Wednesday, August 29, 2012

"This book is full of lies"

Today I continue my series looking back at books written about Houdini with images from my own collection.

The first comprehensive Houdini biography was published by Harcourt, Brace and Co. in June 1928. The book was Houdini, His Life Story by Harold Kellock from the Recollections and Documents of Beatrice Houdini. Hardeen famously inscribed a copy of the book with the sentence: "This book is full of lies."

1928 first edition by Harcourt, Brace.

Yes, Life Story contains wild embellishments and outright fictions, such as Houdini being trapped under he ice during a bridge jump and the full "acid on the dress" story of Houdini and Bess's first meeting. The book crystallized much of the mythology Houdini had been building up for years in his pitch-books; mythology that took years to unravel.

But this was the way Houdini wanted his story told. Like Walter Gibson's Houdini's Escapes and Magic, this was a book that Houdini would have written had he lived. At the time of his death he had already dictated several chapters of an autobiography, and the photos used in the book are noted as being expressly set aside for the purpose of publication in a book.

However, Life Story also includes a great deal of candid recollections by Bess that have the feel of truth about them. The book shows Bess, especially in her youth, to have been a real firecracker. There's a great story about Bess telling the abusive manager of Kohl & Middleton's Dime Museum to "go to hell" after learning that Harry had saved up $100 for his handcuff challenge. "We have one hundred dollars and we don't need your old dime museum," she said. Many of these stories don't make it into later biographies. This is the book that gives us the best portrait of Bess during Houdini's lifetime.

It's also nice that the original dust jacket features a photo of Houdini performing his Needles trick. Here, in 1928, Houdini is portrayed, first and foremost, as a magician, not as a death-defying escape artist. This can be held up as another piece of evidence that refutes the revisionist notion that in his own lifetime Houdini was somehow not considered a magician. Of course he was.

1930 Blue Ribbon edition
This book also infamously reprints on page 105 the secret mind reading code that the Houdinis use in their early act. This was used against Arthur Ford during the 1929 Houdini message debacle, pointing out that the code which formed the bases for the "Rosabelle Believe" test message was available to the public.

Houdini His Life Story would stand as the only comprehensive Houdini biography until William Lindsay Gresham's Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls was published in 1959. Unfortunately, Life Story was never published as a mass market paperback and fell out of print following the Blue Ribbon edition of 1930 (right). Apart from a print-on-demand edition by Kessinger Publishing in 2003 (which now sells for a shockingly high price on Amazon), the book remains out of print to this day.

It's a shame that this unique book has remained generally unavailable since 1930. Sure, it's "full of lies", but it contains Bessie's authentic voice and is also as close to a Houdini autobiography as we'll ever get.

Also enjoy:

11 comments:

  1. Agreed: Ridiculous price for the reprint. Originals are still available at moderate prices from used-book dealers.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. True. I have one of the Kessinger reprints (different color cover) that I got back in the day so I could paw through it as my research copy. Now maybe I need to leave it Mint.

      Delete
  2. The myth that Houdini wasn't considered a magician was perpetrated by Vernon.Vernon did not like Houdini and when ever he mentioned him he always said "He didn't do magic he did escapes".That's why I always doubted the famous "Trick That Fooled Houdini" as another Vernon fable to show Houdini didn't know one of the simplest moves in card magic.
    This is just my opinion. Good post BTW.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think you're right. A lot of that did come from Vernon. He was no fan.

      Delete
  3. According to Vernon, in his videotaped interviews for the Revelations tapes, he also repeatedly fooled S. Leo Horowitz with the trick, even though Horowitz was a very skilled and knowledgeable magician.

    If the anecdotes are true, it speaks to the effectiveness of Vernon's technique, and to the deceptive power of combining sleight of hand with a gaff.

    I don't have David Ben's biography of Vernon in front of me, but I think the Houdini anecdote is well-established.

    As an aside, I agree that Vernon missed the point of some of Houdini's effects. Not only were the needles a piece of magic, but many of the escapes were presented as mysteries, not feats of strength.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Damn! $350 bucks for that?? :( Is there no way to even get this from a library? I esp. want to read the stories about Bess inside it. I feel like Bess kind of gets the short shrift in later bios, like she's just a side-kick and not a fascinating person in her own right.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hey Beth. Good to see here. It's been a while. :)

      Don't bite on that $350 reprint. You could probably track down an actual copy from the '30s for a third of that or less.

      You're right, Bessie get a short shrift in later books. And we love out Bess!

      Delete
  5. Wow, not only its age but the lack of reprints of this book explain why I never had it in my collection, or even came across any copies of it. Pity, since it's the "original" Houdini biography.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's surprisingly easy to track down, Timothy.

      Delete
  6. I have a 2nd edition (hardcover, '28 I think)... Unfortunately, it's been "lent out" for like 4 or 5 years, which probably means I'll never see it again. Very good read. My favorite Houdini book by far. Lies or not, it's very entertaining.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that's a heartbreaker. Yeah, be careful when you lend out books. I've had a few vanish that way as well.

      Delete

Translate

Receive updates via email