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Harry Lorayne, the memory wizard of showbiz, dies at 96


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While preparing for the 1983 wartime spoof “To Be or Not To Be,” Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, had to memorize the lyrics to “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish for one of the film’s opening scenes. After the shooting was wrapped up, Bancroft sent a thank-you note to the coach who helped them lock down a language neither of them knew.

Harry Lorayne said he had no doubts that Brooks and Bancroft could pull it off with his assistance. It’s what Mr. Lorayne did: marveling audiences and talk-show hosts with his prodigious ability at recall and tirelessly marketing the idea that anyone could build a steel-trap memory if they followed his system.

“Nobody thinks twice about going to the doctor to help them see better, or help them hear better,” said Mr. Lorayne, who died April 7 at a hospital in Newburyport, Mass., at 96.

There were times Mr. Lorayne worked behind the scenes to help actors, politicians and business executives with memory-aiding techniques. But the spotlight was his natural habitat. He was a showman, salesman, author, name dropper and weaver of stories that went back to how he mastered sleight-of-hand card tricks as a boy on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“It took me out of that cage of shyness,” he said. “I had to say those three words: pick a card.”

By the 1960s, magic was mostly put aside and he was fully vested in his memory act, first honed on stages in the Catskills. Mr. Lorayne would hear the names of hundreds of audience members and then rattle them off — “Mr. Stinson, Miss Graf, Mrs. Graf, Miss Finkelstein” — in his rapid-fire New Yorkese. He could recite every page from a small-town phone book or the exact order of a shuffled 52-card deck after hearing it just once.

He would challenge the audience to stump him with questions on obscure Oscar winners or populations of a far-flung country. If some wag yelled out “What’s your name?” or another no-brainer, Mr. Lorayne would always get a laugh by pretending he couldn’t remember.

The talk shows loved him. He was a regular on “The Tonight Show” and struck up a friendship with Johnny Carson. In 1985 on “The Merv Griffin Show,” Mr. Lorayne nailed the names of 150 audience members after being told them one time. Griffin playfully chided Mr. Lorayne for not going for 300.

Mr. Lorayne, always the self-promoter, replied that he once memorized the names of 1,000 strangers. “I could remember 10,000 if I had the time,” he said. “It would take a couple of days.”

His memory skills were born out of necessity as a boy. His father, he recounted, would beat him for his poor grades. Mr. Lorayne was struggling was dyslexia, which wasn’t diagnosed until he was much older. “I’m not sure the teacher ever heard of that word in those days,” he said.

Out of desperation, Mr. Lorayne discovered some library books on memory training and mnemonics, the system of using mental cues to aid memory. One book described how orators in ancient Rome would use “loci,” or reference points, to remember long passages. It worked. His grades improved and the punishments from his father over his schoolwork stopped. “He hit me for other things,” Mr. Lorayne told the Chicago Tribune in 1988.

In interviews and more than a dozen books, Mr. Lorayne shared examples of mnemonics at work. For the French word for watermelon, pastèque, he thought of playing cards: “Pass the deck; pass deck.” Let’s say you wanted to remember the names of Chinese dynasties: Zhou, Ch’in, Han, Tang, Ming. Mr. Lorayne’s wrote that he would first imagine “a prehistoric animal (perhaps drinking Dinah’s tea).”

“The animal turns into a chow (or waits in a chow line); a chow bites your chin; a chin is growing on your hand; a gigantic hand crawls out of a tank (or says ‘thanks’); there’s a mink in the tank,” he advised.

He told The Washington Post that mnemonics and word association have “nothing to do with intelligence, only memory.”

“Of course,” he added, “I overcompensated.”

It earned him nicknames such as the “Yoda of memory.” Mr. Lorayne basked in the attention decades before the current wave of games and activities claiming to improve memory for a graying population. Advertisements for his books or courses, filling half pages of newspapers in the 1960s, promised to turn an ordinary person into a “mental wizard.”

Among the various showbiz acts involving mental prowess, Mr. Lorayne was more like the practiced craftsman compared with the more elusive qualities of mentalists and others proclaiming mind-reading abilities.

“When I’m tuned in, it’s all about deep intuition and reading emotions and picking up feelings,” said the renowned mentalist known by his stage name, the Amazing Kreskin. “Harry Lorayne, on the other hand, was playing with the memory methods he learned, more mechanical if you will, but always with lots of skill.”

Harry Ratzer was born on May 4, 1926, in Manhattan into a family often struggling to make ends meet with his father’s job as a garment cutter.

With his father’s death, he left high school after his freshman year to take odd jobs. His fascination with magic and card tricks was always in the background.

He started performing in the 1940s and became Harry Lorayne after the middle name of his wife, Renée Lorraine Lefkowitz, whom he married in 1948 and became part of his shows. At one gig in the early 1950s, the audience included actor Victor Jory, an amateur magician. (Jory would later appear in the 1962 film on Helen Keller’s life, “The Miracle Worker,” which led to an Oscar for Bancroft as Keller’s teacher.)

At Jory’s table, Mr. Lorayne had run out of card tricks. His fallback was what he called a “bottom-of-the-barrel” stunt: reciting the order of a card deck after hearing it once. Jory was astounded and began extolling Mr. Lorayne’s memory.

“Well, that changed my life,” Mr. Lorayne said. The magic act faded, and the memory act was on its way.

Mr. Lorayne’s wife died in 2014. Survivors include son Robert Lorayne; daughter-in-law Elizabeth Lorayne; and granddaughter Genevieve Lorayne. Mr. Lorayne’s publicist, Skye Wentworth, confirmed the death but gave no cause. Mr. Lorayne lived in Newburyport.

Well into his 90s, Mr. Lorayne was giving interviews or spinning tales from his career. Whether knowingly, or just a fun twist of verbiage, he would pepper his comments with phrases such as “if I remember correctly” and “if I recall.”

In 2021, he told a story about how one of his teachers would write 10 questions and answers for the class to memorize. “I’ll never forget this,” Mr. Lorayne said, giving no hint of the pun-making potential.

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