City Paper is not for tourists
Without question the greatest magician in history, certainly the best-known, Houdini deserves nothing less than this perfectly complete biography, as thrilling and entertaining as his own career. Former boy magician and biographer of Cotton Mather and Edgar Allan Poe, Kenneth Silverman meets Houdini on his own terms, crafting a hardcover come-on that would have pleased the master: “American Self-Liberator,” purple letters declare under a riveting photograph of the magician nude but for the manacles around his wrists, neck, and ankles, “Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, World’s Handcuff King & Prison Breaker—Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini a Prisoner!!!” Six exclamation points on the dust jacket—just enough irony to tip a top hat to the subject while acknowledging that, while his power to fascinate remains deathless, the form his publicity took does not. Clever Silverman leaves all the hype on the surface; within the text, his sentences end with full stops.
A keen and sympathetic biographer, Silverman has ordered his material flawlessly. Without using cheap psychology (until later, where he will conjure up the memory of a primal scene), he rounds out the first chapter with a series of emotional and career arcs that connect father and middle son, the rabbi Samuel Weiss and Ehrich, self-titled “Prince of the Air” at only 9 years old. Planting undramatic details about Ehrich’s boyhood in three American cities—Appleton and Milwaukee, Wis., and New York City—and his father’s ego-shattering losing battle to keep his family clothed and fed, Silverman coalesces Ehrich and his father into a heartbreaking parallel as the failed Samuel trudges to New York bearing business cards that claim he ministers over the congregation “Adath Jeshurun” (no evidence of it exists), and Ehrich, returning after doing time in dime museums and medicine shows, manufactures for sale a variety of nickel magic tricks and how-to pamphlets, and extends offers to study at a nonexistent “Harry Houdini’s School of Magic.” Silverman quotes sourly from the rabbi’s card: “all religious Services a Specialty.”
Both father and son shaped careers, or the promise of careers, out of thin air, but where Samuel failed and died brokenhearted after 16 miserable years in America, Ehrich, reborn as Houdini, succeeded so spectacularly that his name is indelibly etched in history’s ledger. But his father’s penny-ante miseries and seemingly inexorable date with ruin haunted him. Determined never to let his father’s fate become his own, Houdini scrambled all his life to reach a point of safety for himself and his diminutive wife Bess from which they could never topple. Developing his small, lithe body and great reserves of determination, the 9-year-old trapeze artist grew from a gaunt runner and boxer into a powerful young man with hypnotic eyes, agile fingers, and some very peculiar abilities.
Silverman neatly pulls together the ordinary and extraordinary skeins of Houdini’s life: his adoption by vaudeville tycoons, managers, and the better circuses; his amassing of a loyal and versatile band of assistants; his relationship with Bess, who was also his stage partner; and the ongoing struggle this prim, undereducated man waged against loosening modern morals and his learned father’s shadow.
Throughout, Houdini expanded his vocabulary of tricks, from “geek effects” like swallowing and bringing up mice and billiard balls to sewing buttons onto his bare chest to what he called “hanky-panky stuff”—portable close-up effects—to the large-scale, elegant stage pieces audiences adored: the milk-can escape (Silverman includes a diagram of the device presented for patent), the packing-crate escape, the water-torture cell, walking through a brick wall, and “Metamorphosis,” a substitution trick for two that is still performed routinely by every leather-clad Vegas magician from Siegfried, Roy, and their cats to the utterly ridiculous husband-and-wife team, the Pendragons.
Metamorphosis was not the only cabinet mystery touring the States when Houdini first began performing it as a teenager. It existed in various crude forms starting in the mid-19th century—an American invention to the core. The blueprint for a concealed cabinet escape was drawn up by the Davenport brothers, William and Ira, who had the sullen countenances of bank robbers and one of the most influential magic/spiritualist acts on the market. Their ingenious mahogany “ghost house” allowed them to produce spirit manifestations while tied—as the audience witnessed before and after the horn-tooting and bell-ringing—securely inside.
But throughout his life and career, Houdini was a progressive; he longed for the new, and saw himself as the perfect vehicle for the age of machinery, technology, and strength. He was a shockingly modern hero, the first true 20th-century man, at ease with movie cameras and building cranes, bridges, steamships, airplanes (he owned and flew an irascible Voisin), motorcars, and hundreds of small-scale, single-duty tools.
While acknowledging his debt to the Davenports—Houdini’s monstrous ego always found room for those whose talents he admired—he left behind the dreamy 19th-century purpose to which they put the cabinet, substituting the indomitable, and more apt, cult of fitness. This was the time of “strongman” Sandow and health guru Bernarr McFadden, and Houdini, with his powerful body, was the perfect advertisement for the physical life. His escapes weren’t furtive and performed behind dark curtains, but strenuous, painful, and public.
After finding that he could more readily impress an audience by slipping out of restraints with the cabinet curtain open, Houdini let nothing stop nor hold him. He challenged audiences to truss him in their own handcuffs, thumb cuffs, leg irons, and lengths of chain; he strolled into local police stations as he toured and offered to be outfitted in their harshest restraints—later he performed this trick nude, having been searched, although not, ahem, thoroughly—and thrown in the pokey. As his fame grew, so did the resentment of scoffers and rivals. His methods were exposed, not always accurately, by grumblers, and with each challenge Houdini’s determination swelled—he’d discard his previous method, thereby unmasking the plethora of imitators (including his brother Theo, who performed under the name “Hardeen”) and introduce a refinement that confounded critics and fans alike. “No one knows how I do it,” he wrote in his diary. In the case of many of his effects, this is still true today.
Silverman honors the magician’s code, which prohibits the gentlemanly writer from exposing his subject’s stage secrets, but he does point out that until 1920 the uniform array of handcuffs was child’s play to pick with one of a very few keys—Houdini claimed that 25 could open every lock in the country. (William Lindsay Gresham’s slightly more purple Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls has no such qualms—it recounts Houdini’s method of secreting keys, lockpicks, files, and bolt cutters as well as his secret for walking through a brick wall.) Aware of the limits of simple manacle escapes, Houdini developed the breathtaking “layered” escapes of his later years, like the Underwater Box Escape, in which—trussed, cuffed, bagged, and stuffed into a chained trunk—he would be lowered by crane into chilly urban rivers, only to bob up forthwith and swim to shore. These were no more difficult to perform than an onstage wriggle out of locks—he was out of most of the restraints by the time the crane began to hoist; the toughest test was surviving the icy swim—but his brilliant use of misdirection and multiple manacles looked spectacular.
While never less than authoritative on the subject of Houdini’s magic, Silverman is positively in clover for the last third of the book, which recounts Houdini’s exasperating, tenacious, and usually hilarious battles against spiritualism. A solitary voice of sanity in a world mad for table-rapping and ectoplasm, Houdini labored with humor, reason, and subterfuge (he often attended séances in a disguise that made him look just like Alan Bennett) to unmask all manner of mediums as charlatans or, at best, misguided believers. Faux spiritualism was so out of hand that the kindly and gullible Arthur Conan Doyle called himself its “torch-bearer” and fell indiscriminately for photography hoaxes like the “Cottingly Fairies” and believed that a medium had successfully joined him in otherworldly conversation with his dead son Kingsley. Robert Gysel, a sort of anti-spiritualist cowboy spy, sent Houdini amused reports on the worst excesses of fraudulent hocus-pocus, including a Chicago “developing class” that asked the female students to draw a powerful paranormal substance from the male teacher’s penis by placing it in their mouths. “Can you beat this?” he scribbled on the report.
For all his hard work and good intentions—he hated to see the credulous lose their life savings to the crafty, and he had the showman’s horror of not giving good value—Houdini could not shake America from its love affair with the spirit world. He did end the career of many clever fakers, the most celebrated of whom was the pretty housewife “Margery,” who played Hannibal Lecter to Houdini’s Will Graham, matching him for sneaky resourcefulness in their long battle before being brought down.
Silverman’s book does justice to every aspect of Houdini’s life, the spectacle of it and the loneliness, temporarily alleviated by a halting love affair with Charmaine, Jack London’s widow. Silverman does not stint on the ugliness—Houdini’s gargantuan, insatiable ego, or the diary entries that make distasteful reference to the “Niggers and Cubans” moving into his old neighborhood. (Ironic, for an open, practicing Jew. Earlier he wrote of Germany, “It is awful what I hear from people who are Jew Haters and do not know that I am a Sheeney.”)
Methodically, Silverman examines Houdini’s death and the peculiar circumstances around it—the visiting student, the chance witnesses, the tired magician distractedly giving consent to his challenger, although he had never, as his attacker claimed, offered to take anyone’s hardest punch. Stories still circulate that one of Houdini’s tricks turned on him—traditionally the Water-Torture Cell (Teller of Penn & Teller still does that trick, and it’s a doozy), but Silverman’s measured treatment of the actual event is even scarier—the man who looked death in the eye was brought down by a well-spoken 22-year-old bully who caught the master hard in the gut as he was standing up.
But at 52 Houdini was weakening, his powers sapped by a wracking schedule, torturous tricks, and mental weariness. His strange death gave him a human mortality that did not challenge the invincibility of his genius, as a stage death would have. And it was fittingly unexpected—a surprise twist from a performer who never gave his public the same old show.CP