travel
The Magician's Retreat
By: Adam Leith Gollner


Illustrations By: Cahill Wessel

Montreal-based writer and former VICE editor Adam Leith Gollner is one of those seemingly regular Joes who continually finds himself in strange, almost unbelievable situations. His life has been peppered with many “What the fuck?” moments that might cause you to wonder if you’re wasting your life. (You are.) He attributes this to a natural curiosity, openness, and a constant search for things to write about. I think it’s partly that, and partly some sort of cosmic charisma and weird horseshoe-up-his-ass thing. Either way, when you get an email from Adam asking if you want to visit the private Caribbean island of a world-famous illusionist in search of the fountain of youth, you don’t question it. You just say yes and start packing your bags. This happened to me a few years ago. The story, recounted here, is an excerpt from Adam’s new work, The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, out this month on Scribner in the US and Doubleday in Canada. —Rafael Katigbak, editor VICE Canada

S

everal years ago, the magician David Copperfield issued a press release stating he’d discovered the fountain of youth on his private islands in the Bahamas. “We found this liquid that in its simple stages can actually do miraculous things,” Copperfield claimed. “You can take dead leaves, they come into contact with the water, they become full of life again. Bugs or insects that are near death come in contact with the water, they fly away. It’s an amazing thing, very exciting.”

Copperfield had hired biologists and geologists to examine the fountain’s potential effects on humans. Until the tests were carried out, the magician said, he was refusing anyone else access to the water. Its precise location—a spot where “everything is more vibrant, ageless, and full of life”—is a secret. 

All I knew was that the fountain was somewhere on one of the 11 Islands of Copperfield Bay, a 700-acre archipelago he’d discovered by drawing a cartographical line from Stonehenge to the statues of Easter Island and another line between the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacán; the lines intersected at the exact latitude and longitude of his Caribbean hideaway. In aerial photographs, the main island resembles a bat with its wings outstretched.

It seemed like a story just waiting to be written, and after a lengthy negotiating period, Copperfield agreed to let me visit for a few days. He was adamant in his refusal to show me the fountain, which he described as “a liquid that reverses genes.” 

“You won’t see my wrinkled hand go into a stream and come out young,” he said. “This is not a trick. But if you want to talk about the meaning of the fountain—that, we can do. I speak about the fountain with great verbal aplomb.”

I was fine with that; after all, I’d still be able to sneak out at night and try to find it. 

Shortly before the trip, Copperfield suggested I bring someone along. “To be there alone is going to suck,” he explained. “All the experiences on Musha are shared experiences.” I didn’t want to go with my girlfriend, as a 21-year-old beauty-pageant runner-up had accused Copperfield of raping her on the island (the charges were ultimately dropped). Instead, I decided to bring my former bandmate Rafael Katigbak, editor of VICE’s Canadian edition and an amateur magician who as a child idolized David Copperfield. “God, I hope he rapes me,” Raf sighed, faux dreamily, when I filled him in on the allegations. Here’s what happened instead.

As we entered the infinite blue of the Atlantic adjacent to Exuma International Airport, our speedboat skimmed toward the Out Islands. “I feel like I’m home,” said Raf, putting his feet up and flipping through a copy of Private Jet Lifestyle magazine.

About 45 minutes later, we arrived at Musha Cay, the main island of Copperfield Bay. Just off the dock, stairs lead to a large building called the Landings, a tasteful wooden affair painted in pastel green, blue, and yellow. Above it, perched atop the island’s zenith, lay a dark mansion. As we prepared to disembark, the boat’s captain pointed out four or five sharks in the water, saying they lived under the quay.

“Are they pets?” I asked.

“Nah, they just live here.”

“But do they belong to David?”

“No, they’re wild sharks, but this is their home.”

“So sharks just choose to come live here under the front porch?” interjected Raf.

“That’s right,” answered a blond, bland, and slightly impatient managerial-type woman dressed in a Musha Cay golf shirt standing on the pier. “But they’re not dangerous. You can even go down there and swim with them while you’re here.”

“Do they bite?”

“Not really,” she answered with a strained smile. “But don’t stick out your fingers around them. Don’t grab their tails, either. And don’t creep up on them from behind.”

As the various majordomos, butlers, and concierges introduced themselves and made sure we didn’t lift any of our suitcases, a pair of skinny legs in gray Crocs and peachy-pink surfers’ shorts strolled down the stairs. Copperfield’s crisply ironed shirt was as black as his bushy eyebrows. His face was partially concealed by a small-domed black cap. As he approached, his deep-set eyes brightened, becoming big and glossy.

He was friendly, if formal, and appeared pressed for time. As soon as we shook hands, he looked at his watch and suggested we tour the island before dinner. He started by showing us a game room in the reception area. Houdini’s personal billiard table serves as the centerpiece. He showed off some of his other collectibles, including a creaky fortune-teller machine, an early motion-picture device called a Mutoscope, and a 100-year-old claw-digger amusement device.

Several members of his team sat around a television monitor watching footage they’d shot a day or two earlier. Copperfield explained that he’d brought down some Sports Illustrated models and Vogue cover girls to do a shoot for a calendar he was working on. One evening, they’d all played an indigenous game called the Musha 500. We watched them go at it.

The bikini- and stiletto-clad girls stood on the beach, clustered around two shallow trenches filled with water. Each “racetrack,” or aquatic corridor, was about four inches deep and four inches wide, and maybe ten feet long. Two girls each selected a goldfish from a central tank, placing one fish in their respective trenches. A whistle sounded. The models put straws in their mouths and started blowing bubbles into the water to make the fish swim forward. The freaked-out fish kept darting around, forward and backward, as the ultrathin models puffed furiously into their straws. One of them nearly got her goldfish to swim to the finish line before it abruptly turned around and zigzagged back down the concourse. “Merde!” she cried.

Copperfield excitedly told us how much fun the models had while they were here. As he spoke, the staff would laugh in unison, even if he wasn’t saying anything all that funny. Raf looked over at me and rolled his eyes. Copperfield then walked us outside, explaining that we’d be able to check out the rest of the Landings later on, after dinner but just before sunset. 

“Is the fountain on this island?” I asked, getting down to business.

“We can speak at length about the fountain tomorrow, after we go out and see the other islands,” he explained tersely, leading us along a paved road.

“Are there cars down here?” Raf inquired.

“There could be, but we prefer golf carts,” Copperfield said as he slid into his buggy’s driver’s seat, coolly indicating that I should sit next to him. Raf jumped into another cart driven by an assistant, and we all pulled out. “There used to be two limousines on Imagine Island,” said Copperfield, explaining how drug smugglers had used these islands as landing pads in the past. “They’d bring in female accompaniment to inhabit it. The movie Blow really happened at Norman’s Cay. A lot of cocaine went through Exuma.”

Musha Cay was larger than I’d anticipated, and greener. Oleanders and other lush flowers pulsated in the subtropical warmth. The sky had been overcast on our arrival, but slanting daggers of sunlight were now carving through the clouds, illuminating the Listerine waves below. The water, beautifully translucent, shimmered with almost unreal blue-green radiance. I asked Copperfield what color he thought it was.

“I don’t even try to describe the sea anymore,” he answered. “You end up using adjectives like cerulean. After all this time in the Caribbean, I let the photographs do the talking. Scratch that—it’s so many spectrums of blue you can’t even photograph it. You have to see it.”

As we steered away from the ocean, he pointed out other Musha must-sees, such as a statuesque 17th-century head from Burma and a collection of royal thrones from Africa. “Here’s a Sri Lankan god I found on my travels,” he crowed, indicating a bejeweled, big-eared, mustachioed stone sculpture holding a conch in one hand, and what appeared to be a toilet plunger in the other.

“What’s his name?” I asked

“Super Mario.”

“Has sense of humor,” I jotted into my notebook, and quickly flipped the page in case he was reading over my shoulder.

Our cart serpentined along a mazelike configuration of roads. I asked if it was possible to get lost on Musha. Copperfield stressed the importance of sticking to the paths because there were holes all over the island. “If you fall in, you can go quite deep down. It’s dangerous. Some holes stretch all the way through the island’s core into the ocean.”

The warning sounded genuine—but it could also have been a possible clue to the fountain’s whereabouts. I started scanning for any signs of life off the main path.

As we drove upward, toward the manor, he told me that he maintains a full-time staff of over 30 employees on the island, including a zookeeper. He pointed out some of his toucans—Toco Toucans, he specified, “the Rolls-Royces of toucans.” I wanted to ask him about the sharks, but he embarked on a long story about the herd of African giraffes he’d purchased that would soon be wandering all over the island. “They’ll eat off your plate,” he said, “over there in the Valley of the Giants. I’m building them a whole compound with bedrooms for when the weather’s bad.” He was also putting the finishing touches on something called the Secret Village, a hidden passageway that opens into a three-acre replica of Angkor Wat with “mind-reading monkeys who crawl all over you.”

As he spoke, a little bird scampered across the road. “Baby egret!” he said with wonderment.

“Is a baby eagle called an egret?” I inquired, putting my pen down momentarily. “Or is it an egress? No, wait, an egress is an exit, a way out, an escape, right?”

“A baby eagle is an eaglet. We have a lot of crab-eating egrets down here.” Copperfield glanced over at my notepad and suggested I transcribe the following sentence: “As David Copperfield drove me to Highview, the highest point on Musha Cay, a crab-eating egret crossed my path.

 

Only when we walked into his mansion did it sink in that we had actually arrived, that we were inside the magician’s abode. Copperfield showed off more exotic collectibles: cobra sculptures rising from the ground, maharaja chairs, carved prayer beds from Afghanistan (“their heads point toward Mecca”). The downstairs suite contained an African-themed room with idols, masks, headdresses, and figurines used in tribal ceremonies. He took us into the dining room and showed us a canoe hanging from the ceiling that doubled as a chandelier. “Check this out,” he purred, pushing a button. The ship started slowly descending. “It levitates down from the ceiling on special occasions. That’s cool, right?”

“Yeah!” Raf yelped.

“What happens once it comes all the way down?” I asked.

“Anything you want,” he said, slightly miffed at my lack of imagination. “You can put dinner in it ahead of time, to impress your girlfriend, or place an engagement ring in it. Things like that.”

In the master bedroom, he flipped another switch and a huge TV situated inside a wicker Indian chest floated out of the ground.

“Whoa! Where does it come from?” Raf asked.

“It’s magic.” Copperfield grinned.

The other rooms, vaguely reminiscent of Graceland, evoked a sort of strangeness that only comes with peering in on a superstar magician’s private domestic life. As I perused the rarities on display, I half expected to come across a genuinely magical item, like transparent wings or a cloak of levitation.

He wanted us to see the fitness center, so we jumped back into the golf carts. It looked like a basic corporate-hotel workout room, albeit one with an antique carnival-strongman statue out front. On the wall inside, he pointed out a photograph of the same strongman at the base of the Eiffel Tower, explaining that the statue dated back to the monument’s unveiling at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. The photo looked doctored. “It’s amazing what you can do with Photoshop these days,” I blurted out.

“That’s not Photoshop!” Copperfield protested,
almost hurt.

“No, of course not,” I apologized. “Just a joke.”

For our next stop, he took us down to Coconut Beach, one of the islands’ main sand strips, neatly littered with Windsurfers, Yamaha WaveRunners, and the makings of Dave’s Drive-In movie theater. He described Musha as his most important project to date. He oversees even the tiniest of details, he said, from selecting the board games (“like Clue”) to designing the telephone users’ manual.

He parked the golf cart on a bed of white sand meticulously raked into swirls and geometric patterns. “If it’s not 100 percent exactly how I want it to be, it’s a waste of my time,” he said. The statement’s undertow pulled me in. Copperfield’s perfectionism suggested not only a desire to have things done properly and precisely, but also that he sees himself as being somehow above reality’s imperfections. This character trait is exemplified by his desire to own a private island—to create paradise and live apart from the rest of humanity, to have no attachments and live in a blissful state of narcissistic fulfillment. To have things be exactly how you want them to be. To no longer suffer. To be perfect.

Epic orchestral music reverberated through the breeze from some hidden hi-fi system. The music sounded heroic: full of horn swells, harp swoops, flute trills, and tribal drums, Braveheart for a moment, Lion King the next. It heightened the dramatic intrigue of being on the island, creating a sense that something monumental could happen at any instant.

“What’s this music?” I asked him.

“Magic music,” he answered, straight-faced. “You’ll find Klipsch speakers scattered among the palm trees.”

Maybe I was reading too much into it. He certainly took pride in his possessions and clearly cared a great deal about the island. Sure, he had an obsessive side, but despite his ludicrous wealth, Copperfield seemed reasonably normal—tense, certainly, and highly sensitive, but also hospitable, sardonically humorous, and a bit goofy. But his perfectionist tendencies soon came to the fore again when he demonstrated the specific way he liked the pillows arranged on the chaise lounges. “Even the Balinese daybeds have secret compartments,” he added, opening a chair to show us an instructional document on pillow placement.

Expounding on how much Musha meant to him, Copperfield said he wanted my readers to understand the passion he felt for this place. It was where he came to “escape from the escapes.” How strange it must be to need a break from escaping, I thought, to take time off from working as an escapologist.

He spoke about how, despite the prohibitive costs of running the island, nothing could prevent him from focusing all his energies on his fabricated paradise. But it wasn’t just about the sugar-sand beaches, he went on, it was about imbuing them with stories. He explained his plans for a haunted island where it would snow on the beach. Soon guests would be able to go on “yeti quests,” where Sherpas would make water magically appear out of thin air. “What makes me happy is people going like this…” he dropped his jaw. “Everything comes back to that.”

When he took a break to respond to a call on his walkie-talkie, Raf and I had a chance to speak openly. “This place is truly amazing,” he whispered. “But David is like a kid who just wants to show off all his stuff. And he’s kind of tacky, no?”

“He has so many secret things,” I replied. “Secret cays, secret TV stands that rise out of the ground on hydraulics, secret passageways leading to secret monkey enclaves, secret underground chambers, secret daybeds. Everything has a secret compartment!”

“You never know what you need to hide, I guess,” Raf said.

The tour concluded with Copperfield showing us the various accommodation options, all of which were waterfront houses. In one of the buildings he took a moment to make sure we took notice of the laminated page he’d made that explains how the remote controls worked. He told us how guests who visit the island can spend their entire trip letting it all hang out: “Some people just want to come here and be naked and play bongos. Musha is a place where you can be totally fucking naked because it’s secluded and there’s no paparazzi around.”

As our golf cart hummed past an empty tennis court, Copperfield asked what I thought about the tour.

I told him that everything was useful, even though I wasn’t sure what would make it into the final story. “You never know until you’ve done all the reporting,” I said. “But I love the feeling of not knowing, of lost in a story as it’s coming together. I feel like I’m in the labyrinth right now.”

As he dropped us off at our beach house, he mumbled something into the breeze about how much he appreciates being lost in illusions himself.

W

hat a shithole,” joked Raf, walking into Pier House, our hyperluxurious two-bedroom suite. The décor drew upon the Far East—large shadow-theater puppets, Buddhist masks, and a carved temple archway painted in fading primary colors. Raf busied himself in the snack pantry, a larder closet stocked with chips, candy bars, cookies, crackers, nuts, popcorn, pretzels, Snapea Crisps, and any other junk food you could ever want. “No Tab cola though,” he tsked before grabbing a couple of coffee pods for the in-room espresso machine and started making macchiatos.

“That thing was so Photoshopped it’s not even funny,” he said, adjusting the steam wand’s intensity.

“You really think so?” I asked, no longer sure. “He wouldn’t be so audacious to pull a fast one like that.”

Like that?” Raf scoffed. “The guy walked through the Great Wall of China, he made the Statue of Liberty disappear—that’s what he does, he pulls fast ones. That Photoshop image is small potatoes. Audacious. Ha!”

After a final snort, Raf started singing the words “We’re in David Copperfield’s private island resort” to a childish melody. He laughed maniacally and looked to the heavens. Stopping suddenly, he threw me a cut eye. “You realize we’re being filmed, right now, through this Laotian mask.”

I immediately started talking loudly about how magical Musha felt, lauding David’s passion, complimenting his taste, noting the exquisiteness of his many Asian sculptures. I filled Raf in on what David had said about this place being his most important project. “He’s a perfectionist,” I concluded. “One hundred percent or nothing.”

“That’s David Copperfield,” Raf said. “An OCD Jewish nerd who can make you believe he levitated over the Grand Canyon. A magician surrounded by supermodels on his island. What a tough life.”

Moments later, a black winged creature flew into the room and fluttered about erratically. “A bat!” I screamed. Transylvanian thoughts caromed through my mind. “No… wait! It’s a fucking moth! Raf shouted, as it hurtled to a stop upside down in a corner where the ceiling met the wall. “Holy shit, David Copperfield just flew in here as a moth! Can he do that?”

We edged closer. Before us quivered an extremely large, velvety-black butterfly. Two striking dark-brown eyes looked out at us, one on either wing. It had the wingspan of a sparrow. Raf began shooting photos from different angles, and we both made various shooing motions, to no avail. It didn’t move again, so eventually we gave up and decided to unpack. By the time we left the Pier House for dinner, the winged insect had vanished.

As we drove our golf cart toward the Landings, I spotted a sign that read petrified lake. Had it been there before, when we rolled through earlier? Neither Raf nor I had noticed it during the tour, and it seemed like something that would’ve caught our eye. I made a note to investigate it later. By the time we showed up in the Houdini billiard room, it was about ten minutes later than Copperfield had suggested. His vexation was palpable.

A couple of assistants were milling around, offering cocktails. His girlfriend, a gorgeous European model (who, given Copperfield’s request that she remain anonymous, I shall refer to as “M”) sat next to him. As Copperfield had intimated earlier, she spoke about how her supermodel friends from Sports Illustrated and Vogue had loved their time on the island. One of them had said how coming here felt like coming home.

“That’s what Raf said when we were on the boat,” I chimed in.

“That’s why I do this,” Copperfield said. “To make you feel like you’ve gone back to being a child again. That, and getting this reaction—” his jaw dropped.

He directed our attention toward the television screen displaying a promotional clip about his home in New York, a four-story penthouse apartment on East 57th and Lexington. The camera panned through a playroom full of penny-arcade games, carnival muscle-strength challenges, and other antique funfair curiosities. In the living room a number of nude wooden people were nailed to the two-story-high wall in various contortions.

“What are those?” I asked. The mannequins pinned up there like human creepy-crawlies made me think of the dark butterfly in our room.

“They’re incredibly rare life-size models,” Copperfield answered.

“Models?” Raf asked, turning slowly to look at M.

“Around the turn of the last century,” Copperfield said, “it was illegal for artists to hire real-life models, so they used articulated lay figures like those. I even have one that belonged to Cézanne.”

Watching the models dangling from the wall, I remembered reading something about a warehouse he owned in Las Vegas that was recently raided by the FBI during their investigation of the alleged rape: entry requires tweaking a mannequin’s nipple.

Other weird contraptions flitted across the screen. “Initiation devices,” Copperfield clarified.

“What sort of initiations?” I asked.

“You know, trick chairs, paddle machines that whack you in the butt, novelty electroshock games, kind of benign hazing things like that. I also have tons of ray guns. You’ve gotta come out to Vegas and see my warehouse. It’s huge. I have a whole room full of ventriloquial dummies.”

“Do you consider yourself a collector?” I asked.

“I don’t really like that term,” Copperfield said plainly. “I’m not an accumulator. I love objects that carry with them amazing stories. But I don’t want to be seen as a collector.”

The magician’s girlfriend interjected: “Wouldn’t you like to start collecting women’s shoes, size nine and a half?”

Copperfield pursed his lips, reaching for a glass of water.

Raf took the cue: “Wow—nine and a half? You have big feet!”

“I know!” M groaned, growing self-conscious. “I’m so embarrassed about them.”

But her feet seemed perfectly normal to me. Copperfield handled it deftly and politely, explaining how all people have parts of themselves they are sensitive about, and how we all deal with them as children. He even mentioned his own complex: big ears, which explained his affinity for Super Mario, a.k.a. the Sri Lankan god statue with the huge lobes. “Childhood is what shapes us,” he said. “It’s how you use your markers and devastations that counts.”

It was just one of the many nuggets of wisdom he generously dropped during our time together, which included sayings about everything from forgiveness to decision making. These included gems such as “Grudges hurt the grudger more than the grudge,” “The more successful you become, the harder it is to focus on family,” and “If you really want something to happen, you can force it to happen by your drive and your force, and that’s a kind of supernatural effect.”

As we sat around the dining table, he told us a story about going to a camp in Warren, New Jersey, as a child: “At Camp Harmony, we spent two weeks searching for a guide who’d been kidnapped by Indians. It was just a game, but I was living it. That’s what I do here on Musha Cay. My whole life goes back to that camp experience when I was three or four. The yeti quest I’m working on, where Sherpas will make it snow on the beach, it’s just a variation on that. Everything is. Everything I do is about getting people’s jaws to drop. The canoe is cool—but not as cool as having that canoe come down from the ceiling full of sushi. That’s kaw,” he said, dropping his jaw.

The kitchen staff served each of us a braised-lamb dish, except for Copperfield, who was brought a platter of breaded chicken fingers. Copperfield’s fondness for chicken fingers goes way back, and he would eat them for dinner the rest of our stay, while we were treated to a variety of seafood and other meats. (In 1993, shortly after he proposed to Claudia Schiffer, a journalist joined the couple on a limo ride to Planet Hollywood in Manhattan, where he watched them “feast” on chicken fingers.)

Over dinner, David spoke of magic’s illustrious past, mentioning how magicians had been kings’ confidants, and how they’d always held high posts throughout history.

“So what position do you want in Obama’s cabinet?” Raf nibbled.

“Well, Ronald Reagan did offer me a post after a show in Ford’s Theatre,” said Copperfield. “He wanted me to make things vanish.”

“Like his wife,” added his girlfriend.

“Now, now,” chuckled Copperfield.

When the staff cleared our plates, he asked what we wanted to do.

“Should we people watch?” I joked.

“You can’t do that here,” he sniffed petulantly, and suggested we play board games or do some karaoke.

“Raf is incredible at karaoke,” I jumped in, trying to get back to an upbeat place.

“We’ll see about that,” Copperfield said.

“I have my own machine at home.” Raf shrugged, unperturbed.

As Copperfield moved inside to set things up with a gaggle of helpers, Raf and I lingered on the dock, looking down at the sharks drifting through the waves below. Raf wondered what M thought of all those models crucified on the wall.

“She’s so beautiful I can barely look at her,” I said. “It’s like watching the sun.”

“Through diamonds,” Raf added. “She’s too beautiful. The whole island is. You almost need to turn your eyes away. Or talk about how big her feet are.”

On our way into the karaoke room, I noticed an illustrated map of Musha. I couldn’t locate the Petrified Lake, but I did find a body of water marked the sanctuary in its general vicinity. A sanctuary? A consecrated place where sacred objects are kept?

“Did we see the Sanctuary today?” I asked, walking into the room.

“No,” Copperfield answered definitively. His seriousness made me reluctant to press the matter, while simultaneously affirming my hunch. Whether sanctuary or petrified lake, its liquids would undoubtedly be worth exploring. 

Copyright © 2013 by 9165-2610 Quebec, Inc. From the forthcoming book THE BOOK OF IMMORTALITY: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever by Adam Leith Gollner to be published in the US by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc, and in Canada by Doubleday Canada. Printed by permission.

@adamgollner

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