Houdini: Art and Magic
by Tom Ruffles
[ bookreviews ]
Another book about Harry Houdini. This one accompanies an exhibition of the same name organised by The Jewish Museum in New York, which makes it rather different from the rest, as it covers areas relatively untouched by earlier biographies. Unsurprisingly, it focuses on Houdini's Jewish background, but it also explores the cultural significance of his persona as he transformed himself from impoverished immigrant to international superstar, and how he has been co-opted by artists since his death.
An introduction by the volume's editor, Brooke Kamin Rapaport, outlines Houdini's significance in popular American culture, surveying depictions of him during his lifetime in poster art, and the control he exerted over his image (he manipulated the media as adroitly as he did handcuffs). This is familiar territory, but she goes on to consider the ways in which his graphic legacy has been used in recent decades, which allows her to bring in a range of creative practitioners with a debt to Houdini who would not normally appear in a book about him.
A series of short essays then examines different aspects of Houdini's life and career. Alan Brinkley writes about how Houdini's life related to those of other 19th century immigrants as waves arrived in the United States, particularly from Europe. He shows how the Jewish immigrants did not form a homogeneous community, those from Eastern Europe becoming the victims of anti-Semitism because of their obvious difference, one perceived as exotic, in the process threatening the assimilation of the already-established German Jews.
Houdini's own family, from Hungary, exemplifies the range of responses available to newcomers: his parents remained insular, never learning English but retaining their Hungarian-accented German, with dire consequences for his father's employment prospects, whereas Houdini became integrated and successful. Immigrants fleeing hardship and persecution in the Old World, but often finding a cool reception in the New, identified with him. They responded positively to the symbolism of him breaking free of his shackles, a self-made man, and a role model for those with similar aspirations. Yet that he pretended to have been born in America exemplifies the ambiguities inherent in the immigrant experience, pulled as it was between two conflicting identities.
Kenneth Silverman discusses the implications of Houdini being a rabbi's son (though Rabbi Weiss's formal qualifications for that title are doubtful). Houdini was not particularly observant but remained aware of and true to his religious roots in a way that his wife Bess (Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner), who was of German Catholic extraction, did not to hers. Silverman also traces Houdini's love of literature and book collecting to the influence of his scholarly father, though he does not distinguish between a genuine love and the projection of a man of culture as a form of self promotion – Houdini bought theatre and magic material in bulk, in much the same way Citizen Kane bought statues. Houdini's devotion to his mother is well known, but although his father died while Houdini was young, clearly Rabbi Weiss's influence was long-lasting as well, and wherever he was, Houdini always made it a point to say Kaddish on the anniversary of his father's death.
Hasia R Diner contributes an essay foregrounding Bess Houdini, who has generally been overshadowed in biographies of her husband. Despite originally being Houdini's equal, displacing his brother Dash and sharing equal billing in their publicity, she later became invisible professionally as Houdini moved from the role of magician to that of escape artist, when it suited him to portray himself as the heroic individual alone in a death-defying challenge. She came back into her own after his death, resuming her magic career – “The oldest living lady magician in the world” – while acting as custodian of her late husband's memory. Diner points out that there is no documentary evidence that Harry and Bess were ever legally married (the Weisses seem to have been a bit slack about the paperwork). Rather sadly, while Houdini was buried next to his mother in the Machpelah Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York, as a non-Jew Bess was not allowed to be buried with him, and was laid to rest in a Catholic cemetery. One wonders what Bess's attitude to her mother-in-law truly was.
In addition to the sections devoted to the Houdinis, there are 15 interviews with individuals, mostly visual artists, who in one way or another have been influenced by him. These include E L Doctorow, Teller (of Penn and Teller) and Matthew Barney. Doctorow and Teller give their responses to Houdini in some depth, but the other contributions consist of only one or two questions and answers, which is disappointing when much more could be said. A handy chronology runs from Houdini's birth in 1874 to Bess's death in 1943, and a section shows the types of apparatus Harry used in his act - needles he swallowed and ‘regurgitated' threaded; handcuffs and padlocks; his milk churn; a trunk as used in his and Bess's early ‘Metamorphosis' trick; the Water Torture Cell; and of course the gruesome-looking straightjacket. A filmography and bibliography conclude the volume.
The writing is fascinating, but the book's real strength lies in its pictures. It is beautifully illustrated throughout with photographs of Harry and Bess, posters and ephemera, film stills and modern photographs of equipment, all reproduced on good quality paper. In addition to those directly relating to Houdini's life and career, the entire volume is liberally sprinkled with examples of art, some more successful than others, which reflect the creators' interpretations of Houdiniist iconography. What these indicate is that the idea of Houdini, what he stands for in the popular imagination, is capable of endless renewal. Any Houdini enthusiast will want to own this book.