Sunday, November 26, 2006

Review: The Secret Life of Houdini

The “Houdini was a spy” aspect of the new biography, The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero by William Kalush and Larry Sloman – which has been so hyped in the media and debated by magic historians – is a distraction from what should be seen, first and foremost, as a major new Houdini biography loaded with fascinating new facts about the great magician’s life and career.

But what of this “spy” thing? Okay. Very quickly – in 1900 and 1902 Houdini sent two “reports” from Germany to Superintendent Melville of Scotland Yard (who was then head of what could be considered British Intelligence). Does this mean Houdini was a spy, or just a letter writer who felt compelled to report what he was seeing to his friend in London? Authors Bill Kalush and Larry Sloman do make some interesting connections back to America and the shenanigans with Houdini’s passport application...but it’s all very speculative. For me, this “spy revelation” is just one of many, many new nuggets of information to be found within these fascinating 560 pages...and it’s not even the most interesting nugget at that.

I was much more taken with the revelation of Bess Houdini’s suicide attempt; a potential third Houdini mistress (Milla Barry); the attack on Houdini’s brother in his Harlem home; the Russian Royal family's Rasputian-like fascination with the magician; Montraville M. Wood’s involvement in the development of the Milk Can; Lord Northcliff’s role in Houdini’s aviation career; Houdini’s private secret service formed to expose spiritualists (Houdini actually bought a barbershop and trained an agent as a barber so they could communicate incognito); and the very troubling revelation that Margery and Dr. Crandon may have had a hand in the disappearance of several young English boys (freaky stuff this).

I was also thrilled to see Kalush and Sloman incorporate breakthrough information containing in such recent studies as The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell (which rewrites magic history by revealing Houdini suffered not one but TWO stomach punch attacks in his final weeks). And, last but not least, the wealth of never before seen photos contained here are wonderful!

I was surprised to see the inclusion of some stories I’ve always considered to be apocryphal -- the tale in which Harry, as a boy, frees a convict from a pair of handcuffs is one. But the authors promise that a complete set of source reference notes are forthcoming in a separate volume.*

The last major Houdini biography was Ken Silverman’s 1996 Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (now out of print). I still consider the Silverman book the most authoritative Houdini biography, as well as the one that seems to best nail his complex character. But Secret Life uncovers many new facts not found in Silverman, and for the layperson it may be the more entertaining and provocative read.

It’s been 10 years since Silverman and it was time someone tackled the subject of Houdini again. My congratulations to William Kalush and Larry Sloman for doing so…and succeeding so spectacularly!

*UPDATE: Having now read the source book, my opinion of this book has revised somewhat. Please read: Unmasking The Secret Life of Houdini.

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