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Great escapes – ‘The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini’

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“The secret of showmanship consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.” – Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini.

It’s a name that even now, almost a century after his death, remains familiar to the vast majority of Americans. A cultural sensation during the early part of the 20th century, Houdini captured the popular imagination in a way that few ever have or ever will.

Magician. Escape artist. Skeptic. Houdini was all these things, but those things were far from all that was Houdini. What is it about this man, this self-made myth, that continues to resonate with people to this very day?

This is the question that Joe Posnanski tackles with his new book “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” (Avid Reader Press, $28). It’s a look at the man himself, yes, but it is also a look at the people who have been influenced by their passion for Houdini. It’s a biography that examines its subject both directly and indirectly, and while the details of Houdini’s life are fascinating in and of themselves, they are rendered all the more fascinating when juxtaposed against some of the many people who have had their lives changed by their own Houdini-related journeys.

Think about it – how many people have ever been such a ubiquitous presence that their very name became a part of the vernacular? You’ve almost certainly done it yourself, if you’ve witnessed some sort of unlikely or unexpected escape – you’ve called someone “Houdini” or noted that they “pulled a Houdini.” So powerful is the gravitational pull surrounding the man and the legend he built around himself that he remains part of our consciousness to this day.

The biographical details – such as they are – are all here, but it doesn’t take long for us to realize just how far from straightforward this all is. He was born Erich Weiss, a Hungarian immigrant who moved around a fair amount in his childhood, following his rabbi father’s livelihood. But even that seemingly easy-to-confirm bit of info involved painstaking research and scholarship to confirm, because the man who would become Houdini was far more interested in building the story that he wanted to tell rather than resigning himself to the tale that was ostensibly true.

The malleability of truth is a key component of magic, so it’s no surprise that Houdini would embrace it. But no one ever paired that malleability with a passion for self-promotion, a desperate desire for fame and an absolute refusal to ever be beaten. THAT was Harry Houdini. And that unique collection of circumstances is why he became the most famous magician to ever live.

Posnanski does a wonderful job bringing Houdini’s story together. We get bits and pieces of his childhood. We learn about his early forays into show business, both solo and with his wife Bess. It wasn’t just magic either – they did a comedy act, for instance. They even had quite a lucrative run working as spiritualists – a gig that left such a bad taste in Houdini’s mouth that he would use his eventual fame as a platform to help debunk the practice.

And of course – the escapes. The illusions. The grand performances all over the globe. The handcuff challenges. The straightjackets. The milk can escapes and the water-filled glass cases. The masterful magical magnificence that captured the world’s imagination.

But we also learn about Houdini through some of the people who have been inspired by him. It’s here where Posnanski really shines, these conversations with those whose love of magic was born when they learned of the great Houdini. People like David Copperfield, a magician whose wealth and fame likely outstrip Houdini, yet whose cultural presence will never approach that of the legendary figure. People like Patrick Culliton and John Cox, self-appointed historians who have devoted significant parts of their lives to sifting through the myriad fictions to unearth the facts. So many people whose lives were deeply and permanently impacted by the man himself. Posnanski gives us insight into them all, capturing all of it with his usual blend of gentle sentimentality and low-key sharp wit.

“The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini” is a different sort of biography, one willing to view its subject through a prismatic lens; diligent research and first-person reportage allows for a diverse set of perspectives on Houdini. Through conversations with scholars, we get as close to the truth of Houdini as anyone is ever likely to get – his relentless self-promotion and unwillingness to let the facts get in the way of a good story ensure that there will always be the tiniest uncertainty. And much can be learned about a person’s legacy through those who celebrate their memory.

That’s a lot of what this book is really about – heroes. How they’re made and why some live on long after they’re gone. It’s about the nature of fame and the power of the unknown. It is about one man whose single-minded pursuit of success led him to dizzying heights. There are those who will argue that Houdini might not have been the most skilled magician even among his peers, but no one can deny that he is certainly the greatest.

In “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini,” Joe Posnanski has given us a unique look at a unique man, an iconic figure in American cultural history. In an irony that the man himself would almost certainly appreciate, even now, a century later, Houdini remains inescapable.

“What the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” – Harry Houdini

Last modified on Tuesday, 22 October 2019 09:33


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