Magic made the man Harry Houdini

October 30, 1994|By Tim Warren

One of Baltimore's most famous spectacles took place April )) 26, 1916, outside the old Sun building on Charles Street. On that date, Houdini, the world-famous magician and escape artist, was suspended 50 feet in the air, upside-down in a straitjacket. The week before, in Washington, he had escaped from a similar situation as a crowd estimated at 100,000 gathered in the streets.

In Baltimore, more than 50,000 people were on hand. In about 2 1/2 minutes, he was out of the jacket, to the delight of the huge crowd.

There was scarcely a more intriguing figure in the early 20th century than Harry Houdini, as this new biography makes clear. The Hungarian-born son of a rabbi, Erlich Pratt Weiss grew up in Appleton, Wis. He scuffled around America for years as a magician and escape artist before his first big break -- slipping off a pair of Scotland Yard's handcuffs in 1899. He was 25 years old.

TC Houdini quickly became a sensation in Europe and America. By the end of his life, he had escaped from an assortment of locks, boxes, straitjackets and specially constructed containers. He broke out of the most elaborate set of manacles and chains -- later in life, he would do so after being dumped into a river. He escaped from large milk cans full of water.

As Ms. Brandon, an English author of several books of nonfiction, tells it, Houdini's life became an unending race to attempt more dangerous stunts: "He showed, time after time and in increasingly hair-raising ways, that death had no more power over him than the mere shackles which he regularly threw off within minutes if not seconds."

But still he feared death: "He was so haunted by it, the consciousness of it filled his thoughts so entirely, that his life was tolerable only if he could assure himself, time after time that he could defeat it."

Of course, Houdini couldn't always be successful. He died in a bizarre way, succumbing to appendicitis a few days after a college student, at the challenge of Houdini, punched the magician in the stomach. Houdini died on Halloween, 1926. He was 52.

Houdini's life has been chronicled several times, including a couple of biographies by Baltimore author and magician Milbourne Christopher. Much of the writing about Houdini has tended toward the breathlessly admiring, but not Ms. Brandon's book. She finds him fascinating but deeply flawed.

There's no question that Houdini was one strange cookie. He was a mass of neuroses and psychoses.

He was not close to his aloof father but was extraordinarily devoted to his mother (he made repeated references to being reunited with her in heaven). He had no children, but he and his wife concocted a fantasy of a "dream child," even assigning it a room in their New York mansion.

He was a legendary self-aggrandizer and self-promoter, and yet a very private man who swore associates to unquestioning loyalty. Add his fear of death, and his obsessiveness with both becoming world-famous and demolishing any potential rivals -- he would even dress up in disguise at seances to expose phony mediums -- and you have someone who was seldom happy, even during his greatest success.

Ms. Brandon examines Houdini with clinical detachment, and while I didn't want her to be as adulatory as previous biographers, I did feel she went out of her way not to be impressed. I also found some of her insights into Houdini's character and motivation were excellent, but her constant psychoanalysis would wear.

One intriguing chapter on the connections between Judaism and magic was concluded with the unfortunate observation that "Houdini had returned to his earliest roots. What was Moses but a travelling showman who, by sheer force of personality and skill of presentation, managed to lead his troupe forth from the unpleasant certainties of Egypt to a life on the road, replete with discomforts, uncertainties, and hope?" I can see it now: "Appearing nitely -- the Magnificent Moses, parting waters and writing on stone tablets."

Mr. Warren is a copy editor at The Sun.

Title: The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini"

Author: Ruth Brandon

Publisher: Random House

Length, price: 355 pages, $25

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