I just figured out how to get back to the old Blogger interface so I'm back in business -- until those anonymous people who don't know @#$%^@ try to make more improvements. As mentioned in a comment two days, I was afraid that all my posts would have to be made as haiku titles. There was only one, thank goodness (and my apologies to the late Mr. Sendak).
So onto my review of the biography of Long Tack Sam:
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir by Ann Marie Fleming (2007)
This is a quasi-graphic novel (supplemented by photographs, posters, and articles) about the author's great-grandfather, the once world-famous Chinese magician Long Tack Sam. The author, a Canadian citizen of Chinese-Austrian parentage, knew only two things about here great-grandfather (who had died the year before she was born): he was a magician and he could make coins appear from behind your ear. Her grandmother used to talk about her days in vaudeville, but not too much attention was given her. After her grandmother's death, the author became curious about her life and began a journey that would take her across the world to discover her family's roots.
Long Tack Sam was born in Northern China. perhaps in the village of Wuqiao, in 1885. The stories of his early years conflict. He ran away from home when he was seven, or perhaps he was apprenticed, and perhaps he was older. He earned small change on the docks (or perhaps the streets) by juggling, or maybe something else. He probably studied acrobatics; in China, almost every performer begins by studing acrobatics. He joined a troupe of (perhaps American) entertainers and left China. He may have gone to America, or perhaps England. He certainly went to Austria because it was there he met the love of his life.
Leopoldine Roesler was a shopgirl in Linz when Long Tack Sam met her. They married in 1908 and Sam converted from Buddhism to Roman Catholicism. A notice of their marriage appeared on the front page of a Vienna newspaper. A mixed racial marriage was unusual at the time, but as a neighbor said, "Iy was a great love!" Sam was the director of a Chinese troupe and had a performance booked for the night of his wedding; the troupe specialized in Chinese hair tricks, among others, hanging by their kews (long braided hair).
Sam was an acrobat, magician, juggler, musician, plate balancer, and many other things. He could do a somersault and magically come up with a bowl of water in his hands. He introduced an old Chinese trick of swallowing needles; that trick was then taken and patented by Houdini. His wife Poldi was part of the act, then his two young daughters Mina and Neesa (actually Poldi, but "Nee Sa" sounded more oriental for the act). As they grew older, the two girls became mainstays of the act, celebrated for their beauty and their talents. The author's uncle recounts meeting George Burns at an advetising function: "He was very popular at that time...I sat on the dias with him and asked if he recalled Long Tack Sam, the father of my mother-in-law. With that, he virtually rose out of his chair, grabbed my arm and said: 'The greatest vaudevilel act I've ever seen! His acrobatics were the piece de resistance! He was a great magician! He had two beautiful daughters! They were smashing!'"
Sam and his family hobnobbed with some of the greatest names in show business. He created a dance for Syd Graumann, so that his daughter could perform it outside Graumann's Chinese Theatre for the opening of Joan Crawford's Rain. He shared marquees with Jean Harlow and Loretta Young. Mina is rumored to have dated Al Capone.
Sam and his wife were struck by a motorcycle and traveled to their villa in Austria to recover. There, Sam fell and broke his leg and developed gangrene while in the hospital. He died on August 7, 1961, aged 76.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam is not just the story of an extraordinary man. It's the story of a woman searching out her family roots, a story of how world events rise up to shape us, a story of connectiveness and disconnectiveness. As Ann Marie Fleming writes: "...What puzzles me is why he was forgotten by his own family. (Okay, we did celebrate his birthday, his death day and his anniversary in good Chinese style -- while Granny was still alive -- but we knew nothing about his accomplishments). Is it a show business thing? (Yes, children of show business parents are often resentful.) Is it an immigrant thing? (Yes, immigrants oftern don't take their oldstories into their new lives.) Is it because we all keep moving, keep busy? (Yes, that, too!) Maybe we just weren't listening! Distances and differences keep us apart, and we forget to remind each other of our own stories."
Ann Marie Fleming searched and found her family's story. Her search resulted in an award-winning film which, in turn, was adapted into this book.
The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam is a rewarding and finely layered book.