Baltimore magician's wife obsessed with making sure his legacy doesn't disappear Now You See It, Now You Don't

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York -- Maurine Christopher's dark apartment has the eerie aura of a fun house fallen mute. Astral hands and floating heads, a Breughel scene of magic mayhem, and posters of mysterious, long-dead men with gleaming eyes await visitors inside the rambling suite on Central Park West. The curtains are drawn to protect the collection from natural light.

Since her husband, the world-famous Baltimore magician and author Milbourne Christopher, died in 1984, Maurine has spent her days painstakingly cataloging his prize possessions, among them thousands of letters and books acquired by his hero, Harry Houdini. But she won't say what her plans are for the priceless collection. The puzzle is maddening for scores of magic aficionados.

When her husband was alive, the Christophers led a thrilling life of elegant escapes by night, intensive magic scholarship by day. They traveled wherever magic took them, consorting with wizards around the globe. Now, Mrs. Christopher keeps to herself, entombed by her husband's obsession, spurred by his haunting presence. She is driven to conjure his world of wonders for future scholars.

"I live surrounded by people who are more dead than alive," she says. Trim, with large, black spectacles and neatly dressed in green, Maurine Christopher retains much of her impeccable beauty at an age she'd rather not discuss. But she appears weary and a tad overwhelmed by her task. "I keep people alive I miss. I talk about them and I talk to them," she says. Indeed, she begins her sentences with "We," as if her husband were still by her side. And she uses the present tense when speaking of him and his dead colleagues.

Mrs. Christopher is admittedly lonely, but her goal has eclipsed any other need. "I'm trying to do some of the things he would have done if he had time," she explains simply.

Although warehoused props and other belongings have been pitched, her home is jammed with the cups and balls, vintage posters, automata, photographs and ephemera her husband acquired in Bombay, Berlin, London and Baltimore -- his hometown.

"Chris," as he is still known, came of age when Baltimore was chock-a-block with illusionists and their magnificent deceptions. With its vaudeville venues, legitimate theaters and prestigious magic clubs, the city, during the first half of the century, lured conjuring greats Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Blackstone and Harry Houdini himself. On an April day in 1916, some 50,000 Baltimoreans watched spellbound as the Great Houdini wriggled from a straitjacket while dangling upside-down from a rope attached to the old Sun building.

Christopher was only 2 then, and he never met the legendary escape artist. But he would study him for a lifetime, and even imitate him off and on stage. From swallowing needles and bringinging them up threaded to the vanishing elephant trick, he re-created Houdini's repertoire. And, he attempted one act of legerdemain on live television that even Houdini did not dare. One Maurine Christopher will never forget.

The magic begins

Baltimore was the backdrop for the Christophers' romance -- with magic, and with each other.

Maurine Brooks arrived at The Sun during World War II, one of a phalanx of female journalism school graduates taking advantage the war-time dearth of male reporters. Debutante-pretty, she was a lively Tennessee belle who once begged matinee idol Fredric March for an 11th-hour interview. "If I don't get you tonight, The Evening Sun will get you tomorrow," she told Mr. March in her best deadline purr.

Mr. March agreed to meet her in his Belvedere Hotel room. He was in his dressing gown, ready for bed, when she arrived. Soon, they were waltzing. " 'All Tennessee girls like to dance,' " she says Mr. March told her. "It was elegant, sweet fun," she recalls.

Maurine Brooks also met Milbourne Christopher on assignment. He often stopped in Baltimore to visit his mother, Nellie, who lived on Elmora Avenue, and to snag a little press.

Born and reared in East Baltimore, Chris had cultivated the air of a gentleman scholar and often played the professor -- perhaps a bit pretentiously -- by quizzing others on their knowledge of his works. He was confident and dashing, a debonair anthropologist of conjuring who soaked up any applicable discipline -- be it psychology, probability, chemistry -- to fortify his command of magic.

He had already made a name for himself in New York when he met the young Sun reporter. "He was very, very good looking," Mrs. Christopher says.

Their first date took place the day they met. She got off work at midnight and went to the press club where Chris played poker and schmoozed with reporter friends. He arrived, she remembers, "bearing gifts": a paper bag containing a crab cake and the silver, art-deco bracelet she wears today.

Chris' passion for conjuring had begun at age 6 with an A. C. Gilbert Mysto Magic Set. Even as a child, he spent untold hours at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, gobbling all he could find on the subject. Chris and friend Phil Thomas, who later ran a Baltimore magic shop, joined the Pyramid Magic Club for boys, run by Fess Marx. (Older, more advanced prestidigitators met at the Society of Osiris, run by Henry Ridgely Evans, and the Demons Club of Maryland, where Harry Kellar once presided as "supreme archdemon.")

George Goebel, an illusionist and owner of A. T. Jones, a Baltimore costume business, remembers the strict rules for Pyramid Club members, who met at one another's homes. "You could only miss two meetings a year," says Mr. Goebel, whose Woodbrook home is appointed with a life-size wax figure of a manacled Houdini, shelves of handcuffs, silver-tipped wands and Thurston's 19th-century teak lounge chair.

Thurston, a pal of Marx, often invited Chris backstage at the grand Ford's Theater (since demolished) on Fayette Street. At ,, 12, Chris and Phil Thomas gave their first public performance as "Phil & Mil, Boy Magicians," in a Baltimore church at St. Paul Street and North Avenue.

Chris graduated in 1932 from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and briefly attended the Maryland Institute. His father, Charles, who taught him his first rope trick, had committed suicide. To make ends meet, Chris caddied and worked at Bethlehem Steel, where he once burned his right hand on molten metal. He feared his magic career was over, but the hand healed, Mrs. Christopher says. "He had beautiful hands," she says.

By the time he and Maurine met in the late 1940s, Chris was living in New York City, but he remained a local celebrity. Reading his frequent articles in The Sun, Baltimoreans kept in touch with his constant hocus-pocus. They knew, for example, that he had brazenly talked his way into the White House Easter lawn party in 1935, where he entertained a gaggle of important children.

A seasoned globe-trotter who had toured South America and Europe, Chris entered World War II as a soldier-magician. From Europe, he wrote on matters military and magic, describing in one Sun piece how "tricks ridiculing der Fuhrer and his principles are extremely popular with the British Tommies and Tars."

Chris and Maurine married in 1949 at her Tennessee homestead. The Sun headline read: "Baltimore Magician No Escape Artist."

Topping Houdini

In New York, Chris continued to write prolifically and perfect new effects. He became the first illusionist to use magic persuasively television, paving the way for the telegenic glitz of Doug Henning and David Copperfield.

During a 1957 NBC-TV special, "The Festival of Magic," he performed a feat said to have killed 12 magicians: the "death-defying bullet-catching trick." The segment, televised live, opened with a close-up of a yellowed letter from Kellar pleading with Houdini not to try the trick. Houdini never did.

In his 1973 book, "The Illustrated History of Magic," Chris recalled the performance: "The camera came in for a close-up as [the marksman] loaded a .22-caliber bullet into the chamber of his rifle. The camera pulled back for a view over the marksman's shoulder. He aimed at my mouth, 18 feet away, and fired. The camera moved in for another close-up as my head snapped back. I leaned forward, dropped the bullet from between my teeth into a plate held by an assistant."

Mrs. Christopher's father objected to the trick, but she told him, " 'Daddy . . . in a billion years I would not tell my husband how to perform his business.' "

She knew how the trick was done. "He did tell me, it was supposed to reassure me and God knows it didn't."

Shortly after the NBC special, Chris caught a bullet on a British television production, but not before calming the nervous marksman with a shot of whiskey. He would have likely repeated the effect later in life despite the risk, Mrs. Christopher says. It was, after all, the one way he could transcend his muse. "I think you feel you're competing with Houdini if you're a magician," she says. "The only [reason] he did the bullet trick was because Houdini didn't."

By accident and by design, Chris' life tracked Houdini's in innumerable ways. Houdini was rough-hewn and powerfully built, and Christopher exuded noblesse oblige, but they bore an uncanny facial resemblance. Chris took full advantage of the likeness by striking dramatic poses identical to those of his hero.

Like Houdini, Chris was a professional skeptic who zealously exposed fraudulent mediums. Nevertheless, both men, throughout their lives, sought evidence of the supernatural.

Of the 24 books Chris wrote, many, including "ESP, Seers & Psychics" and "Search for the Soul," probed the occult. "He looked upon this as a great unsolved mystery," Mrs. Christopher says. "If there was something else out there, he would like to be the one to find it."

In a sense, the afterlife both men searched for has been realized in their wives' efforts to kindle their spirits by any means possible. For 10 years after his death, Houdini's widow, Bess, participated in annual seances in futile hope of contacting her immortal beloved.

Mrs. Christopher's methods of retrieving her husband aren't as literal, but it's no stretch to find a strong parallel between the two wives as well as between their men. Chris, himself, sealed that feminine link by presenting his wife with a poetry book originally purchased by Houdini for Bess. The two magicians' dedications are penned side by side within the book, as if it were incumbent upon Mrs. Christopher to emulate Bess' loyalty as Chris emulated Houdini's genius.

And so, nothing distracts Mrs. Christopher from her task. Except for an occasional rendezvous at the Algonquin, she rarely socializes. She is retired from a long career as a television and radio columnist at Advertising Age. She proudly speaks of the two books she wrote decades ago about America's black Congress members, but that good work also belongs to a time when she and Chris toiled side by side.

With the catalogs, which are being published by a small press specializing in magic, Mrs. Christopher wants to ensure that Chris' collection is remembered as a "valuable part of American cultural history." But she is also extremely protective of Chris' legacy and has allowed relatively few Houdini students access to the collection.

"Other scholars are chomping at the bit to get in" to the Christopher collection, says George Daily, a York, Pa., magic collector and appraiser for Mr. Copperfield. As they have earned Mrs. Christopher's trust, several researchers, including Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, have been granted incremental peeks at the collection. But "very few invitations have been extended," Mr. Daily says. There are those who

suspect that Mrs. Christopher does not want to see Chris' reputation as a Houdini authority be surpassed.

Mrs. Christopher remains emphatically vague as well about the collection's fate once she is gone. "I don't worry about things like that as long as I'm here," she says, scornfully recounting how curious magic buffs called about the collection "two days after he died."

At one time, the collection was said to have interested Mr. Copperfield, an avaricious magic collector whose Las Vegas home holds a mammoth private museum. But the prospect of Chris' name being absorbed by Mr. Copperfield's was not acceptable to Maurine Christopher. Chris thoroughly combed bookstores and antiques shops around the world for his collection. He studiously considered each piece before its purchase. Mr. Copperfield, on the other hand, can effortlessly build his collection with the flourish of a pen.

Members of the Magic Collectors Association, an ardent bunch who chart important artifacts as they change hands, ponder the future of Chris' invaluable trove.

"We've all wondered what she is going to do with it," says Ray Goulet, a longtime magic collector in Watertown, Mass. "I don't think she's made up her mind. . . . It's still a mystery. But that's what magic's all about."

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