Warren Buffett is a terrible artist. Magician Steve Cohen knows this because he once asked the billionaire to draw his pet dog, Bean, on a playing card during a show in Omaha, Nebraska. The business mogul, who specifically flew Cohen out for a performance at Buffett’s best friend’s birthday party, obliged by crudely sketching Bean on the card and placing it back in the deck.
Two types of magic were taking place here. The first, a simple trick: No matter where Buffett placed Bean in the mix, the card consistently rose to the top of the deck to greet its master whenever Buffett called his pet’s name. The second, a more complex one: Cohen, a man with an Ivy League education, had turned his childhood passion into a lucrative career that’s redefined the paradigm of an entire sector of showmanship.
“I carry this with me as a reminder to remain humble,” Cohen recently said, showing the card Buffett autographed to a small group of patrons after his regular Saturday night show at the Lotte New York Palace in New York City. “Because when I met Warren Buffett, he was the most humble guy you’d ever want to meet.”
Cohen, who dresses impeccably and alternates between razor-sharp wit and old-world opulence in his performances, knows exactly how unusual of an entertainer he is. And yet he is disarmingly down-to-earth, despite counting some of the world’s richest and most famous among his friends and fans.
“I never know who’s going to be in the audience. Last week Hank Azaria [from The Simpsons] was here. The week before that Mark Zuckerberg’s parents were here,” Cohen told RealClearLife. The list goes on and on: Woody Allen, William Goldman, Barry Diller and Stephen Sondheim have all attended Cohen’s shows. In total, he’s performed for more than 50 billionaires, and is personal friends with famed magicians David Copperfield, Teller of Penn & Teller, and David Blaine, to name just a few. Buffett liked Cohen so much he still regularly recommends him.
“I get people who come to my show regularly who come to me after and say, ‘Warren sent me,’ because he still talks about it,” Cohen said. “It’s like a secret code, a secret club.”
In short, it’s been a long time since Cohen has had to pull quarters out of someone’s ears to make rent, and ten minutes into one of his five weekly shows explains why. The intimate setting, the lavish 19th-century showroom, the deceptive patter throughout his performance. It is fast-paced and exciting and more than a little disorienting, and your response to watching it all is very real. In fact, multiple peer-reviewed studies, including 2015 research published in the journalFrontiers, have found that audiences watching magic experience measurably increased brain activity—scientific evidence of that tingle where you exclaim: “How’d he do that?!” (Not surprisingly, brain scans of magicians performing look very different.) In effect, the very essence of the trick violates the expectations your mind has created for how things are supposed to be. And with a magician like Cohen, who is willing to spend “thousands of hours” on a trick that will only take a few seconds, the effect is enchanting.
But knowing any of this doesn’t mean you should be gullible, Cohen warned.
“When you come to a magic show, you should be suspicious; I 100 percent believe that. When you go to a play you can have the suspension of disbelief. You assume there’s a fourth wall,” Cohen said, “but when you come to a magic show, there shouldn’t be that suspension of disbelief, because then you’d just be watching a fantasy show. You’re a part of the show as much as I am. You have to give me that challenge.”
Cohen is used to taking on challenges, including the years it took to become a professional magician in the first place—let alone one that caters to millionaires.
“I lied to my wife and told her that we were breaking even. But we were actually, we were basically broke,” Cohen said, recalling how his early performances at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel fared. Although he had begun to bring in important patrons to the hotel, he lost his savings trying to advertise his show. Then two—almost magical—things happened: He ended up in the newsletter of the now-defunct website Daily Candy; and in 2009, CBS Sunday Morning came to his show to film a segment after a staff member was mesmerized by his act. Noting that part of his allure to one-percenters comes from his Ivy League education, Cohen admits that magic played a part in the classrooms at Cornell, too.
“All of my psychology papers were written about magic,” Cohen said. “For example, if two objects are moving, one of them at a different rate than the other, which one of them is the eye going to follow?”
The segment aired, of course, on a Sunday. By the end of that week, Cohen had sold a million dollars worth of tickets. Six months later, when CBS reran the segment, it happened again. Abracadabra: he finally had job security.
“And then it’s never stopped.”
Indeed, Cohen could be considered successful by any measure, and especially so in his field. Although he doesn’t rank among his peers on Forbes’ 2017 list of highest-paid magicians—his friend David Copperfield is worth an estimated $850 million, and performing duo Penn & Teller raked in $30.5 million from shows just last year—Cohen offers an experience to the upper echelon of society, one that simply isn’t available to people attending a massive stage production or watching on television. His signature style is all about intimacy and exclusivity, part of which comes from the very city in which he has chosen to build his business and brand himself as ‘The Millionaire’s Magician’—and where his private shows have included performing in the offices of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and financial titan Lloyd Blankfein.
“In New York, this is a city of millionaires. If you look around, there’s a lot of wealth here,” Cohen said. “Everyone I know is a millionaire. I’ve become a millionaire.”
As his business continues to flourish, and seats continue to be filled every weekend, Cohen doesn’t ever forget who he is at heart.
“Being a magician is being a showman,” Cohen said, “and understanding that people are not here to watch magic tricks. They’re here to have an experience. I know they want to walk away with a great story to tell.