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. In this 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 it was the way he 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 at times. 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|
Houdini His Life Story would stand as the only comprehensive Houdini biography until William Lindsey 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.