A sculpture of a horse made of driftwood and weighing half a ton, a custom-built ‘76 Cadillac coated with 2,600 teaspoons, a huge portrait of Jesus and a crystal ball, which may or may not have belonged to a Russian emperor. These are but a few of the items that dazzle the eyes of anyone entering the doors of the new Uri Geller Museum in Old Jaffa.
The items on show are all associated in one way or another with the long career of the Israeli-British illusionist, magician and self-described psychic. But in a private tour of the museum Geller pauses before, of all things, a rather generic poster announcing an appearance in 1970 in Givatayim, outside Tel Aviv. Geller points to it as something that is a distillation of his life’s work.
'Gadhafi comes out toward me in a brown keffiyeh and starts shouting at me. 'You Israelis! I want to remind your people what you did to us!''
“The morning of the show I go down to the kiosk and see my picture smeared all over Ha’olam Hazeh ('This World'),” he says, referring to the now-defunct popular 1970s gossip Israeli magazine. “The headline was: ‘Uri Geller is a fraud.’ Wow. I called my then-agent Miki Peled and told him: Call off the show, no one will come. He said: ‘Sorry, that’s impossible.’ I come to the hall and see 200 people standing outside, waiting to get tickets.”
And then, he says, the penny dropped: “There’s nothing like being the center of a controversy. The sceptics made me, they built my mysterious halo and created the enigma around me. Thanks to them I’m still in the world public’s consciousness.”
Bend it like Geller
That anecdote reminds Geller of a similar one, which signaled perhaps the lowest point in his career. In 1973 he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” and found that the host had prepared a table with spoons and other silver items, expecting Geller to bend them with his inimitable powers. Geller failed – and attributed that to what he felt was a hostile atmosphere in the studio and not feeling in his element that evening. His rivals had a field day.
Sometimes Geller's efforts are less successful. For example when he announced that he would prevent Brexit or bring about peace between Israel and Syria
“I sat there for 22 minutes, sweating and humiliated,” he recalls. “I went back to my hotel devastated, knowing that the next day I was going to pack up and return to Israel. In America a failure like that can spell the end. I go to bed, fall asleep, and am awakened by a telephone call from the hotel’s switchboard operator. ‘Mister Geller, [TV host] Merv Griffin is on the line.’ And he says, ‘I want you on my show.’ So I found out for a second time how accurate Oscar Wilde’s saying was: There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
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Since then, Geller has embraced Wilde’s saying and lives by it religiously to this day. The Uri Geller Museum, built with a $6-million investment in Jaffa, which is part of municipal Tel Aviv, is a hypnotic display of self-aggrandizement. The exhibits – some of them works of art, and others furnishings and mementos he’s accumulated over the years – tell the story of the illusionist’s life, from a poor childhood in Tel Aviv to international renown. Michael Jackson, whose close friendship with Geller the Israeli has boasted about, has his own corner in the museum, but figures like artist Salvador Dali and Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi are also present as satellites in the galaxy in which Geller is the central planet. Shameless? Geller has never claimed not to be.
Referring to his breakout years, he recalls with a smile, “I pushed, I was shameless. I did everything in order to rub shoulders with those people. I wanted to be a sidekick superstar, to meet people like Mick Jagger, Elton John. And they also wanted to meet me, because I was a freak, bizarre.
The name-dropping during the tour is so dizzying that one doesn’t realize at first that sometimes the connection between Geller and the person or situation being mentioned is slight at best. When he points to a relief in the shape of a crown that was supposed to be installed in a courthouse in some English town, he notes that “even Queen Elizabeth visited there once.” As a rule, actual acquaintance or familiarity with this particular Israeli is not a precondition to joining the hall of fame he has built for himself. As examples, he displays a coffee table that belonged to the late Italian designer Gianni Versace, which Geller bought at a public auction, along with a signed Diego Maradona jersey that he got from a friend and a decorative plate created by Picasso.
A work by Miro and a painting that Geller bought for 5 shekels from an impoverished boy in Jaffa are displayed alongside one another. Is he trying, by means of the cacophonous combination of highbrow and lowbrow, aesthetic and garish, to embody some sort of postmodernism in the spirit of Andy Warhol, one of whose works is also on show here (“I met him at Studio 54 together with [artist Jean-Michel] Basquiat")? It seems that the items are connected by a far more basic sort of curating logic.
Not a money-maker
“My life is the glue of the museum,” Geller says. “The theme is me.” And he doesn’t see the museum as a money-making proposition: “It’s clear to me that I won’t get back my investment,” he adds, noting that he intends to donate a substantial portion of his revenues to a nonprofit that helps sick children.
Erect, slim and energetic, Geller will celebrate his 75th birthday in December, but says he does not expect to live long (“I know the life-expectancy statistics for me and my body, and I estimate that in the next five years I’ll be leaving this world”). Is that why he invested millions in a monument to himself during his lifetime? He denies that he acted out of any sense of urgency to establish his legacy: “There was no special planning here. I’m something of a collector and over the years I’ve amassed lots of items that were scattered in my home in England and in warehouses. I lived abroad for 44 years and when I returned to Israel five years ago I decided to concentrate them in one place.”
'Geller says he received this gilded egg from John Lennon, from inside of which Lennon swore an alien tried to communicate with him ('I asked him, John, what did you take?')'
The museum is located in a beautiful Ottoman-era building in Old Jaffa that was a soap factory in ancient times, in the same alleyway as the Ilana Goor Museum. And as opposed to the restrained, occasionally surrealistic style identified with the works of his artist-neighbor, Geller is not a person of implied art. His declaration of intentions is displayed already in front of the building: a steel sculpture of a huge teaspoon, 16 meters long and weighing 11 tons, which he says has been recognized by Guinness experts as the biggest teaspoon in the world.
The museum launching was delayed because of COVID-19, and even now it is not open to the general public – only to groups, by advance appointment. Geller himself is the guide.
On a recent Saturday night, a group of about 20 retirees arrives as scheduled. With some sort of dramatic symphony coming out of a nearby alley, Geller makes his appearance wearing a casual shirt and shorts, at the appointed time. He wants to start immediately but some in the group want to know how he maintains his slender physique. Others mention a connection to his family. Geller, who at the height of his career appeared before thousands in the most prestigious international venues – and even before millions when the Israeli TV competition program “The Successor” (aka “The Next Uri Geller”) was exported to several European countries – shifts his weight from foot to foot until the last of the participants returns from the rest rooms.
“After I conquered the world I was in shock,” he says. “Because there was no difference between being famous in Israel and being famous abroad. You’re simply well known around the world. That explains my satisfaction with getting people to enjoy themselves, whether it’s 4,000 people or 15.”
Geller gives a brief introduction to the group about himself and explains that he is a scion of the Freud family on his mother’s side. As proof he displays a picture of the grandson of the father of psychoanalysis, British artist Lucian Freud, who Geller actually resembles (“We’re really twins”).
The visitors are shown a collection of 500 keys that their host collected from hotels over the years and turned into a hanging display. “I made a deal with the manager of every hotel where I stayed – I’ll bend something for you and in return you’ll bring me a key,” he says, by way of explanation.
He goes on to point out something that looks like a flattering picture of him, and reveals that it’s actually an oil painting by New York-based Israeli artist Yigal Ozeri – so precise that it looks like a photograph. The group does not really share Geller’s enthusiasm, and he gets it. “Give me some time,” he asks. And then the fantastic stories begin to flow as he describes various gifts in the museum collection: the gilded egg he received from John Lennon, from inside of which Lennon swore an alien tried to communicate with him (“I asked him, John, what did you take?”), the designer telephone given to him by David Bowie (“I have some of his possessions, like a plate that Picasso made especially for him”), Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves (“He wanted to meet me so I went to meet him in New Jersey and he signed them”), an Yves Saint-Laurent scarf (“He gave it to me in 1973), and a crystal ball, a gift from Salvador Dali (“He told me: ‘This is a very special piece for you, because it belonged to Leonardo Da Vinci’”).
“Are you enjoying yourselves?” the guide asks his guests.
The best U.S. president for Israel
He displays statuettes by Dori Shechtel Zanger, an Argentinian artist whose works are suffused with protest against the rule of the military junta in her country, but then immediately explains that he “doesn’t intend to get into politics.” But when Geller presents a cap signed by former U.S. President Donald Trump, he cannot restrain himself: “In my opinion he was the best president for the Land of Israel.”
Geller describes a series of tests he took in the CIA in which he proved that he has supernatural abilities, after which he started working for the U.S. intelligence agency ('Never mind what I did for them')
Geller is identified as an enthusiastic supporter of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He’s a friend, I’ve known him for 50 years. A few years ago when they did a documentary about me and we were in Jerusalem, I contacted Bibi and asked if we could come up to say shalom. He said yes, we entered [the prime minister’s residence on] Balfour, and he gave the film crew a survey about the country.” Other world leaders whose presence hovers over the museum space are former Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo (“We became very friendly ... he also gave me a Mexican passport”) and former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (“I bent a teaspoon in his kitchen in Tokyo”).
He says he met the longtime dictator of Libya under less friendly circumstances. “In 2009 Gadhafi comes to New York to speak at the UN and no hotel agrees to rent him a room,” Geller recalls. “In the end he found a piece of property in a nearby city, and built a kind of tent encampment there. I knew someone in Gadhafi’s organization who offered to let me meet him. I arrive and he comes out toward me in a brown keffiyeh and starts shouting at me. ‘You Israelis! I want to remind your people what you did to us!’ Two months pass, and I get a package from a Libyan diplomat – a model plane.”
From this combination of events Geller says he concluded that the Libyan leader saw him as a conduit for expressing his anger about the downing of the Libyan Airlines plane in 1973 by the Israel Air Force, after the aircraft penetrated Israeli air space. “At least that’s how I interpret it,” he says now.
To Geller’s credit it should be said that occasionally he uses the flattering stage he has created here to reveal defects in his personality and to conduct a kind of public soul-searching. Which is what he did while explaining the ostentatiously display of the '76 Cadillac (“I bought it on an ego trip, I wanted to brag about my fame, what an idiot I was”), mentioning the prolonged lawsuit he conducted against the Nintendo company after claiming it had created a ludicrous Pokemon card based on his image (“That was a mistake; children saw me as someone fighting a brand that they love”), and even regarding his relationship with Michael Jackson.
“I introduced him to Martin Bashir,” says Geller, referring to the British journalist-director who in 2002 convinced Jackson to be the subject of a documentary about the megastar’s work on behalf of sick children. One particularly memorable scene in the film, “Living With Michael Jackson,” shows Jackson holding the hand of a child, who puts his head on the singer’s shoulder. (In the end the movie dealt mainly with Jackson’s strange relations with children whom he was supporting.)
Geller: “Everyone turned to me to get access to Michael, but Bashir won me over when he took out a personal letter [that he'd gotten] from Princess Diana. That’s the same Bashir who recently resigned from the BBC after it turned out that he got the famous interview with Diana through manipulations. In any case, he manipulated me too. I knew that Michael really loved Diana, so I brought them together. This film marks the beginning of Michael’s downfall. That’s the disaster that I caused him.”
Regarding evidence to the effect that Jackson had apparently committed indecent acts involving children, Geller vehemently asserts that “Michael was innocent.” He also has clear proof of that, in his opinion. “When we worked on the cover of his last album, Michael asked me whether I could help him stop eating junk food. I had studied hypnosis. We’re sitting in a dark studio, I get Michael into a deep trance, and then I do something unethical and ask him: ‘Michael, have you ever touched a child improperly?’ And he says, ‘No, I would never do such a thing.’
“And I ask: So why did you pay the boy millions of dollars (in a compromise agreement, following a lawsuit)? And he said, ‘Because I couldn’t bear it any longer.’ Those answers, when he was totally neutralized in terms of his defense mechanisms, were conclusive proof to me that he didn’t do anything.”
Even the documentary “Leaving Neverland” (2019), based on detailed testimonies by men who claimed that Jackson had sexually abused them in their childhood, didn’t make Geller doubt his friend’s innocence: “I don’t believe that. I knew him. But I don’t deny that he faced insane opposition. I even shouted at him once, “Michael, you can’t talk about things like that on TV – what do you mean, you sleep with children?”
Geller moves among the exhibits at a feverish pace, and it is evident that some of his group need a break. He allows them to sit on the chairs in the center of the space, but a few minutes later urges them to get up. “Let’s go, we haven’t even done half.”
Spies and aliens
A talented storyteller, Geller knows when not to talk too much, in order to increase the drama. He describes a series of tests he took in the CIA in which he proved that he has supernatural abilities, after which he started working for the U.S. intelligence agency (“Never mind what I did for them”), and tells a fantastic story, backed by a blurry photo, about a meeting with Dr. Wernher Von Braun, the infamous Nazi rocket scientist who, after World War II was recruited by the United States and joined NASA.
He says the two met at one of the space agency’s facilities (“Never mind which one”), where he demonstrated his talents when he bent the scientist’s ring. Later Braun led him to a safe and asked him to describe its contents. “I told him ‘This is not from here,’” recalls Geller in a whisper. “We then get into the limousine, arrive at a gray building without signs and a soldier opens the door for us. We pass through the corridor, open a huge iron door with the word ‘freezers’ on it, and then” – Geller pauses – “I can’t tell you what I saw inside there.”
The visitors are all fired up. “Aliens!” says one. “You said it,” replies Geller, with an expression of satisfaction. “In my opinion there’s a small group of people – [Barack] Obama, Trump, Bibi – who know that there are things happening outside planet Earth. They’re concealing it. Meanwhile ...” – the audience is fascinated – “it’s interesting, isn’t it?”
Geller sought similar confirmation during the private tour he conducted for me a week earlier. “Are you enjoying yourself?” he asked several times, adding, “Fascinating, isn’t it?” Between our two encounters he flooded me with numerous documents and pictures that support his stories or added information to them. Among other things he sent a video clip in which U.S. astronaut Edgar Mitchell showers him with praise; evidence of connections with the CIA; an excited reaction from his neighbor Ilana Goor after she visited Geller’s museum; and additional documentation of ordinary visitors who were favorably impressed as well (Geller himself interviewed them).
Geller’s constant need for external approbation reveals another, more human aspect of his whole museum project, which at first glance looks like no more than a reflection of its founder’s larger-than-life personality. The same desire could explain his decision to conduct all the tours himself. He needs raw, unmediated excitement and won’t be satisfied with scrawled compliments in the visitors’ book. He himself confirms this thesis, in part.
“I have a desire to remain in the public’s awareness. It’s not ego, I simply don’t want to leave the current where I’ve been for 55 years. The way Tom Cruise wouldn’t feel complete if they stop offering him films. You don’t want to feel left out.”
Occasionally, in order to preserve his place in people’s awareness, Geller mobilizes his forces for some international or diplomatic assignment. Last March he announced that he would extricate the container ship Ever Given, which got stuck in the Suez Canal – by mind power, of course. When the ship was freed, he quickly gave himself credit.
Sometimes his efforts are less successful. For example when he announced that he would prevent Brexit or bring about peace between Israel and Syria. But Geller does not regret his incorrect prophecies: “Nonsense, it’s fantastic PR. Look, it’s a fact that you’re talking about it. I never had a PR person behind me. I’m a natural PR person. Do you really think that it harms me that the prediction didn’t come true? Even better – that way I appear in the newspaper twice.”
Geller may sometimes reveal the mechanisms behind his visions and admits that their purpose is mainly to strengthen the brand, but he still insists that he is gifted with supernatural powers. That’s what differentiates him from other mentalists and illusionists. Israeli-born Lior Suchard, for example, who was the winner of “The Successor” TV show and is becoming known as one of the world’s most successful such artists, does not claim supernatural powers, but presents himself as someone who combines elements of psychology, intuition, interpretation of body language and guided imagery.
Geller is not in that place: “That’s the difference between me and the others. To this day I claim that what I do is real. You don’t want to believe it? Turn off the TV. During a recent performance, near the end, someone shouted behind me: ‘Isn’t it time for you to admit that what you do is magic and mentalism?’ And I said: ‘Are you crazy? Do you think that now, at my age, I’m going to say such a thing?’”
The group tour is coming to an end, and Geller shows a clip of the song “My Way” featuring pictures of him alongside celebrities. Before we scatter he breaks a teaspoon for them, and reveals another one stuck behind his arm. It bends when Geller bends his elbow, revealing his well-developed biceps. Almost 75 and he still feels a need to make a muscle.
The museum empties out and Geller tells me he isn’t pinning any hopes on this article, adding, “Haaretz never wrote a good word about me.” Although he wouldn’t oppose a “semi-positive” piece – it’s clear to him that to expect more than that would be too much – even a critical text will serve as fuel for his well-oiled marketing apparatus.
“Once, when they would publish slanderous articles about me, I wouldn’t read them, I would only measure their size,” he explains. “I made a calculation that if an advertising page for Volvo costs $45,000, then the same page in which they dissed me is worth $45,000 that I received as a gift. Human memory is very short. The main thing is that they’re still talking about me.”