by Ruth Brandon ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 1, 1994
Houdini's fame is so great that he is more a metaphor for magical escape than a man, but Brandon's (The New Women and the Old Men, 1990) biography readably explores both his act's archetypal appeal and his obsessive personality. Born Ehrich Weiss in Hungary and raised in Wisconsin, Houdini mythologized his impoverished childhood and early career in countless interviews and publicity notices. Brandon penetrates his family's isolation in poverty, his father's failure as a rabbi in America, and his mother's Freudian bond with her favorite son. Married early, Houdini and his assistant-wife began with an unremarkable magic act, which they toured in circuses, vaudeville, and even a freak show. At the turn of the century his theatrical breakthrough came with concentrating and expanding on his original escape act -- from handcuffs -- and his promotional talents and showmanship brought him worldwide fame, with phenomenal success in autocratic Germany and Russia. He added constantly to his ingenious repertoire -- escaping from straitjackets, immersed in water, suspended in midair, or buried alive -- with an instinctual sense of the public appetite, while also writing books and dabbling in early movies and aviation. Preoccupied with spiritualism, he campaigned against fraudulent mediums and arranged experiments to make contact with his wife after his death. Invoking Freud and Jung, Brandon reveals Houdini's fixations on his mother (including impotence, in her guess), suicide, death, and the hereafter, and his act's fascination for his audience (though she ignores his influence on modern magicians like Penn and Teller). If her Houdini is shackled in Freudian complexes, though, his act was equally bound up in his obsessions. More trickily, Brandon adroitly deconstructs his secrets (available for years) but keeps the suspense and wonder intact. Apart from occasional slips into a corny carny-huckster style and insertions of irrelevant anecdotes of her own experiences, Brandon has written an entertaining biography of a legendary figure.
Pub Date: Oct. 1, 1994
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1994
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