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The International Brotherhood of Magicians

14 Aug

Letters from the Past

Category: News   Posted by: I.B.M. Website Editor

Howard Thurston
1869 – 1936
By Samuel Patrick Smith


One of the hidden pleasures of attending an I.B.M. Convention is finding treasures in the dealers’ room and later fondly recalling the year and location of their purchase.

At the 1987 I.B.M. Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, I made the modest purchase of three handwritten letters by Howard Thurston. They were personal letters to his wife and daughter and made no mention of magic. This was not the Wonder-Show-of-the-Universe Thurston, but a devoted husband and doting father, writing playful letters home, revealing a warm and personal side of American’s greatest magician.

Having corresponded with Thurston’s daughter Jane since 1977, I had an added interest in these letters, so I bought them after some deliberation. (“Let’s see... Okay! I’ll take them!”)

Jane_Thurston250.jpgJane—whom Thurston fondly called “Jane Girl” until the end of his life—was the daughter of Nina Leotha Fielding of Nova Scotia and John R. Willadsen of New Jersey. The marriage did not last. By the time Leotha, “a dancing, singing comedienne” who had appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies, met and married Howard Thurston in 1914, Jane was five years old.

“Mr. Thurston,” Jane recalled years later, “adopted me as his legal daughter, and Presto! I had a Dad!” From the start, Thurston was Daddy and Jane was Daddy’s girl.

Newly married with an instant family, Thurston bought property in Beechhurst, Long Island, New York, across from the former estate of his childhood hero, Alexander Herrmann. There he built for his wife and daughter a three-story home where Jane spent an enchanted childhood.

A doting father, Thurston nevertheless balanced his affection with parental discipline. He and Leotha also enrolled her in a small Catholic school on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, about twenty-five miles from Beechhurst. “This school was very expensive,” Jane recalled. “I came across an old bill paid by my Dad and…it horrified me. If I had realized back then, I might have made something of myself.”1 In Thurston’s mind, she was making something of herself, and in time would join him on stage as co-star in The Wonder Show of the Universe.

Meanwhile, Thurston wrote frequent letters to Jane, and to Leotha when they were apart. His playful tone with Jane Girl was a far cry from that of the dignified “Gov’nor,” as Thurston was known by some of his staff. Thurston wrote this letter to Jane at the end of the school year, a couple of months before her ninth birthday.

The Lawrence [Hotel]
Erie, Pa.
Friday, May 31, 1918

Jane Girl Sweetheart

There is one thing I want to call your attention to now that you are home.

Every morning when you are eating your breakfast, I want you to take a glass of milk in your right hand—Remember, Jane—your right hand—and just before you drink it you must remember that I love you.



They spent a wonderful summer together at their Beechhurst estate—as they did for almost twenty years—swimming, playing tennis (a sport Thurston and Leotha enjoyed), and entertaining guests. When the show hit the road again the following season and school was back in session, Howard’s affectionate letters to Jane resumed. In this letter, Thurston had bought a gift for Jane and teases her with clues. Whether it had legs or wheels, he doesn’t say.2

Hotel Touraine
274 Delaware Ave. at Johnson Park
Buffalo, N.Y.
November 14, 1918

Say Jane Girl

I had a lot of fun today. I took the present out on the main street and lot of people looked at it and laughed. I met an old man on the street and he had one just like it. I do hope you like it.

How are you feeling?

Love and kisses from your Devoted Daddy

The third letter in in the set was from Thurston to his wife Leotha.

King Edward Hotel

Dear Leov,

If my love for you continues to increase as it has in the past, I am afraid my heart will burst.

I love you, my dear, more every minute. Wish you were here with me tonight.


Although many unpleasant things have been said about Thurston’s personal life, particularly by his disgruntled first wife, Grace Butterworth, Thurston’s relationship with Leotha seems to have been deep and abiding. Perhaps this was a key to Jane’s happy childhood—she had a happy family. “On the merry-go-round of childhood…I caught the brass ring,” she said.

Jane’s idyllic childhood passed, and she graduated from school. Celebrating, the Thurston family had lunch at the Casino Restaurant in Central Park. “We were driving home when Dad turned to me to say how proud he was, Mother chiming in, Kenny Claude [their chauffeur] turning around to grin from his driver’s seat. Then Dad said, ‘Well, Jane Girl, what now? Do you want to go on to higher learning? To college? Or do you want to join me in our magic show?’” It was decided: Jane would join her father.

After several months of rehearsal, with Thurston standing in the balcony calling out, “I can’t hear you!”—Jane made her stage debut in the fall of 1928 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston. On opening night, as they walked down the street arm in arm, Thurston tried to calm her nerves, but when nineteen-year-old Jane saw the marquee: THURSTON, WORLD’S GREATEST MAGICIAN—CO-STARRING HIS DAUGHTER JANE, she froze. Thurston became firm and pointed out the people entering the theater. “He said they were there to enjoy themselves, and it was our job to see they did. Who was I to let them down?” Thurston continued the lecture, but Jane was still “scared and miserable.”

A beautiful and vivacious young woman with a fun-loving spirit, performing good material with months of practice and rehearsal, Jane was an immediate hit. Her special song, written by their friend and neighbor Seymour Brown was, “My Daddy Is a Hokus Pokus Man.”

Jane performed in approximately one third of the show, and her good looks and sparkling personality attracted men in every city. Some were so taken they never dared to speak to her! But in 1930 Harry Harris, the son of a Pennsylvania state senator, won her affections, and they were secretly married. Neither Leotha nor Thurston were happy with the marriage, and it wasn’t long before Jane shared their opinion. In 1931 newspapers reported that Thurston’s son-in-law had attacked him. Thurston, they reported, overheard the intoxicated Harris physically abusing Jane and came to his daughter’s defense. When Harris turned on Thurston, the sixty-two-year-old magician subdued him with a tear-gas pen. The marriage was annulled a short while later.

Jane continued touring with her father until the Easter season of 1934. They were playing five and six shows a day at Loew’s Valencia Theatre in Jamaica, Long Island, happily anticipating a return to Beechhurst and a visit with Leotha, who had not been well. But a call came on April 8, between shows, that Leotha had suffered a heart attack. Thurston left Herman Hanson and Jane to carry on, but before he arrived home Leotha was dead. She was forty-six. “Dad simply fell apart,” Jane recalled, and things were never the same. Although the show went out again the next season, thirteen months after Leotha’s death, Thurston married one of his assistants, Pauline Mark, the former wife of his chauffer, Kenny Claude. Pauline was twenty-six years old; Thurston was sixty-six. The marriage strained the relationship of Daddy and Jane Girl, but the show continued touring.

On Sunday, October 6, 19353, they were playing at the Kearse Theatre in Charleston, West Virginia, and at the end of a long day went for coffee at the Idle Hour restaurant after the show. When they were finished, Thurston got up to put on his coat, took a few steps, and then collapsed. “What’s the matter with me?” he said, struggling with his speech. “I fell down.” He was taken to a hospital. In spite of the strained relationship of recent days, he was still looking out for Jane Girl. Lying in the hospital bed, his face contorted from a stroke, he looked up to her and said weakly, “Don’t worry.”

He died in Miami, Florida the following April, two years after Leotha’s death.

Of course, none of this was revealed in the three simple letters from father to daughter and husband to wife. These were letters from happier days, and it occurred to me after purchasing them in 1987 that Jane Girl—now Jane Thurston Shepard—would like to see them.

When I returned home from the 1987 I.B.M. Convention, I made copies of the letters and sent them to Jane (whom I always addressed as Mrs. Shepard, although she signed her letters, “Jane.” I considered giving her the original letters, but to tell the truth—I sent copies. Even so, she seemed genuinely delighted.

Replying from her home in San Diego, California on July 17, 1987, she wrote:

Friend Sammy,

You cannot know how pleased I am to have heard from you and to receive those dearly loved letters from my dad. You bet I love them! I have a bunch in my trunk. Then, surprisingly, when Dr. Fred Kruse bought so many of the late Gerald Heaney’s things from his widow, many personal items surfaced. Dr. Kruse kindly sent me a few letters, but for some of the items he offered, well, too far beyond my pocketbook’s limit.

In the same letter, she mentioned another transaction she had heard about regarding the disposition of her father’s belongings, which had been purchased by Gerald Heaney and sold by his widow. But always kind, she concluded: “Not being there, I cannot say what did go on.”

A chatty and entertaining letter-writer, she was positive and encouraging, much as her father must have been,4 and she usually shared details of her recent activities. This letter was no exception. Several newsy paragraphs later, her letter closed with these thoughts:

I still have a great deal of magic correspondence and enjoy it all, but when your letter arrived in this mail it was really delightful to receive, Sammy, and I cannot fully express my heartfelt thanks for the letters you enclosed. I ate up every written word, bringing back very wonderful memories. Yes, our family was unusually close. My Dad and Mother were my whole world.

Thanks, Sammy, with affection,


The closeness of their family ties touched Jane throughout her life. In her last years she spent considerable time writing remembrances of her father to pass along to her family. “As I am doing it for my kids,” she once wrote to me, “I have a feeling of urgency…hoping to finish it before I turn up my toes or run out of mind or something equally dismal.”

She didn’t run out of mind, but on a rainy day in early November, 1994, she slipped and fell on a sidewalk in New York City, an hour before she was to meet with Maurine Christopher (widow of Milbourne Christopher) for the first time. The trauma of the fall and a broken limb put her into a coma. Finally on November 12, 1994, Jane Thurston Shepard slipped away at age eighty-five.

Despite ups and downs through the years, she seemed to radiate kindness and appreciation. Her custom was to send beautiful hand printed cards to friends at Thanksgiving. This gesture reflected her spirit; she was truly thankful for her many friends and for her unique experiences in life. Most of all, I think, she was thankful for Howard Thurston—her daddy, the Hokus Pokus man.


1. Thurston was reputed at to have grossed a million dollars from his show, and apparently had times of great prosperity.

2. Thurston gave Jane a pony and cart when she was nine years old. It’s possible this is the gift he took out on the main street, described in this letter.

3. David Price in Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater incorrectly gives the date as December 13, 1935. By December, however, Thurston was recovering in Miami.

4. She corresponded widely with many magicians, including John Booth, Werner “Dorny” Dornfield, Walter B. Gibson, Bob Lund, David Price, and probably dozens of others.


Booth, John. The Linking Ring, “Jane Thurston’s Life of Triumph and Tragedy,” January 1995.

Christopher, Milbourne. The Illustrated History of Magic, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1973.

Price, David. Magic: A Pictorial History of Conjurers in the Theater, Cornwall Books, 1985.

Shepard, Jane Thurston, Personal letters, 1977 – 1990, private collection.

Shepard, Jane Thurston, Unpublished manuscript pages of her memoirs, private collection.

Thurston, Howard and Shepard, Jane Thurston. Our Life of Magic, Phil Temple Publications, 1989. Contains Thurston’s ghostwritten autobiography, My Life of Magic, plus reminiscences by Jane Thurston Shepard.


“Letters from the Past: Howard Thurston” is reprinted from The Linking Ring, the monthly publication of the International Brotherhood of Magicians.

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