Max Malini (1873-1942)
In part, through the efforts of admirers like Dai Vernon and Ricky Jay, Max Malini "The Last of the Mountebanks" is firmly in place as one of the most storied personalities in the history of magic.
Max Malini was born Max Katz Breit in the small town of Ostrov on the borders of Poland and Austria in 1873. At a young age, he emigrated to America with his family, settling in New York City.
As early as twelve, he was already circulating in the rough-and-tumble world of Bowery saloons, where he busked for coins and developed his legendary "moxie".
Despite having hands that were famously too small to entirely cover a card (and thus seemingly unable to secretly "palm" a card, which sounds like a difficult disadvantage for an aspiring magician to overcome) he perfected the use of timing, misdirection, advance preparation, and personally ideosyncratic sleight-of-hand techniques to the point that he became known around the world for performing seeming miracles.
Malini is acknowledged as perhaps the all-time master of impromptu magic. Tales of his unexpected exploits in bars and restaurants are the stuff of legend. He had the impishness to plan ahead, and the unshakable patience to wait for the best, most-uncanny moment to perform tricks which, when so expertly set up and timed, seemed to his mystified onlookers like miracles out of nowhere.
Malini reportedly stunned people. For example--he would suggest playing a little guessing game. He'd borrow a lady's hat, flip a coin, cover it with the hat and ask, "Lady or Eagle?" (i.e., heads or tails)...When he lifted the hat, a block of ice or a brick would be sitting there. --Even magicians such as Dai Vernon and Charlie Miller (legends in their own right) never knew exactly where he got, hid, nor how he "loaded" the ice under the hat.
Magicians never saw him practice, and he never talked shop. Evidently he was too busy circling the globe, and making/losing several fortunes...
He was a master of publicity and of insinuating himself into situations which ultimately led to bookings. As related in "The Stars of Magic", Malini lived by the motto, "You've got to go with people who have money if you want to make money". In "Malini and His Magic" Dai Vernon and Lewis Ganson say, "A list of prominent people entertained by Malini sounds almost fantastic."
The list includes (but is not limited to): U.S. Presidents McKinley, Harding, Coolidge, T. Roosevelt; English Kings Edward VII, George V, George VI; The King of Siam, The Presidents of Cuba, Chile; John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor, General John (Black Jack) Pershing, and Enrico Caruso to name but a FEW.
His last performance was given while seated in a chair, for soldiers and sailors in Hawaii, a place he loved and where he had made some of his first big success.
He died in Honolulu, on October 3, 1942.
- Brief Biography at The Magic Nook