DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN: The Mystery of Houdini by Raymund Fitzsimons

DEATH AND THE MAGICIAN: The Mystery of Houdini

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What a show! Magician, escape artist, greatest star in vaudeville, scourge of mediums! Legend, symbol, myth. . . in a spirited essayistic bio not clogged with details available elsewhere. Death-haunted Harry Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest in 1874, and in the States in his mid-teens became enamored of top French magician Robert-Houdin; he went pro himself at 17 as Houdini, first sharing billing with two successive brothers, then with his young wife Bess; at last he became a solo, with Bess as his assistant in his first two big acts: ""Metamorphosis,"" a trunk substitution trick in which--within seconds--he exchanged places with his wife manacled in a sealed bag in a bound trunk; and ""Handcuff Escape,"" in which he offered to escape from any manacles or handcuffs brought by the audience. For seven years--while obsessively mastering the secrets of locksmiths--he toured inconspicuously on inferior circuits; then a manager told him he was too shy and needed publicity. Houdini instantly began going into police stations, stripping naked and offering to escape from any constraint--awakening in newspaper readers ""long-buried, elemental feelings. . . for a deed that belonged to the age of mythological heroes. . . ."" A trip to Europe made him the rage as he defied fiendish manacles and straitjackets (one took him 90 minutes of torture to slip out of, by brute strength, and haunted him the rest of his life); ambition swelling, he built a dazzling repertoire of dramatic escapes that moved audiences to sobs of relief, standing ovations, rapturous approval. At the heart of his greatest tricks was the theme of death and resurrection; one failed trick had him buried alive without a box (the sheer weight of the dirt was too much). Formally uneducated, he bought a townhouse with 23 rooms, then filled them to bursting with books and magic artifacts. Contemptuous of frauds, he exposed mediums mercilessly after his mother died--but entered into a pact with his wife that he would speak to her from the grave using a codeword; this led to a sorry debacle with spiritualist Arthur Ford who seemed to have brought Harry back. . . . A familiar story told with economy and verve.

Pub Date: March 26th, 1981
Publisher: Atheneum