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The Life & Magic of Stewart James (1908-1996)

“Vocalculate” (c.1945)

. . . I have never lost interest in finding magical results.  In my seclusive life, it was practically the only thing to keep me going.

— Stewart James

At some point, working with stringent restrictions and in relative isolation became a surefire way for Stewart James to cultivate the necessity his mind required for invention.  In 1945, James returned from the war, broke off his engagement with Grace Macdonald (a former magic assistant he wanted to marry) and began to care for his ailing mother fulltime.  With both his deceased father and his long-since-married sisters absent from the family home, James divided his time between delivering mail for the local post office, looking after his mother, and studying magic at every possible opportunity.  During what would end up being a strenuous and sometimes intolerable twenty-seven-year commitment to watching over the aging Ms. James, the gifted thinker recorded an astonishing amount of material.  Magicians marvel at both the volume and range of tricks he was able to create.  They also wonder about the private strategies he used to generate such a vast amount of magical methods and effects.  How did he do it?

One reason James was able to produce such high  quality magic tricks is linked to the quantity of alternative methods and effects that he explored extensively for each item.  A perfect example of his obsessive capacity for variations on a theme is recounted by Allan Slaight in The Essential Stewart James: “In late 1983, I had sent him a card trick involving 1984.  As the year 1984 approached, Stewart began to study the Orwell book.  Over the next few months he concocted sixty-seven effects using 1984!” (italics added ES 184 ).  Of course, the ambitious innovator did not always produce nearly seventy card tricks for each one concocted by someone else.  Also, by the time he was 75, when he received the card trick inspired by George Orwell, his life had changed in two important ways.  First, he no longer had to spend the majority of his time caring for his mother (who passed away in 1972, at the age of 97); second, by that time he had established his own extremely reliable system for discovering new magic tricks. 

Another secret to Stewart James’ creative success was his knack for imposing restrictions upon himself, which forced his mind to think outside of the box.  The card trick “Vocalculate” offers a glimpse at a creative strategy James had refined as early as 1945.  In this case, the goal was to break new ground in the field of “lie detector” themed card effects.  In these tricks, a spectator chooses a card and is then given the option to either lie or tell the truth about its identity.  Invariably, the magician is able to determine whether the spectator is being honest or not.  With this effect as the basic premise,  James wrote up the following list of rules for his search and then set about trying to find deceptive methods:

  1. No glimpses.  The sense of sight must not be used.
  2. You must be totally unaware of the position of any card of those held by volunteer at the start of the experiment.
  3. Cards to be in volunteer’s hands before instructions are given him and you do not handle any of the cards again until after you have revealed his prevarication.
  4. No delayed action. Immediate revealment. (JF 1681)

“Vocalculate” is a perfect candidate to represent how Stewart James often used a rigid set of guidelines to force his thinking about trick methods in more original directions.  By eliminating the most common modi-operandi employed by magicians in such lie-detector effects (items one through four listed above), he set restrictions for himself similar to those he experienced as a child.  Just as his father’s prying eyes, which scanned all of the magic instruction sheets for the tricks little Stewart received by mail, motivated the young boy to invent alternative methods, the cited list of limitations for “Vocalculate” helped him to channel his creative powers.  By artificially creating a necessity for a different solution, James stimulated his talents for innovation.

But this is the tip of the creative strategy iceberg.  A few years after the invention of this card trick, Stewart James began to speak about a confidential source of inspiration he had been drawing upon for years.  Information about “The Board” (a group of individuals with whom he met to discuss magic tricks) became available around the same time the magician invented a trick whose secret he nearly took to the grave.




Copyright © 2007 Joe Culpepper and Magicana. All rights reserved.