Saturday, January 29, 2011

LINK: Silverman reviews Steinmeyer

Ken Silverman (Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss) has reviewed Jim Steinmeyer's new biography of Howard Thurston, The Last Greatest Magician in the World, in the Wall Street Journal. He gives it an overall good review, although he takes Steinmeyer to task for saying Houdini was "small and unimpressive onstage."

Click the headline above to read the full review at the Wall Street Journal website.


  1. John, what was your take on the book? I've not read it yet. I think Thurston really deserves the accolades, but as for beating Houdini, it just doesn't hold up historically. Thurston is forgotten by the public. People still visit Houdini's grave in NY, none magic people and magic people. Thurston's grave was essentially abandoned for years. Thankfully a preservation group is hoping to restore the building but it doesn't have the allure that Houdini's grave or Houdini had/has.

  2. Steinmeyer makes the same points about Houdini and Thurston in the first chapter of his excellent book "Hiding the Elephant." He's referring mainly to Houdini's lackluster performance of conventional illusions in his 1926 show.

    And, of course, Steinmeyer's premise is that Houdini's escapes aren't illusions, which I think most of them are. But I won't press that side issue.

    Bear in mind Steinmeyer's background as a designer of illusions and contributor to some great illusion shows. From his point of view, Houdini disrespected that art by performing it poorly (except for the brick wall illusion) and by trashing Robert-Houdin in a book.

    Of course, it isn't necessary to trash Houdini to raise Thurston's reputation. Some contemporaries describe Houdini as being electrifying onstage. And we know Will Rogers said you might as well not go on than to follow Houdini onstage.

    What's unseemly about Steinmeyer's comments about Houdini is that he seems to dislike him personally and judge him without ever knowing him.

    Strangely, Steinmeyer seems to consider it a character flaw to be short, or to grow up as an impoverished immigrant child laborer, the latter of which might help explain why Houdini became a combative egocentric adult.

    The really odd thing is that Thurston was fairly short himself and seems to have been on the wrong side of the law at times, something that Houdini wasn't.

  3. Well said, Eric.

    Dean, I posted some of my thoughts on the book here:

    I'll probably update and repost the above article on release day.

  4. The snide comment about the Lower East Side seems particularly strange, especially in light of modern sensibilities about poverty.

    It isn't even accurate: The Weiss's apartment wasn't on the Lower East Side, which is an area associated at that time with immigrants, particularly Jewish immigrants. Is Steinmeyer using Lower East Side as a code word? What's next -- calling Houdini a guttersnipe?

    Let's face it, a lot of magicians and variety performers didn't come from the upper classes. The popular performing arts were realms where uneducated people of talent could rise, places where people of ethnicities excluded from other careers could flourish.

  5. I gotta say, Silverman really took Steinmeyer out of context in his review. My latest "review" (or a sort) here:

  6. BTW, Steinmeyer didn't write "New York East Side personality." He wrote "New York East Side MANNERISMS," clearly meaning Houdini's tough guy Bowery Boy combativeness.

  7. Ok. I'll take back my comments until I read the book.

  8. I read the book back in November and had no problems with it. Steinmeyer just tells stories from a non-Houdini perspective, so Houdini isn't on the pedestal we are used to seeing him on. Doesn't hurt Houdini, IMO.