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
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,…

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