Mephisto's Birthday

Every time I walk in front of Roosevelt University on Michigan Ave., I look up to the top floors and think about the fabulous party that took place there on February 26th, 1894. The French magician Alexander Herrmann celebrated his 35th year in show business with a sumptuous twenty course French dinner that began at the stroke of midnight.

Roosevelt University at the time was the Auditorium Hotel designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan (a young Frank Lloyd Wright was the draftsman). Most likely the party took place in the 10th floor dinning room over looking lake Michigan.

In 1894 Alexander Herrmann was the most famous magician in America. On stage he was known for his humor and great sleight-of-hand skill, off stage he was renown for his spontaneous close-up magic in restaurants and bars. It was Herrmann that originated the look of the dapper mephistophelian gentleman with goatee and a handlebar moustache.

“Wine flowed like water” amongst the 60 guests who came out on a Sunday evening to celebrate with Herrmann. The revelers included Finely Peter Dunne (a bar on Lincoln Ave. pays hommage to the columnist), Italian opera star Adelina Patti (Verdi claimed she was the finest singer who ever lived), and many of Herrmann’s pals from the morbid Whitechapel Club located off an alley now named West Calhoun Place, between Wells and LaSalle.

Between courses, Herrmann plucked silver coins from the candelabrum, rosebuds from guests’ napkins and performed his most famous close-up trick of all… a card was selected (the King of Spades), returned to the pack, the cards were shuffled and then Herrmann proceeded to throw the cards at the wall one by one. Each bounced off until he threw the final card, the King of Spades, and it stuck to the wall. There was a pause. Then, ever so slowly, the King of Spades began to creep up the wall and tuck one of its corners under the picture molding.

“The guests began to leave just as the sun was rising beyond lake Michigan.” It was time for Mephistopheles to retire and for me to snap out of my afternoon reverie and continue up the avenue.


 Herrmann, Adelaide. Adelaide Herrmann, Queen of Magic: Memoirs, Published Writings, Collected Ephemera. Edited by Margaret Steele, Bramble Books, 2012.