Monday, September 22, 2008

The Blackstone Name Game

Harry Boughton became Harry Bouton who became, through some discount posters, Fredrick the Great. By the time 1918 opened, he made one last name change, Harry Blackstone. For him it meant success, for me―trouble. A few posts ago I published a brief essay on the role of Chicago in the history of magic and one sentence caused much fury:

Harry Bouton was a struggling unknown until he borrowed the name of a south-loop hotel and became famous as Harry Blackstone.

I decided that I should reveal a bit of the writer and historian’s process, the process I went through before I wrote those words.

The People

Harry Blackstone was an artist at flinging the bull, though for Harry it was quite charming. The whole family seems to have the bullshitter gene. This is something beyond any argument. Yet, we must give Harry’s words weight. It is his story and there must be a germ of truth in it. Speaking for myself, who at one time has needed to lie about current and past activities, I understand it is easier to lie when you keep it closer to the truth.

Inez Nourse became the first Mrs. Blackstone and was there when the name changed. She figures prominently in one of the stories.

Harry’s biographer Dan Waldron, Dan wrote a Blackstone biography and examined the differing stories. He gave the most weight to Inez’s story.

Pete Bouton, Harry’s brother, confirmed one story and stars in another version of the story.

Harry Jr. and Gay Blackstone most likely never knew the real story and just repeated the various stories of Harry Sr.

The Story: The name Blackstone came from the Blackstone Hotel. The Hotel was built on the former site of the Blackstone Mansion. The Chicago Tribune lamented the loss of another city landmark, but the hotel that went up in its place was a grand one indeed. Finished in 1910, it was an important addition to the city. Harry said he was walking the streets looking for a new name when he saw the hotel sign.
The Case: Harry, born and raised in Chicago, certainly knew of the Blackstone legacy in the city. He told this story more often than any other story. It made the mainstream press, of which I base much of my extensive research, more than any other story. Milbourne Christopher felt it was the most probable of Harry’s stories. There is one serious problem, the name change happened in Ohio, a long way from the Blackstone sign. Let us be honest here, if you say this story is not true and Harry just repeated it for good publicity, you are calling Harry a liar. For me, the virtue of it being Harry’s story, even with the hint of lie, the hotel inspiration must carry some truth.

The Story: The name Blackstone came from Blackstone cigars. Blackstone cigars were a common cigar brand early in the 1900s. I could find little else written on the history, except that their production moved from one city to another in 1919. The cigars were prevalent enough to that he should know them. Inez said they were walking down a street, trying to figure a new name when she suggested Blackstone after seeing it on a sign. She gave Harry the name.
The Case: Inez Blackstone (nee Nourse) says this is the real name change story. It certainly can be true. There is very little to refute the story. At times, Harry said the cigars were an inspiration, of course, omitting Inez’s part. To play devil’s advocate, did she insert herself in the story to add to her self-importance? Alternatively, did she carry on Harry’s tradition of obfuscation?
Pete, his brother, told the cigar inspiration story. One wag on the Magic Café uses him as a confirming source, but in the same post admits Pete cannot be trusted. The only thing, apparently, he can be trusted on is that the hotel story is not true. Sorry, you cannot have it both ways. I have also heard the story with Pete, instead of Inez, suggesting the name after the cigar. (This may also be storyteller embellishment.) Yet, we still have to give the cigar inspiration weight in the truth derby. If you notice, it is similar to the hotel story: walking down the street, seeing a sign, only the inspiration changes.

The Story: Blackstone was his grandmother’s maiden name.
The Case: False. Blackstone said it, but family and census data proved it a lie.

The Story: He overheard Blackstone by chance on an elevator.
The Case: There is just no way to prove or disprove this yarn and in Dan Waldron’s words “vague and unlikely.”

The Story: He wanted to change his name to Herr Bismarck, but because of the WWI anti-German bias, his lawyer then suggested Blackstone.
The Case: I want to look at this story two ways, first on the surface. Look at the timeline. It was 1918; America one year into the Great War and Harry couldn’t sell tickets as the German sounding Fredrick and was looking for a non-German name for the act. Harry would have to be the single dumbest man in America to want to change his name to Bismarck. Second, a little deeper, there is another similar story that Harry’s agent suggested the name Blackstone. I bet that the memory of the story changed and that over the years, Fredrick morphed into Bismarck and agent morphed into lawyer. Nevertheless, Inez refutes this story. She said Harry did not have an agent. If we believe her cigar story, then this story is false. If we want to believe this story, we shift the responsibility. We don’t answer the question, cigar or hotel.

We have a problem. Each story seems to have elements of truth; if we believe one part, it disproves another. We still end with two credible options: Blackstone Hotel, Blackstone Cigars.


A Coin Flip

I would like to try on another story, one of pure fantasy. I have had to create names for performers, shows, tricks, and stories. When I am stuck, I brainstorm. I search the dictionary, the thesaurus, read magazines, skim books, and make lists of words to juggle. It is a mundane process, but true to life. Dan Waldron would have us believe for Harry any name would do. We are lucky Harry didn’t walk past a dime store; we would be talking about Harry Woolworth Sr. now. No, I think Harry tried on many names in his search. He may have been walking the streets to do so. Somebody may have suggested the name Blackstone, from the cigars. Were Blackstone cigars a status symbol? The hotel was. Even if the cigar was suggested, it is naive to believe that Harry did not connect the name to the hotel and all its implications. Elegant, high class, regal, that’s the Blackstone Hotel of 1918. That’s Blackstone. It is not the sound bite of publicity, but it does ring of truth. The strange answer is that both, the cigar and the hotel could have played a role in the name change. As I said this is a fantasy and no one has ever said such a thing.

We are back to two choices: the cigar and the hotel.

Author Dan Waldron admits the real story is lost, forever. There is no way to discern the truth. The important thing is that Blackstone is. Ultimately, Dan is right when he says it “doesn’t account is as good as the next.” He chose to go with Inez. (Dan may have other reasons. If her story is not true then he cannot rely on the other facts of her life with Harry. His book falls apart.) It is Dan's right to go with Inez and I admire that he at least had a point of view.

“One account is as good as the next.” History is not nearly as clear cut as most of wish it to be. We deal with a human element that is fault ridden. Often we are forced to make a best guess or even a leap of faith. Every book on magic history, any history, is full of hundreds of these coin flips.

After discussing my dilemma with several prominent and magic writer/historians, they agreed that either story worked. Neither was definitive. Moreover, for the type of piece I was composing, it would not be wrong to write:

Harry Bouton was a struggling unknown until he borrowed the name of a south-loop hotel and became famous as Harry Blackstone.

Harry said it.

I chose it.

It was a writer’s right to do so.

1 comment:

ChgoMagic said...

Hello, thank you for your interest. But sorry, I am not accepting comments for this essay.