[This review was published in M-U-M
, October 2008. Reproduced with permission of the Society of American Magicians.]
Gold from Hay
There are probably many who will scan this review topic and ask, "Who is J. Barrows Mussey?" and that is the reason Chris Wasshuber published this ebook. In his Introduction, Wasshuber notes that if you are a middle-aged American magician (or in my case, an elderly...) you will probably know part of the answer if one substitutes his pseudonym "Henry Hay." Mussey, as Hay, wrote a small number of magic books for beginners, two of which are arguably minor classics, Learn Magic (1947) and The Amateur Magician's Handbook (1950), the latter being the largest and best known. They are splendid introductory texts, as they concentrate on the important aspects of routining, presentation, and the like, rather than just showing the beginner how tricks are done. Mussey had a flair for getting across sophisticated principles to the beginner in a clear and simple manner. The books remain as fresh today, as they were when published.
Mussey's life was unconventional, to say the least. Born in 1910, he was a prodigy, graduating from high school at 14, and when he was but 13 — his mother not wanting him to enter college at this tender age — he began a tour of the eastern and mid-western United States clad in Persian costume and performing magic. His mother booked this tour by having family friends in various cities set up shows for him, saying, "He will learn self-reliance" from his travels.
Mussey traveled alone, by train, and even in the palmy days of the 1920s it was a rather unusual, not to mention risky, experience for a kid — no matter how mature and intelligent. The highlight of the trip was two days spent at the home of his hero T. Nelson Downs, in Iowa. The following year, both alone and accompanied by his mother, he toured Europe and the Far East, and then entered Haverford College. After college, he went into the publishing business and, in 1950, availing himself of his linguistic abilities, he emigrated to Germany where he became an advertising consultant and American correspondent for Advertising Age. Mussey died in Germany in 1985.
It was Wasshuber's decision to republish The Amateur Magician's Handbook as an ebook for $25 that generated this book, explaining who Mussey was. This is done not by a biographical narrative, rather by means of 18 letters, 19 articles, 10 tricks, and two complete coin routines, all by or about Mussey. One cannot say that this is a biography of Mussey per se, but the material is most interesting and goes a long way toward sketching his fascinating life.
In point of criticism, one might say that a bit of editing wouldn't have hurt the project. Mussey's mother's letters, for example, are of great interest but contain much extraneous material. Because the articles have been gathered from many sources, and written at various times, there is repetition. The leaps from one topic to another may prove annoying to some readers. On the other hand, there is a great deal of interesting material here, and it's handy to have it gathered in one place.
The book is illustrated with photos and line drawings, and is available separately at $15, or if the Handbook is purchased with it, $30 for both. I read it with interest and pleasure.
[Please note that the stars given below were not provided by Jim Alfredson but were added by the Lybrary.com staff.]