Finding a Life at The New York Public Library
This last week of October, 2011 is Magic Week. Perhaps it's a good time to tell this true story about how I found a life at The New York Public Library:
In the spring of 1923, my grandfather, a magician, disappeared. This well practiced man of magic had pulled off his greatest trick of all. He was never seen again — at least not by my family. His love for the circus could not hold him to a small town, a young wife, and a three-year-old son. He left, and the memory of him was put aside. Occasionally my grandmother would entertain us with simple tricks she had obviously learned from him; but other than that, little was said of this magician and his colossal feat.
In 2007, over Thanksgiving dinner, the subject of my grandfather happened to come up. Arriving back at work the following Monday morning, I had a jolting thought that I should look him up in the Library's Billy Rose Theatre Division card files, since it collects in the areas of magic and magicians. At that time, I had been employed by the Library for over 20 years and not once did it occur to me to search for my grandfather in the extensive card files that have been maintained at NYPL for nearly a century.
Was I surprised?
Such are the collections here,
and they rarely disappoint.
But there it was.
A single entry in the card file led me to this picture, in the archives of the Society of American Magicians housed here at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and a little part of me could indeed simply not believe it. My family had seen similar pictures before. We were accustomed to the image of him in full “performance dress,” framed and clinging to the old wallpaper of my grandmother’s dining room. But never had we seen him in the context of actually pursuing a working life, such as the one that was now unfolding “before our very eyes.” Was he really somebody?
Suddenly I was no longer the librarian across the desk helping others. I was now the reader asking for assistance in my personal search. Where do I begin?
I knew of course that a first step was to request the usual clipping files, program files, and photographs, and to search biographical indexes; but my grandfather's magic skills were apparently first rate as this turned up nothing. I was hoping to find a published obituary in Variety, but even there I came up without a trace. If I wanted to find him I had to do more work, and it was not going to be easy.
At the suggestion of my Theatre Division colleagues, I was able to track down a small but consistent trail of information during the years just after his departure. My grandfather's whereabouts, traced through the “Magic and Magicians” columns of the weekly performing arts trade journal Billboard documented the life of what appeared to be an itinerant performing artist working in circuses and shows around Pittsburgh, PA, Columbus, OH, and other parts of the Midwest, most notably with the Cole Brothers Circus.
With the assistance of librarians and archivists, I was also able to locate citations for him in a few magic publications. The biggest find was his application for membership in the National Conjurors Association in the H. Adrian Smith Collection of Conjuring and Magicana at Brown University. I was also led to the Magician's Collection and the Harry Houdini Collection at the University of Texasin Austin, where there was a small file on my grandfather. I was told that the presence of a file may have meant that the great Houdini had an interest in him. More likely, my grandfather let Houdini know about his own activities. How else would Houdini have acquired a copy of this local program which took place just prior to my grandfather's departure from the family?
So far, census records, draft records, and other sources have revealed very little additional information. He has never been found. But I sense his presence every day when I pass by "his box" on the shelf, in the stacks, where his picture resides, perhaps alongside others just like himself.
Before and since my discovery, I have helped hundreds of researchers in the hunt for long lost relatives — musicians, band leaders, composers — they're all out there. Many are here, hidden in plain sight. A performing arts club of long lost souls whose relatives are eagerly searching the collections, hoping to find a life at The New York Public Library.