Book Review: 'Houdini: The Elusive American'

May 15, 2020

The king of escape Harry Houdini still fascinates us even though he died 94 years ago on Halloween this year. A new biography, “Houdini: The Elusive American,” takes a fresh look at his life and ambition to be remembered. 

The book, by Adam Begley, is part of the the Yale University Press book series Jewish Lives. Houdini, whose birth name was Ehrich Weiss, was the son of a German-speaking rabbi from Hungary who emigrated to small-town Appleton, Wisconsin, four years before his eldest child arrived from Budapest. Harry, however, told everyone he was born in Appleton. He told everyone a lot of untruths and different versions of the same apocryphal tales. He was, as Begley shows, “a compulsive exaggerator” and “a serial prevaricator” with an “insatiable hunger for attention.” A 5’4” handsome, muscular man with an outsized ego, Houdini was a mystery. No one knew what drove him to perform such masochistic acts.

Even Houdini’s once friend, then antagonist, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said Harry was “ by far and away the most curious and intriguing character” he had ever met. A man of “strange contrasts,” it was impossible to foresee or understand the “tangle of motives” that propelled him, said the creator of Sherlock Holmes, who nonetheless believed in Spiritualism. Fascination with Houdini has certainly fueled other biographers, filmmakers, fan-fiction novelists, some of whom still advance a conspiracy theory that Houdini died at the hands of Spiritualists who were furious at his crusade against them. 

Houdini saw their attempts to connect with the dead as cruel manipulations of the lonely and bereaved. Illusions, unlike his own, that hurt others. He was obsessed with his mother, caring about his long-time devoted wife whom he cheated on just once – with Jack London’s widow, then broke it off. But, as Begley writes, the world’s greatest escape artist never tried to escape from his heritage. In 1917, he joined Irving Berlin and Al Jolson in a war effort benefit called “Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association.” 

But how to explain his unceasing “raw ambition and relentless drive,” his fanatic quest for heroism and fame? At 17, taking the name of the great illusionist Robert-Houdin – Houdini adding the “i” because he was told it meant “like” – he later turned on Robert-Houdin, calling him a “fraud, a mere trickster.” Never a top-ranked magician or illusionist, Harry wanted to be the one and only great escape artist. Forever. In 1921, Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary gave him that wish by introducing the verb “to Houdinize” – meaning “to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds or the like, as by wriggling out."

Although Begley says his book doesn’t try to answer how Houdini did his tricks but why, he really doesn’t say why. His use of Houdini’s own words is minimal. And, as the title puts it, Houdini was elusive. He kept performing to massive crowds into his fifties, liberating himself from locks, chains, handcuffs, burial under six feet of dirt.

He did not, by the way, die, after challenging a fan to punch him in the abdomen, but of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix. Begley debunks this myth, along with others, though he can’t help musing on some psychoanalytical motives or recounting dubious anecdotes because they are simply too entertaining to pass up. It’s admirable though that he pushes no theory and just seems to marvel at the mystery of the man.