Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies.
– John Donne
Magician The Great Lafayette was a contemporary and rival of Chung Ling Soo, and like the “Chinese” conjuror, Lafayette (actually born Sigmund Neuburger to a German Jewish family in 1871) adopted an exotic onstage persona. Though a prickly character and unpopular with other magicians, he was a guaranteed crowd-magnet and could charge astronomical fees for his elaborate stage show.
Lafayette was like a warm-up act for the great camp variety turns of the media age. Liberace arriving onstage in a chauffeured limousine? Lafayette had done it decades earlier, motoring to his mark in a mauve Mercedes fitted with gas lamps. Siegfried & Roy toying with wild beasts? Sigmund was way ahead of them, regularly using lions in his show (and like Roy, Lafayette was attacked by one of them).
The exact nature of Lafayette’s sexuality is unclear, but he was described as “flamboyant” and “shy of female company”, keeping a townhouse on London’s Tavistock Square painted in his signature mauve and filled with antiques. A contortionist’s husband accused Lafayette of an affair with his limber lady, which he vigorously denied. If the magician had a passion for anyone or anything, it was for his dog, Beauty.
The pet was given to Lafayette as a puppy by Harry Houdini while they were sharing a bill in Nashville. He invented a pedigree for the coddled canine, calling her a Gheckhound, named for the Azorean island of Gheck which existed only in Lafayette’s imagination. No starlet’s chihuahua was ever as pampered as this pooch, who wore a gold and diamond collar and had her own room in Lafayette’s private railway carriage and sat in effigy as a hood ornament on his car. “You may drink my wine, you may eat my food, you may command my servants, but you must respect my dog,” read a sign in Lafayette’s house, and it was a maxim he felt applied on the road as well. In 1902 a court heard that Lafayette had roundly abused a theatre manager who had requested him to take Beauty outside. By contract she would stay at the same hotels and even eat from the same table when the illusionist was on tour. Lafayette could deny Beauty nothing, and he fed her dangerous quantities of rich foods.
All of this made Beauty one tubby terrier, and in 1911, a few days into a run in Edinburgh she went to doggy heaven. Lafayette was distraught, and after having the dog embalmed managed to convince a local cemetery to bury her, on the condition that her master would also eventually take his place in the tomb.
Little did he know how soon they would be reunited. Less than a week later, on May 9, 1911, Lafayette took to the stage of the Empire Theatre for the finale of his show, his signature act “Lion’s Bride”, an exotic illusion of big game, doppelgängers and Oriental splendour set in a Persian harem. Right at the end, a gas lamp tipped over and the set caught fire; the rapidly-deployed fire curtain ensured the audience was unharmed, but onstage the flames quickly raged out of control.
Lafayette managed to escape but went back into the inferno to rescue his horse. Among the 11 victims found once the blaze had died down was a charred corpse in Lafayette’s Persian costume; a crematorium finished off the grisly business and arrangements were made for a funeral.
And then, in a final bizarre twist, another body was found in the wreckage of the theatre, identifiable by expensive rings as Lafayette himself; the man previously though to be him was one of the identically-clothed doubles used in the act. And so with a huge turnout the funeral cortege made its way to Piershill Cemetery, where The Great Lafayette’s ashes lie to this day, between the paws of his beloved Beauty.