As convenient as the internet has become, there is no substitute for doing research the old-fashioned way – searching for rare books in the stacks of the New York Public Library. As long-time readers of this blog will know, I’m somewhat infatuated with the historic magician Max Malini. I’ve modeled my career on him, visited his home and even stood in the garden where he died.
So it was with great excitement that I located a passage in a non-magic related book that included a new story about Malini. The book is titled “Two Gun Cohen” by Daniel S. Levy. I’ve included the passage below, followed by some further comments from me. Two Gun Cohen was the nickname of Morris Cohen, a Jewish mercenary who befriended Sun Yat-Sen, worked as his bodyguard, and became a major-general in the Chinese army. He carried two guns, and was apparently not afraid to use them.
Here, then, is the Malini story which takes place in Shanghai, China, at a time when Malini was traveling extensively in Asia:
Other guests included Max Malini, the Ostrov-born illusionist and master sleight-of-hand artist who was or had been on friendly terms with the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, King Edward VII, General John “Black Jack” Pershing, Sun Yat-sen, Al Capone, and Baron de Rothschild. While in Shanghai, both Malini and Cohen stayed at the Astor House. Cohen’s reputation as a cardplayer was well known throughout town, and one day two Americans asked Malini to introduce them to Cohen so they could cheat him at poker. They even offered Malini a cut of their take. Their request shocked Malini, and he just threw them out of his room. The gamblers soon found someone else to make the introduction. “They didn’t know that Cohen was just as sharp with the cards as they were,” said Malini’s son Oziar, of the Americans’ attempt to cheat Cohen with marked cards. “They started playing. As soon as Cohen knew it was crooked he started serious playing, and he could read the cards as well as they, but they didn’t know it. He took them for somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000.” The failed cardsharps then wanted to play Cohen for credit. He said no, and told them that he was aware of their ploy. “You both better get out of town or I will put you in jail,” he warned them. Cohen then found out from the men that they had tried to get Malini to set him up, but the magician flatly refused. “That is how Cohen became a great buddy of my father’s because my father wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Malini gave Cohen pointers on handling cards and doing magic. One afternoon, Malini lounged in Cohen’s office. As they talked, Malini idly lifted a pencil off of Cohen’s desk and snapped it in two. He continued chatting and broke a second. Cohen watched Malini destroy the pencils and quietly moved the jar away from him, telling him that he had to have the Koh-i-noor pencils shipped in specially. Malini looked at Cohen, and feigning insult told him that he was hurt. Malini then lifted the four broken pieces, ran them through his hands, and plopped two restored pencils on Cohen’s desk. In early 1937, Cohen threw a lavish Chinese New Year party at the Peninsula hotel’s Roof Garden and Rose Room. He served trout from Japan, pheasants from Shanghai, mangos from Manila, and free-flowing champagne, and invited assorted guests along with Malini, who obliged by showing tricks to the guests, and Charles Drage, who was in town looking for intelligence information on the Japanese.
That is the end of the Malini passage. The following notes are by me, Steve “No-Gun” Cohen.
I had never heard the pencil-breaking story before. It is even more impressive when you consider that Koh-i-noor pencils were imported to China specially from the town of Budweis, now part of the Czech republic. Pencils were not as obtainable as today, when you can simply stroll into an office supply shop to pick up a box of number twos. The Koh-i-noor pencils held great value to Cohen, due to their scarcity, and the impact of Malini’s trick was therefore escalated to new heights. A great lesson for magicians today.
Finally, I can’t tell you how thrilling it was to read, “One afternoon, Malini lounged in Cohen’s office.” I know it’s a different Cohen, but my heart raced when I saw our names in the same sentence.
Finally, here is an autographed Malini portrait that I have hanging on my wall at home. It used to hang on the wall of his son Ozier’s house. It’s one of my favorite collectables. Ever. I can just imagine Malini gripping a pen with his stubby fingers, signing his portrait…