Houdini!!! The career of erich weiss by Ken Silverman

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii December, 1996)

The capital letters of that eponymous title, accompanied by no less than three exclamation marks, may seem hyperbolic at first blush. But if one wished to sum up the life of Erich Weiss in one word, there is assuredly no better phrase available, for a man who, in the author's encapsulating words, "knew no other dynamic than crescendo..."

Harry Houdini broke the boundaries of magic and became a cultural icon, literally a legend in his own time and time beyond. What the conjuring community must remember—and in fact, what is interesting to consider as one wades into this delightfully lucid and scholarly account of a life we magicians tend to think of as somehow belonging to us—is that in fact, it does not. Houdini was of us, but he is not ours. He was a man, but he is also a myth, and hence the arguments will never be settled, there will be no single verdict on his life—and there can be no definitive biography. As author Ken Silverman wisely notes in his introduction to the biography's companion volume of source materials, "Most biographers will tell you there's no such thing." But Mr. Silverman has presented us with a rational and reasonable story of the sometimes irrational life and often unreasonable nature of Harry Houdini née Erich Weiss.

Here we find all the many Houdinis we know, and either love, or love to hate, as the case may be.

Repelled or attracted—and sometimes both—we find Houdini, the young Jewish immigrant who denied his actual birthplace; the signed portrait, taken late in his life, that hangs near me as I write this is partly inscribed, "born April 6/1874 Appleton, Wisc." The boy who at 15 changed his name, the first indication of many to come that he not only envisioned success, but would pay any price to achieve it; was it he or his friend Jacob Hyman who invented that name that Harry would eventually wangle into the 1920 edition of Funk & Wagnall's dictionary? We find the young magician and his new bride, both 18, working at Huber's Dime Museum on 14th Street in New York City, featuring their version of the Substitution Trunk, dubbed "Metamorphosis;" the trick is still a staple of illusion acts throughout the world today, as is the Needle Swallowing a trademark routine of Teller's, the Vanishing Elephant of Siegfried and Roy's. The escape artist that no chain, handcuff, crate or jail could hold, who could keep audiences spellbound, waiting hours sometimes in rapt attention until he stepped forward, free, to their accolades; the patricidal author who "unmasked" his namesake, Robert-Houdin; the a ruthless competitor, one of whose mottos, provided on the opening page of the book, was "Do others or they will do you."; the momma's boy who could barely if ever recover from his mother's death; the fraud-buster who waged a war against spiritualist mediums, testifying before Congress, but who could not drag the wool from the eyes of world famous author and spiritualist dupe, Arthur Conan Doyle; the movie star who lost fortunes on his multiple film ventures; the aviator who, it seems, probably did deserve his sometimes debated claim to have been the first "successful" flyer in Australia; the magician who finally mounted a full evening show, the opening third being all magic, on the final tour of his life; the supreme physical specimen, whose physique and healthy lifestyle was emblematic of the era of Strenuosity, a century before our present-day obsessions with health and exercise; the living superman who regularly accomplished superhuman feats, but was done in at a tragically young age by appendicitis; less than three months before his death he would, in challenging the yogic claims of a touring Egyptian fakir, survive "underwater, soldered in an airtight coffin, for one hour and thirty-one minutes."

We know all these Houdinis, and yet there are more Houdinis still, some we have known and some the author introduces us to and some we no doubt are yet to know; and in virtually every case Mr. Silverman provides detail and background, context and nuance that lets us see our old acquaintance anew. On page 42 the author points out that Houdini lifted rope ties and similar elements of escape tricks out of Spiritualism into an entirely fresh context. "Had Houdini kept his escapes within the setting of Spiritualism, he might have lost his identity in the crowd of other mediumlike magicians of the time. But... he reoriented his escapes, breaking their connection with Spiritualism. Again and again he stressed to reporters that he worked by natural means... Casting escapes in a surprising new light, Houdini moved them from the world of Spiritualism to the contemporaneous religion of Strenuosity. ...as not only Houdini but millions of other Americans... began devoting themselves to rugged exercise." This kind of paradigm shift, a new context for already old art, was nothing less than a conceptual leap, and provides us with fresh insight into the phenomenal success that Houdini experienced in his time, and yet can seem mysterious to us now, especially if we try to judge him merely as magician or vaudevillian. One is induced to wonder if someone today were to effect an equivalently radical shift of context for contemporary mentalism, lifting it away from equivocating pseudoscientific fence-sitting and into the realm of the explicitly rational, would that art finally achieve the kind of breakthrough that Houdini achieved for escapes? But such musings aside, Mr. Silverman, by the close of the first of the five elegantly determined segments into which he divides his subject's life, presents us with a clear vision, clarified against a historian's sense of context, of time and place: "Houdini's unique performances, then, grew out of an unlikely fusion of the worlds of Spiritualism, conjuring, physical culture, and professional crime, combining features of the seance, the magic act, the muscle show, and the burglary."

Mr. Silverman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of four previous works, including biographies of Cotton Mather and Edgar Allan Poe. His credits also include his description as "a card-carrying member of the Society of American Magicians," but perhaps more to the point is the delightful photograph that comprise the rear dustjacket panel, namely the author at age fifteen, in formal dress, cane under one arm, and a display of multiplying pipes in the other hand. While I would have appreciated the addition of a current portrait, perhaps on a jacket flap, nevertheless the author's credentials are clearly established as impeccable on all fronts.

These experiences, along with a depth of scholarship that has never before been brought to bear on the life and times of Erich Weiss, serve the author well in enabling him to produce an exquisitely fresh look at ground that has been trodden and muddied by many before him. The only opinion the author offers concerning those predecessors may perhaps be elicited from this succinct but undeniable comment in the companion volume of source notes, concerning the variety of extant biographies of Arthur Conan Doyle: "The existing biographies of Doyle are little better than those of Houdini—naive, fanciful, trite, and undocumented." Previously, the best of Mr. Silverman's predecessors was probably Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, by amateur magician William Lindsay Gresham (who also wrote the wonderful melodrama, Nightmare Alley). From there, we have been trapped by the sometimes charming but hardly reliable Kellock volume; the unabashed hero-worship of the Christopher text; the Sturm und Drang musings of Meyer and Brandon; and assorted coffee-table volumes that tend to be mostly pleasing to the eye, albeit offering occasional tidbits of fact or insight. But Mr. Silverman approaches his task with no agenda save a devoted search for the facts. Every aspect of old controversies are examined such that the tiniest detail is wrung from the dusty morass of time passed: Houdini's claim to his Australian aviation record, which now appears to have been reasonably made; the ghost-writing collaboration between Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft, about which the author has unearthed much new information; the notorious Margery investigations and the controversial folding ruler (concerning which, while the author draws no absolute conclusion, his relentless investigation provides the somewhat surprising but compellingly reasonable interpretation that Houdini had in fact simply caught the medium out, but the resourceful and quick-thinking Margery ad-libbed an excuse that haunts the case to this day); the backstage encounter with the student in Montreal who may have murdered Houdini with unexpected blows to the abdomen, but in which case the author speculates, after reconstructing events from the reports of eyewitnesses, that Houdini may well have already been suffering the effects of impending appendicitis—an infection, after all—prior to the supposedly deadly encounter.

So there are many new perspectives on old business, and the author wastes little time in his journey on potential derailments, such as the under-the-ice anecdote (ignored in the text and relegated to a footnote in the Notes volume); the Gary Gilmore and other McGuffinesque claims of illegitimate Houdini offspring (ignored entirely); or psychobabble ramblings (relegated to little more than a passing if highly questionable reference or two to Freudian "Oedipal" theory, and a couple of footnoted references in the Notes volume briefly mentioning the Bernard Meyer psychohistory). And then, beyond the old business, there is new business here as well. The bombshell is dropped on page 226: Houdini "was involved in a love affair with Charmian London, Jack's widow." To the author's credit, there is no hyperbole—not even so much as an exclamation point or three—accompanying the news that the famously prudish Houdini in fact indisputably engaged in a number of trysts with the free-spirited widow of famed author Jack London. But Mr. Silverman's scholarly and adventurous pursuit of original sources (there is, for example, a mention in the Notes text of his visit to the home of Ira Davenport) somehow led him to the unpublished diaries of Ms. London, who recounts therein her love affair with her "Magic Lover" in what the author describes as "thirty or so telegraphically brief entries." Tantalizingly, many of the perhaps intimate details of their encounters seem to have been recorded in an as yet unbroken stenographic code, devised by her uncle.

The story is imparted through subdued prose that flows with deceptively simple ease. Yet at moments one can feel the author succumb, if cautiously, to a slight quickening of the pulse that Houdini is bound to induce in any objective, faintly imaginative reader. Here is an excerpt of a spellbinding description of Houdini's suspended straitjacket escape, where "He cannot be seen for the dun-colored sea of bobbing straw hats, caps, and derbies, a shoulder-to-shoulder human horde... thousands jam the balconies of surrounding office building, lean from open windows, roost on ledges and rooftops straining for a look... The crowd is so tightly squeezed together that it seems to move as one, an agitated amorphous blob." The author concludes the lively segment with original perspective and a distinct vision: "The impersonal newspaper offices or bank building from which he dangled made a stage on which he could be seen for blocks, playing out a personal drama before a corporate background that he transformed into a spellbinding civic theater of thrills."

Think what you will of Harry Houdini, it cannot be denied that the man's achievements were bigger than life. The section concerning the "open challenges"—Houdini's repeated offers and attempts to escape from just about anything—not only borders on the unbelievable, but on the terrifying as well. And equally wondrous was the response these riveting adventures elicited from the audience: "The press spoke repeatedly of his turning audiences into a 'yelling, cheering mob,' of spectators becoming 'frenzied' or driven to 'a pitch of excitement bordering on hysteria.'" It is little wonder, when all is said and done, that by the time Houdini was in his mid-forties, "his escapes had earned him a degree of fame beyond which celebrity, the adoration of the moment, passes into mythology, celebrity etherealized by historical memory."

"Over the years (Houdini) had gotten to know the leading variety performers of the period... Even in the face of such competition, his friend Will Rogers... called him 'the greatest showman of our time by far.' ... Billboard went perhaps even further in rating him 'The greatest showman on earth.'"—Ken Silverman, HOUDINI!!!

It is easy to deride Houdini's abundant flaws; an ego that drives him—when "Asked to supply the entry on 'Conjuring' for a supplement to the Encyclopedia Britannica... he thought it sufficient to mention no other magician but himself.." But of course, we can see such megalomania matched in the occasional contemporary trickster who refuses to acknowledge the existence of all others. We can demean his motives for his pursuit of mediums like Margery, but we must pause to consider Mr. Silverman's newly minted observation that "More than Houdini had known or could ever have supposed, he and Margery in their intense encounter had been covert companions... not rivals and enemies really but secret sharers, allies against a world of suckers and swank." (Although importantly, they did not share their respective moralities.) We must acknowledge in looking back over his life that "His career was an icon of modernity, inseparable from skyscrapers, headlines, biplanes, radio, automobile tires, submarines—not in their threatening, dark aspect but in their sleek power, which he fed on... On fire to make his individuality count and last, to impress his color and energy on the void, he achieved afterlife as a fabulous archetypal being..." We must mourn such a death, preceding by only two years the discovery of the penicillin that might have saved him. And we can offer at very least a rueful nod, if not a celebratory affirmation, when we remember his words one night in London, in 1908, after a genuinely torturous challenge escape, and "When the wildly rooting audience demanded a speech he merely said, 'When there is no more left of Houdini you may think of me as having done something to entertain you.'" That much cannot be disputed. There was only one HOUDINI!!!, and he is, for a time, thoroughly captured within the pages of this timeless story.

6 - 1/2" X 9-1/2" two-piece doth hardcover, multicolor dustjacket; 465 pages; 64 pages of black-and-white photographs in two sections; 1996; Publisher: Harper Collins