The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon
I’ve read a fair number of biographies in my years of reading. I can remember, back in grade school, reading an autobiography by Chuck Yeager – the first man to break the sound barrier. Just last year, I read a biography of Alex Jordan, the founder of the House on the Rock. As much as I enjoy the super-heroes of comicbooks, the super-heroes of real life are even more interesting!
Houdini is a character who I’ve been curious about for many years – there were the death-defying stunts, a fascination with the turn-of-the-century vaudeville scene, the super-heroic escapes, and of course, his family’s early years in Appleton, WI. Last year, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art put on an exhibition of Houdini paraphernalia. I went and it was excellent!
Here are my brief notes from reading this book, and excerpts that I found most interesting…
+Houdini was born “Erich Weiss”, in Budapest, on March 24, 1874.
+though he knew English, it was always a second language to him. His lack of English fluency didn’t stop him from being a highly compulsive letter-writer. He was constantly writing letters, especially to his wife, Bess. Even as they resided in the same house, Houdini would write daily letters to Bess.
+Houdini had a VERY strong personality, and with it he became the sun around which anyone who came to know him orbited.
+This was the interesting contradiction in his personality – though he was supremely self-confident, he needed constant reassurance. From his and Bess’ early vaudeville days, to their times as the most well-paid entertainers around, Houdini felt a constant pressure to never relent in staying ahead of any possible competitors.
+And with those competitors, Houdini didn’t merely seek to be better than them, but to obliterate them if he felt they tried to copy his tricks or discredit him in anyway. Houdini held a grudge like no one else!
+Houdini and his wife, Bess, met and married in just a few short weeks. They were together till the day he died. All the while they were married, Harry and Bess never addressed each other by first names. They always addressed each other as Mr. Houdini and Mrs. Houdini.
+in a Hollywood interview, Houdini remarked, “I’m so old-fashioned that I have been in love with the same wife for twenty-five years!”
+Many people who know me, know of the occasional “mystery dates” that I’ve gone on. I was delighted to learn that Mr.and Mrs. Houdini would sometimes go on “mystery dates” too! To quote the author,
“He would sometimes say to his wife, “Mrs. Houdini, you are a modern woman of liberal ideas. You will not be angry if I keep a date this evening. I expect to meet the most beautiful lady in the world at such and such a corner at 6:30. I shall be home very late.” Bess would know this was her cue to dress up in her best and keep the assignation. Houdini would pick her up like a grand cavalier…”
+”He always met any competition, real or imagined, in the most straightforward way imaginable: he came out fighting, shouted louder, and hit his man harder.”
+”…irony requires self-consciousness, detachment, self-awareness, and Houdini was sensationally free from any of these qualities.”
There is SO much more to the story of Houdini than I can mention in one short blog post. I’d really encourage anyone with a level of interest in Houdini to pick this book up. It’s an easy read, compellingly written, and tells one heck of a classic American immigrant story.
-I’ll conclude with a quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – creator of Sherlock Holmes, and conflicted friend of Houdini’s:
“Houdini is far and away the most intriguing character whom I have ever encountered. I have met better men, and I have certainly met very many worse ones, but I have never met a man who had such strange contrasts of nature, and whose actions and motives it was more difficult to foresee or to reconcile.”