The Maid of the Moon

Photo: Wayne Wissner

Photo: Wayne Wissner

I recently returned from the Los Angeles Conference on Magic History, where I witnessed a recreation of one of the greatest illusions of all time – Astarte – or (as it was called when performed by the Herrmann the Great Company) The Maid of the Moon. This spectacular recreation was built by John Gaughan and brilliantly performed by Mystina (playing The Maid of the Moon), as well as a skilled team of unseen helpers.

Although not its original inventor, the illusion was developed and performed by one of the greatest geniuses in the history of magic, William Ellsworth Robinson. Before he became famous as Chung Ling Soo, Robinson and his wife Dot worked in both the Kellar and Herrmann magic shows, putting the couple smack in the middle of the intense rivalry between the world’s two greatest magicians. Harry Kellar and Alexander Herrmann both wanted to (and did) feature in their own shows Robinson’s stunning illusions, including Astarte and Black Art.

Astarte is perhaps the most astonishing and breathtaking illusion I’ve ever seen. Like all levitation effects, the assistant rises into the air, but Astarte blows away all the others. It begins with a lovely lady standing on the stage and suddenly rising vertically. She then flies all over the stage, rotating both vertically and spinning around horizontally. She walks upside down, swims through the air and even somersaults through a solid hoop that she holds. After she finally lands, she walks forward, demonstrating that she’s attached to – nothing.

Adelaide Herrmann was magically levitated countless times in her career, but she never performed the role of this floating lady. This was tiny Dot Robinson’s illusion, and it required great skill and strength as well as great acting ability, looking effortlessly blissful, while actually enduring extreme muscle strain and an infamously uncomfortable secret magic method.  (This is true of most levitation illusions, but Astarte is in its own league, discomfort-wise.)

While she didn’t perform this illusion, Adelaide definitely witnessed it, just as I did in L.A.  I wonder if she was amazed as I was. Even when you know how it works (as I kind of sort of do), it looks like real magic. What a thrill to see it with my own eyes.

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Addie, Where Are You?

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In my Adelaide Herrmann research I experience a lot of simultaneous frustration and intrigue. Madame was professionally public, but she carefully guarded her personal life.  Although she was a prolific correspondent – first in longhand and later pecking away on her typewriter – I’ve never seen any letters between her and any of her close friends or relatives. If any still exist, they have yet to surface.

This omission of Adelaide’s personal life has to be intentional. Indeed, even in her memoir, she barely mentions her family. Her nephew John Kretschman, who worked in her show for her entire vaudeville career, is referred to only as “my assistant.” Her niece Adele (Dewey) Owles Smith, also her stage assistant and closest relative until Adelaide’s death, would have been omitted from her memoir entirely, had she not been mentioned in an included letter to Adelaide from Harry Kellar.

Almost everything I know about Adelaide Herrmann’s personal life comes from my genealogical research and my subsequent discovery and interviewing of her sisters’ descendants. I’ve heard tantalizing snippets about Adelaide’s tomboy childhood and how, at first, her parents didn’t want her to marry Alexander Herrmann – the Jewish magician. I learned about family feuds and alliances. But mostly I found that the majority of her relatives know nothing about her and are intrigued by their once-famous ancestor.

So while Adelaide’s performances are easy to track, Adelaide the person remains elusive. When not touring or performing in New York, I generally don’t know where she was or what she did.

Since I’m a hundred years younger than Madame, I like to look back a century to see what Adelaide was doing when she was my age. I looked back today, searching for appearances from 1913, and found her performing on the 60-week Orpheum circuit, which took her across the U.S. to as far-flung locations as North and South Dakota. In September 1913, she gave a long interview to a reporter from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. But between the spring of 1912 and the summer of 1913, so far I can’t find her.

In early 1912, Adelaide’s sister Mathilde died in London at age 61, after a long illness. Shortly thereafter, Mathilde’s daughter Eugenie emigrated to New York, where her sister Adele helped her get settled. But would this have been enough to derail the ever-intrepid Adelaide? I tend to doubt it. Perhaps I’ll never know, but I’ll keep digging.

Whatever the reason, Adelaide was back in force in 1914 with her Caliostro act, performing multiple weeks in New York, Phildelphia and Washington.

There are many other dates on which Adelaide is among the missing. Her Swiss cheese life makes her all that more intriguing. Occasionally new details drop in my lap like jewels, and another shadowy corner of her life comes to light. These are always great days.