Sunday, March 1, 2009

Unmasking The Secret Life of Houdini

When The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero by William Kulash and Larry Sloman was first released in 2006, I gave it a positive review. With its oodles of rare pictures and some intriguing new information, I still consider it a worthy addition to my Houdini library.

However, I did point out in my review that I was surprised to see so many apocryphal stories included in the text, like the tale in which young Harry frees a convict from a pair of handcuffs while working for a locksmith in Appleton. But the authors promised a full volume of source notes to be published at a later date that would prove the validity of all their findings.

Those notes have now been published in a beautiful two-book set (The Secrets of Houdini Laid Bare) that I would highly recommend. However, to my eye, these notes reveal the authors took a very loose and, IMO, somewhat flawed approach to their research which now forces me to seriously reconsider my opinion of this book.

What troubles me is just how much the authors used the 1928 biography Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock as a primary source (particularly for Houdini's early life - the book is sourced 38 times in the first 83 pages), and how much they relied on material put out by Houdini himself during his career (via interviews, articles, and publicity material). Houdini was a chronic myth-maker and the last person that should be trusted with providing the facts of his own life. Life Story, written in collaboration with his wife, is really just a consolidation of his greatest myths. Everyone who has studied Houdini knows this. It’s an entertaining book, but one that should never be used as a primary source. I believe Silverman said the first thing he did when researching his own Houdini biography (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss) was to throw out all that had been written before because it was just too unreliable.

The Laid Bare notes also reveal that, too often, the authors have taken the approach that if they could find something written down, even if it's a dubious news-story or self-aggrandizing publicity material, then it could be "sourced" and hence presented as "fact" along with all associations. But just because they found evidence that Houdini did in fact work for a locksmith as a boy does not automatically mean we can or should accept his "convict in handcuffs" tale with all its dramatic embellishments (many added by the authors).

While there IS some good groundbreaking research here to be sure (I’m thinking of the fascinating new Margery material), it is maddeningly mixed with Houdini generated fictions, and the authors decision to write the book in a narrative style continually blurs the lines. In fact, their very first notation in Laid Bare admits that the Santa Ana buried alive stunt -- as told in great riveting detail in the first chapter of the book -- is considered by some to be “apocryphal.” So they opened the book with a story sourced only to Houdini that they couldn’t corroborate? (Oddly, they source Houdini’s highly embellished and almost certainly ghostwritten 1925 article for Colliers instead of his more reliable, but vague, 1916 diary entry.) As responsible biographers, shouldn’t they have tried to find the truth behind the stunt or, failing that, left it out entirely (as Silverman did)? What is the point of a new biography if not to present a truer picture of the man?

To be fair, the authors do cite some credible and groundbreaking source material, such as Manny Weltman’s Houdini Escape into Legend. But they do not seem to be working from any kind of reliable bibliography. As noted above, they seem to go with whatever source provides the most dramatic scenario. Bottom line, seeing their research methodology, I just don't know what to believe, and that makes The Secret Life of Houdini a heartbreaker for a Houdini scholar.

And while it’s maybe unfair to bring this up, the authors now aborted plan to exhume Houdini’s body to investigate the possibility that he was poisoned (one the sensational "findings" of the book) has also left a taint. While the truth of this event is still elusive, most have concluded it was just a publicity stunt. Fine. But if the exhumation was just a publicity stunt, then how committed are the authors to their poisoning theory? What else is in the book for shock or publicity value? Let’s not forget the book was initially sold on new-found "evidence" that Houdini was a spy.

Unlike Ken Silverman's authoritative and well-researched Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, it's now hard to view The Secret Life of Houdini as a sincere attempt to strip away the myths and find the real story of Houdini. Instead, it seems to be a collection of EVERYTHING that has ever been written or told about Houdini, true or not, with a generous helping of provocative new myth-making. Entertaining? Absolutely. But as a definitive, trustworthy biography -- I’m just not sure anymore.

Your comments are welcome...

8 comments:

  1. I've been reading your posts for a few days now and have sought out your views on this book because I'm reading it at present. I have to confess from the outset that my reading on Houdini is not as comprehensive as yours and probably not as optimal.

    The first book I read was Milbourne Christopher's - I was 12 at the time and possibly a lot of it went over my head.

    This book is an easy read but some of the revelations in it I've found very disturbing. Crandon's penchant for abducting small children is one of those things. I've also been quite affected by Bess's decline after Houdini's death ... it is just heartbreaking reading. I've had to put the book down and walk away a few times.

    I intend to pick up Silverman's book again to read it - I borrowed it from the local library when I was postnatal and probably not really with it! Everything I have seen so far seems to point to Silverman's book being the most reliable and comprehensive bio of Houdini yet.

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  2. Silverman is solid. The man is a pulitzer prize winning biographer after all. For purpose of research and fact checking, I turn to Silverman first, and when I find what I need, I'm done. No need to "check his math."

    When I turn to Secret Life, I feel I need to check what they used as a source in the Laid Bare notes book. Then, if I have the source, I check that. There's a lot of fabulous info in Secret Life. But they lay so much damn spin on everything! I don't want to promulgate that spin, know what I mean?

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  3. Is it churlish of me to think that the notes for "Secret Life" should have been made a little more widely available than in a somewhat pricey two volume companion set? Or am I just being unreasonable?

    Don't get me wrong ... I have no problem with buying books (clearly) but it is a shame they have chosen to present their notes in this way.

    Have been re-reading Christopher and Silverman in recent weeks. All three books are on my bedside table in constant rotation. My Houdini addiction is in full swing again.

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  4. The notes are also available for free on the Conjuring Arts Research Center website. (http://conjuringarts.org/2010/01/footnotes-for-the-secret-life-of-houdni/) They did make every effort to get these notes out asap. They were posted online as they were completed. Silverman also published his notes in a separate volume, which is even harder to find.

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  5. Thanks! I was hoping I was dreadfully wrong on this one (and clearly I was). Back in my box now.

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  6. I agree: Silverman's bio is my fave out of all of them. I admit I haven't finished "The Secret Life...", mostly because the narrative style really bugged me, and I'm so used to the scholarly approach to biography that it's actually hard for me to read! :p One of these days I should really read it all the way through---it has too many juicy stories to ignore. Although, that spy stuff doesn't interest me that much.

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  7. Agree, Beth. I wasn't a fan of the narrative interludes. Give me the facts.

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  8. I have to add, now that I'm attempting to read "The Secret Life" again, that my mind really wants to believe that Houdini was a secret agent (and maybe he really was...it does seem plausible), but it's really hard when reading that book to separate the fantasy from the fact---it feels like it was written to be a book-to-screenplay with all the action movie fix-ins, not really an authoritative biography. (The secret agent bits seem to make such neat and convenient transitions between different events in Houdini's life...too neat and convenient, it seems to me). I never had to wonder "should I believe what the author is telling me?" while reading Christopher or Silverman. When Silverman dropped the bomb about Charmian London, he gave ample evidence to back it up, so while I was very surprised upon reading about that the first time, the evidence was solid enough that there no need to have faith in the author's authority alone.

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