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The Life And Many Deaths Of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii February, 2005)


Was Harry Houdini the greatest magician of all time? This is probably among the top ten questions laymen ask of professional magicians. But the answer is problematic. One can no more make such a definitive statement about magic as about any other profession.

In Houdini's case, magicians who saw him perform have often been quick to deride his ability. Vernon, for example, often spoke of Houdini's lack of conjuring skills. But if fooling the public is at least one measure of a magician, then in some ways, Harry was and still is the greatest. Sixty-eight years beyond his death, Harry continues to effectively deceive not only magicians, not only the public at large, but in particular, researchers and historians who attempt to profile his life in depth. Houdini's latest success is with chronicler Ruth Brandon, whom Harry has fooled as effectively as he did any audience member of his own time.

Ms. Brandon is a British television and print journalist, the author of four volumes of fiction and six works of non-fiction. Her history of spiritualism, The Spiritualists (Prometheus, 1984) is a sometimes strident, occasionally mistaken, but nevertheless insightful and highly-readable work, and perhaps served to introduce her to Houdini, whose debunking of mediumistic fraud she discusses. In this biography of Houdini, the author embraces a form often referred to as "psychohistory," in which she attempts to shackle her subject to an analyst's couch— albeit an imaginary one—and to penetrate the mystery of not merely his magic, but of his mind. As ever, our intrepid hero escapes, although perhaps not entirely unscathed.

That he does escape is evident in the title of the book. When Ms. Brandon addresses the subject of Houdini's "life and Many Deaths," she speaks not entirely in the figurative sense. Her profile is built in large part upon the premise that Harry habitually risked his life throughout his career. What an utterly quaint notion. I asked some experts what they thought of Brandon's assumption. James "The Amazing" Randi has been a Houdini biographer as well as an escapologist himself, having performed Houdini's milk can escape and also having escaped from a strait-jacket while suspended from a crane over Niagara Falls. He says, "Houdini was too smart to take chances. For example, I have personally examined the milk can and the water torture cell, and it would have been impossible for Houdini to lose his life in either." Penn and Teller have built a formidable portion of their public profiles by seeming to take each other's lives into their hands, and more often than not, Teller is the victim, whether he is being run over by an 18-wheel tractor trailer (driven by Perm), apparently drowning in a tank of water, or currently performing that most legendary and occasionally fatal exploit, the bullet catch. In response to the claim that Houdini legitimately jeopardized his life on a regular basis,

Teller flatly states, "He would have been dead at twenty. You can't, night after night, go out and do something that actually has danger involved in it and not sooner or later get hurt. Tightrope walkers get hurt. They fall eventually. People who do crossbow acts get shot. I'm 45. I have all ten fingers, both eyes, and my face is more or less intact. And the reason is that I think we're as careful as Houdini was. Houdini survived to 52, and did not fall to one of his death-defying experiments. He fell more or less to vanity."

Houdini clearly took every professional precaution toward minimizing threats to himself, while exploiting every opportunity to maximize the impression, indeed the illusion, of danger. The ability to maintain these two parallel tracks lies at the heart of conjuring, and therein lay Houdini's creative genius. Certainly there were the exceptional occasions when danger came a little too close for comfort, as in the buried alive stunt. But were Houdini sincerely courting death, instead of merely flirting with it, he would have repeated his professional interment. Yet he abandoned it immediately upon realizing that it presented genuine risks. Houdini certainly could have capitalized on the aura of danger surrounding the bullet catch, and yet he heeded Kellar's advice and never attempted it. Are these the choices of a man entrapped by a compulsive suicide wish, as Ms. Brandon would have us believe?

And so, the author's fundamental hypothesis is a fallacy, but this is not the book's only defect. About Houdini's pursuit of mediumistic charlatanism, Ms. Brandon posits that Houdini was never truly a skeptic, and that he desperately hoped for a successful spiritualistic contact around every seance corner. She supports this belief with an excerpt from a letter Harry wrote to Arthur Conan Doyle, in which Houdini commented, after describing numerous spiritualistic frauds he had witnessed, that "...still I want to believe there is such a thing." But surely this is paltry support for the idea that Houdini was so internally conflicted that he wished for a reality other than the one he so passionately and rationally embraced. It is one thing to say that one has an open mind to other possibilities—any rationalist must always be open to the potential of new discovery. But it is quite another to suggest that this frustrated wish was the engine that drove Houdini's spiritualistic exploits. Harry was courting Doyle's friendship, and at the same time was clearly aware that Doyle was a passionate believer in spirit phenomena. Would Harry have chosen to merely insult and offend his friend directly? No, he would have stated his openmindedness in the hope that they could continue their amicable association—a hope that, as it turned out, was ultimately doomed. But one sentence in a letter laden with an obvious personal agenda cannot fairly characterize Houdini's true motives. There is no reason to second guess Harry's body of work on the subject, both in word and deed, nor to even assume that he needed to find a supernatural success in order to achieve his own personal peace of mind. It is one thing to acknowledge that Harry would have been delighted to have contacted his mother's spirit. That he continued to hope for success at every turn, that his misery was compounded by every "failure," is mere speculation, and beyond belief.

But Ms. Brandon appears not merely satisfied by speculation; she seems to delight in it. That Harry regularly endangered his own life, or that he was driven by the pressing need to find truth in spiritualism—these are far from the most fantastic claims of her book. On page 52 we learn that the author's "...own guess...is that Houdini may have been impotent." The evidence? Harry's "...effusive daily—sometimes thrice-daily—outpouring of love-declarations..." to his wife, along with the fact of his and Bess' childlessness.

And under the heading of speculation, there is much more. Apparently it makes sense for Jews to become magicians, because "Do not conjuring tricks of one sort or another lie at the very roots of Jewish history?" (No wonder gospel magic is so awful. It's practitioners are bucking a trend.) We learn that "Houdini's whole act could be seen as an expression of anger..." We are told that in escaping from jails, Houdini "...identified deeply with the prisoners who had languished, powerless, in those very places; and the worse the crime—the more it placed its perpetrator outside the bounds of society—the greater its fascination for Houdini." Apparently, anyone who has read or watched "The Silence of the Lambs" is operating from a deep-seated psychological dysfunction. And we find, repeated from psychiatrist Bernard Meyer's own ludicrous Houdini psychohistory, "Houdini; A Mind in Chains," (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1976) that "... the origin of Houdini's lifelong inability to sleep (was) brought on by the consciousness that his parents were waiting for the children to go to sleep before they could indulge in sex." It's a wonder any of us ever gets any sleep at all.

The Meyer book is not the only questionable source to which Ms. Brandon turns in search of guidance. Mere pages into "Life and Many Deaths," I found myself reminded of the work of Joseph Campbell, wherein symbology veers out of control; nothing is ever as it seems, everything means something else, and eventually everything can mean anything at all. Lo and behold, I turned to investigate Ms. Brandon's bibliography, where I discovered two of Mr. Campbell's titles, along with works by Erich Fromm and Carl Jung (apparently Dr. Meyer provides sufficient Freudian input so as to render Freud's inclusion in the bibliography unnecessary). As with Campbell, et al, Ms. Brandon's work is appealing and seductive at times, until one drags one's self out of the murky pages into the light of day, shakes off the cobwebs of mythological interpretation, and realizes that "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar"—and sometimes a magician is just trying to make a buck.

Which is a useful motivation to consider in examining Houdini's life. One of ten children born of a poor, immigrant family, Houdini set out to be that family's personal savior, and indeed he succeeded in this genuine pursuit of heroic ideals in the only way he knew how. Lacking formal education, he withstood the hardships of show business in the hope that its potential rewards would eventually be his, and his relentless pursuit of success— personal, professional, and financial—was eventually won. His feats became ever more spectacular because he needed to sell tickets. His stalking of seance trickery, endowed by expertise and moral perspective, was fueled as well by the need to find new ways to produce fresh publicity and fill more theater seats even as he was aging beyond bridge jumps and suspended straitjacket escapes. Perhaps some mysteries seem impenetrable because there is no mystery to solve.

We are repeatedly told that Houdini and his theatrical successes were essentially mysteries even to himself. This is perhaps the most glaring error of historical revisionism; namely, to judge the past by the standards and assumptions of the present—and to assume that the inhabitants of the past are invariably inarticulate dullards when compared to our clever, contemporary selves. Could it possibly be that Houdini, despite a lifetime of tapping directly into the well of public consciousness, was completely unaware of the currents which swept his audience up and carried him to the heights of success? The author quotes from a letter from Europe in which Houdini comments that in parts of Europe "...the Police are all Mighty, and I am the first man that has ever dared them, that is my success." Yet Ms. Brandon maintains that Harry was not sufficiently sophisticated, about himself or others or the world at large, to recognize the reasons for his own appeal. Could he have been entirely unaware of the provocative nature of his frequent public nudity? Could he have been blind to the mechanisms, which he consistently tripped so skillfully, that drove his audience to a worshipful frenzy? It is a far cry—but apparently not too far for Ms. Brandon— between autodidact and autistic savant.

Such questionable assumptions abound throughout. We are told that "At least one school of psychoanalytic thought sees birth, that earliest of all separations, as the causation of all the neuroses." The author fails to tell us her stand on this particular curriculum, but thanks for sharing. And once the author is on a roll, there is little stopping her. Consider this excerpt: "There were other possible delights. It seems probable that Houdini took a sexual pleasure in bondage. And near-asphyxiation can reputedly induce exquisite pleasure." Possible...probably...can reputedly. Well, perhaps, perchance...please, when do we get to the facts? These glaring flaws almost overwhelm the multitude of smaller errors that drift throughout Ms. Brandon's narrative. Despite the fact that I am given to understand that the author corrected a number of historical inaccuracies in this American edition after the book's earlier publication in England, errors still remain. Houdini never jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge (and a glance at the height of that structure would be enough to establish this fact). Houdini did not introduce the Water Torture Cell at Hammerstein's Roof Garden in New York City. On the subject of conjuring, the author identifies the classic trick of "The Miser's Dream" as something called "Money for Nothing." She repeatedly refers to the idea that Houdini's bow-legged stance was an essential aid to his escapology skills, as if there could never be a pigeon-toed escape artist. She describes the standard effect of the ashes developing writing on the arm with a method from a different, if related, effect. She even comments that "Some people are of the opinion that all magic as we know it today in America and Britain can be traced back to the Davenports, through Kellar and through J. N. Maskelyne..." This is so wacky that while I'm not surprised she left it unattributed, I am perhaps only surprised that she included it at all. The statement cries out for a source, because lacking same, it seems merely nutty. Certainly the author had the opportunity to consult with countless authorities, many of whom she names in the acknowledgements, who could have corrected these errors. That she failed to do so further calls her scholarship into question. She is not a conjuror, but as well, she is not a psychiatrist, and her lack of savvy in both these areas leaves very little solid ground upon which to construct her account.

As I write this, more than a dozen Houdini-related volumes sit on nearby shelves. Most are flawed in some if not many ways. The Meyer book is laughable in its basic theses, but there is interesting historical material revealed within. The Christopher book is openly worshipful, but endures as perhaps the most significant single text to date. The Kellock book is decidedly colored by Bess' agenda, but remains indelibly charming. And Harry's own written legacy, its sometimes tortured prose notwithstanding, still makes for fascinating reading.

Similarly, the book at hand offers some valuable insights. When the author turns to the historical context—as in her analysis of the evolution of the relationship between theatrical performers and audiences—the device, while often inelegantly executed, is nevertheless useful and intriguing. Other interesting subjects briefly touched upon include the birth of motion pictures, and a delightfully skeptical view of Old Testament magic. And when the author turns her eye to Bess and the subject of the Houdini marriage, she offers a cogent perspective that has heretofore been given little consideration, at least in the written record; this is the strongest element of the book. There is new historical material to be found here as well, especially from Houdini correspondence in private collections, along with material from the Library of Congress, that has not previously been widely circulated. There are some excellent photographs included. And in general, the book is entertaining, if lacking in cohesive structure. But the flaws are so pervasive, and touch upon so many subjects and aspects of the tale, that ultimately a long shadow of doubt is cast upon the entire work. The author begins with a premise, indeed a prejudice one suspects, and having laid that template upon a life, allows only that which fits the premise to poke through, obscuring all else.

"When the apparently trivial is endowed with the weight of emotion Houdini brought to his act, it is no longer trivial; and nor, therefore, is the performer."

It is not news, nor can one deny, that Houdini was inordinately attached to his mother; that he was possessed of an insufferably monstrous ego; that he was less than a master conjuror; or that he was a live entertainer who, bereft of humor or irony, could not begin to compete on an artistic level with the likes of Emil Jarrow and other stylish entertainers of his era. It would be easy, and perhaps interesting, to examine these limitations, free of the weight of psycho-babble and pseudo-analysis with which the author weighs down her account. There is even a hint of mean-spiritedness as she sets upon the task of taking her subject down a notch, with her repeated focus on Houdini's twisted syntax (apparently confusing grammatical skills with intelligence) or when she suggests that "...had he possessed an iota of creative imagination..." then perhaps his efforts in motion pictures would not have suffered from the (hardly undetectable) failings which eventually frustrated his film career. While the author wisely dismisses the oft-repeated suggestion that Houdini's penchant for publicity accounted entirely for his success, nevertheless, she seems to want to hold anyone and anything responsible for that success other than the man himself and his own abilities. But if Harry Houdini had not "possessed an iota of creative imagination," then I submit we would not be discussing him this very day.

Ruth Brandon provides excerpts from a letter in which Houdini recounts a verbal contest which he stumbled into, during the course of a performance, against the then world heavyweight boxing champion, Jess Willard. At the climax of the encounter, Houdini landed the final verbal blow by thundering, "I will be Harry Houdini when you are not the heavyweight champion of the world!" When this book is a minor footnote to history and legend, Harry Houdini will still be Harry Houdini.

6-1/2" x 9-1/2" hardcover, laminated dust jacket; 51 illustrations (mostly photographs); 1993; Publisher: Random House