When Steve Cohen finds himself in a conversation with a stranger at a party, or during a long-haul flight, it’s unlikely he will reveal what he does for a living.
“The moment you say, ‘I’m a magician’, people always say, ‘Show me a trick!’” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I tell them I’m a musician instead and they say, ‘Oh really – what instrument do you play?’ I’ll tell them, ‘The trombone’ and give some lame excuse because obviously I don’t have a trombone with me.”
Cohen has a point. From the moment our interview begins, I’m waiting for the inevitable; when will I get to see some magic? Thankfully, it takes less than five minutes for the legendary showman to make a coin vanish from the palm of his hand.
Dubbed the ‘millionaires’ magician’, Cohen has carved out the type of career most entertainers will only ever dream of. Every Friday and Saturday evening he performs his long-running Chamber Magic show at the glamorous Lotte New York Palace, while his weeks are spent visiting the private islands and mansions of the ultra-rich for exclusive private shows.
It hasn’t always been this way, though. “I was definitely a struggling artist,” Cohen recalls. As a young magician, he spent his days working as a translator and interpreter (he speaks fluent Japanese) to pay the bills, and his nights loitering in the bar of the Peninsula Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
“I ended up meeting a lot of very wealthy people and I would go up to them and say ‘Hey, let me show you something’” explains Cohen. It wasn’t long before The Peninsula’s well-heeled guests started inviting him to their summer houses for private shows.
Gradually, however, the hotel began to catch on. “I actually got in trouble with the managers,” chuckles Cohen. “They were like ‘Why is this magician coming in and soliciting our clients?’ They asked me, ‘Please can you stop what you’re doing? But can you come up to our office? We want to talk to you about doing some society events for our guests.’”
Getting The Peninsula’s backing was a real turning point for Cohen. But when his wife gave birth to their son, he became tired of always being on the road and began searching for a venue to set up his own show close to home.
Of course, this wasn’t easy. New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world, with a fiercely competitive theatre scene. “But I had this gutsy young mind thinking ‘If anyone can do this, it’s me’” recalls Cohen.
Sure enough, he eventually managed to secure a room at an exclusive members club on Manhattan’s Gramercy Park. At his final show, he met the woman who would later become his manager. She persuaded him to think about performing at a public venue and took him to a meeting with the managers of the Waldorf Astoria.
“The first thing they said to me was, ‘We’re the Waldorf Astoria. We don’t do magic,’” remembers Cohen, with a wry smile. “I had to explain to them I’m not a clown dressing up in a striped hat and giant bow tie honking a horn in people’s faces; this is more elegant – it’s a thinking man’s show.”
The pitch worked and the hotel agreed to give him a suite on the top floor of the Waldorf Towers to trial his show for a couple of months. Cohen ended up staying for over 17 years.
Each weekend, he stayed in the penthouse suite with his family. “It was the best commute in show business,” he grins. “After the show was over, I took off my tuxedo, put on my pajamas and went to bed in the same room.”
Cohen finally left the Waldorf Astoria when it closed for renovations. This time, when it came to choosing the new venue for his show, the city’s best hotels vied for his attention.
After much deliberation, he settled on Lotte New York Palace. “When I saw the room, I said to myself ‘This is it’,” he says, as his eyes light up. “It’s like a room straight out of Versailles with gilded ceilings and marble pillars – it’s stunning.”
Today, he continues to spend his weekends at the hotel performing Chamber Magic, while his weeks are filled with private shows for his star-studded clientele. Costing thousands of dollars for a 90-minute performance, his work certainly doesn’t come cheap.
But despite forever rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, he remains remarkably down to earth. Our conversation is peppered with self-deprecating anecdotes, like the time he traveled to Nebraska to perform for Warren Buffett but couldn’t get back to New York because of a snowstorm so spent the night sleeping on a bench in the bus station.
“I woke up the next morning and there was a police officer with a billy club rapping on the wooden bench above my head saying ‘Sonny boy, it’s time to wake up’” he recalls with a laugh, “and I thought to myself, ‘This is show business’ – the night before I was performing for the richest guy on the planet and now I’m being treated like a vagrant.”
It’s clear that for Cohen, being a performer is far more than just a day job – it’s a way of life. His uncle was an amateur magician and taught him the ropes as a young boy.
“One of the first tricks he taught me was with a deck of playing cards,” he remembers with a smile. “He would have me take a card and then my aunt would be across the room, and he would yell ‘Viola – which card did Stephen take?’ And she would say ‘the seven of diamonds’ and sure enough, that was the card I had taken but she was across the room.”
When his parents saw how much he loved magic, they took him to New York City’s old-school magic store, Tannen’s, and enrolled him in a summer camp for young magicians.
“I found this whole bunch of other nerds like me who wanted to learn magic,” he remembers. “They had older magicians coming in and teaching us; it was a wonderful, nurturing environment. You forgot that you’re outcasts – magicians are oddballs – because everyone’s interested in the same quirky things.” It was here that he met the famed illusionist David Blaine who remains a close friend to this day.
As a teenager, Cohen began performing magic every weekend at high school openings and cub scout dinners. During this time, he started studying Japanese and then, when he was 17, won first place at the International Brotherhood of Magicians competition.
Afterward, one of the judges – a magician named Shigeo Takagi – asked if he would like to come to his show. “So that summer, I went to Japan and met all of these incredible Japanese magicians,” recalls Cohen. “I liked the precision with which things were done; they cared so deeply about their craft.”
On returning to the US, he studied Japanese at Cornell University where he met his wife. Together, they moved to Japan where he spent almost two years performing at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, before returning to New York.
Thousands of performances later, he hasn’t tired of his work. Why? “I still love magic,” he tells me. “I’ve been doing it since I was six and now I’m 51. I never get bored of it – there’s always something new to learn.”
Cohen spends his spare time poring over old magic books in his library at home, searching for new tricks to add to his show. Above all, he gets a kick out of seeing people’s reactions to his magic. “Even though I’ve seen it so many times before, I still find it thrilling,” he says.
“To be honest I’m not even watching my hands anymore; I’m watching people’s eyes and I’m watching their mouths drop open because for me that’s my entertainment. It’s like a gift we’re giving each other.”
The pandemic put a pause to his live shows but gave him the opportunity to write a book that builds on 20 years of research he has undertaken on his hero, the legendary magician of the late 1800s, Max Malini.
And while you’d be forgiven for wondering what else there is left for Cohen to achieve in his career, he is showing no signs of slowing down. For his next ambitious project, he plans to make a TV show in which he will travel the world by steamship and train, following the same route as Malini and visiting the venues he performed at during the early twentieth century, including, he hopes, The White House.
With so much left to do, Cohen won’t be stopping work any time soon, but he has started to think about finding a protégé – someone that can be trusted to learn the tricks of his trade.
“Part of magic is the secrecy,” he says, with a conspiratorial smile. “But the real secrets are not in print; they are often verbally shared or never shared at all. So eventually, when I decide to retire, I plan to have a student I can teach my secrets to because I’ve learned so much that I haven’t shared with people yet – secrets that are far too good to die with me.”