The Magician's Retreat
Searching for Eternal Life on David Copperfield's Private Island
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
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
“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.”
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