HARRY HOUDINI, born Ehrich Weiss in 1874, was the leading figure of magic’s golden age. The son of an impoverished immigrant rabbi, he rose to become wealthy and almost unimaginably famous, an obsessive student of his art and its first global superstar. He was a short, strong, stocky, bowlegged man with small feet and a very large head. He learned sleight of hand but was never that good at it: Instead, he caught the world’s imagination with seemingly impossible escapes. In his life Houdini escaped from pretty much everything -- from ropes and handcuffs, sealed trunks and sacks, nailed packing cases, cells, stocks and pillories, coffins with the lids screwed on, coffins buried in tons of sand and a specially devised glass cell that was filled with water. He jumped off bridges in chains. He was buried alive. Straitjacketed, he dangled upside down from tall buildings, an image that continues to haunt us. He was, as Ricky Jay has noted, “the great American mystifier and publicity hound.”
Houdini’s stunts seem only the more amazing when you learn how he did them. Yes, he concealed lock picks beneath his tongue or in his scalp or up his anus, and he himself said, wonderfully, “Do not bite a piece of red hot iron unless you have a good set of teeth.” Be prepared, in other words. Still, the essence of Houdini’s originality lay in the risks he took. He did far more dangerous things than chewing hot metal, and people showed up by the thousands, wondering if he’d fail this time, gasping in awe when he succeeded yet again. The formula was stark, as he explained in his letters: “The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will result in sudden death.”
In “The Secret Life of Houdini,” a hefty new biography that is dense, detailed, hugely entertaining and slightly flaky, William Kalush and Larry Sloman add some bells and whistles to the Houdini myth. Kalush is an impresario in the weird and competitive world of professional magic, the executive director of the Conjuring Arts Research Center, a creator of stunts and the publisher of the journal Gibeciere. Sloman has collaborated on books with radio shock-jock Howard Stern and then with magician David Blaine.
Harold Kellock wrote the first Houdini biography in 1928 (soon after Houdini’s death) and based it largely on Houdini’s own writings and the recollections of Houdini’s wife, Beatrice. Since then there have been scores of others, notable among them William Lindsay Gresham’s “Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls,” published in 1959, and a 1996 book by New York University professor Kenneth Silverman. Gresham, author of the noir classic “Nightmare Alley,” wrote with vivid punch and a close understanding of the carnival world in which Houdini learned his craft and the spiritualist frauds he later exposed. Silverman addressed the life with just the right mixture of astonished enthusiasm and adroit scholarship in his “Houdini!!” So what do Kalush and Sloman bring to the party?
Certainly not a graceful style. At more than 600 pages, this book often groans with too much research and clumsy prose: “Life was not all roses for the handcuff king”; “Houdini finished out the rest of the year dividing his time between Germany and England”; “That June, when he played the Nottingham Empire, after his second show, he could have dined with any local celebrity....” A celebrity, in 1914, in the grim coal-black heart of the English Midlands? I doubt it.
Elsewhere Kalush and Sloman take the reader into Houdini’s thoughts and use the techniques of fiction. “We’ve made nothing up; in some cases we’ve just turned the facts into dialogue,” they write. This dubious biographical strategy sometimes makes for thrilling scenes, like the near-lethal night of Oct. 24, 1902, when, in Blackburn, another grim English industrial town, Houdini was pinioned and fettered with plugged locks by two men who understood only too well the way he generally used picks and muscle interaction to free himself. While the orchestra played, and the big crowd grew fretful, Houdini took nearly two hours to work himself loose:
“At ten minutes to twelve, with no warning, the cabinet’s curtain flew open and Houdini staggered out. He threw the last of his shackles to the floor of the stage as a loud shout went up. Houdini’s shirt had been torn from the cuff to the shoulder. His wrists and biceps were bleeding profusely. He could barely muster the strength to stand erect. He seemed semi-conscious. The vast audience stood up and cheered for fifteen straight minutes.... One reason why audiences identified so strongly with Houdini was that he was willing to go as far as it took to effect his escapes, scars be damned.”
That’s great stuff, spot on. Houdini’s performances appeal to our deepest dreams of escape and survival against the odds. Invincibility was part of his persona.
The book, then, is a mixed bag, often wooden, sometimes electric. Photographs and other illustrations are excellent, while the bibliographical notes appear not at the end of the text but online at www.conjuringarts.org. The authors are also particularly proud of the moment-by-moment timeline of Houdini’s life they’ve constructed with the help of a specially devised database.
“We like to think that this is the first Houdini biography of the new digital age,” Kalush and Sloman note. That claim smacks of hocus-pocus, as does the authors’ assertion that Houdini was a spy for the British and Americans during the run-up to World War I. Because Houdini routinely drummed up publicity by challenging local police to lock him up, Kalush and Sloman conjure the idea that Houdini worked hand-in-hand with the fuzz. In 1900, they argue, Houdini met William Melville, head of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, and became one of Melville’s agents, reporting back from Russia and Germany during his legendary first European tour.
The evidence here is a a few sketchy entries from Melville’s diary, such as “Guest of HH at Alhambra” and “No word yet from HH.” It’s possible that Houdini wrote to Melville about what he saw and whom he met, but whether this qualifies him as a spy is another matter, because those letters, if indeed they were written, haven’t been unearthed yet. It’s still a tantalizing possibility, of course.
More controversially, Kalush and Sloman propose that when Houdini died of a ruptured appendix on Halloween 1926, having recently received a series of savage blows in the belly, he was the victim of a spiritualist plot. In fact, they suggest, he was murdered. Well, will wonders never cease?
The evidence for this is at best merely circumstantial. Houdini took on the spiritualists because he understood so completely how they engineered their deceptions and saw he could make hay out of unmasking them. He would attend performances, throwing off his disguise at the critical juncture to proclaim: “I am Houdini and I expose you as ... A FRAUD!” The spiritualists hated him for it and wished him dead.
But does this mean they contrived to have him killed? Kalush and Sloman produce nothing concrete to support this, but it’s almost as if they needed the notion of conspiracy to spur them to write at their best. The story of Houdini’s final days is riveting, extraordinary and sad -- and has never been better told. You don’t have to buy into the proposition that he was done in by a bunch of seance scamsters or, as Kalush and Sloman say, in a phrase that has more than a hint of clunky Fu Manchu about it, by “the section of organized crime that was composed of fraudulent spirit mediums.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with whom Houdini enjoyed a friendship that famously turned sour, is cast as the villain of the piece, mourning the lost son he hoped his wife could summon -- he appears more as a deranged Moriarty here than a Sherlock Holmes. Neither of Doyle’s recent biographers, Martin Booth and Daniel Stashower, conclude that Doyle played a sinister hand in the matter, and I don’t either.
Doyle revered Houdini and was dazzled by him. Kalush and Sloman argue persuasively, though, that the spiritualist world of the 1920s was not only seriously wacky but seriously spooky too, and this last section of their book would make a superb movie. The authors may bring a measure of trickery and showmanship to the project, but love and obsession too. Houdini would have appreciated that. *