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Why Is the One Percent So Obsessed With Magic?

Steve Cohen, a.k.a. the Millionaires' Magician, has made a killing doing parlor magic for the wealthy—revealing the dreams and aspirations of those who already have everything.

In the Rarities bar, a private lounge in a tucked-away corner of the Lotte New York Palace Hotel on Madison Avenue, Steve Cohen is adjusting his gold-button blazer and wire-rimmed glasses. As he peers through his specs, he seems, almost magically, to be looking down on me, even though I have a couple inches on him. “Would you believe it,” he asks, “if I had any card you were thinking of in my jacket?”

Just a few nights earlier, I’d sat no more than five feet from him as he performed his 90-minute Chamber Magic show in the Lotte Palace’s gilded Madison Room. He poured five different cocktails out of a single, silver teakettle; he made playing cards levitate; he linked and unlinked three solid silver and platinum rings borrowed from the audience; and he told us secrets about ourselves that he had no business of knowing: “You drove 5,321 miles in a single year”; “You attended a hotel party with Ariana Grande.”

So why wouldn’t he miraculously have any card I named in his jacket?

“How about the two of diamonds?” I say.

When he opens his jacket, however, he doesn’t have any cards. Instead, he reveals a black-and-white silk-scarf lining depicting every playing card in the deck. “I’m sure it’s on here somewhere,” he says, wryly inspecting his lining. He’s done this non-trick for a non-magical reason—to show me one of his own secrets. “These are rare Hermès scarves,” he says proudly. “I had this jacket custom made.”

Luxury brands are of some importance to Cohen. While sipping a Think-A-Drink cocktail—named after his signature trick and made of Bulleit bourbon, Nolet’s Silver gin, Earl Grey syrup, a sprig of rosemary, and a fresh blackberry—he shows me his watch. “This is a Patek Philippe Nautilus,” he says. “It’s impossible to buy. I mean, people go on waitlists for like eight years to buy one of these.” Status symbols are important, too: He tells me that his son and daughter go to Dalton, “one of the most expensive schools in the country.” A fortnight earlier, he tells me, he had dinner with the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter and the composer John Williams. “He wrote the Olympics theme song,” he says. “Everyone around the world knows that.” He gets out his iPhone to show me Mutter’s Instagram account, where she’d posted a photo of herself, Williams, and Cohen at a resort in the Berkshires. He draws my attention to the caption, where she’d written, “He amazed all of us at dinner with his mind-blowing artistry!”

Cohen, known as the Millionaires’ Magician, is one of the most accomplished magicians in the world. He owes much of his acclaim—and his riches—to a specialty that sets him apart from David Blaine, David Copperfield, and other celebrity Houdinis: performing close-up parlor magic for the global one percent.

Warren Buffett has flown him out to his home. He’s performed in luxurious hotel suites for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Queen of Morocco, and at the Kremlin for various Russian oligarchs. New York notables from Michael Bloomberg to Martha Stewart have seen him perform privately, while many others, including Woody Allen, have attended his public Chamber Magic show, which he now performs five times a week at the Lotte Palace after an extended run at the Waldorf Astoria. Mayor Bill de Blasio is also a Cohen devotee: He declared October 6 “Chamber Magic Day” in New York City in honor of Cohen’s five-thousandth show two years ago.

Ever since he was a teenager, Cohen has been entertaining the wealthy. The rich, Cohen figures, want to see the impossible, feats of wonderment that money seemingly cannot buy. But as his clientele increasingly came from the 1 percent, and then something closer to the .00001 percent, he came to realize that they wanted something else, too: a return to a past that was friendlier to the insanely affluent. 

Cohen grew up in Yorktown Heights in Westchester, New York, the child of schoolteachers. The Cohens were reasonably well-off, but their neighborhood wasn’t fancy, and their son was what could be called rich-adjacent: He went to the top-rated, well-funded Horace Greeley high school, about a 20-minute drive south in the tonier town of Chappaqua, which he identifies with more readily than Yorktown Heights.

His great-uncle, Nat Zuckerman, was an amateur magician who taught him basic card tricks starting when Cohen was six years old. They went into Manhattan together on occasion to shop at Tannen’s Magic Store for trick objects, such as color-changing handkerchiefs and a ball that would vanish from its box. Cohen began leaving fliers around school advertising his magic-show services for a modest fee. When he was ten, in 1981, he landed his first performance at a four-year-old’s birthday party, making $25. As he continued to perform around Westchester County into his teens, the real rush came when he saw that the grown-ups standing in the back were enjoying his show as well.

Word spread about the precocious magician, and, at seventeen, David Rockefeller asked Cohen to perform at the family’s Pocantico Hills estate for their Christmas party—Cohen’s first direct experience with the ultra-rich and famous. It would prove to be a life-changing moment. He performed two sets: one for the children and one for the adults. Afterward, the adults invited him to dine at their table, and he sat next to Peggy Rockefeller and performed close-up magic for her. “She’s going bananas,” Cohen tells me. “I’m like, ‘Wow, this is incredible. This is someone who’s very powerful.’ Her painting’s on the wall, you know?”

Shortly after performing for the Rockefellers, Cohen enrolled at Cornell. He went to Tokyo for a study-abroad program at Waseda University, and then, after graduating, returned to Tokyo, where he worked as a magician at the New York Grill at the Park Hyatt Hotel (later made famous stateside by Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation). He had married Yumi Morishige, a journalist he had met at university, and they moved back to the U.S. in 1995. But he wasn’t sure how to jump-start his career back home. He tried brushing shoulders with wealthier people, going to New York’s Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue to perform close-up magic at the bar. Without a steady venue or media coverage, however, he struggled to build a network of affluent clients. “We were eating a lot of pasta,” he says. “Money was tight.”

After working briefly as a television consultant to David Blaine, Cohen teamed up with the amateur magician and self-described “differentiation consultant” Mark Levy to find a way to stand apart. In 2000, they met at a diner in Manhattan and did tricks for one another, like Cohen changing the time on Levy’s watch with his mind—and then changing it back so Levy wouldn’t miss his train. At the time, Levy remembered, “Steve was trying to differentiate by calling himself a conjuror. But back in 2000, before the Harry Potter book series became enormous, most people didn’t really understand what a conjuror did.”

Levy saw that Cohen was at ease performing in front of the very rich, and he had “a sophistication to his thinking and speaking” thanks to “his Ivy League education.” There was also an opening in the market in the heady pre-crisis days in New York. “While certain market segments had been claimed by other magicians—David Blaine was The Street Magician, Penn & Teller were The Bad Boys of Magic—no one was doing magic for the rich,” Levy said.

He counseled Cohen to make business cards, to dress sharply, and to brand his act as “magic for the filthy rich” or the “decadently rich.” They settled on a less aggressive moniker that they’d seen in a brief write-up of Cohen’s magic shows in a defunct society magazine called Avenue: “the Millionaires’ Magician.” Together, Cohen and Levy wrote Chamber Magic—the tricks, the script, and the stagecraft, tailoring it all to Cohen’s new brand. “We changed his clothing and even the tricks themselves, so they fit that persona,” Levy said.

Cohen was only 30 at the time, and he felt the whole act was a bit of a stretch. “As a young man, it’s kind of hard to call yourself that,” he says. He finally scored a permanent venue when Holly Peppe, a socialite and publicist, got Cohen a room at the Waldorf, where he would go on to perform Chamber Magic from 2001 to 2017. And that’s when Cohen really started to become comfortable in the skin of his stage act. “As you get a little bit older and as you become a millionaire, as you get gray and wear glasses, people started looking at me like, ‘Well, this guy must know what he’s doing,’” he says. 

At Chamber Magic, an intimate hour-and-a-half of parlor magic that accommodates no more than 60 people, seats go for between $125 and $250. This already lucrative stream of income is supplemented by the windfalls of Cohen’s private magic shows, which can climb to $25,000 per performance. Over the past two decades, he’s netted, by his estimate, $25 million. In one paroxysm of publicity after a CBS Sunday Morning appearance in 2006, he managed to book a million dollars in shows in a single week.

“There’s something about close-up magic,” said Joe Posnanski, author of the upcoming The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. “Again and again you will see people say something like, ‘I don’t really like magic,’ but when they see it live and up close, when it is done right before their eyes, their minds explode. It’s a whole different experience than what they associate with ‘magic.’ That’s not to say a big magic show lacks magic—the great ones can blow minds in huge theaters. But the closer you get to the magic as a spectator, the more power it has.”

A few years ago, when Barry Diller—the business mogul who’s worth about $4 billion—came to a Chamber Magic show at the Waldorf Astoria, his reaction was one of childish wonder. It helped Cohen understand the service he was really providing—and why today’s global elites seem to love magic so much.

Diller was sitting at the very front. During his show, Cohen regularly goes around the room to recruit volunteers, asserting his control in sometimes humorously degrading ways. On the night I attended, a quiet young man and his girlfriend sat near me, the man impassive at first. When Cohen poured a Negroni from his magical silver teakettle, he walked the drink past the audience, stopping in front of the young man to let him inspect it. “Does this smell dry and Italian,” Cohen asked, “kind of like you?” The jab may have been a little harsh, but the man was amused and became only further engaged in the show.

Cohen didn’t need to risk this kind of humor with Diller, who was eager to participate. “At one point,” Cohen remembers, “I said, ‘I need to borrow a wristwatch from someone in the audience.’ He says, ‘Here, use mine!’ I mean, it was even more expensive than the watches I wear, and I wear expensive watches. But he was so comfortable with me at that point that he just jumped up on stage. And I saw this man who is in control of a multibillion dollar business suddenly become a little boy again. I could see it in his eyes.”

His performances are puzzle boxes, perfectly timed for the big reveal. In one trick I saw, he raised a hat to reveal that the silver coin that had been beneath it had disappeared. But this wasn’t the whole of the trick. Almost as an aside—although it was actually tightly scripted—he looked to a young man sitting in the front row and said, “This guy’s not impressed. He’s like, ‘I’ll be impressed if there’s a brick under there’”—at which point Cohen raised the hat once more and, inexplicably, a red brick was indeed beneath it. When Martha Stewart played host to Cohen on one of her television shows, he asked her to remember a photo of something in one of her books, telling her that the object in that image would materialize in the picnic basket that dangled above their heads. Stewart said she had her object in mind, the basket was lowered, and a loaf of sourdough was revealed. “Ah ha!” she said. “But I was thinking of spools of thread.” But, again, the trick was not over. Cohen had her tear the bread open; there were three spools of thread, baked inside.

Cohen says, “It’s the twinkle of possibility. Like anything can happen. They’re not in control of this moment, and they want to see where it takes them. And I think that’s what someone who has anything and everything so wants.”

But when it comes to the wealthy, Cohen is also tapping into a deeper urge, rooted in magic’s history.

Religion and magic have a long and intertwined history; there is even evidence that Christ was thought of as a magician. (Cohen likes to tell a possibly apocryphal story about Catholic priests who used a trick in which they’d light urns of oil on fire, which would mix with hidden urns of water so that steam passed through hidden tubes, powering a pneumatic mechanical gear network that could open enormous stone doors at the back of the church—the priest would seem to have opened these heavy doors with fire from afar.) Religion is at once a feat of magic and a response to magic—Christians railed against Pagan “magic” while proclaiming the power of their own homegrown miracles. In 2005, the magician Brock Gill tried to replicate Jesus’ famous miracles for a BBC/Discovery Channel documentary, successfully turning water to wine and walking on water. “It’s possible that there was some type of trick because I was able to do it,” Gill said.

Magic has also historically shared elements with the wondrous field of science. The two intermingled up to the eighteenth century, with John Maynard Keynes famously referring to Isaac Newton as “not the first of the Age of Reason,” but, rather, “the last of the magicians.” Modernity truly appeared, Max Weber once wrote, with the “elimination of magic from the world.” As rationalism triumphed and everyday life was drained of magic, it became something more of an entertainment, to be recreated in theatrical environments.

Through the Renaissance, magicians tended to work in traveling fairs and in informal settings. It wasn’t until the early eighteenth century that magic shows shifted from low-key public events for the popular classes to respected, private events for affluent patrons. Isaac Fawkes, a British showman, was one of the first to spot this trend, promoting his magic shows with detailed descriptions and probably false claims, including that he’d privately performed for King George II, in order to reach a more rarefied audience. “He throws up a Pack of Cards, and causes them to be living birds flying about the room,” one of Fawkes’ advertisements from the 1720s read. “He causes living Beasts, Birds, and other Creatures to appear upon the Table. He blows the spots of the Cards off and on, and changes them to any pictures.”

In 1845, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a clockmaker and magician who would serve as Harry Houdini’s namesake, opened a magic theater in Paris, solidifying the shift from magic as public, roving performance art to box office–style entertainment for the middle to upper classes, more akin to opera or ballet but with a vaudevillian bent. “He took magicians away from the gaudy costumes and put them into evening clothes, adding class and grace to magic,” said Posnanski.

Magic as we know it took root alongside the decline of royalty and a turn toward democracy. Magic, today, presents itself as both a return to pre-Newtonian possibility—in which witches and religion and magic were a part of everyday life—and to a time when social elites were wholly unchallenged in their power and status. In addition to possessing superhuman magical talents, Cohen has masterfully exploited the psychological space his shows create: Close-up magic, in grand, ornate rooms befitting presidents and tycoons, recreates an era in which wealth and culture were closely linked—as were wealth and near-infinite possibility.

If the rich still rule the world, they no longer do so with the impunity they formerly enjoyed. Even card-carrying members of the Republican Party rail against global “elites,” while cultural institutions have started to shun their patronage. For every Koch-funded monument to the arts, there is a call to remove the Sacklers’ engraved names from the Met or a (successful) campaign to kick a multimillionaire weapons-manufacturer off the board of the Whitney or a boycott of fitness and sports chains owned by Trump donor Stephen Ross. The horizons for the ultra-wealthy have become ever so crabbed, which is why so many plutocrats, from Elon Musk to Richard Branson to Jeff Bezos, have set their sights on space. But they can no longer expect to command a country’s politics and culture like, say, the Medicis. The power of wealth today is quite different from the power of wealth generations ago. But, if anything, this fall from public favor has only helped Cohen’s business: The very rich want to escape modernity more than ever before, to a place where anything—anything at all—is still possible.              

Magic for the very rich has become increasingly popular in the last few years. There are similar shows now at the luxury Nomad hotel, the Players Theatre, and the McKittrick Hotel. The great irony of Cohen’s show—and all of these apparent copycat shows—however, is that although he often performs for the wealthy, most of his money is still made through New Yorkers and tourists who come to his show, thanks largely to Chamber Magic’s long-held and much-coveted spot at the top of TripAdvisor’s “concerts and shows” vertical in New York City.

Cohen’s branding as the Millionaires’ Magician, while attractive to the rich, is perhaps more of a way to market his performance to the common classes. Millionaires and billionaires don’t fill up 60 seats for five performances a week in a Midtown hotel. Older couples from out of town, lingerers at the downstairs bar, guests of the hotel, and New Yorkers on a date night are the majority of his nightly audience.

Cohen’s magic is a way for the very rich to once more inhabit an invitingly gilded past. But for everyone else, his performances are what marketing wizards call an aspirational good—a conjuring trick that allows the viewer to feel, for an evening at least, surrounded by original nineteenth-century rococo paintings and ornate ceilings, rich oneself. “Symbolically, the word ‘millionaire’ isn’t just about money,” said Levy. “It’s about excellence, refinement, and access to things that most people don’t ever get a chance to see.”

Cohen would know. His business really began to pick up in 2005 when he was featured in Forbes’ “400 Richest Americans” issue, not primarily for his personal wealth but for his ability to get wealthy people to see his shows. (“Steve Cohen knows lots of neat tricks, like how to get hired by people with deep pockets.”) Suddenly, he could see his own aspirational dreams come true. “I could afford the nice clothes and the nice watches and all the trappings. So it didn’t look like I was putting anything on,” he says. Each show he wore a beautiful tuxedo with tails. He got to wear his Patek Phillipe. He made regular audience members feel that they were in a rarefied setting, while, in his mind, he was on the same level as his ultra-wealthy clients. These days it’s difficult to tell where “Steve Cohen” ends and where “Steve Cohen the Millionaires’ Magician” begins—just as it’s also become all but impossible to parse the distinction between performing for the decadently rich and being the decadently rich.  

As we are getting ready to leave the Rarities bar, he stands up to button his jacket, once more wrapping himself in his Hermès lining. He says, “Now I’m like one of my clients. I’m at the same level. It feels great. It’s very satisfying. It’s very rewarding.” But there will be no rest for Cohen. He has another set of shows that weekend. There are people to be entertained—a vision of marvelous possibility to be unlocked for a few; a dream of mere riches for nearly everyone else.