Houdini The Career of Ehrich Weiss

by Kenneth Silverman [Reviewed by David Charvet]

Since his death in 1926, probably more biographies have been written about Harry Houdini than any other theatrical figure of the twentieth century. From the first effort in 1928 by Harold Kellock, up to the 1994 sensationalistic attempt by Ruth Brandon, all of these writings have been tainted, to a degree, by the author's prejudices for and against the subject.

Remarkably, in this latest book, Kenneth Silverman approached the man with an open mind, and as a result, has produced what is without doubt the definitive biography of the self-styled, "Elusive American."

Not content to simply repeat and re-hash stories in previous biographies, Silverman spent five years researching thousands of original sources: letters, diary entries, photographs, scrapbooks, newspaper articles, friends, relatives, collectors and museums around the world. Bit by bit he separated the facts (as much as one could) from the fiction surrounding Houdini.

Beginning without a Preface, Foreword or an Introduction; much like Houdini making a bridge jump, Silverman plunges right into the story. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Silverman's narrative style follows Houdini's life chronologically. Chapters are separated into defined blocks of time in Houdini's life. This, to me is the preferred way of writing a biography. Many writers who juxtapose times and places by constantly jumping forward and back make it difficult for the reader to understand what things motivated an individual to make certain choices and decisions in their life. Silverman simply lets the story unroll and by doing so, the reader better understands Houdini and Ehrich Weiss.

Perhaps "simply" is not an accurate appraisal. Writing this book had to be anything but simple. Like a fine magician, Silverman has made the difficult look easy. Houdini constantly hid and twisted aspects of his life, career and himself from his family, friends and the public. How Silverman has managed to tell the "real story" some 70 years after the fact is as remarkable as anything Houdini did in front of an audience.

Stepping away from previous biographies, Silverman does not try to wrap Houdini in any of the melodramatic sentimentality of Harold Kellock, the protective idolizing of Milbourne Christopher, or the muckraking and pseudo-psychological claptrap of Ruth Brandon. Instead, he lets Houdini speak for himself.

The wealth of first-hand quotations by Houdini; from diaries, letters and newspapers, is impressive. For the first time, readers will be able to understand how Houdini viewed himself - a view that was constantly changing as his career developed.

No matter what you have previously read about Houdini, you will find something new here. Oft-repeated legends have been more clearly and accurately defined or debunked through the use of primary sources. Even the story of the Montreal dressing room assault that supposedly led to his death is recounted for the first time in print by a man who was actually in the room when it happened. Evidence is also offered that Houdini was probably ill with appendicitis before the blows occurred.

The most sensational "new" revelation in the book is that Houdini carried on a love affair with Charmian London, widow of writer, Jack London. Silverman offers ample documentation of this cautious fling through first-hand entries in London's diaries. This is but one example of Silverman's outstanding scholarship and efforts to go beyond obvious magical sources to fully and truthfully research his subject. And he does not gloat over this revelation. He offers the facts only, with no sensational speculation or attempts at post-mortem psychoanalysis. Bravo.

Outside of these "personal secrets," Silverman has avoided revealing any of Houdini's professional secrets. Nor has he divulged the workings of any of the tricks or illusions described in the text. It is not "The master magician, unmasked, stands forth in all the hideous nakedness of historical proof " as Houdini had attempted in his own Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. Instead, Silverman shows again that the real secret was Houdini himself; not his tricks, picks or schtick.

The book features 111 photographs, many never-before published. I particularly enjoyed the shots from Houdini's 1925-26 full-evening show; which were "new" to these trained eyes.

Two appendices, one by Houdini's niece, Marie Blood, the other by Sidney Radner, also offer much personal insight. Historians will cringe when they read that Marie's father dumped original prints of all of Houdini's feature films in the trash. (Ordered to do so by the fire department because of the explosive cellulose nitrate film stock.) And that Sid Radner turned down brother Hardeen's offer of his Houdini films for the same fear.

The notes and sources used to compile this work are voluminous. So much so that they will be published in a separate, 180 page book, Notes to Houdini!!!, by Kaufman & Greenberg. This "book about a book" is limited to 500 copies. Available November 1, 1996 for $50. (Actually more than the biography that spawned it.) Proceeds from the Notes will benefit the Houdini Hospital Fund of the Society of American Magicians.

In conclusion, if you have any desire to know about Houdini, then Houdini!!! is the one book that you must read.

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Fundamentals of Magick

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