The Amazing World of John Scarne

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World War II Crusade


9. My Crusade Against Dice and Card Cheaters During World War II

After a number of disheartening attempts to interest several national magazines to run exposés on the subject, I stopped by Max Holden's Magic Shop in midtown Manhattan and while there ran into my friend, Clayton Rawson, a top-flight mystery writer and amateur magician. After exchanging pleasantries Clayton said to me, "Johnny, how about you and I doing a book on sleight of hand for magicians?"

I replied, "Forget it, but do you want a magazine article that's so hot it sizzles?"

"Sure," Clayton said, "On what?"

"The magicians of the underworld. The crooked gamblers who think that every G.I. is a chump and that the Army is a soft racket that any smart guy can beat. Maybe I'll teach you how to do a card trick, too," I concluded.

Rawson shook his head, "You don't have to bribe me. Not with a story like that under your hat."

Clayton Rawson and I subsequently did a series of articles for True Detective magazine, which was to run for six months. However, the first of the series would not appear for three more months. Three months was a long time to wait to bring my message home to the G.I.'s so I said to Rawson, "The True Detective series is great, but this thing needs all the publicity it can get and it needs it in a hurry. How about Life magazine? You know George Karger -- he's an amateur magician and a professional photographer and is a regular Life contributor."

Clayton agreed to approach Karger and immediately called him on the phone. George promised to do all in his power to help. The next day George Karger introduced me to several editors of Life in their offices at Rockefeller Plaza. I explained my entire plan of eradicating crooked gambling from the armed forces and what I had accomplished to date. I tried to impress the editors how essential it was for Life to help in my crusade and emphasized the urgency of the matter. My pleading was successful, for a few weeks later Georger Karger, with Clayton Rawson acting as his second assistant, photographed me in action before an audience of Army boys in a canteen in Bergenfield, New Jersey.

Three weeks later, June 8, 1942, the pictures appeared in Life. The magazine devoted three pages to my crusade, depicting the water test for loads, mis-spotted dice, how to detect strippers, and several other necessary tips for the servicemen. The bold caption in Life read, Magician warns soldiers of new plague of dice experts and card sharps. And it continued, "Biggest gambling boom since World War I has brought magician John Scarne a new job lecturing to soldiers on tricks of dicemen and card sharps." After reading Life magazine I felt at last that my crusade was really under way. Four and a half million copies would be distributed that week, and the Army's top brass would also read it and, I hoped, would do something about it.

...

Shortly after the end of World War II, I walked into the offices of Yank and thanked Colonel Forsberg and all the staff members of Yank for their great aid in helping bring my message to servicemen all over the globe.

Colonel Forsberg patted me on the shoulder and said, "John, you've done a great service to the boys in the service. God bless you."

As I left Yank's offices that day after saying good-bye to my many wonderful friends, I went home and told Mother that the crusade was over and she need worry no longer. She looked at me and said, "I know, John, but I think you should know there's only five dollars left in your savings account."


10. My Greatest Performance

In the fall of 1944, the critical year of World War II, I was just about tired out following my return from an extensive lecture tour on gambling at military installations throughout the United States and Alaska. Lucy had stopped by our house for a visit and, together with Mom, we had planned a homecoming family dinner party. I was in my room, just finishing dressing, when Lucy called me to the telephone.

I picked up the phone and said, "Hello."

A voice from the other end echoed, "Hello, Mr. Scarne? This is General Hap Arnold calling. I was wondering if--"

I cut into the sentence. "O.K. Hap, you old goat, how's everything?"

"What did you say?" the voice snapped.

"Now, Hap, quit kidding," I shot back. "I've a lot of things to do tonight, and I can't waste all night guessing who's calling."

The voice at the other end of the telephone said, rather matter-of-factly, "Mr. Scarne, I assure you I'm not playing guessing games. This is General Arnold speaking. Lieutenant Colonel Spence gave me your telephone number and--"

With the mention of Lieutenant Colonel Spence's name, I realized I'd put my foot in it. My first impression, that one of my friends had called to kid me, was dead wrong. I'd known Spence as a former editor of Yank magazine and knew he was now stationed in Washington, D.C., with Army Air Forces Headquarters. The voice on the telephone could be that of General Hap Arnold, Commanding General of the United States Army Air Corps. My reply came fast.

"General, I want to apologize for my rudeness. The boys at the corner have a habit of calling me in a disguised voice and announcing that President Roosevelt or Governor Dewey is phoning, and I thought this was another one of their practical jokes."

The General laughed and seemed to enjoy the joke himself. Then he continued in a more serious vein, "Of course I understand, Mr. Scarne. But I was wondering if it would be at all possible for you to come down to Washington on October 11 and give a performance at a dinner party for a selected group I'm entertaining. We want something very special for this occasion, and I believe your gambling demonstrations and magic tricks would be just the thing."

"I certainly can make it, General, and I'm indeed flattered by your kind invitation."

The General then informed me that a letter of confirmation would be forwarded containing further details. When I'd thanked him and hung up, I turned to Lucy, saying, "What a fine mess you almost put me into. Do you know who that was that just called?"

"Well, I heard you say General half a dozen times. Was it General Marshall?" she cooed with a wry sort of smile.

"Quit joking," I retorted. "Why didn't you tell me it was General Hap Arnold calling?" Lucy explained that when she had answered the telephone the operator had merely said it was Washington calling John Scarne, and that she had simply left the telephone off the receiver when she went to call me.

"Look, Lucy," I said, "if I'd known that was long-distance calling, I certainly wouldn't have said what I did."

I guess I didn't eat much that night, and I didn't sleep well for the next couple of nights from wondering what would happen after my faux pas. My anxieties were put to an end with the arrival of a letter. It was precise in its military language, which made things syllable-clear and removed any doubts which I may have had. I was ordered to proceed directly to the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where a reservation had been made in my name, and await further instructions. The letter was signed, H. H. Arnold, General, U.S. Army, Commanding General, Army Air Forces.

During the train trip from New York City to Washington, D.C., I bumped into a friend, Navy Lieutenant Eddy Duchin, famed pianist and orchestra leader. The train was packed with G.I.'s and sailors, and it didn't take Eddy long to find a deck of cards and ask me to do some card tricks for the servicemen in our car. With the G.I's asking me many questions pertaining to gambling, the hour or so from Baltimore to Washington went by quickly. On the afternoon of October 11, 1944, I registered at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C., under my true name.

A minute or two after I'd got to my room, the phone rang. It was Lieutenant Colonel Hartwell Spence calling from the lobby.

"Good to hear you, Spence," I said into the phone. "Come on up and tell me what this is all about."

"John," he said as he settled himself in a chair, "General Hap Arnold has selected me to be your chauffeur and escort you during your stay in Washington."

"Not bad when a poor civilian like me has a colonel for his chauffeur, especially during a war," I replied.

Spence laughed. "There's only one Scarne."

We caught up on each other's personal news, and then Spence explained that he was ordered to drive me to our destination. I refrained from asking any further questions, which had been a practice I'd learned from the outset of the war, but I did ask when we were to leave the hotel.

"We have time yet," he replied. "It's a short ride from here. You'll want to freshen up after your trip from New York."

"Get yourself something and order a cup of coffee for me from room service," I called as I disappeared into the shower.


Twilight found us moving across wartime Washington with its traffic dim-out regulations in effect. It was hard to tell when daytime officially became nighttime without the bright lights to mark the break. The drive to Bolling Field, Maryland, was short and pleasant and Spence and I chatted about the war and things in general. We finally pulled over in front of a building which Spence announced was the Officers' Club, and he told me to follow him into the downstairs bar. I was beginning to wonder what would happen next and why all the secrecy.

After a while I asked Spence where I was to perform, and he replied "Upstairs, John."

"Well, let's go," I said.

"I wish I could," Spence said with a twinkle in his eye, "but I'm below rank."

"You're a lieutenant colonel and you're not allowed upstairs because you're below rank? Who have you got up there?" I asked Spence.

He brushed aside my inquiry with the statement, "I'm still below rank," and continued, "I'd like to catch your performance, John, but this show is for top brass only. My job's over, and I'm sure you'll give them something to think about. I'll wait for you in the bar over there."

...

The top of the stairs opened into a huge reception room and it appeared Spence was right. He surely was below rank, as everyone I spotted was either a general or an admiral. The lowest rank was either a brigadier general or a rear admiral. At this point I began to feel a little weak, and my condition didn't improve any when I recognized Admiral Ernest J. King, Commander in Chief of the U.S. Naval Operations, across the room talking to a group of men. I was just making a half-turn to go back downstairs and get Spence, the deserter, when one of the generals broke away from the group and covered the distance between us in a mean military stride. He threw out his hand and said, "Scarne, it's good to see you."

The three stars on his collar told me he was a lieutenant general, but he introduced himself as Barney Giles. I recognized his name as that of the Chief of Air Staff directly responsible to General Hap Arnold. He asked about my trip and made a few comments about the inconveniences of wartime Washington, and then pointed toward the group he had just left standing in the center of the room and said, "John, you know the bunch, don't you?"

"General, I'm sorry but I don't," I said.

"Well, come on over and meet them," he replied, and he took my by the arm and escorted me to the group of military leaders.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," he said. "I'd like you to meet John Scarne, the man who can make a deck of playing cards talk. John, this is General Arnold."

The General smiled and said, "Are you in good form for tonight's show?"

"I think so, General," I replied.

I was then introduced to...

Admiral King asked me many questions regarding my gambling-lecture tour of naval installations, and we discussed my writings in Yank, the Army weekly, and in the Navy publication, Our Navy. The Admiral told me how much he appreciated the service that I had been rendering to Navy personnel by my lectures and exposures of crooked gamblers.

General Hap Arnold then put his arm over my shoulder and said to Admiral King and the group, "This is the man who called me an old goat." My face must have reddened immediately, because he quickly assured me that he had already explained the telephone incident to his colleagues. They all had a laugh over it, and Hap Arnold turned to me and said, "John, you're the only one that's not drinking in this party. How about a cocktail?"

I was thinking of saying no, simply because the punch bowl was about thirty feet from where we were standing, and I felt that once I left this distinguished group of military men it would be awkward for me to return and re-enter the conversation. However, General Arnold's commanding voice forced a decision which had me saying, "Yes, General, I believe I will have a Manhattan, thank you."

As I started to excuse myself from the group to go toward the punch bowl, the General caught my arm and held me back, saying, "Stick close to me," and turning to a major general who was passing by said, "Oh, General, will you please get Mr. Scarne a Manhattan?"

The major general headed for the punch bowl and returned with the drink, which he handed to me. I accepted it with thanks and said, "Sorry to have troubled you, sir."

He seemed to enjoy my apparent embarrassment as he laughed and said, "Think nothing of it, Mr. Scarne, orders are orders."

In later lectures and demonstrations at various camps around the country, I often related this incident to the delight of the servicemen, who always got a chuckle at the thought of a major general serving Scarne cocktails.

On To
Bugsy Siegel

This page (crusade.html) is maintained by Ed Barnard. Last update March 30, 2000. There have been 674 visitors since March 30, 2000.