Houdini: Unveiling the real magician and escape artist

FRONT COVER of the lavish new “Houdini: Art and Magic.”Finding the real Houdini is harder today than it was when the escape artist was alive and regularly mystifying his fans. Amazon lists more than 100 books with Houdini in the title. TODAY, we are unveiling the very best you can find about the master magician.


Erik Weisz, who later became Ehrich Weiss and is known today as Harry Houdini, raced so far from his Jewish roots in Budapest, where he was born in 1874, that the world today scarcely remembers his immigrant roots. He was a death-defying escape artist—the man still glimpsed in eerie old photographs of a human figure suspended high above a crowded city street—or shackled until he was stooped over on a dock about to plunge into forbidding waters.

The new “Houdini: Art and Magic” from the Jewish Museum and Yale University Press reminds us is that there was no coincidence in Houdini’s use of objects like locks, chains, straightjackets, steamer trunks and large metal milk cans. These were objects known to the poor, immigrants and the oppressed around the world. His allure for millions of fans lay in one of his oft-repeated nicknames: World-Famous Self-Liberator.

This lavish new illustrated overview of Houdini’s life—and his legacy—is a joint project of museum curators, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Yale University Press. There’s also an associated traveling exhibition on Houdini that is designed, in part, to showcase his third-millennium impact on the fine arts. Here’s the bottom line on this gorgeous book: If you’re fascinated with Houdini, you’ll want it. (Plus, Amazon has the book on sale right now at a discount. In page after page, readers can peer into high-resolution family photos, pages of Houdini’s diaries, newspaper clippings, posters and movie stills from Houdini’s films. Houdini may not have been the greatest “magician” who ever lived, this book concludes. That’s because he was far more than a magician: “For people who felt imprisoned by poverty, prejudice, alienation, and tradition, Houdini was not just an entertainer. He was a symbol of escape.”


As a long-time Religion Writer for U.S. newspapers, Houdini wound up as a part of my “beat,” covering cross-cultural issues. Among other major themes in his career, Houdini also found time to debunk Spiritualists—so he wound up in the realm of religious diversity in several ways. For nearly 30 years, I have followed new Houdini books and film releases. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit now, we are publishing this recommended list—the best of the 100-plus offerings you’ll find today on Houdini. (Click on any title below to jump to the Amazon page, where most items are sold at a discount.)

The Last Greatest Magician in the World: Howard Thurston versus Houdini & the Battles of the American Wizards, released Feb. 3 2011. A mark of Houdini’s hold on audiences, more than 80 years after his death, is the appearance of his name on the front cover of Jim Steinmeyer’s engaging new biography of Houdini’s contemporary: magician Howard Thurston. The Houdini reference on Steinmeyer’s cover isn’t slight of hand. Houdini does, indeed, appear in the book and, yes, the two magicians were professional rivals. But this new book really is the story of Thurston’s life and career. Tarcher Penguin has lined up endorsements for this history from heavyweights like Neil Gaiman and the normally silent Teller of Penn and Teller. The latter endorsement speaks to Howard Thurston’s enormous influence on stage magicians to this day. For that reason, Steinmeyer argues that Thurston “won” his competition with Houdini. Of course, even the authors of the new illustrated life of Houdini (above) admit he wasn’t the greatest who ever lived at classic stage magic. Houdini was more than that. Still, if you’re curious about this strange realm of life—you’re sure to enjoy this new biography of Houdini’s colleague.

Houdini: The Movie Star (Three Disc Collection by Kino) Lots of Houdini movie clips are floating around on DVD these days. But this set from Kino International is the one to buy. After years of curating Houdini footage, Kino collected every scrap of film available as of 2007. At the time of his death, Houdini had launched an ambitious movie career. His six major productions included the weekly serial, “The Master Mystery,” full of cliffhangers that moviegoers would want to see resolved the next week. My own favorite is the 1922 feature, “Man from Beyond,” a suspense film with sci-fi and spiritual angles in which Houdini plays a man frozen in ice for 100 years. The boxed set also includes some actual newsreel clips of Houdini escapes.

In contrast, Houdini’s colleague Howard Thurston appeared in a single silent film in 1920, “Twisted Souls”—a feature so long forgotten that Steinmeyer doesn’t describe it in his biography. Thurston’s near misses with a career in motion pictures seem especially poignant toward the end of his life. Already in his 60s, not long before his death, Thurston agreed to tour the U.S. in a double billing of live-magic-and-a-movie for a national chain of movie theaters. But the tour nearly exhausted him and he could only be in one city at a time. What Houdini accomplished in Hollywood is startling by contrast. Among other innovations, Houdini realized that his future lay in appearing as a hero on movie screens—not performing tricks in front of them.

The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero. Among the standard biographies of Houdini, this page turner can be summed up in 3 words: Fun to read! At 600 pages, you’ll really get hooked on the exotic twists and turns of his life. Is this an authoritative biography? No. William Kalush is, indeed, a recognized expert in professional magic and its history. But he’s not an academic and his co-author here, Larry Sloman, is best known by his nickname “Ratso” and most famously co-authored “Private Parts” and “Miss America” with Howard Stern. So, there’s a good bit of tabloid journalism here as the pair spins Houdini’s life story. Among their claims: Maybe Houdini was a spy! Maybe he didn’t die from a bad appendix and a blow to the stomach, as everyone assumes. Maybe he was murdered by rivals who poisoned him! You’ll find all that in this volume. Of course, a “good read” is not a bad thing, but—when you get to the end and want to figure out where these guys got some of their details, you won’t find a footnote section between these covers. For sheer entertainment value, though, this is a great choice.

Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. You won’t find a better slate of scholarly credentials behind a Houdini biography. Historian Kenneth Silverman won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Cotton Mather in the 1980s, then turned to biographies of Edgar Allen Poe, Houdini and Samuel B. Morse. Silverman and the two co-authors of the more suspenseful “Secret Life” aren’t exactly friends. After their biography appeared, Kalush and Sloman became part of a campaign to exume Houdini’s body in 2007 to check for poison. The Washington Post smelled a bad pulicity stunt and helped to debunk the idea—partly by quoting Silverman. The Post story revealed that a public relations agency actually was involved in the exumation idea. Silverman’s comment nailed the lid on the coffin. The esteemed historian called Sloman’s and Kalush’s poisoning theory—“utter baloney.” As a result, Kalush and Sloman never managed to levitate Houdini. This is the biography I would recommend for serious reflection on Houdini’s life. It’s not a “page turner,” but it is a great choice if you enjoy digging into history—without a shovel.

Who Was Harry Houdini? For elementary-age kids, you can’t beat this “Who was …” series. Grosset and Dunlap produces this entertaining, inexpensive series of easy-to-read paperback biographies. The entire series also includes Albert Einstein, Hariet Tubman, Amelia Earhart, Thomas Jefferson, Walt Disney, Hellen Keller, Sacagawea and others. If you’re a family with various series of easy readers for the kids in your life, then this “Who was …” series is a great choice for your collection.

Houdini: The Handcuff King (Graphic Novel) For comic lovers of all ages, this graphic novel by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi is a gem. The duo carefully researched details surrounding a particularly spectacular escape in 1908 from handcuffs and chains while plunged in the freezing waters off Harvard Bridge in Cambridge, Mass. Within these nearly 100 pages, the suspense churns around that one event, including some dangerous last-minute glitches before Harry jumped into the river. Along the way, the story captures Houdini’s explosive energy and genius for innovations in media.

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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)

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