Myth is history by consensus

Myth is history by consensus. The idea of the success of a book or publication has been on my mind, now that Magician and Fool is published and out in the world. If success postmortem is a myth ascribed to Bram Stoker for Dracula and Pamela Colman Smith for her tarot deck, it is interesting to see how they helped one another during their time together, unaware that their artistic offspring would live long after their association.

In 1925, the fourth printing of Bram’s Dracula by Rider Publishers, featured a book cover that looks very much like one of Pamela’s tarot cards.

There are clues of the rocky road to publishing for both Pamela and Bram in the biographies of Bram Stoker by Barbara Belford and David J. Skal. Bram’s own book, Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving, and Ellen Terry’s The Story Of My Life, depict the forty years Bram spent with the Lyceum Theatre, being the devoted second-in-command to Sir Henry Irving. Irving seems to have been the model for the main character in Dracula, a charismatic blood sucker. Pamela had many stops and starts to earning a living as an artist, writing letters where she wrote ‘Damn!’ in describing her relationship with publishers.

Bram Stoker, a burly Irishman who stood six foot two, was devoted to Henry Irving, and became the force of organized energy behind the six international tours of the Lyceum Theatre to America. He was also the conduit for Pamela’s tarot cards with The Golden Dawn and to Rider Publisher, the Publisher who eventually published her cards in 1910. ‘Uncle Brammie’ was the possible introduction of Pamela to Sir Henry Irving and her placement with the Lyceum Theatre Company tour to American in 1899.

Bram started as a theatre critic in Dublin and after a rave review for Henry in a touring production, was invited to come along and be Henry’s right-hand man. Bram grew up attending the literary salons of Oscar Wilde’s mother in Dublin and went to Trinity College. His aspirations to write were thwarted by his overwhelming responsibilities to the theater and to Sir Henry, staying up many nights until dawn post show with him while the actor unwound from a performance. Sir Henry once called Bram ‘his secretary’, but Bram fought to be his main speech writer and confident, a position that did not last.

Bram was also smitten with the Ellen Terry, the leading lady of the Lyceum Theatre Company. Ellen signed this photo of Bram and she riding in the Lyceum theatre’s train cars as they toured the country: ‘The Honeymoon! B.S. E.T.’

 She called him ‘Pa’, he called her ‘Ma’, and they became the heart for the company while Sir Henry reigned as the autocrat, said to be distant from most people, unless they asked after his dog, Fussie, or his rheumatism. But it seemed a merry company, undertaking a crushing schedule. Pamela befriended Ellen’s daughter, Edy Craig, and set out learning Egyptian hieroglyphics from Sir Henry as the toured.

In this drawing of Pamela’s, Ellen has ‘U.S.A. Plaza’ on her maid’s cap while she serves tea, Bram has ‘H.M.S. Dracula’ on his cap, while Henry’s upside down top hat has ‘H.M.S. Lyceum’ inscribed on the broad ribbon. The possible symbol for the astrological sign Libra and the symbol for the moon crown of Isis, which is in Pamela’s High Priestess tarot card, are seen floating above them from Henry’s book. Edy and Pamela were said to be studying with Henry but judging from their impish looks, studying was not their intent.

But Bram seems to have taken an interest in Pamela during this tour. Edy and Ellen were as close as family at one time, Henry calling Pamela ‘Ellen’s Red Haired Devil’, although Pamela was never known to have red hair. When Edy and her brother were young and Henry and Ellen were having an affair, the siblings would provide critical feedback if Henry asked them about his performances. Stories of Edy sitting on Henry’s lap and advising to talk like he did at home with them showed an intimacy in their early years. In fact, Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving were dubbed ‘The Unholy Trinity’. To this day on the back of the Lyceum Theater, you can see their three names etched into the building.

During the days of the Lyceum, Bram had an interest in the occult, as he continued to fine tune his Dracula. Did he introduce her to Arthur Waite, as he looked for an artist to co-create his deck of tarot cards? It is said she was brought to Watkins Books where a meeting took place. After the initial run of Pamela’s tarot cards by Sprague and Sons, the tarot deck they created was published by Rider, the same publishers who put out Bram’s Dracula in 1925. Hence, the title of Pamela’s cards the Rider Waite deck. Since Dracula had other release dates, (1897, 1901 and1910) it’s possible that Pamela introduced Bram to Rider Publishing. Bram’s last book, The White Worm, was published the year after her tarot deck was published and featured drawings by Pamela. They kept in touch as the Lyceum Theatre company disbanded and connections as a theatre family were severed.

The other image of Bram and Pamela together is from another drawing she did while they were shipboard with the Lyceum Theatre American Tour. It was drawn in 1899, and depicts Pamela and Edy in conversation with Bram. Pamela’s signature is in the lower right hand corner of this drawing which was placed in all her tarot cards. Bram’s H.M.S. Dracula cap and Pamela’s oriental/pixie/pirate outfit symbolizes their lasting identities. ‘Uncle Brammie’ may not have realized the impact of his book’s effect with Dracula, as Pamela would not with her tarot cards, but the connection they had with one another lives on in their joint projects.

Bryan Cranston guest appearance at my Watkins talk

October 2017 was the month of harvest for a crop planted over eight years ago. My book, Magician and Fool, was printed by i2i Publishing in England on October 4th and there were plans afoot to launch it in London. With the book now in tangible form, I flew to London for talks, inquiries and canvassing. I was to speak at Atlantis Bookshop and Watkins Books, and present a booth with my book at the UK Tarot Conference and try to interest book stores into stocking the book. When I checked into the Thistle City Barbican Hotel, my nerves were frayed at the thought that the books hadn’t arrived, making this trip a moot point, but Lionel Ross, my publisher, had made sure the four heavy boxes of books were waiting in the luggage room. I was never so happy to lug four twenty-three pound boxes to my hotel room. Here is a my table at the hotel for the UK Tarot Conference, flowers courtesy of my friends and family.

On the flight over, I thought about the travails that Pamela went through in publishing her literary magazine, The Green Sheaf. In 1903, The Green Sheaf was a self-published venture based on subscriptions, lasting only a year, with 13 issues published. Here is a photo of the first edition:

Pamela hand colored the illustrations, she taught classes in hand coloring and hired herself out to hand color other people’s artwork. In her magazine, several contributors’ work appears: Cecil French, Gordon Craig (Ellen Terry’s son and Edy Craig’s brother), William Butler Yeats and Christopher St John. In this symbol of the magazine, are the green sheafs pictures currency bills or works of literature that make up the magazine? Green ink was the favored color in the sign in book of Pamela’s soirees, perhaps it was a nod to her collaborations during her nights of gathered illustrious guests.

The first day, I took my press packet/sample book package to as many indie bookstores that I could from Mayfair to Picadilly. Later in the day, I brought a box of books to Atlantis Bookshop, where owners, Geraldine Beskin and her daughter, Bali, let me present a talk on Pamela to their downstairs space. Geraldine and Bali were enthusiastic and supportive, stocking copies of my book after my talk and captivating Sasha Graham, a tarot conference key speaker and dear friend, who had come with me to hear the talk at Atlantis.


Geraldine, Susan and Bali

Atlantis Bookshop is an occult bookstore specializing in The Golden Dawn, so I was not surprised to see one-of-a-kind editions on their shelves. The mood of the stores was serious fun, with a museum-type vibe to the artifacts in stock. Sasha and I went to a pub across the street from the British Museum afterwards and I was cheered by Sasha’s expert approval of my talk. The first talk about Pamela was now completed but the next talk was the one to test my nerves.

The next day was the talk at Watkins Books, which was something I was planning since I visited the shop in June. Watkins Books figures in the storyline of Magician and Fool and I was thrilled to be doing the reading right in front of the booth area where Swami Krishna had read my palm after my first visit. Would the presentation go as well as was predicted? Late in the afternoon, Carrie Paris and her husband, Robert, very kindly helped me schlep my twenty-three pound box of books in the car to Watkins Books and helped me set up the book table. Then they helped me calm down, drink water, get focused for the talk. Here is a photo of the book table with the merchandise that my twin sister, Cynthia Wands, had designed that they set up.

I had also asked Bryan Cranston to come and say a quick hello at Watkins Books during the course of my presentation on Pamela Colman Smith. Bryan was rehearsing NETWORK for the National Theatre, had a film in the process of opening, was just finished launching his own book and was in the middle of getting off-book for his play. It was a lot to ask him to make an appearance.

There is something magical about fame when it is founded on talent, not notoriety. It is a lightening rod, a beam of light that makes for a common language. ‘Ah, yes, I know you because I saw your Hamlet/Walter White/Abraham Lincoln.’ In Pamela’s world, when she signed on to tour with Sir Henry Irving with the Lyceum Theatre, fame was very much a part of her world. It shined and it burned. Shined, in that Pamela found an exclusive club that let her in and included her in the artistic process. Burned, in that she was never given the possibilities to have her own artistic creations used in Lyceum productions. But in being party to the Lyceum Theatre, she experienced the business of show business, and as with her Green Sheaf publications, she threw herself into a myriad of ways to support herself with her art.

My rehearsed talk on Pamela was practiced at home with family and friends, trying to time it to twenty minutes. I tried not to get distracted by all the stories each aspect of Pamela’s life lends itself to: stories of other artwork, creations, creative types in her life. But the story of Pamela’s artwork in her tarot cards and the heightened abilities she was able to put into the symbols in her cards is something that I am passionate about. And I hoped the talk at Watkins would reflect that. From 5:30 onwards, the small space at Watkins filled up with folks that I knew and some I did not; by 6 pm the thirty chairs were occupied. I tried to greet those that I knew briefly, but tried to keep to myself so that I could concentrate on the talk. Etan Ilfeld, the owner of the store who was taping the talk, stood with me near the entrance and we chatted for a bit. Eventually, he asked as to whether Bryan would be able to attend or not, since it was 6 pm and he was not there. I suggested that we wait ten minutes and then go. A very long ten minutes later, I said we should start and Etan introduced me.

I had hoped I had enough to say about Pamela that standing on my own would be enough and that the speech without Bryan would not be a disappointment. I settled my brain down and told myself that I was there to talk about Pamela and let that carry me through. I think you can tell by the video clip posted below when Bryan entered the room about ten minutes into my talk, I was very pleased to see him there. As Blanche says, ‘Sometimes there is God so quickly.’ But, I was also excited about being able to talk about Pamela and draw a comparison between Henry Irving’s stature and reputation as an actor and Bryan’s reputation. I felt like his appearance at my talk was the universe letting me make a point about what is a ‘star’. Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted, turned the tide for actors in general to be seen as legitimate artists and not be considered cut-purses or degenerates. Bryan, an American actor starring in the lead in a show at the National Theatre in London, was certainly doing his part in bringing accreditation to actors. The gasps and round of applause when I introduced Bryan was a truly lovely experience. You can see the talk in an edited clip from Watkins Books youtube channel here:

After Bryan left and I continued the talk, the question and answer segment of the evening was fabulous. People knowledgeable and concerned about Pamela wanted to talk about her, whether it was about her name on the tarot deck or about Nora Lake, her late-in-life companion. It was fascinating to see other people’s interest in her life.

After the talk, I signed books, talked to friends and made new ones. The evening’s talk seemed to have vanished until after supper when I was walking back to the underground. We walked back past the now closed shop of Watkins Books. The display case with copies of Magician and Fool glowed in the half light and the feeling was that of pride, relief and just…joy. I think Pamela would be pleased and I hope that my series of books about Pamela’s tarot cards brings more people into her creative and whimsical world.

Magic in the Bookshop

Susan walking the maze

In June of this year, I was pacing in a maze outside Hotel Camelot which is near the ruins of Castle Tintagel on the wild coast of Cornwall. I was visiting the area with a tour group, Gothic Image Tours. My historical fantasy novel, Magician and Fool, was still in the process of being worked out for publishing and the tour group had spent the day at St. Michael and All Angels Church in Bude, Cornwall.  Dawn Robinson, local author and a lively, personable guide, had greeted us at our bus, and guided us to the church’s gravesite. This was possibly the location of the burial site of Pamela Colman Smith, the protagonist of my book, who I had been researching and studying for over eight years.

The group wandered from the graveyard to Pamela’s last home to the city streets where she might have walked. Back at the Castle Tintagel, the emotional weight of that excursion weighed on me and walking the maze seemed an apt metaphor for how I was feeling, for there was no clear-cut path for publishing my book and I was going in circles. As a cool summer wind picked up in the gathering dusk, I stepped between the carefully placed stones and stalks, and silently asked for guidance. How I might get this book of Magician and Fool, this fictionalized story of Pamela’s life, out into the world?

I had arrived in London a few days before the tour to stop by Watkins Books. I dropped off a pitch letter for my book and hoped to launch it there with a talk. Etan Ilfeld, owner of Watkins, was not in but I stayed long enough to soak in the atmosphere of the beautiful place, books old and new lining the shelves. The history of the place was rife with stories of Golden Dawn characters and occult members meetings, and the tomes seemed to seep silent witnessing with their fragrant old-book smell. I knew I was taking a risk by leaving this pitch letter at Watkins. At the time, my book wasn’t officially signed with a publisher; it still needed a final edit and who knew how long it would take for my books to be printed and actually out in the world? And how could I put out the word for Magician and Fool? I was totally at a loss.

For months after the trip to Cornwall, I scoured my mind for who might be the modern-day equivalent of the Magician in ‘Magician and Fool’. In Pamela’s day, and in my book, it was Sir Henry Irving, the actor/manager of his day who hired and tutored Pamela in her youth. Sir Henry, the first actor knighted in England, started out as a humble regional theatre actor who worked his way up from impoverished actor supplying his own costumes for plays to being the employer of some 350 people with the Lyceum Theatre Company. He memorized and performed hundreds of roles, created some of the cutting-edge effects of stage magic and helped changed the assumed definition of actor as ‘dead-beat’ to esteemed cultural icon.  And his fans loved him almost as much as those working with him did.

Flash forward to October, Friday the 13th. I am in London, standing outside the entryway of Watkins Books. Carrie Paris and her husband, Robert, had come down with me in the Uber car from the Thistle City Barbican Hotel where we were attending a tarot conference. Robert carried the heavy box of books from the car, Carrie indulged my asks for photos outside the Watkins Bookstore window, where the rows of my book were positioned and a poster of the talk for that night hung in the middle. Carrie and Robert helped set up the books on the table in the front, brought me water, watched my purse, soothed my nerves. They truly were angels. As the minutes ticked by, I stood in front of the table filled with Magician and Fool mugs, t-shirts and books that I had brought. To my left, the cash register, with Hugh, Mike and an assortment of staff members processed sales; others set up chairs in an area for a video-taped lecture.

It is now 6 pm and I am waiting for Bryan Cranston to arrive.

 

Bryan Cranston is the Emmy winning actor who worked his way into the hearts of TV viewers with his funny, goofy dad on ‘Malcolm In The Middle’ and then blew their minds with Walter White on ‘Breaking Bad’. Following that, he became a Tony winner for his portrayal of Lynden B. Johnson in “All The Way” on Broadway. Bryan got his start working in daytime television, making his way to the coveted rank of actor on a long-running TV series with ‘Malcom In The Middle’. He also worked on stage, making lifelong friends with those he worked with, on sets and off. My husband, Robert Petkoff, was cast in ALL THE WAY as Hubert Humphrey, and noticed how many of the talented actors in the cast had started out with Bryan. He had made sure his friends had the opportunity to be considered for the work he was in. And what struck me, in additional to his finely executed, full committed performance, was how Bryan conducted himself during the play’s run. Time wise, ALL THE WAY was a lengthy play, and Bryan was on stage in almost every scene. The show was a real tour de force, he was usually spent by the end. Rather than being shuttled out to a waiting car and disappearing, Bryan made sure he greeted everyone who came back to his dressing room, or was waiting backstage or was waiting for an hour or more outside the Neil Simon Theatre to get his autograph or talk to him.

He made time, every single performance. Relatives, friends, actors still talk of meeting him after the show and how he greeted them and acted as though the conversation they had about the size of his fake ears he wore as Lynden Johnson was spoken for the first time, every time.

And then there were the crowds of rabid ‘Breaking Bad’ fans waiting for him in the big, crushing crowd outside the theatre. People had watched season after season of Walter White do terrible things on ‘Breaking Bad’. ALL THE WAY featured a Texan president caught in the social struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. The audience had to let go totally of Walter White and allow themselves to be captivated by this entirely different entity.

And like Henry Irving, though perhaps not on the scale of the Lyceum Theatre Company, Bryan nurtured his group of actors, writers and producers around him. I met Bryan in passing during the run of his show on Broadway and during the opening and Oscar night party. Years ago, I had started out as an actress on one of the same TV daytime shows he had been in, and although our paths had never crossed on that, we commiserated briefly about our time on that show. I also had several conversations with his lovely wife, Robyn, who is also an actress. But one night, Doris Goodwin, a brilliant author who specializes in biographies on American presidents, was in attendance and came backstage after the show. I happened to be standing nearby. I don’t believe I whimpered, but I probably gave every indication of how very much I wanted to be introduced to one of my literary stars.  I thought I saw him give me a slight nod of his head, so I held my ground and stood near. And sure enough, during the course of their conversation, he turned to me and introduced me to Doris. We had a fleeting conversation, but I was thrilled to meet Doris and thankful for Bryan’s consideration to include me. And what was magical about that gesture was that he allowed me to consider myself as someone worthy of being considered.

It looked like my books were going to be published in October by i2i Publishing and I got the go-ahead from Watkins books for an author’s talk. Then, I found out through our mutual friends that Bryan was going to be in London at the same time. He would be rehearsing for yet another demanding role, the lead in the stage version of NETWORK at the National Theatre. I wrote to our friends who worked with him, asking if he would be available for an appearance at my book launch and he wrote back, saying very kindly that he couldn’t promise anything, as it was just the beginning stages of rehearsal for a show that opened in November, but that he would keep in touch. Two days before my book launch, my husband got an e-mail from him, saying that he might be able to make an appearance. A brief stop-by only, as he was still in the thick of things. I wrote the folks at Watkins, giving them a head’s up that Mr. Cranston might be stopping by during the course of my talk for a very brief hello.

So, here it was – the night of my book launch. There was a very nice crowd of about 30 people, sitting very close to each other in folding chairs. Friends, acquaintances and folks I didn’t know, all sitting patiently, quietly. It was now almost 6:10. “Well, things happen, late rehearsals, traffic, who knows”, I said to myself. I told Etan that we could get started and that if Bryan came, I would work him into whatever I was saying at that point. Blood was pounding in my ears; my face was on fire; I tried to act nonchalant and walked in front of the gathered guests. Etan started the camera and introduced me.

I love talking about Pamela Colman Smith. I love talking about her life, I love talking about why I wrote this book, and the soon-to-be series of books about her. Once I started my talk, I was lost in the text of speech I had prepared. And just at the point in the speech where I began to talk about the magician in Pamela’s life, Sir Henry Irving, someone entered and was starting to pass Carrie and Robert’s seats. He started to go up the stairs to sit in the back. I don’t know if you’ll be able to hear the gasps on the video when they play this event on the Watkins Bookstore youtube station, but I certainly saw necks snap sideways and major stand-at-attention body language spread through the audience. I quickly introduced Bryan Cranston and called him over and he stood with me in front of the audience.

He is used to playing to sold-out audiences at the Neil Simon that seat over 1600 and here we were entertaining about 30 people. We chatted for a few moments about Bryan as Actor/Magician and about the progress his cast was making with NETWORK at the National Theatre. He was funny and self-depreciating, passionate about his role and the job at the National. After a few moments of chat, I thanked Bryan for being there, as I knew he had places to go and people to see, and he left, every eye in the house momentarily following him. Jumping right back into the story of Pamela’s initials, I finished my talk and took questions from the audience, the people seemed engaged and interested. Afterwards, I signed books at the table and met folks. Later on, a very succinct tweet was posted by Chesellen:

 

From dejectedly pacing in a maze, asking the universe to please help me find a way to launch my book, to seeing Bryan Cranston enter Watkins Books to help me with the evening, it has been quite the journey. You could say it was just organization or luck or even, fate. I believe it’s a little of all three. And, of course… magic.

The Initial Mystery

Female Art Students around 1890, at the Pratt Institute of Art, Brooklyn, New York, where Pamela Colman Smith studied.

This strange little graphic puzzled me during my adolescence. It was at the bottom of each of the tarot cards in the Rider Waite tarot deck, a deck I was obsessed with and which I hand-colored the black-and-white images in a long-lost blue cloth-covered book. Was this symbol an Egyptian hieroglyphic? A snake crawling up a post with arms? What was the dot, which appear only in some of them? It certainly didn’t like like an ‘R’ for Rider and there was no ‘W’ in this design at all. So, if it wasn’t short for Rider-Waite, the name of the tarot deck, what was it?

Some cards had the initials in plain sight, on the right hand side of the card. Others were like the ‘Nina’ in a sketch by Albert Hirschfeld, a hidden treasure in the New York Sunday Times’ theatre section. See if you can find the P C S in these tarot cards:

Eventually, I found out these were the three letters: P C S. They stood for Pamela Colman Smith, who did the illustrations for the Rider Waite tarot deck. What do words mean in the goods that are manufactured? Who gets credit for designing what and does it matter that Pamela’s name was not mentioned in the cards retail name? You can see she hand lettered the name of each card in addition to designing and signing them.

Here is the first advert for Pamela’s tarot cards when they were published in 1909 in London:

I have been thinking a lot about Pamela Colman Smith today, as my book, Magician and Fool, has now been listed for sale for the first time on Amazon. Years in the making on my end, I think of all the years Pamela spent immersed in her artistry, creating these tarot cards and all her other artwork. How do you get your artistic children out into the world? How do you market it and fine tune it so that it is seen in the same eyes as the creator?

This past Saturday Night Live there was a very funny sketch Ryan Gosling starred in about the font used for promo materials for the movie Avatar. Gosling’s character was obsessed because the font used in all the media for the movie was Papyrus, seemed like a such an easy cheat to use.

In this blog, as I explore the creative path on Pamela’s artwork found the light of day, I will try to honor her artistic contributions and process. She was truly ahead of her times in many ways. And she designed her own font for her cards.