper stunt that fooled virtually no one. I want to really disappear an elephant, in an open space with no props or sets. I want the elephant to be gone.'

"After pondering this for some moments, during which the young man appeared to be festering with frustration, I ventured that - if I was understanding him correctly - what he proposed seemed like an impossibility, emphasizing that this was a word I had used and entertained rarely, and only with reluctance. Clearly angry, Maraini stalked away from me, and later spent part of the afternoon locked in a box with scorpions and cobras, an experience that late that evening he pronounced 'pointless. Boring for me, boring and likely traumatic for the creatures, and surely boring, however repellent, for any audience.'

"Several days later he sold his collection of cobras and scorpions, which I was led to believe he had hauled all over the world, to a man even I find unsettling who runs an animal market in a slum."

Schulz's last entry regarding Maraini's stay was perhaps enlightening: "To be a truly great and singular artist, a man must demonstrate some of the pathology of the criminal, and young Maraini clearly has all of the tell-tale signs. There is really no telling what the man might do, which makes him both tragic and enviable. All the same, I can't help feeling that I've heard the last of him."

Schulz's journals were dated Sept. 1976, and the man was dead by the end of the year, killed in mysterious circumstances by the husband of a palm reader. It is unclear where Maraini's travels took him next, but reports from those who supposedly encountered him at various points in his long journey - and these dispatches came from such disparate and far-flung locales that it is difficult to know what to believe - increasingly took on a starry-eyed, almost mystical tone. After his visit to Schulz there are no more accounts of Maraini practicing -at least publicly- anything that might have been construed as magic. Questions have also been raised regarding how his travels were financed, but much of the speculation - drug peddling, gun trafficking, begging - can likely be dismissed as idle rumors.

Then, in August of 1978, an advertisement appeared in several magic publications, placed by an apparent promoter no one had ever heard of, announcing Maraini's return to New York.

"It is Foolish to Promise Something That Has Never Been Seen Before, as there is both Precious Little and Plenty That Has Never Been Seen Before, Depending on Your Awareness and the Paucity of Your Experience and Imagination," the announcement read. "But As I Wish to Speak in a Debased Language You can Understand, and also Because I Mean the Phrase Literally, I intend to reveal to Interested Parties Something That Has Never Been Seen Before, and which I feel confident will Never Be Repeated. Free to the Public."

There was no other information beyond a date, a time, and a place: Central Park, the Great Lawn, September 7th, five p.m. This announcement occasioned a great deal of curiosity, among magic aficionados, certainly, but as Maraini had by this time become a legendary mystery, if nothing else, the story began to be pieced together and reported by the media. The New York Times ran a sketchy and - in all likelihood - largely apocryphal profile that made the man seem like a full-blown modern myth.

There was absolutely no indication of what the man  might do, and even speculation seemed pointless. The last anyone in New York had seen of Maraini he had been a precociously gifted teenager who had mastered  nothing beyond what might be called the basic repertoire. Everyone, of course, recalled his almost alarming seriousness, and his vague singularity of purpose and obvious ambition. But as a successful older magician, who had crossed paths with Maraini during the years before he embarked on his odyssey, told the reporter from  the Times, "He was a kid, and he was very good, but he had zero presentation skills, nothing in the way of patter, and, frankly, he was doing stuff that hundreds of other magicians in New York could do with more flair."

The Times article also included a few quotes from Maraini's father - something of a Holy Grail for Maraini obsessives, as the family had been  unyielding in their refusal to speak about their son and brother; they had, in fact, been entirely silent and invisible throughout Maraini's absence.
The crowd at Sharpovsky's magic shop in New Jersey had vague memories of both the mother and the father occasionally accompanying their son on his early trips to the store, but no one could recall their names. Over the years various attempts had been made to call every Maraini in the New York and New Jersey phone books, but none of the people contacted had ever heard of the magician. This part of the mystery was put to rest by the profile in the Times.

"My son's given name is Dario DeCarava," his father said. "I have no idea where it came from, but from the time he got interested in magic - and he was just a boy - he started referring to himself exclusively as Maraini."

It turned out that no one in the family had had any sort of contact with Maraini since early in his European pilgrimage. As for what his son might have in store for the curious come September 7th, the father said, "Your guess is as good as mine. In fact, your guess is probably better than mine. He was a mystery from the time he learned to speak."

Early on the morning of September 7th a large crowd began to gather on the Great Lawn. It was a perfect autumn day of the sort New York is famous for. There was a considerable presence of New York police officers, many of them on horseback. A large canvas tent was erected in the middle of the lawn, surrounded by several large trucks. The word made its way through the magic contingent - many members of which had traveled from far afield - that the set-up had occurred in the dead of night, and all the necessary permits and paperwork had been secured.

No one had yet seen Maraini, or seemed to have any idea when he might have arrived in the city, or from where. Later police estimates claimed that the eventual crowd gathered on the Great Lawn was in the neighborhood of 5000, although I would personally guess that it was much closer to 10,000. A series of barriers had been erected around the tent, creating an open space that was perhaps fifty yards in circumference. At exactly five p.m. a flap was pulled back from the tent and Maraini emerged - or at least it was assumed this was Maraini. No one was really in any essential way capable of recognizing him. The man who walked out into the clearing to address the crowd was tall, a bit stooped, and as thin as advertised. His hair was long and disheveled, and he was wearing a faded blue tee-shirt, bell bottom jeans, and  sandals, which he immediately removed and  tossed back in the direction of the tent.

He appeared to squint out at the crowd, shook his head - almost sadly, it seemed - and stepped hesitantly to the microphone, where he stood unmoving and unspeaking for several long moments. The crowd was remarkably silent. Eventually the flaps of the tent were rolled back and several people emerged leading a giraffe, which crept forward with lurching, tentative steps until it came to rest behind Maraini.

"This is an African giraffe," Maraini said, finally addressing his audience. "It has undertaken a long and arduous journey to be here today, and before this day is over it will have traveled an even longer and more amazing journey."

The handlers released their reins and stepped back toward the tent. The giraffe lowered its head briefly and then raised it again and stood perfectly still.

"This giraffe is here in New York," Maraini said. "Surely as alien and unsettling a place as it has ever found itself."

Maraini's voice was utterly without inflection. He did not smile or move from the microphone.

"Like so many in the city it cannot begin to imagine what it is doing here, and also like so many in this merciless city, it would dearly love to be somewhere else, anywhere else."

At this point Maraini removed the microphone from the stand and turned to face the giraffe. He appeared to be staring into the giraffe's eyes, and the giraffe, unmoving except for ripples that ran up and down its long legs and steady waves that rolled across the velvet of its ribcage, returned Maraini's gaze.

"I cannot begin to express my gratitude to you, my patient friend," Maraini said. "But I thank you for everyone here. And now you are excused."

With that Maraini turned back toward the crowd and the giraffe instantaneously disappeared. A gasp went through the crowd, followed by a swelling murmur, and then a burst of wild applause. Maraini raised his hands and beckoned for silence. He now seemed to be glowering.

"There is nothing to cheer about," he said. "It is a disgraceful, an unpardonable, thing to make a giraffe disappear. Is it not, however, a wondrous thing when a giraffe appears, anywhere in the world, even here in Central Park?"

Maraini closed his eyes, clasped his hands together as if he were praying, and then once again turned his back to the crowd. He repeated the series of gestures. The crowd was almost completely silent, poised in a rare moment of communal breathlessness. The giraffe did not reappear, and by this point it was clear that something had gone wrong. A number of people emerged from the tent and appeared to be both conferring with Maraini and consoling him. Everyone stood around for what seemed a very long time, the noise of the crowd growing by the moment. Maraini paced around distractedly in front of the tent for fifteen or twenty minutes. He was clearly distraught, and several times shook off assistants who approached him with the apparent intent of offering comfort or advice. After perhaps 45 minutes passed Maraini approached  the microphone.

"Something has gone wrong," he said. "In this world, you will surely have noticed, something always goes wrong."

And then he turned away and disappeared back into the tent. The crowd milled around for a bit longer and then began to disperse. Some speculated that they had just witnessed a hoax, an elaborate publicity stunt. Others believed that they had been witnesses to a crime. Still others, myself included, had no idea what to think. That night's television news gave a good deal of coverage to the story. Maraini, it was said, was not available for comment.

Then, near the end of the newscast, the anchors broke from a story they were reporting to announce that Maraini had allegedly killed himself with a gunshot wound to the head in a Brooklyn warehouse. Unidentified police sources on the scene had provided a preliminary identification of the deceased, and official confirmation came later in the evening.

The next day we learned that Maraini had left instructions that he was to be buried in a pauper's cemetery on Hart Island. There would be no service. The burial occurred several days later, and there were witnesses, including the grave diggers, Maraini's family, and a few members of his traveling party. There was also a report from the mortician who prepared the body for burial.

The morning after Maraini was interred, the entire city was abuzz with the news that a giraffe had appeared, grazing on the Great Lawn of Central Park. Suspicions being immediately aroused, and based on a tip from what police called a reliable source, a request was filed for the exhumation of Maraini's grave, despite objections from his family. A party, including city officials, a few journalists, and Maraini's parents, made the trip to Hart Island. News reports described a grim affair. The disinterment took place in a cold, torrential downpour, and the gravediggers had difficulty locating the coffin and then extricating it. The grave had filled with water, creating a sucking mudhole.

When the casket was eventually hoisted from the hole in the ground it was removed to a storage shed for inspection, pried open, and discovered to be empty.


  1. Magic AND tragic.

    Certainly a potential legend, you are.

  2. I am new to your site and I'm so mesmerized by your writing. Amazing images and themes. Thank you for letting us in. I agree about the legend part.

  3. Thanks so much. I'm grateful --and still sort of surprised--when people read these things and respond.

  4. I read these on my iPad instead of books....thank you! What happened to the giraffe?

  5. Cindy, The giraffe reappeared; it was the magician who ultimately disappeared.