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. The rich, Cohen figures, want to see the impossible, feats of wonderment that money seemingly cannot buy.
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.Cohen was counseled to make business cards, to dress sharply, and to brand his act as “magic for the filthy rich” or the “decadently rich.”
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.
Illustration by Pablo Caracol for The New Republic