“You may drink my wine. You may eat my food. You may command my servants. But you must respect my dog!”
So read the bronze plaque affixed to the door of the palatial London home of Sigmund Neuberger (1872-1911) – The Great Lafayette – the highest paid magician and quick change artist of the Edwardian Era.
Mostly forgotten today, he was undoubtedly as gay as a pink (vanishing) elephant.
The pampered object of The Great Lafayette’s affection was Beauty, a perky terrier once given to him as a pup by fellow conjurer and admirer Harry Houdini. Beauty had a suite of brocaded rooms, ate five course meals, wore a diamond studded collar.
“The more I see of people, the more I adore my dog,” confessed TGL, who carefully avoided romantic entanglements, treated most people with disdain, lived a life of sybaritic luxury on a salary of 40,000 British pounds sterling per year.
“If Beauty should die, I’m sure I shan’t live much longer,” he predicted – a prophesy that surreally came true.
According to William Goldston, 19th/20th Century historian of magic, “Lafayette was the most hated magician that ever lived. He was so intensely unpopular that he was greeted everywhere with the most utter and open contempt.”
This may reflect sour grapes on Goldston’s part, as TGL was on cordial terms with fellow big-name magicians Houdini, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Chung Ling Soo (aka William Robinson). There was, of course, no complaint from Beauty. She, or was it he? was TGL’s wag-tail inspiration.
Beauty lived like a king (or queen?), chauffeured about London in TGL’s silver-gray Mercedes, the radiator ornament of which was the little dog’s likeness. Beauty also had a private railway carriage, dog-sized settees, porcelain baths.
TGL was more quick change artist than magician. He had campy flair. Exuberant panache! Audiences adored him. He entered to a trumpet fanfare, dressed in a close-fitting satin costume of pastel shades. Shake dozens of birds from a sequined cloth, then a bejeweled goat from its folds. Bow graciously and wave.
His magic was laced together with switcheroo routines, in which he skillfully traded identities again and again with a staff of well-disciplined (well paid) assistants. The end of his career began May 1st, 1911 at the Empire Theater in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Four days before opening Beauty died of apoplexy — too, too much over feeding. TGL was grief stricken (but the show must go on). Beauty was laid out in his hotel room, surrounded by hundreds of lilies. The treasured pet was embalmed, and TGL bought side-by-side burial plots at nearby Piershill Cemetery.
On May 9, 3000 people packed the Empire Theater. The finale was “The Lion’s Bride,” a popular audience pleaser, at the end of which TGL “magically” changed places with the lion. Suddenly scenery caught fire. The theater was hastily evacuated.
Among three staff who perished was The Great Lafayette, identified only by his many rings. He had tried to rescue his animal menagerie. His funeral was “one of the most extraordinary internments of modern times”. That it must have been …
… as Beauty’s coffin was opened, and The Great Lafayette’s ashes were lovingly enfolded by his beloved, faithful, diamond-collared terrier. One hundred-and-one years ago last month.