September 15, 2004: Features
By Merrell Noden ’78
Long before he came to Princeton as a member of the Class of 1969, David Gardner inhabited a secret world that few Princetonians ever see from the inside. He was a boy magician, a sleight-of-hand wizard who on many weekends would perform three or four shows around his hometown of Cleveland. He was among the youngest dues-paying members of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. When it was young David’s turn to host the monthly meeting of the Brotherhood’s local chapter, his family would retreat to the sidelines and watch warily as he entertained his magical friends.
“These were truly out-of-body experiences,” says Gardner’s brother, Daniel ’72, who was three years younger and just a little bit unnerved by the strange scenes unfolding in his backyard. “Here you’d have my brother, maybe 11 at the time, cavorting with 30-, 40-, 60-, and even 70-year-olds speaking with all varieties of accents, clutching wands, waving silks and scarves of every color imaginable, and running around after the occasional rabbit or pigeon that somehow had gotten out from under their spell. It was pre-Harry Potter weird.”
Gardner would go on to become a huge success in the far less whimsical world of venture capital and commercial real estate, where he stood out not only for his intelligence and creativity, but also for his charm and unswerving sense of principle. Despite the onset of muscular dystrophy, which manifested itself in the mid-1970s and put him in a wheelchair by his 15th reunion, Gardner worked just as hard in his spare time. For years, he served on the boards of many community and nonprofit groups, including the Literacy Volunteers of New York; Young Audiences, Inc., which introduces public school children to the theater; and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He had a deep love of teaching and, while still a Princeton undergrad, taught chemistry at the Princeton Day School.
Princeton held a special place in Gardner’s affections. “His volunteering for Princeton was legendary,” says classmate Bruce Freeman ’69, who works in the University’s Office of Annual Giving. “He was extremely good at it and loved the place deeply.” Gardner, who always sat in his wheelchair in the center of class photographs, served as special gifts co-chairman for the class and was co-chairman of the New York region during the University’s 250th Anniversary Campaign.
Through it all, he never lost his love for magic. “He was a connoisseur of magic,” says Lynn Shostack, who met Gardner while both were students at Harvard Business School and became his business partner and his wife. “We went to magic conventions and had a big library on magic. He always sought out the best magicians. He appreciated their skills, which can be incredibly subtle. And, particularly annoying to me, he always honored the magicians’ code, which means we were married 30 years and I can’t tell you how they do what they do.”
When Gardner died in December of 2001, Shostack cast about for a suitable way to honor her husband, to whom Princeton had meant so much. “Whatever it was going to be,” she says, “it had to reflect what made David who he was. It had to involve things like charm and whimsy but also great depth and breadth.” One morning she woke up with the perfect plan: She would establish a foundation at Princeton, to be known as the Gardner Magic Project, which would award grants for all sorts of projects that involved magic in the biggest and broadest sense possible. In the course of promoting “magic,” the Project could also promote teaching, theater and dance, linguistics, film, and even the study of the origins of science. “It’s the perfect metaphor for both David’s interest in the imagination and for the effect he had on people,” says class secretary Paul Sittenfeld ’69.
Gardner got his first taste of magic when he was 8 years old and accompanied his mother to a benefit she’d organized that featured a magician. “Family lore has it that David was immediately smitten and decided then and there to become a professional magician,” says Dan Gardner.
In Cleveland, there was one clear path to becoming a magician. It led down an alley, up some rickety stairs and into Schneider’s Magic Shop, a dusty, smoke-choked den presided over by Mr. Schneider, a raspy-voiced old man dedicated to identifying real magical talent. The shop had two rooms, an outer room where Mr. Schneider made a living selling the basic tools of magic and an inner sanctum into which he ushered only those who had shown a sufficiently deep interest and an ability to keep its secrets. Here, Mr. Schneider kept the good stuff, and David Gardner soon became a prized pupil.
A smart boy, he scheduled his first performances at nursing homes, figuring that, if a trick backfired, there was at least a chance that his audience would never notice. Word of the brilliant young magician spread around Cleveland, and he soon found himself shuttling to bar mitzvahs and anniversary and birthday parties. Performing was essential, for Gardner needed every penny he earned to feed what, his brother insists, was something of an addiction to magical paraphernalia.
When he arrived at Princeton, he was 6'2" and so skinny that he risked being mistaken for one of his wands. “I don’t think he ever had to make his bed,” recalls Jan Gombert ’69, who roomed with Gardner in their sophomore and junior years. “He would just slide in and the covers would be almost undisturbed and he would slide out again.”
Gardner, a chemistry major, was at first required to work at Commons as a condition of his scholarship. He realized that he didn’t want to do that for long, so he fell back on his first love, performing not only for kids’ birthday parties all over Princeton, but also for fellow students. On major party weekends he’d put on a full-blown magic show, in top hat and tails, for his Quadrangle Club clubmates and their dates. “We thought it was so classy to bring your date to Quadrangle and have her see a magic show,” says Freeman. “It sounds quaint, but our dates loved it.”
That was because Gardner was an excellent magician, who saw magic not as a veil of trickery but as a way of delighting people. “He had great ‘patter,’” says Shostack. “He was not a silent magician. He had grace and charm, but he would intersperse the worst Borscht Belt jokes you ever heard. I have a pendant he gave me that is solid gold and about an inch and a half high. It’s a gorilla, and he gave it to me one birthday because I was the ‘gorilla his dreams.’”
Gombert says Gardner could make a bowling ball appear out of thin air. Still, the trick he remembers best is one that began with Gardner stretching a sheet of rubber over the mouth of a drinking glass and placing two coins, a penny and a quarter, on top of the rubber sheet. He asked you to pick one, although — in a bit of “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose” trickery — all along it was going to be the quarter that he used. He then touched the quarter and with a theatrical “pop” it would fall to the bottom of the glass.
“I watched him perform that trick from a foot away four times, and I still have no idea how he did it,” says Gombert, adding that Gardner claimed he had discovered some property of rubber in his chemistry lab. “I told myself that before he died I’d persuade him to teach me that trick. Unfortunately, he never did.”
Gardner never stopped doing magic, largely, says Shostack, because “David liked people. For him, it was a way of connecting with them.” He and Lynn had no children of their own, but every Thanksgiving they would throw a party for all their friends with children. Some 50 kids would come to the apartment on Central Park West with the big picture windows overlooking the Macy’s Parade. Gardner always hired a magician for the occasion.
Even near the end, when his condition had deteriorated to the point where he required a wheelchair and a ventilator, he could still do magic. “A weird motor-memory that allowed his hands and fingers to operate faster than my eyes — and faster than his fingers and hands could possibly move with muscular dystrophy — would kick in,” recalls his brother, Dan. “The tricks he did for us in his later years remain even more remarkable than those he did at the age of 11, when he had full command of his motor control.”
One can only imagine how delighted Gardner would have been with the Magic Project, which has awarded 10 grants for this, its second year of existence. They range from $5,000 up to $50,000, and will support everything from utterly fanciful theater and dance productions to conferences on some of the most abstruse corners of Renaissance learning. They will pay for top acts like the Flying Karamazov Brothers, juggler/magician Michael Moschen, and Keith Barry, the Irish mentalist who bills himself as “The Druidmaster,” to come to McCarter Theatre.
The Project won’t teach students how to pull rabbits out of hats. “It’s not that at all,” says Shostack emphatically. “That’s being prohibited, even though once a year we will be putting on a magic show for the undergraduate body. That’s just the cute part, the fun part. The rest of it is serious education, designed to provide resources to areas of the University that never could get it otherwise. Carol Rigolot, executive director of Princeton’s Council of the Humanities, calls them ‘little bits of DNA’ — those esoteric areas [that] don’t draw a lot of students and don’t attract major donors because most major donors want their name plastered on something that’s permanent. So these areas are starved for resources. This is a subterranean kind of idea.”
One grant is going to the University’s Program in Medieval Studies to renew its graduate seminar in paleography, the study of ancient writing and manuscripts; another will help the Italian Studies program present a conference on “The Magic of The Late Mattia Pascal,” Pirandello’s novel featuring a variety of magic. A $50,000 grant is going to the Program in Theater and Dance to support a variety of projects, including the creation of two new dance works and the re-creation of two others, and to commission an American playwright to write a play about magic that will have its first performance at Princeton. A Princeton undergraduate, working as Shostack’s scout, traveled around the United States over the summer to identify first-class magicians and establish a database that future project administrators will use.
One grant winner – for the second year – is the Princeton Atelier, which was founded 10 years ago by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who teaches in Princeton’s creative writing program. The aim of the Atelier is to “bring to campus professional artists who are working on an actual project and want to do it in the company of students,” explains Ellen Goellner, its associate director. Last spring the Atelier used a Magic Project grant to bring together New York painter Nancy Manter and IMAX filmmaker Ben Shedd for a course on large-scale digital art. The class created a piece called “Against the Wall: The Question of Landscape in the 21st Century,” which explored the potent new magic of unframed cinematic visual space. It was displayed first in the Frist Student Center, then at the computer center, and eventually, Goellner notes with pride, at the Boston Center for the Arts. This year the Atelier is using its $25,000 grant to bring to campus three artists — Ukrainian throat singer and actress Majana Sadovska, digital videoist Lars Jan, and theater director Roger Babb — to collaborate on a “choral-theatrical” piece that will use traditional Ukrainian summer songs in an “exploration of enchantment” inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Whatever inspired lunacy might have prevailed in Shakespeare’s forest, Shostack stresses the fundamental seriousness of most of the work the Project will support and of magic itself. “Magic is not trickery,” she says. “People think of it as parlor games, but the subject itself – magic – permeates everything, all the way back to the Bible and beyond. It’s a very deep subject, very deep indeed, like David was.”
Indeed, the religion department has been awarded a grant that will pay a graduate student to help Peter Schaefer, the Ronald O. Perelman Professor of Judaic Studies, translate the fourth and final volume taken from the Cairo Genizah. Written over roughly 1,000 years from the ninth to the 19th centuries, and discovered in a secret room in a synagogue in old Cairo, the trove of documents includes everything from scholarly treatises and commentaries to laundry lists and recipes. It may well be as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls in giving us a more complete picture of Judaism, and especially of the way it mixes mysticism and rationalism. Jews were assumed to have special magical powers, notes Schaefer, and this particular volume from the Genizah amounts virtually to a handbook of contemporary magic, from amulets to potions and love charms. “You’d write a love charm down, and put it under the door of your beloved,” says Schaefer.
The Renaissance saw a flowering of interest in magic across Europe, as magical texts from the ancient world were reconsidered in the light of the “hard” science just beginning to emerge. “Magic had always been practiced,” notes history professor Anthony Grafton, one of whose specialties is Renaissance magic. “It was always a big part of church and university life. In the Renaissance, it was given a new classical basis, thanks to rediscovered Greek texts about magic and an interest in technology. And it becomes a huge force of its own in theology and philosophy.”
Grafton points to both Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Shakespeare’s The Tempest as evidence of the ongoing interest in what was called “natural” magic, which dealt with the magi’s supposed power to turn the special properties of the earth and stars to their advantage. “This kind of magic had an impact on the growth of modern science,” says Grafton. “Francis Bacon, for example, was fascinated by the this idea of power and knowledge, and though his own idea of knowledge and power was quite different from the magical one, he certainly was influenced by it. By the middle and late 17th century, there’s no question that the new science was defining itself against magic.”
Or, as Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts, puts it, “the boundary lines between religion and magic and science are very porous.” Skemer himself is working on several grant-supported projects, including a workshop on magical books and the purchase of magical texts, the first of which is a work by the 13th-century Islamic thinker, Al-Buni.
The best role in the Magic Project, however, may belong to Andy Hoover ’07. Hoover spent the summer working as Shostack’s intern, attending magical conventions and scouting top magicians in an effort to build a database of the very best magicians, since many of them are not professionals but dedicated amateurs like Gardner. Hoover himself is not a magician – at least not yet. An actor who played in a number of on-campus productions and in McCarter Theatre’s acclaimed staging of Charles Mee’s Big Love, Hoover got the job by writing an essay about his high school pal Mike. Mike, it seems, was a good magician but a little weak on the patter. Hoover’s job was to provide Mike’s schtick.
In an attempt to find “magicians’ magicians,” he went to the International Brotherhood of Magicians convention in Cleveland at the end of June and then to the Society of American Magicians convention in St. Louis in July. “Magicians, in my experience, are a great group of people, very friendly, very warm,” he says. “I was afraid going in that it would be a cultish thing and I’d be excluded, but it wound up being an advantage. Despite the magicians’ code about not revealing tricks, when they do encounter an outsider who seems to have a genuine interest in magic, there’s nothing they like better than showing him how to do tricks and what their world is all about.”
Hoover reckons that by mid-July he’d seen some 50 magicians and was busily typing up notes to present to Shostack. Among the more amazing people he encountered were 22-year-old Jason Latimer, who drew a standing ovation from other magicians for making balls materialize in a crystal glass, and Chase Curtis, who performed a similar trick by making larger and larger batteries appear out of nowhere, working his way up to car batteries.
“It’s amazing how many tricks are based on sheer audacity,” says Hoover over lunch, waving a nacho around as if he’s about to make it disappear, which he does, but by rather ordinary means. “Once you’re at the convention everyone assumes you are one of them. So I had a rare opportunity to learn how many of these tricks were done without first knowing the basic principles of magic. I’m not bound by any official oath [of secrecy].”
But don’t get your hopes up. For all the excitement Hoover clearly feels about his magical summer, he has no intention of giving away any secrets. What he will do is help Shostack spread magic around the Princeton campus. If the Project produces anything close to the wonder that animates Hoover, it will be a fitting tribute to Gardner indeed.
Merrell Noden ’78 is a freelance writer and frequent PAW contributor.