Thursday, September 4, 2014

What is the best Houdini biography?

With the Houdini miniseries having aired this week in the U.S. (and in the UK this weekend), my blog has seen a massive increase in traffic. Many have discovered WILD ABOUT HARRY for the first time, and I welcome you! Most have come searching for more information on Houdini, and several have asked me via email what I consider the best Houdini biography.

I consider the best Houdini biography to be Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman. For me it's the book that best succeeds in separating fact from fiction. Published in 1997, it is now out of print, but you can still find copies on Amazon at reasonable prices. So if you want to go beyond the movie get into the real life of Houdini, start your journey right here.



Here are links to posts I've made discussing the contents and merits of several other books about Houdini:

The gateway biography (Harry Houdini Magician Extraordinary)
An alternative gateway (Houdini Master of Escape)
The first great Houdini biography (Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls)
The textbook (Houdini The Untold Story)
"This book is full of lies" (Houdini His Life Story)
The perennial Houdini on Magic (Houdini on Magic)
The Fantastic Four (The Original Houdini Scrapbook, Houdini His Legend and His Magic, Houdini His Life and Art, Houdini A Pictorial Life)
Houdini gold in the Maritimes (Metamorphosis: The Apprenticeship of Harry Houdini)

If there's another Houdini book that you feel is even better than Silverman, please share your candidate for Best Houdini Bio in the Comments below.

31 comments:

  1. I think Silverman's book is the best. I also like The Untold Story and Houdini His Life and Art. I'm rereading Escapes and Magic right now and am having some kind of reawakening, lol. That book is amazing.

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    1. I really need to re-read some of those older books from the '30s. I really only reference them, I've never really read them cover to cover.

      You want to have a reawakening, re-read Kellock. That book my be "full of lies", but it's a great read! It's still the book that gives the best sense of Bess. It really is the closest we may ever get to book about Bess.

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    2. I really enjoyed Kellock's book, too, even with Houdini's embellishments. No recent biographies have even tried to reproduce most of the anecdotes in there. The Untold Story is my favorite as I like reading the first-hand account of things rather than how they were interpreted later on.

      -Meredith

      P.S.
      There was someone on Amazon who read my review of the miniseries and wanted to know more about Houdini. I gave him some book suggestions and also mentioned your site as a great source for Houdini history.

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    3. Cool. Thanks for that Meredith.

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  2. It looks like this movie is making John really famous. Well deserved....

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    1. Not sure about famous, but it has certainly drawn traffic to the blog. Had close to 100,000 hits yesterday. An all time record. And my Fact Check of Night One is my all-time most viewed post.

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  3. I liked The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero: William Kalush & Larry Sloman, Houdini The Man Who Walked Through Walls by William Lindsay Gresham, The Secrets Of Houdini by J.C. Cannell, and the classic Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher.

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    1. Houdini The Untold Story is still a rock solid bio. "The textbook" is what I called it.

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  4. I just watched the documentary, "Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery". Wow! It was more captivating and informative in two hours than the mini-series was in two-nights. IMO.

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    1. That's a great documentary. Probably the best one. (Although my favorite will aways be The Truth About Houdini.)

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  5. John, great list. Nice that you have it pretty much in order.

    We feel you should add some where on the list the Kalush and Sloman book, "The Secret Life of Houdini", and the two book set, with the proviso that it includes most every Houdini story both fact and fiction. We find it great for research.

    The Houdini Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini!

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    1. That's not really meant to be a list of recommended reading. It's just a list of posts I did. That's why several good books, like Secret Life and Pat's book, aren't there, because I didn't do "overview" posts on them yet.

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  6. There are a couple of things to dislike and many, many things to like about Silverman's biography. Its most important feature is that it's scholarly (in the sense that it follows academic conventions, including the provision of copious footnotes-- especially for those who acquired the companion volume, Notes to Houdini.)

    Second in importance (and I agree with John here) is Christopher's bio. It's quite well researched and organized, and Christopher shows good judgment at many key points. However, it lacks the scholarly apparatus. As with his Illustrated History of Magic, Christopher's footnotes are few and nearly useless to the serious researcher.

    Kellock's tome gives a good sense of the officially sanctioned spin ca. 1928. I'd have to reread Graham's book; the first time, it didn't impress me as important (except as a bridge between Kellock and Christopher), but maybe reviewing it with fresh eyes would change that.

    The Kalush/Sloman tomes (book, notes) share Silverman's generosity in documentation and footnoting but lack Christopher's judicious approach. Not every item of evidence, or proposed evidence, should be given the same weight as every other; historical judgments about plausibility and probability are important among the historian's tools, and here again, Silverman trumps.

    My first Houdini biography was Williams/Epstein. In effect , it's fiction aimed at children. My second, however, was Christopher's. The contrast between them sparked my interest in historiography. What happened happened, as the Losties would say, and yet the recounting is a hydra!

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  7. I've only got one Houdini book, Houdini His Life Story, and it was in bad shape when I got it. I'd certainly like to replace it, but you've given here several alternate titles I know I'll enjoy -

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  8. I love the way Silverman wrote his book. It is in a no nonsense prose with just the nuts and bolts facts he was able to uncover in his 5 years of research. There are parts where Silverman speculates about Houdini's methods that are still largely a mystery like Houdini's jail escapes. We still know so very little about this one aspect of Houdini's life. Silverman keeps his thoughts about these things tightly reigned and doesn't go overboard with wild theories.

    After publication of his book, Silverman was interviewed by Stan Allen's Magic Magazine. He mentioned that there was still much more about Houdini that was waiting to be discovered by future researchers. I found that hard to believe until John started Wild About Houdini. Silverman was right...again.

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    1. Well put. You always know where you stand with Silverman. He's an excellent biographical writer (a Pulitzer Prize winner!) and you always know when he is presenting something as fact and when something is coming from a source that might not be 100% reliable (like Houdini himself). It's just superbly done and, yes, he certainly doesn't go overboard with any wild theories. Quality work.

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    2. That's simply not true. I sent Ken three different sources to prove that Jacob Hyman suggested adding an "i" to Houdin. I gave him the October, 1942 Genii magazine in which Edward Saint, in his obituary of Jacob Hyman, said just that, but, in that academically arrogant way of his, he writes that whoever suggested adding an "i" to Houdin is unknown. I let him examine the original Metamorphosis trunk at great length. He got in it and I shut the lid. I showed him the gaff and the evidence I'd gathered that absolutely identified it for what it was. He completely mis-described the trunk in his book, giving the impression that the original trunk was not the trunk I owned. Years later, he told Kevin Connolly that the trunk that Culliton had was "a very important piece." There are rules for biographers: no editorials, but, Ken squeezes in quite a few (and I enjoyed them) and biographies end in the death of the subject. So, Ken ended his book with the burial at Macpelah, ignoring the fact that with his death, Houdini had just begun to live. No Arthur Ford stuff, no final seance, no biographies, no movie. Okay. Nothing anecdotal, no family stories without validation, Ken felt nothing in the Kellock book was accurate -- unless it fit his argument. He looked down on his subject because, in my opinion, he thought Houdini wasn't as smart as an English Professor. His Houdini biography doesn't come close to his biography of the Salem witch burner, Cotton Mather. That WAS quality work and it won him the Pulitzer.

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    3. It is curious that Silverman didn't accept the Hyman sources. But for me, that shows that he had some pretty rigorous standards of proof before he presented something as fact. I don't mind him pulling back and expressing doubt or caution, even about something this widely accepted. And knowing that he consulted with you on it tells me he did try.

      Yes, I would have loved him to continue the Houdini story past his death. But the recollections of Bess and Hardeen by Marie and Sid in the appendix do a nice job of that.

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    4. All the good will between Marie and the book came to an end when it was published. Guess why?

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    5. In the publisher's prospectus (Ken cannot be blamed for this) it says: "You'll read about Houdini's early adventures in the Welsh Bros. Circus." Know how much coverage of the circus is in the book? Two paragraphs (and Ken is answerable for that).
      Silverman is certifiable? No. He makes as many mistakes as the rest of us. That having been said, The Kenneth Silverman biography of Houdini is the best so far.

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    6. Re Marie: I'll guess she didn't like the Charmian London revelation?

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    7. To say the least. She had no idea about the book establishing an "affair" if that's what it was until it was published.

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  9. The Epstein-Williams book was my first Houdini biography. I was twelve and I was reading through the biographies in the Bancroft Jr. High School library -- starting, of course, with Davy Crockett. The Wrights, Edison, George M. Cohan, and eventually Houdini. And that was that.
    Now that book doesn't mention the biggest story in Kellock -- the under ice escape. And the writers spoke at length with a man who really knew Houdini that the other biographers seem to have ignored: Ralph W. Read, who is best known among magicians for editing the Tarbell Course. Read also ghosted the instructions for the Defiance Handcuff Act for Houdini. And when the Gresham book came out in 1959, my mother bought it for my birthday. She picked up the Epsein-Williams book at the same time. I asked her why? She said, "I just thought it might be interesting for you to compare them." As usual she was right.
    Milbourne said to me: "The Kellock book was Bessie's story, you could say that my book was Hardeen's story, and Buddy Meyer's book is Leopold's story. Milbourne was very generous with Bernard Meyer. When Ken Silverman set out to write a biography -- he'd been a kid magician and his father looked like Houdini, and he was a University Professor and eventually a Pulitzer prize winning biographer (the Life and Times of Cotton Mather), but this was before that. He called Milbourne to ask for help. Milbourne told him he'd help any way he could. Then Milbourne died and Ken didn't get back to Houdini for about 15 years. The book has a flaw that is part and parcel of Ken's personality: a kind of academic arrogance. Sometimes his writing is soul-stirring particularly the parts about Houdini's flights in Australia. His final paragraph is absurd. No biographers added more personalities to Houdini's story than Kalush and Sloman. They found that Houdini's story about being apprenticed to a locksmith was true, that he had a relationship with Melville of Scotland Yard. I could go on and on. Did you know that both the Hardeen boys were in intelligence work when they were in the military during World War 2 and later. I don't find it shocking that Houdini had a relationship with the intelligence community. But being a passive observer and reporting what he'd seen does not rise to the level of espionage -- and that was their flaw, they were trying to find the unfindable and prove the unprovable, but, to the researcher, their books are more valuable than Ken's because, as I said, they vastly enlarged the cast of characters.
    Of all of them, Gresham's and Kellock's are the most fun to read and Milbourne's first book was filled with spirit, in fact, the N Y Times compared a beautiful passage from Houdini--the Untold Story to a dull and passionless bit from Houdini--a Pictorial Life. I was visiting him in New York in 1967 and he told me, "I've just finished the hardest chapter to write, can I read it to you?" and he read me the chapter called "Ehrie." Magical experience.

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    1. I love that your mother bought you both books to compare. She knew her son. :)

      Good point about Kalush and Sloman adding more personalities to Houdini's story.

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  10. I never liked the way "Ratso" and Kalush utilized interior monologue in their depiction of Houdini. At times, it felt like I was reading a novel starring Houdini instead of a biography:

    "I... must...get out of these handcuffs! So...difficult...to...pick the locks...but I must keep trying!"

    Oh brother. At least they did uncover some new information like the burglary at 278 and other interesting items. In order to find the wheat, I had to fight my way through the chaff of Houdini's inner monologue and run the gauntlet of that whole spy nonsense.

    A biographer has the right to exclude anything from his or her book if he or she believes there is insufficient evidence to back up a story. In The Patriarch, his bio of Joseph Kennedy, David Nasaw refused to discuss the allegations of Kennedy's involvement in bootlegging during Prohibition. Nasaw pointed out that he could not locate any direct evidence linking Kennedy to this crime. He obviously did not give any credence to the stories told by the people who were there and claimed to have seen Kennedy involved.

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    1. I know. I dislike that style as well. It's something that a lot of biographies do nowadays. I think it's all about getting Hollywood to see the "cinematic" value of the story, because a movie sale is the only way to real money on a book these days. Or it's just trying to make the book read more like a novel for general readers. Hate it. Silverman might be the last Houdini biography that's actually written as a biography. Another reason to cherish it.

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  11. Thank you for the warning John. The next time I see a biography that I am interested in, I will close the book and re-shelve it if I see that stupid inner monologue by the subject.

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  12. Dan Bradbury currently has a first edition copy of the Silverman bio for $16.00 plus shipping. I'm not sure if it's a paper or hardback. Anybody interested should pick this up.

    dan@bradburybooks.com

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  13. Watching Houdini: Unlocking the Mystery and just felt like reading a good Houdini biography, thanks for recommendation of Silverman's book.

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  14. I see the Silverman book come up from time to time on auction sites. Not difficult to locate and reasonably priced.

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