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The Secrets of Houdini

Houdini: Art and Magic

an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York City, October 29, 2010–March 27, 2011; the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, April 28–September 11, 2011; the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, September 26, 2011–January 15, 2012;
and the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin, February 11–May 13, 2012.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Brooke Kamin Rapaport
The Jewish Museum/ Yale University Press, 261 pp., $39.95
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Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Harry Houdini performing with Jennie the elephant at the Hippodrome, New York City, 1918. In one of his most famous tricks, he made the elephant disappear: ‘To this day,’ Robert Gottlieb writes, ‘no one understands how he did it.’

Almost the first thing you see after entering the Houdini exhibition at the Jewish Museum is a large-screen film of Harry Houdini hanging by his ankles upside-down from a tall building, high over a sea of men in fedoras, and thrashing his way out of a straitjacket. It’s terrifying, just the way this exploit—which he repeated again and again—was meant to be. This is not a stage magician pulling rabbits out of hats or cards out of sleeves; it’s a death-defying demonstration of courage, showmanship, and psychopathology—three of the King of Handcuffs’ most conspicuous and enduring qualities.

No one ever doubted his courage, although many of his stage effects were far from hazardous—the “Metamorphosis,” for instance, the trick that made him famous, in which he and his partner changed their clothes and replaced each other in a locked trunk within three seconds. Other tricks, though, took not only ingenious preparation and years of practice but nerves of steel, culminating in the Chinese Water Torture act in which Houdini’s feet were locked into stocks and he was lowered by his ankles into a cell filled with water (there was a glass door through which the audience could see him, his head touching the floor, his hair swirling, his feet exposed through an opening at the top). A cabinet was drawn around the cell, and while the orchestra played “Asleep in the Deep,” his assistant standing by with an ax in case of an emergency (and to heighten the drama), he would effect his escape in a couple of minutes or even less. He had been perfecting his breath control for years. “Imagine yourself jammed head foremost in a cell filled with water…and your shoulders tightly lodged in this imprisonment,” he wrote. “I believe it is the climax of all my studies and labors.”

Kenneth Silverman, one of Houdini’s finest biographers—and there are many—describes him flinging himself, handcuffed or straitjacketed, or nailed into a packing case, from countless bridges. Again and again he devised perilous situations for himself to survive and his audience to gasp and shudder at. He understood the risks: “I’ll get in the water some day, my trick will fail, and then good night!”

As for his showmanship, it was supreme. From the start he had realized that how he presented his feats was as important—perhaps even more important—than the feats themselves. On stage he was soft-spoken and affable, and his looks were appealing, with his tightly curled dark hair, bright blue eyes, and boyish smile. (Tony Curtis was the perfect choice to play him in the far-from-accurate 1953 biopic.) Although he was very short, he was strongly masculine. He went about his routines in an almost matter-of-fact manner, but he very deliberately timed them for maximum effect:

If I go out too quickly, the audience would reason that the escape was easy. Every second that ticks by during my struggle builds up to the climax. When they are sure I am licked, that the box will have to be smashed open to give me air, then—and only then—do I appear…. The pent-up mass emotion explodes into an ovation.

Offstage, he was a relentless self- promoter (someone once described him as “a Barnum with only one side-show—himself”). When he arrived in a new city, he would present himself at police headquarters and challenge the chief to handcuff him, straitjacket him, and lock him up in an escape-proof cell, whereupon—to the excitement of alerted journalists and, through them, the public—he would free himself in moments. The leaps into rivers and canals, the danglings from tall buildings, were consummate coups of free publicity. A New York reporter wrote that one of these stunts was “the biggest free show ever seen in New York or anywhere else.” As many as 100,000 spectators lined the docks and gaped from windows.

His ego was notoriously rampant. He abhorred and ruthlessly attacked and undermined real or potential rivals. “I vehemently want to be first,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1910, when he was already at the very top of his profession. “For that I give all the thought, all the power that is in me…. When I can no longer, goodbye the joy of life for me!” And he was close to paranoid about secrecy and loyalty. All his assistants had to sign an oath:

I the undersigned do solemnly swear on my sacred honor as a man that as long as I live I shall never divulge the secret or secrets of Harry Houdini…. I further swear never to betray Houdini…. So help me God almighty and may he keep me steadfast.

This obsession with loyalty was not new. His wife, Bess, reports that almost immediately after their marriage, Harry took her and one of his brothers out onto a bridge at midnight, clasped their hands, and cried: “Beatrice, Dash, raise your hands to heaven and swear you will both be true to me. Never betray me in any way, so help you God!”

The pathological aspects of Houdini’s emotional landscape have frequently been recognized. Silverman, for instance, writes that, with their bondage and writhing, “many of Houdini’s…escapes smacked of torture and sadomasochistic display,” and he notes the many grisly articles and photographs Houdini pasted in his diary, among them “a photo of pirates decapitated by Chinese officials, the cutoff heads strewn on the ground like cabbages.”

What, moreover, are we to make of the almost obsessive allusions to nudity in the self-presentations of this quite prudish Central European Jew? Not only is he endlessly photographed semi-naked in chains, but—in city after city—he would strip himself “buck naked” to be examined and probed for keys or tools by the police from whose jail cells he was preparing to escape. What’s odd isn’t the occurrence of such incidents but the relish with which he recounts them.

On one of his first business cards he boasts of being STRIPPED STARK NAKED before performing. In Berlin he’s stripped naked in front of a crowd of three hundred antagonistic policemen. William Kalush and Larry Sloman report in their fascinating biography, The Secret Life of Houdini (2006), that in Russia, where he had to deal with the virulently anti-Semitic police,

four burly secret policemen spread-eagled him on an examining table…. “What a searching,” he later wrote a friend. “Three secret police, or what we would call spies, searched me one after the other, and talk about getting the finger, well I received it three times, but Mr. Russian Spy found nothing.”

Ehrich Weiss—Harry Houdini to be—was not born in Appleton, Wisconsin, as he originally claimed; he was born in Budapest, in 1874. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was probably never ordained as a rabbi as he claimed to have been; he had worked as a soap-maker in Budapest, had taken some law courses, and had some experience as a solicitor. In 1876 he emigrated to America, where two years later he was followed by the rest of the family—the mother, Cecilia, and their five boys, including the four-year-old Ehrich. Mayer Weiss did set up as a rabbi in Appleton, but his small congregation soon shriveled away—apart from anything else, although he lived until 1892 he never learned English. Things were so bad that the family had to move, but in Milwaukee their circumstances grew even more dire. By 1887, Mayer and Ehrich were in New York, living together in acute poverty, working at whatever menial jobs they could find.

No one at this point could possibly have predicted what Ehrich Weiss would become, yet he had blundered into the perfect apprenticeship. By the time he was seven, still in Appleton, he was already fascinated by traveling circuses and acrobats and contortionists—and by the local store that sold locks and keys. When he was nine, in Milwaukee, he was recruiting pals into a neighborhood circus, billing himself as “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.” From the start, he was athletic, a superb gymnast and eventually a star boxer and long-distance runner. (At eighteen he set the record for the run around Central Park.) He also avidly pursued a childhood interest in coin and card tricks, performing them at such venues as the Young Man’s Hebrew Association.

The turning point was a crucial encounter with a book—The Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, the most famous magician of the nineteenth century and the source of the Houdini stage name. It was this book that inflamed his love of magic and set him on his lifelong path.

In 1891, now seventeen, he formed a magic act called the Brothers Houdini, first with a friend, later with his brother Dash, eventually with his wife, Bess, and began a half-dozen years of exhausting, uncertain, meagerly paid work in dime museums and traveling-circus sideshows. But he was watching everything and learning from everyone. He befriended the circus freaks, one of whom, Kalush and Sloman tell us, was an armless man who

so impressed him with his ability to use his toes as fingers that Houdini practiced and practiced until his own toes developed prehensile abilities, which would be invaluable to him in later escape work. He learned the techniques of circus strongmen, fire-resisters, and sword-swallowers.

And from a member of a Japanese balancing act, he learned “how to seemingly swallow objects and then regurgitate them at will by hiding them in his gullet.”

Eventually the hard work paid off, when in 1899 a leading vaudeville impresario, manager of the Orpheum circuit, spotted the Houdinis and booked them around the country. They were in (comparative) clover. Vaudeville was the big time, and by the next year they were performing in England, and Harry was the King of Handcuffs.

Presumably to help erase in his own mind the humiliation of his father’s failed life, Houdini would repeatedly insist that he came from a long line of scholarly, writerly ancestors (“We have records for five generations that my direct fore-fathers were students and teachers of the Bible”), yet he himself had almost no schooling, and although he was to write a great deal—books on magic, biography, autobiography, short stories, screenplays, articles and books on Spiritualism, and thousands of letters—he never mastered spelling or punctuation, or editorial restraint.

Mayer Weiss, however, was not the central figure in Houdini’s psychic development. The person for whom he lived—whose happiness meant everything to him and whose approbation he desperately sought—was his mother, Cecilia. There are few recorded mother-son relationships as intense, as overwhelming, as theirs. One of the family legends is that on Ehrich’s twelfth birthday his father said to him, “Promise me, my boy, that after I am gone your dear Mother will never want for anything,” and he never stopped keeping his promise.

There were exaggerated gestures—pouring gold pieces into her apron; buying her a dress supposedly designed for Queen Victoria and taking her to Budapest to flaunt it; dedicating a book to her:

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New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Billy Rose Theatre Collection
A poster announcing Houdini’s water torture act, circa 1913

IN WORSHIPFUL HOMAGE
I
DEDICATE THIS BOOK
TO THE MEMORY OF MY
SAINTED MOTHER
IF GOD
IN HIS INFINITE WISDOM
EVER SENT AN ANGEL
UPON EARTH IN HUMAN FORM
IT WAS MY
MOTHER

Until she died, his first thought was always of her (he claimed to believe that Bess never resented this). When in 1907, in Rochester, he performed his first manacled jump into a canal, “he wanted [his mother] to see it…because ‘I thought something might happen.’” A psychoanalyst, Dr. Bernard Meyer, remarked on

the habit this grown man had of laying his head on his mother’s breast—in order to hear her heart beat. It was just one of those “little peculiarities,” Houdini noted, “that mean so much to a mother and son when they love each other as we did.”

He was working in Germany in 1913 (he was close to forty) when Cecilia suddenly died. When he heard the news, he fell in a faint, then canceled his tour and rushed back to New York, having ordered the family to postpone the funeral until he could get home—contrary, of course, to Jewish custom. Utterly devastated, he took months before he was able to get back to work, reporting to brother Dash (now himself a well-known magician known as “Hardeen”), “I…am hoping that eventually I will have my burning tears run dry, but know my Heart will ALWAYS ACHE FOR OUR DARLING MOTHER.”

Again and again he returned to her grave—a midnight pilgrimage on the anniversary of her death; on his birthday; on her birthday, which, Silverman tells us, “he honored by having the body of her mother disinterred and reburied near her, to ‘make her a birthday present.’” And in 1915 he wrote (and several times later confirmed), “It is my wish that all of my Darling Beloved Mother’s letters…shall be placed in a sort of black bag, and used as a pillow for my head in my coffin, and all to be buried with me.” And so it was done.

The only other important woman in his life was Bess herself, whom he met on a blind date when she was eighteen and he was twenty, and whom he married three weeks later—to the anger and distress of her German Catholic mother. (He didn’t have the money to woo her properly; she later cracked that she had “sold her virginity for an orange.”) Bess had been part of a singing act, but now she became his onstage assistant, her tiny, piquant look a happy balance to his somewhat chunky manliness.

What were they to each other? He was the official boss, she the caregiver, yet although this arrangement was carried to extremes, it contained its own ambivalences. According to her account, through the thirty-three years of their married life she had to wash his ears every day (he didn’t know how) and steal his underwear every night to make certain he wore fresh linen in the morning. In other words, she infantilized him. He once noted that his idea of comfort was to be sitting in an armchair in his library and “hearing Mrs. Houdini call up ‘Young man your lunch is ready.’” But as Silverman tells us, peculiar clippings about marriage that he had culled from various sources suggest a different dynamic: “Hubby’s Right to Spank Wife Is Upheld by Court”; “Hitched Wife to Plow; Gets 30-day sentence.”

The Houdinis never had children, and in The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini (1993), Ruth Brandon, always a stimulating biographer, proposes that Houdini may have been impotent. That seems unlikely, however, given that many of the little notes with which he showered Bess throughout the day imply physical intimacy. (From his diaries: “Bess has been very sweet lately; hope she keeps it up.” Then two weeks later, “When I get home, she is sore, and is sore for the night.” This certainly sounds like sexual withholding.) After his death, Brandon tell us, Bess let it be known that “Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father, Mayer Samuel,” and for years went on keeping her posted on “Mayer Samuel’s progress. The letters stopped only when this ‘son’ became president of the United States.”

At a 1924 Senate hearing about fortune-tellers and mediums, after his character had been attacked by hostile witnesses, he called Bess to the stand:

Houdini: One of the witnesses said I was a brute and that I was vile and I was crazy…. Outside my great mother, Mrs. Houdini has been my greatest friend. Have I shown traces of being crazy, unless it was about you?
Mrs. Houdini: No.
Houdini: Am I brutal to you, or vile?
Mrs. Houdini: No.
Houdini: Am I a good boy?
Mrs. Houdini: Yes.
Houdini: Thank you, Mrs. Houdini.

For the five years following his big success in England, Houdini performed more in Europe than at home. His fame escalated—in fact, it was never to diminish. Famous trick followed famous trick, the most impressive, possibly, his making an elephant disappear from the floor of the huge Hippodrome theater in New York. (To this day, no one understands how he did it, whereas we have hints about his less phenomenal tricks: tiny picks embedded in the thick callouses of his soles to help open locks; weakened panels in the wooden containers inside of which he was habitually confined.)

And his fame came not only from his stage performances. In 1910 he became fascinated by the recent invention of the airplane, learned how to fly one, bought a plane, and took it to Australia, determined to become the first person to fly there. (“I want to be first. I vehemently want to be first.”) He succeeded—with immense publicity, of course.

Then, in 1919, he embarked on a movie career with a fifteen-episode serial called The Master Mystery (it features an evil robot). Another serial was followed by three features: Terror Island, The Man from Beyond, and Haldane of the Secret Service. (Their heroes all sported his own initials: Heath Haldane, Harry Harper, Howard Hillary.) It would be hard to exaggerate how dreadful an actor Houdini was—blank, rigid, dull, and not very photogenic. The Man from Beyond has a touch of originality, though: the hero has been frozen in the ice for a hundred years. But the melodrama that follows his unfreezing is standard stuff, and Haldane is considerably worse. The critics caught on, the public caught on, and the company Houdini had founded to make and distribute his films quickly tanked. His movie career had lasted four years.

However, he had had fun in California, hobnobbing with stars like Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson, who gave him an autographed photograph. (“To Mr. Houdini, Please show me some of your tricks.”) California also produced a friendship between the Houdinis and Jack London and his wife, Charmian, with whom, after Jack died, Houdini did or didn’t have the one serious fling of his life. Charmian’s diary tracks the affair: One visit “stirred me to the deeps”; according to her, Houdini told her, “Now I know how kings have given kingdoms for a woman. You are gorgeous—you are wonderful. I love you.” Whatever happened between them, it didn’t last long.

Whereas his movies do Houdini a disservice (not that anyone watches them), the poster art that he commissioned and displayed throughout his career is startling and vital. These posters are among the highlights of the Jewish Museum exhibition, along with a straitjacket that looks like a sculpture of medieval armor and an unnerving replica of the Chinese Water Torture Cell. The photographs, too, are arresting. But the curators are especially invested in showing how a number of contemporary artists have riffed on Houdini’s famous persona, and these works are far less interesting than the curators seem to believe they are. My favorite is an installation comprised of half a dozen bewildered pigeons in an enclosed glass room, complete with pigeon droppings.

The last several years of Houdini’s life were dominated by his increasingly fierce assault on the mediums who were ubiquitous in post–World War I America, fastening on naive widows and mothers hoping to be in touch with their lost husbands and sons. In his early days on the circus circuit Houdini had some lighthearted involvement with this kind of thing, but had quickly decided it was distasteful and pernicious.

Now he became a crusader, and the harder the mediums fought back, the harder he harassed them, pursuing them in the press, in the courts, and from the stage. It became a vendetta. He attended scores of séances incognito, and by 1925, had put together a band of investigators (“my own secret service department”), made up primarily of women posing as widows, the chief of whom was, according to Kalush and Sloman,

ordained six separate times as a full-fledged spiritualist reverend with the right to perform marriages, baptize infants, and bury the dead. It took her as little as twenty minutes and five dollars to obtain her certification.

What made this travesty possible was the confusion between what the mediums were up to and a vague “religion” known as Spiritualism that was accorded some of the privileges religions receive in America. Houdini was always careful to make the distinction, assuring the public that he was respectful of the true Spiritualists and only interested in denouncing those he saw as phony magicians whose tricks he could readily expose. Yet he would write in the New York Sun, “I have never seen or heard anything that could convince me that there is a possibility of communication with the loved ones who have gone beyond,” and as the crusade intensified, he crowed: “I drove out the fakes in California and I intend to drive them out of Massachusetts.”

This last reference was to his most sensational and longest-lasting investigation of a medium—a cause célèbre. Mina Crandon, spirit name “Margery,” was pretty, clever (she was reportedly an excellent cellist), highly seductive, and married to a prominent Boston surgeon who taught at Harvard Medical School, and she did not take money to conduct her séances, in some of which she appeared naked and ejected ectoplasm, presumably from her vagina. When Scientific American offered a prize to someone who could prove real psychic powers, she was the preferred candidate, and for two years the battle between believers and skeptics raged, consuming much of Houdini’s time and emotional energy and triggering endless yards of newspaper coverage. Eventually Margery was exposed.

It was this experience that turned Houdini into a full-time anti-spiritualist, not only writing almost obsessively on the subject but signing on for cross-country lecture tours denouncing the fakery of the mediums—becoming, in other words, a pedagogue, a role psychologically important to him. Having had no education, he was a passionate autodidact, and indeed more and more of his later life was devoted to his immense library of books, journals, art, and memorabilia relating to magic; he had been collecting compulsively for decades and employed a full-time librarian. After Houdini’s death, the collection went to the Library of Congress.

Even more unlikely than the Margery story was the tragicomic arc of Houdini’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which began in 1920 on a high note of mutual respect and affection. Doyle was perhaps the world’s most famous supporter of spiritualism—a man almost dementedly convinced not only of communication between the dead and the living but the willfully gullible victim of such obvious hoaxes as a photograph purportedly of four little fairies floating around a garden. It turned out that two teenage girls had taken some snaps of a nine-year-old niece and perpetrated this fraud as a joke. Doyle became a public laughingstock—headlines ran from “Poor Sherlock Holmes” to “Hopelessly Crazy?”—but he maintained his belief in the fairies until his death.

The first rift between the two men came when the two families were staying at a hotel in Atlantic City and Lady Doyle held a séance designed to convey messages to Houdini from his mother. This did not go down well, considering that the messages were transmitted in perfect English, a language Cecilia barely spoke. No one ever really got over this debacle; the Doyles were furious, the Houdinis distressed. There followed a storm of public disputes, insults, reproaches, recriminations. Only after Houdini’s death was there a proper reconciliation, with Doyle, as serenely confident as ever, writing to Bess, “I am sure that, with his strength of character (and possibly with his desire to make reparation), he will come back. I shall be very glad, if you get a message, if you will tell me.”

Houdini died in 1926, at the age of fifty-two. Always proud of his cast-iron stomach muscles, he had allowed a young college student to punch him repeatedly in the abdomen, soon after which he was in terrible pain and, within days, dead. The official cause, it turned out, was peritonitis, and medical experts insist that the kind of blows he had received could not have contributed to the terrible result—which didn’t prevent speculation that “the spiritualists” had murdered him. He himself had recently told the journalist Fulton Oursler, “They are going to kill me…. Every night they are holding séances and praying for my death.”

What did not die was his name: “Houdini,” as the museum show demonstrates, is still very much a part of the culture. E.L. Doctorow, for instance, famously presented him in Ragtime as one of the quintessential figures of his era.

But what was he really like?

In 1928, Edmund Wilson, an admirer, reviewing an early biography, concluded:

To follow his early life among the East Side cabarets and the dime museums is to be stirred as one can always be stirred by the struggle of a superior man to emerge from the commonplaces, the ignominies and the pains of the common life.

Will Rogers:

He had that something that no one can define that is generally just passed off under the heading of showmanship. But it was in reality, Sense, Shrewdness, Judgment, unmatched ability, Intuition, Personality, and an uncanny knowledge of people.

Yet despite these and many other attempts to pin him down, he remains a mystery. His naiveté and his shrewdness, his shyness and his exhibitionism, his kindness and his unforgiving antagonisms proclaim a complicated and unknowable man. Bess put it this way: “It was Houdini himself that was the secret.”

He went on mystifying his contemporaries until the end. At his funeral in the huge Elks Lodge Ballroom the honorary pallbearers included the most powerful of establishment show business figures, among them Lee Shubert, Adolph Zukor, Adolph S. Ochs, and Marcus Loew. As the coffin was lowered into the grave, one of them whispered to Florenz Ziegfeld, “Suppose he isn’t in it!”

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