“Houdini: The Elusive American” by Adam Begley, Yale University Press, 2020, 232 pages, $26
Erik Weisz is probably one of the most famous stage magicians in America. If his real name is unfamiliar, his stage name isn't: Harry Houdini.
“Houdini: The Elusive American” by Adam Begley, is a new biography of Houdini. It strips away the myths and mystery from Houdini’s life.
Begley shows perhaps Houdini’s greatest magic trick was making Erich Weisz disappear without disassociating himself from his past. Although born in Budapest, Houdini's autobiography claimed he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, an all-American boy. Yet in an age when anti-Semitism was common and while largely secular, he proudly declared himself the son of an immigrant rabbi.
The book traces Houdini’s early years as he evolved into the world’s most famous escape artist. Begley takes readers from Houdini’s first job (as an 8-year-old newspaper delivery boy) through his entry into the entertainment industry as stage magician Eric the Great and later Harry Houdini. Begley shows how Houdini met his bride, diminutive “Bess” Rahner and how as the Great Houdinis they did a joint act.
The Houdinis went through a series of transformations in their act during the early years in dime museums, vaudeville, burlesque and circus sideshows. They even spent a season doing mind-reading acts, something too dishonest for Houdini to feel comfortable with. Begley reveals Houdini as basically moral, even prudish, despite Houdini’s outlandish career.
Then Houdini settled into the role that gained him fame: an escape artist. Begley underscores how escaping served as a metaphor for him and his audiences. Escaping allowed Houdini to escape poverty and gain wealth. Audiences loved its message. Liberty could be achieved despite the weight of chains and locks.
Begley reveals Houdini as a man with many interests. Houdini briefly became an aviation pioneer, the first man to fly in Australia. He plunged into movie making. Houdini, despite a friendship with Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist, became a bane of spiritualism, enthusiastically unmasking fraudulent spiritualists — an anti-Conan Doyle.
“Houdini: The Elusive American” shows a man whose goal was to forever top his past achievements. While magic acts are passé today, Houdini remains fascinating.