Long finding inspiration in the artist behind the famous Rider-Waite Tarot deck, Susan Wands (writer, producer, actress and Tarot enthusiast) shares the story of Pamela Colman Smith and how she came to co-create the deck that many of us know and love.
Order Susan’s book Magician and Fool on Amazon.
You’re listening to the Biddy Tarot Podcast, and this is Episode 117: The Secret Life of Pamela Colman Smith with Susan Wands.
Welcome to the Biddy Tarot Podcast, where you'll learn how to connect more deeply with your intuition and live an empowered and enlightened life with the Tarot cards as your guide.
Listen as Brigit and her guests share their very best tips and strategies to help you read Tarot with confidence. Now, here is your host, Brigit Esselmont.
BRIGIT: Hello and welcome back to the Biddy Tarot Podcast. As always, it’s such a joy to be able to talk with you about Tarot.
Today, I have a really special guest. Her name is Susan Wands. Susan is a writer, producer and actress that has written plays, independent films and historical novels. She’s also a Tarot reader and Tarot enthusiast. A graduate of University of Washington, her career as an actress has spanned from Broadway to television to regional theatres throughout the United States, and she finds special inspiration in the lives of women artists, especially Pamela Colman Smith, as she created what’s now known as the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.
She has a new book called Magician and Fool, and it’s the first book in a series based on the life of the previously unknown artist of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which is, of course, Pamela Colman Smith.
Now, in this interview with Susan, we talk a little bit about Pamela Colman Smith and why she was kind of wrapped up in the Tarot, how she got involved, and also a little bit about why she doesn’t have her name in the deck. I think you’ll be as fascinated as I was to understand a little bit more about the times that were happening then.
And we also talk about how we take something like the Tarot, which is so steeped in history and historic connections, and how do we bring that into the modern world in a way that respects and honours the history as well?
Now, I do have to say our internet connection wasn’t too good during this interview, so there will be times where the sound isn’t the best quality. I ask you, though, please stick through it because what Susan has to share today is really powerful, and she’s such a wonderful storyteller. So, when it does get a little bit crackly, just hang in there and keep listening because I’m sure you're going to enjoy this interview.
Without much further ado, let me welcome Susan Wands.
THE SECRET LIFE OF PAMELA COLMAN SMITH WITH SUSAN WANDS
BRIGIT: Welcome, Susan Wands. It’s such a pleasure to have you here on the Biddy Tarot Podcast. How are you doing tonight?
SUSAN: I’m doing great! Thank you so much for having me on your show, Brigit.
BRIGIT: Oh, it’s my pleasure. And I have to say: What a great name for someone who loves Tarot as much as you do to have “Susan Wands.”
SUSAN: Well, it was a bit of a torment growing up, as you can imagine, because you don’t know quite what to do with it. My Grandmother Wands is Scottish. She grew up in upstate New York, but she was somewhat psychic. She loved to have a go at the Ouija board and all that sort of stuff, but I have an identical twin sister, and she and I grew up a lot at my grandparents’ farm with Goldie Wands, and she would tell the most wonderfully eerie, occult-based ghost stories about the Wands family and what was happening. I think we got our love of the occult and things from the other side from her.
BRIGIT: Oh, how fabulous! I love it. Tell me a little bit more about your own journey with Tarot. And how did you start to play with the Tarot cards and then bring them into your life even more so?
SUSAN: Well, my twin sister, Cynthia, actually reminded me just recently that when I was a teenager, I had a blue cloth-covered book of black-and-white drawings, which must have been Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot cards. Now, I have no idea what happened to this book, but she remembers that, at 13, 14, 15, I was sketching in the colours of these Tarot cards.
I completely forgot about it, but when I moved to New York as a young person, I had always been fascinated with the Rider-Waite deck, and I had had my own cards read at a restaurant here in New York City, in the Greenwich Village, and the Tarot reader told me that I was supposed to do something with Tarot cards, not just read them but to bring them out into the world. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about.
I was reading cards for people on the weekends, and sometimes I would do them for a party or a bar mitzvah or a wedding shower or something, but I never thought I was supposed to be doing anything more with that until when one of my friends had bought me a deck of the cards, Pamela’s biography was in this little brochure that came with it, and I was completely obsessed with finding out about who Pamela Colman Smith was, why her name wasn’t on the cards, why the cards weren’t called the “Pamela Colman Smith” cards, why they were called “Rider-Waite.”
I must have carried this little paper brochure in my purse for about three or four years. I just felt like I wanted to carry her story with me. About eight years ago, I had done a primary rough sketch of a play about Pamela called Magician and Fool, and Stuart Kaplan of U.S. Games, who owns the patent and copyright to the cards, very kindly came down from Stanford on my invitation to see it. He thought it was OK.
It wasn’t the best we thought we could do with it, and I really said a play was too small for Pamela’s life because her life is so huge and so interesting that I thought, I’m going to write a series of books about her and who were the inspirations and the characters for each one of the Major Arcana. Who was the Magician? Who was the Fool? Who in her lifetime was the Devil to her?
I took a lot of writing classes and went through a lot of rough drafts of it. I had a lot of wonderful editors and copyeditors and line editors and developmental editors, and after about eight years, this past year, I found a publisher in England, in Manchester, called Eye to Eye Publishing. The first book in the series, Magician and Fool, was published in October of this year. That’s the long story of it!
BRIGIT: Fabulous. Well, congratulations on the publishing of your first book. It sounds like it will be one of many, so that’s very exciting. Tell me a little bit more about what you have discovered around Pamela and her involvement in the deck and why she hasn’t been featured. I’m so curious!
SUSAN: I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that she was approached by Waite of the Golden Dawn. He wanted to have these flashcard Tarot cards to show the Golden Dawn that he was a mover and doer, too. He was primarily looking at Pamela as a work-for-hire. If you read his book, you can see that some of his descriptions of the cards, especially in the Minors, have nothing to do with what Pamela designed.
He sort of gave her marching papers about how to design these cards, but Pamela worked in a different world. She went to Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, where she got some formal art training, but she never completed the courses there.
The same thing with the Golden Dawn. She studied the Golden Dawn in Level 1, but she never graduated the developmental Degree 1 studies because Pamela was an amazing person.
She was born in London, lived in Manchester, grew up in Jamaica, went to Brooklyn. She assimilated all these different art forms from her childhood onwards: Jamaican fairy tales, Japanese art, theatre posters, touring with the Lyceum Theatre—what makes a good picture?
Pamela, in addition to being clairvoyant and having second sight and having synaesthesia, where her brain crosshatched and had different relations with her senses…. She could, supposedly, hear music and then see it and feel it. She felt colours. She just was an amazingly textured person, so for her to bring these Tarot cards to life was such an amazing combination of her life story.
One of her first jobs was the Anansi folk tales that she did from Jamaica, and that she had published before she was 20. She had her first art show in Fifth Avenue with Stieglitz before she was 20. She toured with Sir Henry Irving and Dame Ellen Terry, and she designed sets and wallpaper and book plates and costumes. She was just amazing at what her prodigious artistic talent did.
The fact that Waite got her to design these Tarot cards was catching lightning in a bottle because she was the perfect person to understand what a simple, dramatic form can convey without words, and I think that’s why her deck of cards has sold over 100 million copies in 20 different countries. You don’t need to know English to look at her cards to understand what she’s trying to convey. They’re really the same and completely different because they touch the primal archetypes of what we look for in all the great religions and all the great symbols. She really was able to incorporate all of them in her cards.
BRIGIT: Yep. And I often say with other readers that it’s amazing that these 78 cards feel like the Book of Life, and it’s amazing that so much of what we experience in our lifetimes has been captured by these cards. I love hearing your take of how Pamela has been such an important part of that.
I’m curious, then: Why do you think Waite was in a position where he was looking just for work-for-hire? And why might there have been a disconnect in terms of, perhaps, balanced or equal credit for the cards?
SUSAN: I think that Waite did not find the respect that he was looking for in the Golden Dawn, so as he was sort of trying to show this group that wasn’t quite respecting him, he wanted to make sure with all of his other writings that he had ownership of these cards.
The cards were first published by [inaudible [00:11:06] & Son, and they didn’t sell very well, so then they went to another publisher named Rider, so that’s why they were called the Rider-Waite cards.
Now, Pamela, her contribution to the cards were done in this wonderfully sly way with her signature because her signature, when you first look at it… When I was first looking at it, I thought it was Egyptian, but in studying her art background, I realised that when she went to Pratt, she studied Japanese art, and one of the things that the professor there that was extremely influential with her, Arthur Wesley Dow, wanted each one of the students to understand Japanese wood blocking, and the sigils that they did for the Golden Dawn when they would have their saying and their personal motto and this and that, their sigil, their initials were very personal.
But Pamela did this very intriguing thing where she stacked her letters in a very Japanese style, and she put this dot. Now, in England, it’s called a “full-stop,” and in America, we call it a “period.” They mean basically the same thing. There is just a slight difference in the Oxford Dictionary, as opposed to the American Dictionary, about what that dot means, but I think, in so many ways, Brigit, that that dot in Pamela’s initials is Pamela’s way of saying, “I have completed. This is my full sentence. I’m completing it. It’s a full-stop.” The Latin word periódus means “complete sentence,” so I think that that’s Pamela’s way of claiming her artwork, even if the deck is not named after her.
BRIGIT: Yes, beautiful. I don’t know, I’m just feeling like, “Yes, more power to you, Pamela!” because I imagine, in that time, it wasn’t necessarily a balanced female/male kind of setting. Do you think that also played a role that female artists weren’t being respected in general? Or do think it was something else?
SUSAN: That’s a very good point, Brigit. I think that women in Victorian/Edwardian times, there were still issues about women voting, women owning property, women having a bank account. Pamela was [inaudible [00:13:16]. She was negotiating these terms herself, and she wasn’t brilliant at money keeping, so it was very easy to tell a woman, “Listen, we’re just getting your artwork. We’re naming it. This is just a job.”
In fact, Pamela herself, when she [inaudible [00:13:35], looking for more money for her artwork to be sold, “I’ve just done a big job for very little cash.” So, she knew that her effort into the job was a lot more than what she was paid, but still she did it full out, but as [inaudible [00:13:49] for the times, she wasn’t about to get equal billing with this. Unfortunately, I think she was… I don’t want to say [inaudible [00:13:57] because there are many things about Pamela that are not a victim, but she was a creature of her times where she would not have been given equal billing for this.
BRIGIT: That’s interesting, yes. You also mentioned about some of the cards and “Where did the Magician play in her life?” What have you discovered? What are some of the stories that you’ve discovered about the cards and Pamela’s connection to those?
SUSAN: Well, I just love the fact that Pamela came from a theatrical background and that Bram Stoker was such a big part of Pamela’s life. She called Bram Stoker her “Uncle Brammy,” and in some ways, you can look at the story of Dracula as being a Tarot story. Jonathan Harker is the Fool, and Helsing is the Magician. Mina is the Empress. The Lovers are Lucy and her partner.
But I think that the way that Pamela came to design the Tarot cards and her distinct style is a combination of theatre poster, which she had done for her mother’s cousin, William Gillette, when he was playing Sherlock Holmes, and the Japanese style that she learned at Pratt, which was primary lines in the beginning, four primary colours, and then fine lines in the back, without necessarily a vanishing point.
She had the stage that the characters of the cards are set on, so they’re enacting the story and the history of these cards, and she’s brought with them all the symbols that she could that would signify, like an actor in a play, that the Magician would have been, maybe, Sir Henry Irving because his stance as the Magician is exactly like his posture as King Arthur in the posters for King Arthur at the Lyceum Theatre.
The Fool was very much William Terriss, who was the matinee idol of his day. He was the Arrol Flynn. He was a handsome Don Juan, and he was robust and always jumping off things. He jumped off cliffs. He jumped off bridges to save people. He was a swashbuckler, and when Pamela was quite young and writing to her cousins, there were lots of letters going back and forth about how dashing all these actors were.
In my mind, Sir Henry Irving was the template for the Magician, and William Terriss was the Fool.
BRIGIT: Yep, fabulous. And I’m sort of curious… We have this beautiful appreciation of history and what was happening at that time. How can we now start to bring this into the modern times as well? Obviously, Pamela has put in a lot of thought and has been influenced by something from a long time ago, but how do we make this more modern now?
SUSAN: I think the thing that’s so universal about her cards is the saying that “What is specific is universal.” In the Magician card, the fact that the magician has the tools of his trade on his table, which is the Minor Arcana (swords, wands, stars, cups), and yet he’s still holding the lemniscate above his head with the [inaudible [00:17:03].
I think that today, to make Tarot reading relevant and current, one of the best ways to look at Tarot is the way that Mary Greer does it, especially the Smith-Waite cards. They tell you exactly how your body is responding to the images. Oftentimes, people are saying, “Well, I’m not sure what I’m getting,” and she would just say, “Well, what do you see in the card? Look at the Magician card and just tell me what you see.”
And people would say, “Well, I see a sword,” and of all the things on the table to see, that’s the thing that they would see, and Mary would say, “And what does that mean to you?”
It was fantastic, the way that she was saying the way that Tarot was so modern, it’s therapy. It’s a Rorschach test. It’s symbolism. Your brain is looking at these cards and responding like [inaudible [00:17:53] saying, “I’m responding to this happening in my life now.”
And the same with the Fool. When someone would be looking at the Fool card, she would say, “So, you see the Fool. What is the Fool doing? What is it?”
And they would say, “Well, he’s jumping off the cliff,” or “He’s falling off the cliff.”
And the thing that was so brilliant about the way that she had people do their own interpretations is that your body gets to respond to the images, and that’s universal, and it’s never-ending. It’s just the best way to do the cards, I think.
BRIGIT: That’s the way that I love working with the Tarot, is from that more intuitive space and what stands out to you at this present time, and what’s the personal meaning that it has for you. I think where a lot of readers can sometimes get a bit tripped up is that they start to worry.
“Maybe I need to know what this traditional symbol really means, and maybe I’m getting it wrong if I see a lion and actually feel comforted,” versus scared or that sort of thing, so I’m really glad to hear from you, particularly given your appreciation of the history of Tarot, that being intuitive with the cards and leaning into what feels right for you personally, that’s linking up for you as well.
SUSAN: Oh, I do have to say that I have many [inaudible [00:19:08] that are studying Tarot for the first time, and the thing that’s so helpful for them is, especially—just to give a shout-out to your website—how you have the images of the cards there with very simple, succinct definitions of what these images are. When you're first starting out, you can really worry.
“Well, what does a [inaudible [00:19:15] mean with the four things in the corners? And why is there water everywhere?”
It can really take you away from what you’re responding to because you're so worried about the symbols, but I think if you just start off and learn what it means to you, that’s the best approach to do it.
BRIGIT: Yep, absolutely. Again, having such the appreciation for Pamela’s journey, do you think that would make Pamela proud if she was here in this lifetime? Do you think that’s what she intended for her cards to be used as?
SUSAN: You know, I have mixed feelings about it, Brigit, because just this summer, we were at the church where her remains were supposed to be, and we did a lovely ceremony where we all thanked her for her contribution to the world. We had so much to say to her.
And later that night when we were in the King Arthur Camelot Hotel in Tinitagel, we found out later on that she had actually been there with Sir Henry Irving, showing him her touring theatre, and they were actually in the bar, having drinks and all this stuff.
We were sort of freaking out to Pamela in this séance-type thing with Linda Marsen, who has had a terrific sense of being able to contact her, and I think that Pamela’s to us was “Yes, the cards are very important to me,” and she was thrilled that we all know about them, but life is big, and it’s not just about the cards. Moving on with your life seems to be the bigger message, acting your life and taking action from what these cards were.
We sort of got a kick out of that because we were all, “We’re so thankful for your cards and everything you’ve done,” and she was like, “Drink in life and have a good time! That’s what we’re here for, the communion of this,” so that was fabulous.
BRIGIT: Yep. Oh, that’s wonderful, and what a beautiful way to connect with her spirit and to do that in such close proximity to where she had spent her time.
I’d love to hear a little bit more about The Magician and the Fool. What’s coming next with that? Does this mean that you're writing books all the way through the Major Arcana?
SUSAN: The first book is really Pamela as a young girl with her special gifts and realising she’s not your typical young, Edwardian lady. She’s got many intuitive things happening, many gifts, and she finds her prototype in Sir Henry Irving, the celebrity of his day, the Magician of this day, and Ellen Terry, who became a surrogate mother to her.
Actually, the journey that the cards are going to take are very union in that each card teaches Pamela something she needs to learn before she can go on to the next card. So, in some ways, this sequence of books is Pamela’s coming-of-age and learning how to claim her artwork as her own, even though there were others in the Golden Dawn going, “What? This young strange woman from Jamaica is designing the cards? She’s going to be the person who carries on the Tarot message through the ages?” So, there’s a little bit of a power play about “How can that be? This was not created so that she would be the interpreter of this whole Golden Dawn.”
Which, I think, Pamela’s cards have gone on beyond the Golden Dawn, and especially to women, she’s found a way to communicate through symbols about “What is essential to us in our relationship to ourselves and to others in the world?”
Magician and Fool is her relationship with her surrogate father, Sir Henry Irving, as the Magician, and the surrogate bon vivant lover/life force person, William Terriss, and that’s Magician and Fool.
In the High Priestess and Empress, it’s Florence Farr and Ellen Terry, and they’re two women who really shaped Pamela in terms of standing up for herself, and where did this signature initial come from, and how did she learn to do this. The women of that era were fantastic, so I’m thrilled to be writing about them. It’s been such a pleasure.
BRIGIT: Wonderful. When will the next book be released?
SUSAN: Well, we’re in the midst of edits now, so I’m going through the last parts to make sure that it adds up. I had a wonderful development editor, Jennifer [inaudible [00:23:44], who used to work at Harper-Collins, work with me on Magician and Fool, and we’ll be going through to make sure that we make the same kind of sense and journey for Pamela. It gets a little more otherworldly as it goes on. The other side comes through quite a bit more as the books go on, so I want to make sure that they’re rooted but not strangled by history.
BRIGIT: Yep, wonderful. I take it those are available on Amazon and in bookstores as well?
SUSAN: Yes. Magician and Fool is now available on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. High Priestess and Empress is in final edits, and I hope to have it out by the beginning of next year.
BRIGIT: Beautiful. I’m sure there will be many people that will just love reading the first book and then the many more to come, absolutely.
SUSAN: Thank you, Brigit.
BRIGIT: So, where can people find out more about you?
SUSAN: Well, I have a huge Facebook page dedicated to Magician and Fool with all sorts of photographs of everything from all the Golden Dawn chiefs, all of Pamela’s artwork, the Lyceum Theatre, so you can check it out at Magician and Fool, the Series on Facebook, or you can go to the website, MagicianAndFool.com.
BRIGIT: Fabulous. We’ll make sure that we also post those in the show notes.
Now, so that we can feel that this interview is complete, is there anything else that you would like to add?
SUSAN: Well, I would like to say, having just come from Kim Arnold’s U.K. Tarot Conference in London, that I am so pleased to see so many women that are taking on the role of Tarot reading. I think this is an essential part of our village that we’ve been missing for a long time. It’s the village of therapist and storyteller and confidante, and I think Tarot fills a huge need in our community about connection with each other. When we can’t say something, and the Lovers card comes up, so much is said between us. It was so thrilling to see so many women (and some men) come forward and learn this, or relearn, or fine-tune this art of Tarot. I think it’s going to be essential to moving forward with what’s happening in the world.
BRIGIT: Yeah, absolutely. Yes. it is beautiful, and I just love seeing the bigger movement, I think, that’s happening right now around Tarot and more people coming to use this tool to connect with their inner wisdom and intuition. It’s very, very powerful.
Excellent. Well, thank you so much for today, Susan. I’ve really enjoyed listening to you and hearing more about Pamela Colman Smith and her journey as well, so thank you so much.
SUSAN: You’re quite welcome, Brigit, and thank you for having me on your podcast.
BRIGIT: My pleasure.
BRIGIT: Well, there you have it. I hope you enjoyed that interview with Susan Wands. Now, if you want to get the transcript for the interview or the links to Susan’s website, go to BiddyTarot.com/btp117, and you’ll find all of the show notes there.
For now, I hope you have a fabulous week, and maybe you’ll start looking for little special somethings in your Tarot cards if you’ve got the special Pamela Colman Smith stamp on it, so enjoy, and I will check with you again next week. Bye for now!