Throughout her solo career Adelaide Herrmann was known as “The Queen of Magic,” a title that remained unchallenged over the course of her thirty years in Vaudeville. However, within a few years of Madame Herrmann’s retirement in 1928, Magic had a new Queen and rising star, the irrepressible young juggler and comedy magician, Dell O’Dell (1897-1962).
Dell O’Dell is the subject of a fantastic new biography by Michael Claxton – Don’t Fool Yourself, The Magical Life of Dell O’Dell, available through Squash Publishing. I cannot recommend this book more highly. It’s impeccably researched and beautifully written, of far higher quality and mass appeal than most magic history books. What an amazing woman and performer Dell O’Dell was! Her greatest secret (still unrevealed) was the source of her incredible energy and drive. (I suspect a secret twin, or triplets…) I would have loved to have seen her perform. By all accounts she was hilarious and simply brilliant onstage.
I had the privilege of observing Michael Claxton’s progress as he researched and wrote this book over the course of eight years, and I was flattered that he consulted me on the large amount of information on Adelaide Herrmann that he included. One interesting section is a comparison of the two Queens of Magic – Adelaide Herrmann and Dell O’Dell. Indeed, a lot of similarities are described in the book: Both women had athletic pre-magic performing careers. Both were married to European showmen, had no children and were animal lovers/owners in the extreme. Both had incredible drive. Both were short-fused redheads who could be extremely bossy. (Working in a man’s world, sometimes they had to be…)
But there are also tremendous differences, the biggest of which sets Adelaide Herrmann apart from almost all female magicians, both past and present – her complete lack of any family connection to the world of performing. Dell O’Dell grew up in the circus; her father owned and toured his own circus. She trained in juggling and other circus skills from her earliest days. Not only did Adelaide have no family connection to performing; among her people performing was considered disreputable and unacceptable. It took tremendous determination, guile and courage for Adelaide, as a young teenager, to study dance in secret for many months, knowing that if found out her punishment would be severe. She finally revealed her deceit to her parents only upon being awarded a paying role in London’s Holiday Pantomimes. The fact that she would be bringing money into the household was most certainly a factor in her parents’ (not immediately granted) permission to continue.
The other sharp contrast between Adelaide Herrmann and Dell O’Dell has to do with their respective men. Throughout her performing career, until she died, Dell had the support and partnership of her husband, the wonderful juggler Charles Carrer. While it was clear to everyone that it was Dell who wore the pants in the family, Charlie was always there, supporting her, building props for her, taking care of her, always putting her first. But Adelaide, widowed at 43, accomplished her entire thirty-year solo career alone, without a partner. Despite a couple of early and ultimately unfounded rumors, Adelaide was never again romantically associated with a man. She made her way in the world decade after decade entirely by herself. She was lonely; she never stopped missing her beloved Alexander. But there was never again to be another partner for her – a fact which, for me, serves to amplify her accomplishments.
I wish Michael Claxton much-deserved success with this book. It’s an inspiration to all female performers and should be in every library in America. A book of this literary weight and quality could easily have attracted a mainstream publisher. By choosing a publisher within the magic world, I believe marketing it to the wider audience it deserves will be a challenge. Hopefully Michael Claxton and his publisher have a strategy to bring it to mainstream readers. It’s way too important, and too good, for us magicians to keep to ourselves!