In The Shadow of A Curse

A short profile of perhaps the greatest magician who ever lived.

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I recall the fateful moment when my editor called me on a Sunday night, her voice equal parts sad and excited; there was a story to be written about the notorious magician from the Midwest. When, at 45, Hermann “Hex” Zilchberg was crowned the youngest Top Wizard of the Globe in 2018, his audience assumed that he would go for the Top Wizard of the Galaxy trophy next. Nobody expected the next trick up his sleeve to be an untimely demise and a tarnished legacy.

Hermann — or “Hex”, as he vehemently insisted on being called — stood on his fabled stage at the Manhattan Hall for Spells almost exactly seventeen years ago, where he did his first trick in front of a drunk audience. It was a Pinky Break: he got a buzzed young lady to choose a card, put it back, and made it appear that her card was lost in the middle, but the card’s location was actually being marked by Hex’s pinky. The trick, forgive the pun, did the trick, and the young woman’s laughs were heard resoundingly throughout the half-filled hall. Hex and the young lady, Zoe Mulaney, got married two years later. When I got the opportunity to speak with Mrs. Mulaney-Zilchberg (“Please, call me Zoe. Only the lawyer calls me that.”) at her husband’s funeral, she appeared to me as a woman who had seen too much to fear seeing some more. “He may not have been the best husband in the world, but he was the greatest magician I’ve ever known,” she told me. Her black gown was unadorned but for a simple red heart-shaped brooch, only slightly bigger than her thumbnail. “His anniversary gift to me,” she smiled, playing with it gently. “He didn’t forget this year.” The funeral service was lovingly dubbed The Disappearing Act by Hex’s posse of assistants and stagehands. There were bigwigs from all over the industry there. The man and his magic had been loved. It was a beautiful service — perhaps too beautiful to be appropriate for such a troubled individual.

Hex Zilchberg was born Hermann Zilchberg the Second to a family of locksmiths in Switzerland. A child with three siblings, he grew up poor and resilient in the streets of rural St. Porten. The Zilchbergs cared less for material entertainment than they did about their children, succumbing to a car crash when Hex was 14. They were both drunk. Hex, his brother Hans, and his sisters, Ilaya and Mary, fled Switzerland under the guise of foster children, and over the course of a decade, had moved to the States. Hermann Zilchberg roamed the states and spent his youth in the Midwest under colorful names. Hans went on to become an architect, Ilaya became an artist, and Mary was found at rehab every six months. She still is at rehab, hence her absence from the service. Hans and Ilaya were very open with me; they disapproved with a passion of what their brother had chosen to do with his life. Hans, in particular, still bore signs of indignation as he spoke of his late brother. “The smartest man I knew, that guy. He could’ve sent men to Mars. He could’ve found the cure to cancer. Wait, he almost did!” laughs Hans sadly. He refuses to address his brother by his stage name. “I knew Hermann as much as he allowed anyone to. He was a man consumed by the notion of bringing joy and excitement to strangers.” “And the notion of bringing pain to the people who loved him,” whispers Ilaya. As a reclusive artist, Ilaya makes few public appearances. She spoke to me in hushed tones about Hex and his struggle with accepting his family.“Herm- Hex was a good man. He knew what he was doing. He always knew what to do, but not what not to do. He wanted to do everything.” Hans sighed, glancing at the ornate casket of the late magician. “His greatest trick was fooling people into thinking he was doing okay.”

Zoe and Hex had been together for seventeen years, and they had been far from easy. I managed to meet Zoe again, two weeks after the funeral service. At forty-three, she has more grace than I do at twenty-six. She bought me a fulsome dinner while we spoke of the man she had loved for years. She wore a turquoise dress. The brooch was still there. “It’s an Olympic task to love a man whose favorite mistress is sleight-of-hand.” Hex was known to disappear from the face of the earth for months at a time. “He always wanted to find the perfect trick, you know?” Zoe twiddled her thumbs, still playing with the brooch. “Always the perfect trick. Always the perfect execution.” Only two years ago, in 2017, Hex made a visit to Chernobyl. He was experimenting with subjects who had been affected…badly. It got him the greatest award a magician could receive on earth. “Hex was a fool. I loved him with all my heart but he was a fool. His audience was everything to him.” Zoe reminisces on how she used to sneak into the audience every week just to catch a glimpse of him laughing heartily. “Many people don’t know this,” Zoe says, winking conspiratorially, “But he started out as a street con-man.” When I let my shock be evident, she nodded and chuckled, almost proudly. “A wild one, that young Hex. He swindled people out of their valuables for a good seven months before he met me. Then he swindled me out of my heart.” We parted ways an hour later, and Zoe left me a note that said: Be truthful about whatever you write.

Hermann Zilchberg had struggled with antisocial personality disorder and depression from a very early age. His years as a street-performer had marked him as one of the most eccentric magicians ever. Hex was known to engage in bodily self-harm regularly. “I’m practicing a trick,” was his standard explanation. This included incidents like cutting off chunks of his tongue with live audiences, setting his hair on fire only to turn it to water a minute later. People from his hometown began to call him “The Cursed One.” This only drove Hex to more garish displays of “magic”. There is only one recorded interview in existence of Hex. It shows him in full magician garb (a dark maroon cloak and a top hat he made himself), sitting cross-legged in the spotlight, not a care in the world except the next abracadabra. The camera zooms in on his gaunt face. “Magic,” he intones in a calm baritone, “is as close I can get to the language of the Gods.” He uncrosses his legs and stares into the camera; Hex had a charisma around him uncharacteristic even of the most seasoned stage artists. “It isn’t math,” he scoffs. “Numbers don’t make people drop their jaws and clutch at their hearts. It’s always magic. It always was, always has been, always will be.”

Chernobyl was Hex’s opus dei. The Futility of Man, it was called. He found out that the radiation poisoning was still high, but was receding in quantity. “And for my next trick, I will beat death at His own game,” said the headline when he returned to Manhattan. Hex had obtained gallons of toxic water from Chernobyl. The same water was being supplied to homes around Chernobyl. In late 2018, he froze himself in it, fully naked. His six-foot lean frame was fed live to screens for a whole day before he managed to produce a singe card — the ace of hearts — and set himself free. The radiation did a number on him in the immediate next month, and he was hospitalized. He never recovered from it. He died in his sleep three days later, having suffered organ failure to an incredible extent. Zoe says, and I quote, “He was smiling, the bastard.”

For whatever may have driven him to such extremes, Hermann “Hex” Zilchberg had been blessed with a curse. He could make everyone happy except the ones who cared. This included himself. Maybe Hans was wrong. Maybe Hex’s greatest trick was really finding himself in his last breath.




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