I’ve just finished reading Sid Fleischman’s new biography, Sir Charlie, Chaplin: the Funniest Man in the World. It’s due to be published in June by Greenwillow Books. I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Fleischman, but through his books, particularly his biographies, I have a sense of the man. His interests were wide, his observations keen, his humor at once gentle and broad, his sense of the world embraced wonders that attracted readers like a magnet.
Mr. Fleischman died on March 17th, one day after he turned 90. What a life he led. He wore all of the descriptions in the title of this piece. I didn’t know that he first wrote novels for adults … novels so interesting that movies were made out of them, including Blood Alley, starring Lauren Bacall and John Wayne. Mr. Fleischman wrote the screenplay in 1955.
He published his first book, Between Cocktails, a book “for magicians only,” in 1939, co-written with his partner in magic. One of his obituaries states that the book, published by Abbott Magic Novelty Co., is still in print, but I could not find evidence of that.
A professional vaudevillian, his observations and understanding of the times and culture inform his writing in a way that I find endearing. It is his biographies that I find most fascinating, not only for their subjects but for the biographer’s voice. He wrote about subjects which swirled around his life: Escape! the Story of the Great Houdini and The Trouble Begins at Eight, a Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West. Magic, humor, film, showmanship, genius. Revealing a good deal about the biographer as well as the subjects, all three books are highly recommended. Be sure to read the back matter, particularly the end notes, for they are filled with Mr. Fleischman’s personality.
Mr. Fleischman’s writing is so adept that I will seek out Charlie Chaplin’s films (I’ve never watched one … I know … no lectures, please) to better appreciate the complex personality described in Sir Charlie. So strong is Mr. Fleischman’s magic that he bares illusion and still manages to weave a spell.
We all hope that our favorite writers will go on and on … instead we must appreciate, and be satisfied with, the extraordinary gifts they have given us.