Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cole, Leslie George (Les) (1892–1978)

by John Ritchie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Leslie George (Les) Cole (1892-1978), magician, was born on 5 March 1892 at Alexandria, Sydney, son of native-born parents George Cole, driver, and his wife Sarah Catherine, née Chapman, late Reid. The family moved to Wangaratta, Victoria, where George bred trotters and ran a dairy-farm. Educated locally, Les found a job driving a baker's cart. At 17 he went to Melbourne and worked as a billiard-marker and barman at the Vine Hotel, Richmond. There he met the showman Tom Selwyn and became his protégé; Selwyn gave him the stage-name 'Levant' (an 'e' was later added for effect, though the vowel was silent). Cole spent two years playing bit parts in repertory before embarking on a career as a professional magician.

Having earned a pittance entertaining in the intervals between silent films in city cinemas, 'The Great Levante' appeared at Luna Park, Melbourne, and at White City, Sydney, then took to the road in Queensland. He was inspired by the feats of Harry Houdini and, as an escapologist, tantalized audiences by the light of kerosene lamps at remote shearing sheds. The life was rough, the rewards a few shillings and a meal. During World War I he worked in propaganda and recruiting. In Brisbane on Armistice Night 1918 he saw a 19-year-old clerk Gladys Pretoria Costin and was introduced to her three days later. They were married on 7 June 1919 with Methodist forms at her father's Kelvin Grove home; their only child Esme was born in 1921. In Western Australia the Coles acquired a Dodge bus and travelled the outback, performing from Broome to Birdsville, Queensland.

The trio began a world tour in 1927 that was to last thirteen years, during which they played before princes and peasants in Asia and Europe. Through the bustle of ships and trains, hotels and living out of suitcases, with his wife and daughter as assistants, Les gradually perfected his legerdemain, pulling rabbits from hats, aces from ears, golf balls from every respectable orifice, and endlessly sawing Gladys and Esme in halves. Weighed down by manacles and chains, he hurled himself into the Thames from Lambeth Bridge, London. He also struggled from straitjackets, often suspended high above city streets. The unexpected is the expected with magicians.

In 1935 the Institute of Magicians, London, named Levante's trunk trick the 'Mystery of Mysteries'; the Inner Magic Circle awarded him its gold star; and in 1939 the International Brotherhood of Magicians invited him to the United States of America where he was elected the world's number one magician. He declared that the worst patrons he faced were those in Russia and at the Imperial Court Theatre, Japan; the best were the English and the Indian. Les also tackled the most acute of observers—children—and thought that the secret of success was never to play down to them. While in England he devised How's Tricks, a magical revue that incorporated comedy, chorus girls and animals galore. It had a cast of forty. In one extravagant piece, members of his troupe dressed as nuns sang Ave Maria and, as a climax, he made a choirboy materialize from an organ-pipe. Returning to Australia in November 1940, Les subsequently entertained troops in Queensland. He settled in New South Wales, visited South America in 1954 and continued to tour Australia for nine months each year for much of that decade. In 1977 he retired.

On stage, Levante was a suave and imposing figure. Tall and ramrod-backed, with a flowing cape, top hat, cane, white tie and tails, he wore his hair plastered back and, later, as a mane. His smile was cold and knowing, his light-brown eyes intense and eldritch. Away from the limelight, he was unaffected, genial and modest. Believing that 'the hand is quicker than the eye', he held that his fame was simply due to hard work. He maintained a ramshackle, weatherboard cottage at Old Guildford, at the rear of which stood his 'Fun Factory', a grim, black Nissen hut in which he kept all the paraphernalia of illusion. Within that den he built, renovated and painted his equipment and props; therein he stored seventeen boxes of costumes, many of which were designed and made by Gladys. By such means, and by his genius, he brought excitement to millions, bewildering onlookers for some sixty-five years in theatres, halls and tents throughout the world.

To Les Cole, show business was as much about business as about show. He combined drive and purpose with frugal habits. After World War II he had saved enough to invest shrewdly and to buy an eleven-room house at Bellevue Hill where he lived with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. At home, he relaxed, smoked, sipped whisky and grew orchids; he collected sixty water-colour paintings and engravings by Norman Lindsay, and added more books on magic to his library; W. L. Gresham's Nightmare Alley (New York, 1946) continued to fascinate him. He was a Freemason and attended Lodge No.519. His hobbies included bowls, trout-fishing, chess and exposing spiritualists as frauds. Gifted with a marvellous memory, he concealed his sense of power over the credulity of his fellow human beings and kept close-mouthed about the secrets of his craft. Magic explained is no longer magic. Survived by his wife and daughter, Cole died on 20 January 1978 at his Sydney home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Bridges, Curtain Call, (Syd, 1980)
  • People (Melbourne), 24 Feb 1954
  • Pix/People, 22 Jan 1976
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 Jan 1978
  • Sun (Sydney), 21 Jan 1978
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Jan 1978
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Ritchie, 'Cole, Leslie George (Les) (1892–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cole-leslie-george-les-9782/text17287, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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