by Kenneth Silverman ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1996
Silverman's dense account documents the famous magician's lifelong quest to ensure his reputation--and his metamorphosis from Budapest-born Ehrich Weiss into Harry Houdini, the greatest illusionist of his age. Other biographies of Houdini (often influenced by their subject's pliant versions of events) have sensationalized and distorted the story of his impoverished immigrant childhood, early dime-museum career, and ascent to fame as the ""Handcuff King"" and virtuoso escape artist. Silverman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Cotton Mather, approaches this familiar story with painstaking scrutiny and a bit of skepticism, focusing mainly on the magician's act and ego. In response to Houdini's claims of originality, Silverman demonstrates that there were many talented magicians working in the early 20th century. The escape-from-handcuffs act was, he demonstrates, very common. But Houdini transformed it, and the business of stage magic, with his genius for showmanship and relentless self-promotion. Houdini's talents as both performer and publicist get full recognition here: his carefully choreographed, athletic stage act and nimble patter, his open challenges to local locksmiths and staged jailbreaks (executed from the Midwest to Moscow), and finally, at the height of his career, such expensive illusions as making an elephant disappear. Houdini's interior life gets less coverage (although Silverman uncovers a brief affair with Jack London's widow). Houdini also dabbled less successfully as an aviator in Australia and as a movie star. In later life he found a second career as a debunker of mediums, attacking spiritualist frauds more aggressively than he had ever competed with rival magicians. Silverman manages the difficult trick of revealing many of Houdini's personal and professional secrets, penetrating to the reality behind many of the legends surrounding the man, while still leaving some of the mysteries concerning this ferociously driven figure intact.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1996
Page Count: 480
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996
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