Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Brandon book

Continuing my examination of books about Houdini using images and insights from my own collection.

The 1993 biography The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon is maligned by Houdini buffs. This is largely due to Brandon's pet theory, as expressed in the book, that Houdini was impotent. Brandon admitted this notion was not based on any evidence, just a "guess," but she believed it was the best explanation of why the Houdinis never had children. This was promoted as the sensational revelation of the book, and the author repeatedly shared her theory on TV and in documentaries. It even found its way into popular culture via a mention on Seinfeld.

Of course, the reason the Houdinis didn’t have children had to do with Bess's inability to do so, something her niece, Marie Blood, said she would have shared with Brandon had the author shown any interest (I got the feeling that Brandon had rubbed Marie the wrong way). I’ve also heard whispers over the years that Brandon, who authored the 1984 book, The Spiritualists, had a pro-spiritualist agenda. However, I see no real evidence of this in the book itself. (Unless the idea of robbing the great debunker of his sexual power could be considered an attack?)

But if we move beyond the bedroom, I think The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini has a lot to recommend it. Certainly in 1993 it was a very welcome book. It had been 24 years since the last major Houdini biography (Houdini The Untold Story by Milbourne Christopher), and while Brandon didn’t really break new ground, she nicely consolidated a lot of the important new research from smaller, individual studies. It provided Houdini buffs with a nice "everything we know up to now" biography while we waited for the great game changer, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss by Kenneth Silverman.

It's also a very well written book. In fact, for people who want an easy read on Houdini, it's still a biography I'd recommend, impotency theory and all.

Publication

The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini was first published in Great Britain by Martin Secker & Warburg Limited in 1993. It would take a year for the book to find its way "across the pond" to the U.S. where it was published by Random House in October 1994 (although the U.S. first edition shows only the 1993 copyright date). Both hardcover editions featured very nice cover art. The UK art was designed by William Webb with a photo credit to the Radner Collection. The U.S. cover was by Mike Lam with photo credit to UPI and poster images from the Granger Collection.

UK and U.S. hardcover first editions.

The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini has so far seen two paperback editions in the UK. The first was published in 1994 by Mandarin and featured a shirtless Houdini on the cover. The second came from Pan Books in August 2001 and offered up more conventional cover artwork. This later edition also separated the photos into two sections instead of having all in one central section as in all other editions.

UK paperbacks.

The first U.S. paperback edition was published by Kodansha Globe in 1995. It had an attractive cover designed by Lilly Langotsky. A later reprint from Random House appeared in October 2003. It featured an entirely new cover design by Tamaye Perry, who made nice use of stills from Houdini's movies. This paperback is still in-print today and is available on Amazon.

U.S. paperbacks.

In my collection, I also have two U.S. pre-publication editions of the Brandon book. The first is a proof from publisher Random House. A very different cover concept is shown inside along with a review from the London Times. The second is a curiosity; a trade paperback edition featuring artwork that would appear on the U.S. hardcover. It's likely this is an early export edition, typically sold in airports and overseas markets, although there's nothing on the book to indicate it as such.

U.S. proof and early export paperback.

Despite the controversy, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, "the Brandon book", is a worthy biography that deserves a place on any shelf of Houdiniana, if for no other reason than for these great cover designs.

Enjoy these other selections from the WILD ABOUT HARRY bookshelf:

17 comments:

  1. Never thought I'd find myself sticking up for Ruth Brandon, but she was definitely NOT pro-spiritualist. Her book and an article in New
    Scientist make this abundantly clear. Her Houdini research, however, in my opinion was sloppy, stereotyped and full of unwarranted conclusions - particularly concerning his father. For a full trashing, see The Houdini File for May 29, 2012.

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  2. I just bought myself a copy of Brandon's book yesterday, as it happens, though I certainly didn't pay full price for it. I'm prepared to overlook most of her 'theories', but I'm interested to see if she includes any Houdini quotations or facts that other biographers have overlooked.

    -Meredith

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    1. Ha! How about that for a timing coincidence. :)

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  3. No thanks. I'll settle for Christopher, Doug Henning's great book on Houdini, or, the books about Houdini that were written by the guy who was his friend & confidant, & therefore TRULY knew him, Walter Gibson. The rest is all just hearsay imho. I'm Bill Smith & I approve this message. LOL! {No, not the illusion builder} :)

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    1. Of course, Walter Gibson always wrote that Houdini was born April 6th in Appleton, because that was what his good friend Houdini told him. He was one of the last holdouts on that (he finally caved in his last book). Knowing a man personally can bring a different sort of bias.

      But don't get me wrong. I'm not recommending Brandon over the other major bios. Christopher, Gresham, Henning, all great. But all take a back seat to Silverman, IMHO.

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  4. Agree with your ratings, John. I also like the one by Randi and Bert Sugar - it may be the best-written of all of them.

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    1. Good point. Because it's such a great photo/coffee table style book, one tends to not think of it as a proper bio. But the text really is excellent.

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  5. I like to occasionally skim through the Brandon book. I don't want to have to slog through her theories and conjecturing. There are small golden nuggets of info that I have pleasurably discovered in this book. After reading John's blog, I pulled it off the shelf and discovered the contents of HH's Trunk #8. Dr. Morris Young found it after Hardeen died. Brandon deserves credit here for gathering disparate info on HH and collecting it between two covers.

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    1. Ah, yes, Trunk #8. And also her discovery of the imaginary child, Mayer Samuel, that Harry and Bess cooked up between them. I've never seen that appear in any other bio. Still not sure where she got this from, but she seems to have pulled it from a cache of letters.

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  6. It was 1995 when Houdini piqued my curiosity, and when I went to the bookstore (remember those?) this was the book. Ruth Brandon struck me as one of those biographers who believe that their readers want to see great people with their pants down, and I disliked stepping around this aspect of the book. While I was able to perceive Houdini through the distraction, it did leave me wishing for a truly respectful biography, and not long after, Ken Silverman made that wish come true.

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    1. Funny you mention bookstores...one thing that really stands out in my mind about this book is I discovered it in a bookstore. I had no idea it was coming, and it took me several seconds to process what I was seeing. What this really a NEW bio on Houdini? Turns out, it would be my last in-bookstore Houdini discovery.

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  7. The sources are in the Notes section at the back. The origin for the imaginary child story was from a January 9, 1933 interview with Bess in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. HH would send notes down to Bess from his 4th floor study via the maid about the imaginary son. The notes stopped when little Samuel became president of the U.S. Oh my.

    I tell you, Brandon's book is growing on me. The Houdini quotes from people make this volume much more interesting. As an example, here is Brandon's opening for Chapter Six:

    Jackie Flosso, whose father knew Houdini well, said to me: "Never forget that Houdini was a product of his early professional years. He thought the freak world was normal and the straights were freaks."

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    1. Thanks Leo. That is an interesting quote.

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  8. No, thank you John for posting a reminder for the Brandon book. I discovered a number of things today that would have otherwise remained dormant. Father's Day will now be Ruth Brandon Day...

    That Al Flosso quote certainly has a ring of truth to it, doesn't it?

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    1. LOL. Ruth Brandon day. Love it. :)

      It does have the ring of truth to it. I've always thought his struggling years really formed him and his art and made "Houdini" this startlingly new phenomena -- a mix of stage and circus, magician and freak.

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    2. Just a heads-up, tomorrow is going to be Gresham Day, in a big way.

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  9. I think of Brandon's book as an interesting discussion about Houdini, rather than as a biography. I haven't read it for a while, but doesn't she emphasize his Jewishness?

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