If this story were submitted as a script to a movie studio, it would be laughed out of Hollywood. “Too far fetched,” they would say. And they would be right except for one thing… it’s all true.
Throughout this book, two very different stories unfold. First there is the account of Claude Alexander Conlin, the man who became perhaps the highest paid entertainer in the field of magic. Starting out as a stage illusionist, Alexander eventually discarded the large props and relied on his tremendous skills as a showman to put over an act of mentalism and psychic readings. As the turbaned Man Who Knows, Alexander earned four million dollars over the course of a relatively short career during the 1920s.
The second story that runs concurrently with Alexander’s theatrical career includes details on his seven marriages (sometimes to more than one woman at once), time spent in local jails and federal prison, his trial for attempting to extort an oilman millionaire, his failed attempt to out run the authorities in a high powered speed-boat loaded with bootlegged liquor, and the four men that he admitted killing.
It is not the kind of story in which you expect to find names like Harry Kellar, Dr. A.M. Wilson, Harry Houdini, Servais Le Roy, Howard Thurston, Floyd Thayer, Joe Dunninger and Harry Blackstone but here they are, both friend and foe alike.
From the gold fields of Alaska to séance parlors on the Barbary Coast to the most luxurious theaters in North America, the story of The Man Who Knows is a story like no other.
Peek inside Alexander – The Man Who Knows
INTRODUCTION - The Search For Alexander
By David Charvet
This is a book that has resisted being written for over fifty years. During his own lifetime, Alexander refused to allow anyone to tell his story. Considering that he was one of the highest-paid and most celebrated American theatrical personalities during the first quarter of the twentieth century, to many his reticence seemed unusual. Most showmen, even in retirement, still crave the spotlight. Not Alexander. Following his retirement from the stage in 1927, he was happiest hunting or fishing, not reliving his record-setting career as “The Man Who Knows.” But as fabulous as Alexander’s on-stage career had been, it was his off-stage exploits that created legends. The fact that Alexander would neither confirm nor deny the rumors told about him over the years only added to his mysterious persona. The legends continued to grow following his passing in 1954.
My involvement with this project came about through my friendship with John Pomeroy. John was recognized as one of the world’s finest builders of magician’s props. Working out of his home in Edmonds, Washington, John created illusions for many top performers and collectors. He was also intrigued by magical history and became fascinated with Alexander’s life in the late 1950s, as he became acquainted with many persons who had known him.
I first knew of John’s work on the Alexander story in the 1970s, when I was an aspiring teen-aged magician in Seattle. Later, in the early 1990s, John approached me with some technical questions regarding the layout and publishing of the book, which he said, was nearing completion. He knew of the magic biographies I had previously written and published about Jack Gwynne, Emil Jarrow, and one of his boyhood idols, The Great Virgil. I passed on what tips I could, and like the rest of the magic fraternity, anxiously awaited the publication of John’s magnum opus on Alexander.
In the interim (1993), unexpectedly a friend of John’s in Seattle published another book about the life of Alexander. This upset John deeply, as he alone had been chasing the Alexander story for nearly 40 years. Many around the world who had been waiting for Pomeroy’s book were confused when they heard that a writer in the Seattle area had produced a book about Alexander. This person had gained the confidence of Alexander’s son, John Conlin, and access to the family scrapbooks. The book that came out of their collaboration amounted to pages of family photos, some anecdotes from friends and a reproduction of Alexander’s 1921 book, The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. Q. The publication was rightly termed a “personal scrapbook” about Alexander, and not a definitive biography.
Time marched on and Pomeroy continued to work on his book. He envisioned a three-volume publication. The first book would be his biography of Alexander. Volume Two would contain photos and illustrations while volume Three was to include ancillary material, including a chronology of stage mindreaders along with a history of vaudeville in Seattle. It was a daunting task. Technology in the publishing world was changing as John kept working. He purchased a computer which his wife, Mitsy, learned to use in order to transform his growing mass of notes into narrative.
Then, unexpectedly, John’s health began to decline. Plagued by constant back pain for years, a malignant tumor was discovered in 1999. John called me early in 2000 (knowing I had recently survived a bout with lymphoma) and asked me about courses of treatment. He told me that the outlook for him was not good, but he was still working on the Alexander book. Then, a few months later, our mutual friend, Stephen Minch called me to say that John was near death and asked if I would take over the Alexander project. At the time, many of the notes for the last parts of the manuscript were still in John’s head. I spoke to John on the telephone. He told me he was too weak to write, so he dictated the last portions to Mitsy. This was done shortly before his death on August 18, 2000 at age 62.
Several months later, I met with Mitsy and she gave me all of the material related to the book, including the nearly 200-page manuscript and three cardboard cartons filled with notes and hundreds of illustrations and photographs. It is due to her kindness and trust in me that I became the keeper of the Alexander flame in John Pomeroy’s memory.
Upon reading John’s manuscript, many of the revelations surprised me. Much of John’s information came from the many first-hand contacts he had made with persons who knew Alexander from the early 1900s through the 1950s. It is indeed fortunate that John interviewed these persons when he did. All of them are now gone and the information they provided would be impossible to obtain today.
At first glance, I thought it would be an easy task to get the book ready for publication. I made the decision to edit the material into one volume, concentrating on Alexander’s life, which I felt would be more practical for publishing and for the reader. Additionally, when my long-time friend, Mike Caveney, expressed interest in making the project one of the biographies in his Magical Pro-Files series, Stephen Minch (John Pomeroy’s original choice to be the publisher) graciously agreed to relinquish his interest in the project.
But as I worked at putting the mass of material into book form, I noticed several things. While John’s manuscript was extremely detailed in many areas and contained some startling revelations, there were other portions that left some unanswered questions. I wanted to know more. What about the theater fire which destroyed Alexander’s show in 1921? What about Alexander’s early career as “Astro” the spiritualist, which landed him in jail? What about his federal tax evasion charges? What about his attempt to extort $50,000 from oil millionaire, G. Allan Hancock? All of these questions intrigued me, so another trail of independent research began.
On and off for four years I chased ghosts who were reluctant to tell their story. The simple matter of the passage of time has made many answers impossible to obtain. I spoke with 88-year-old John Conlin several times on the telephone. He was cordial, but declined to offer much information. He felt that his memories had already been told in the previously published book, but he wished me the best on this project.
Alexander’s involvement in so many questionable activities and his attempts to cover up that involvement during his lifetime compounded the problems of finding answers. I began to understand why those answers had eluded John Pomeroy. As I squinted at scratchy, microfilmed files of 95-year-old newspapers resting in historical archives; tried to decipher nearly illegible photocopies of FBI memos to and from J. Edgar Hoover about Alexander; and spoke to file clerks, archivists, research librarians and historians from coast to coast; more pieces of the puzzle slowly came together. More questions were also left unanswered.
However, several things were also re-
affirmed to me: Alexander was the master showman of his era. On stage, he reigned supreme. Off stage, he was one of the most charismatic charlatans who ever lived. He played most every aspect of his life for his own advantage, forsaking a string of wives, lovers and friends in the process.
In the end, a new manuscript was written. I have incorporated John Pomeroy’s extensive research and interviews with Alexander’s friends and contemporaries, along with my own subsequent findings to tell the Alexander story. After all that has been done, I wish that I could say this is the “definitive” biography of Alexander. It is not. But it is probably the closest we will get at this late date. You will find it to be the story of one of the most amazing characters in the history of show business, and one who is still mystifying people (including myself) fifty years after his death.