Commentary Magazine


The Escape Artist

During these last decades the interest in professional fasting has markedly diminished. . . . We live in a different world now.

Franz Kafka, “A Hunger Artist”

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A photograph of Harry Houdini in middle age. Handsome Houdini: the dignified nose, the shapely lips. His forehead is bold, his hair thinning, white at the temples, wizard-winged over the ears. Sternly he frowns at you, arms crossed, sleeves pushed back. Houdini rolled up his sleeves when he got down to work, to show he was hiding nothing there; but he’s not working now. He stands before bookshelves in frock coat and clerical collar, a watch on his vest, a pin in his lapel—emblem of one of his many fraternal organizations. He was a great civic booster, in the American way.

What kind of picture is this? Not Houdini the showman, the publicity-hound; it’s too intimate for that. This could be a self-portrait: citizen Houdini, preacher, professor, judge. Except for the hands: tough skin, prehensile thumbs, the wrists linked by a charm-bracelet padlock on a single chain.

Houdini was a founding member of the Rabbis’ Sons Theatrical Benevolent Association—singers, composers, comedians, movie moguls, from rabbinical families going back many generations. In America it took only one; the New World was not for the unworldly, and these rabbis’ sons had little learning. Here the fathers became the children and the children the fathers, the breadwinners. This was what Reb Yidel Pankower, the Hebrew teacher in Henry Roth’s classic Call It Sleep, lamented as the “sidewalk and gutter generation.” In later generations, parents might speak Yiddish as a private language, bittersweet. In immigrant families, the children possessed the sweet secret tongue—the language of the streets, but the words were magic: open Sesame. Here everyone was an upstart, starting from scratch. Jews did not have to be a people apart.

For some rabbis’ or cantors’ sons—the Gershwins, the Berlins, the Jolsons, the Zukors and Selznicks, the brothers Warner and Shubert—this released an explosion of energy. Houdini came before most of them—his family spoke German, not Yiddish—and he exhibited the energy in a literal, physical form. He could do what magicians do: pluck coins from thin air and rabbits from hats, swallow packets of sewing needles and spin them out neatly threaded. At a clap of his hands elephants disappeared; he walked through brick walls. A magic trick is a magic trick; an escape is a success story. Houdini made the Escape uniquely his own.

Any version of the story will likely commit errors of fact; so much is fable. That’s the way he wanted it. Houdini was his own biographer. Take the one about him as a messenger boy, coming home late one winter night. It’s Christmas eve, he’s covered with snow, the cupboard is bare. “Shake me,” he tells his mother. “Shake me, I’m magic.” He gives a shimmy, and coins—tips he’s collected all the long day—come clattering down from his cap and jacket, and roll, glittering, over the floor. Is it true? Did it happen, this first and best of all magic tricks? Trust the tale: Houdini made it come true.

During his lifetime, few knew the name he was born with—Erik Weisz/Erich Weiss—let alone where or when. For the record, it was Budapest, 1874. He was four when he came to America—his first escape. His father, a Reform rabbi, led a small new congregation in, of all places, Appleton, Wisconsin. The name is an idyll. Years later, Houdini would dream of seeing his parents as he’d seen them then, sitting and drinking coffee under a tree.

But Rabbi Weiss was not reformed enough for the Jews of leafy little Appleton. The family moved to Milwaukee, where they fared no better; the eldest son, a half-brother, died of TB. At eight, Houdini was peddling papers and shining shoes; at twelve, he hopped a freight car and lit out for Texas, hoping to send money home. He dropped his mother a postcard to let her know. For the rabbi’s son, not yet of bar-mitzvah age, this rite of passage was a private enterprise.

Things didn’t pan out, and the following year found him with his father in New York; the rabbi, as usual, was looking for work. If only the father could have had some of the son’s luck, but that’s how it was. The new exodus, the great wave from Eastern Europe, was well under way; the lifted lamp, the Golden Door. Hebrew teachers were a dime a dozen, and fewer and fewer rabbis seemed needed for more and more Jews. They’d landed in the New World at last, and Appleton was only a dream.

Between the two of them they managed to scrape up funds to send for the rest. It was 1888, the year of the Great Blizzard, snowdrifts taller than telegraph poles; by now there were six children, and things went from bad to worse. Houdini would never talk much about those hard times, “too painful to recall,” but this was when he began doing card tricks and sleight of hand, passing the hat for “throw” money.

Though his two older brothers must have contributed to the family larder, it was clear from the start which son was the one full of beans. He was eighteen when his father died—miserably, of tongue cancer—and soon afterward he left his job as a necktie-cutter and set out to make his name in magic, the name that would stand for the thing.

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There is something you need to know about Houdini’s escapes: no one actually saw him do them. At least, not at first. These were deeds done in the dark. A committee from the audience might be summoned onstage to search him from head to toe—his wiry hair, the soles of his feet; poking in his ears, prying under his tongue. Not for nothing had Houdini learned to swallow needles. They inspected the props—handcuffs, legirons, padlocks, chains—and when they’d made sure all was kosher, Houdini would retire to a cabinet, his “ghost house”; a curtain was drawn around it, and the audience would wait. And wait. They sweated it out in their seats. Time passed, watches ticked away, and the band played on.

Audiences are so polite. They assume that a trick doesn’t begin until the preparations are through. But the preparation—the stage business—is the trick. By the time the boxes were locked, the cabinets closed, the curtains drawn, it was all over. Houdini could emerge at his leisure, shackles intact, his methods a mystery, leaving no clue.

Was this entertainment, or an ordeal? How to explain such emotion—cheers, standing ovations, tears of joy and relief, Houdini swept from the stage and borne through the streets? People aren’t dumb. Some must have suspected that inside his cabinet, behind his curtain, Houdini was getting a little assistance: tricks, gimmicks, lock-picks, keys. Feats even more difficult, performed in plain sight, would not catch on until a later phase of his career—and of his relation with his public. But Houdini was already standing magic on its head: for speed, struggle; for ease, anxiety; for mastery, risk and the possibility of failure. In the intimacy of the vaudeville stage, his audiences became his accomplices. He was doing things the hard way, and they were on his side.

And he had done things the hard way. The 1890’s were hard times—strikes, riots, deep economic depression; no time for a young green apprentice to break into show business. Teamed up with friends, then his brother, and at last his wife, Bess, Houdini took what he could get. Beer gardens, dime museums, traveling circuses, medicine shows, carnival midways; performing a dozen times a day—magic tricks, mind-reading acts, song and dance, Punch and Judy skits, comedy routines; sharing billing with fan dancers, sword swallowers, snake-oil salesmen, giants, midgets, tattooed men, bearded ladies. In a pinch he peddled miracle cures, tooted horns in parades, and carried on as the Wild Man in a Cage.

Shows folded, troupes disbanded, managers absconded with funds, when funds there were. The Houdinis found themselves stranded in the small towns of America. They must both have looked like runaways, Houdini with peach-fuzz cheeks and elevator shoes, Bess shy-eyed and bow-lipped and too small to find costumes that fit. “What the hell d’ya think I’m running here,” a manager bawled—“a kindergarten?” When things got bad, Houdini sold his magic tricks, a practice he would continue in his days of fame and fortune; and when they got worse, he vowed to call it quits.

But the truth is, he’d found a home with this wandering tribe. He liked to say he’d made his debut in the circus, at the age of nine, in a school chum’s backyard in Milwaukee, swinging by his heels from a trapeze. Erie, he called himself, Prince of the Air. He was, he ever would be, the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

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Bess told of an incident soon after their marriage. He was twenty, she was sixteen—or eighteen. She was a schoolgirl sheltered by a strict Catholic mother—or herself half of a singing duo. They met at a birthday party where she was a chaperoned guest and Houdini the paid entertainment—or on Coney Island, where both were playing, introduced by his brother, stage name Hardeen. It depends on whom you ask. She’d known him for two weeks. Late one night, after the show, Houdini invites his bride and his brother out for a stroll; they halt in the middle of a bridge. Swift dark water, church bells tolling the hour, clouds obscuring the moon. The stage is set. At the last stroke of midnight he raises their two hands in his. They must swear to be true to him; never to betray him; to pledge their loyalty to him unto death and carry his secrets with them to the grave.

Suspense. Sensation. Sentiment. The three S’s of melodrama, and the story of his life.

A break came with a substitution trick. One partner is tied in a sack and locked in a box; the other steps behind a screen. The next thing you know, lo and behold! the one in the box steps out from the screen and the other is discovered locked in the box. The Houdinis had it down to three seconds. The old switch got a fanciful new name, “Metamorphosis.” This may have suggested the idea of combining locks and boxes.

Houdini would say he could recall the works of every lock he ever picked, and that was probably no boast; he understood the yin/yang of locks and keys. He found in them a calling: studying, tinkering, acquiring whatever devices he could get his hands on. His competitiveness made him a cutthroat collector, and his accumulation of books, artifacts, memorabilia—on magic, theater, crime, and the occult—threatened finally to turn the Houdinis out of house and home. And home, by then, was a four-story mansion.

Magicians had done handcuff releases before; no one had tried to make them the main event. Houdini tried, and did not at first succeed. He was doing too many, too fast; he made it look easy—like magic. Escape wasn’t yet an act; Houdini wasn’t yet Houdini.

Meanwhile he courted police stations wherever he played, offering to test their wares. It was good publicity, and free. Stripped, searched, handcuffed, padlocked, chained to iron bars—often in “a nude condition”—as the stage bills read, NOTHING CAN HOLD HOUDINI. In time, notices for the lock-picker/safe-cracker/jail-breaker would include publicity puffs from official guardians of law and order around the country and across the sea: the Tombs, Scotland Yard, the famous prison-fortresses of Europe, cells of notorious criminals and notable assassins. Once, after freeing himself, and having a little time on his hands, he raced through a jail—this was Murderer’s Row—picking locks with the greatest of ease. So startled were the prisoners at this sudden apparition, a naked man turning them out of their cells, that they let him switch them around and lock them back up. It was “Metamorphosis” again.

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THE CHALLENGE ACT
BRING YOUR OWN HANDCUFFS

The essence of showmanship is upping the ante. Houdini was offering a reward—fifty bucks, no small potatoes in those days—to anyone who could produce a lock that would stump him. This too wasn’t exactly new, but when Houdini said challenge, he meant challenge: contest, conquest, was his life’s blood. He was discovering himself, the Houdini in him—the dare, double-dare, and double-double-dare.

Publicity shots of the time show a compact, muscle-bound young man, in little more than a loincloth, strung like a Christmas tree with the hardware of his trade. Chains hang from his neck, wind around his arms, twist through his legs, anchored here and there by heavy-duty padlocks and iron weights, the more the merrier. Hands manacled in front of him, he crouches like a diver, ready to spring. (The shackles were mostly ornaments, and the crouching diving stance afforded enough slack to start his escape.)

For all the decorations, Houdini’s trademark was his hair. Kinky Jewish hair, erupting from his head sidewise, off-center, in two uneven humps, almost horns. Cartoonists loved it: the sign of the sorcerer, his electric-charged energies. Not all of his escapes would be Challenge Acts, but from now on they would always be challenges.

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At the turn of the century, the Houdinis embarked for England and the Old World, without bookings, without blessings. As an “escapologist” and a one-man show, he’d worked his way up from the bottom of the bill to a headliner on the vaudeville circuit, making as much as $400 a week. But this was not his idea of success—success beyond his wildest dreams. The wind was in his sails. He was twenty-six years old, and half his life was over.

It didn’t take long before Houdini was packing them in, a blockbuster, sold-out houses, engagements extended wherever he played: England, the continent, the crowned heads and capitals of Europe. Managers fought over him. In Germany the Polizei stood by, watching a publicity stunt in a park, then arrested him for walking on the grass. How could he not succeed? These were places where they took their locks and boxes seriously. The tour would last five years.

Houdini impersonators popped up. Haudyni, Nordini, Mourdini—even a Miss Undina, with veils, and a modest Miss Lincoln in knickers, middy blouse, and sober black stockings, wary of adding cheesecake to chains. Leave it to Houdini to pluck his own rival out of his hat. He cabled his brother, the magician Hardeen: “Come over, the apples are ripe.” Here was the Houdini imitator to end all Houdini imitators; not only was he equipped with Houdini’s set-ups, and in on Houdini’s secrets, he was Houdini’s own flesh and blood. All his rivals were second-hand. His feats might be duplicated, might even be surpassed; they could never be equaled. Only Houdini could be a Houdini.

He was the New World’s new man: the little guy, the challenger, an American jack-in-the-box wild and woolly as his hair. There was a strange symmetry here: an immigrant Jew exported to the Old World as the spirit of the new. Once again, he’d lit out for the territory.

It is worth noting that, until this tour, he had never run into anti-Semitism, not in America—though he would. He was unprepared for its pervasiveness in Europe, so casual, so virulent. And then there was Russia, in a class by itself. It was 1903, the year of the Kishinev pogrom, when, in the words of Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s great poem, “the slaughter came with the spring.” So this was the Old Country. Feted by royalty, showered with gifts, the rabbi’s son left Russia with a sense of escape even he had never felt, and he never went back there again.

Houdini had left home a minor music-hall entertainer; he returned a figure of fame—a Name, with the New World still to conquer. Until the Great War, this would be the pattern. He preferred touring abroad, where bookings were longer and the accommodations better; but he had to set foot on native ground or, he said, his work would suffer. It sounds hifalutin, but it was fact. He needed the competition. He was setting up a rivalry between his two worlds—a rivalry, ever escalating, with himself. Who else was there?

Houdini’s story was a melodrama in three acts, and the second was about to begin.

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Packing crates, steamer trunks, bank vaults, beer barrels; steel boilers riveted shut; the carcass of a “sea monster” washed ashore (who thought that one up?); a gigantic football trotted up the aisle by husky linemen; a barred and metal-plated carette, a jail cell on wheels, transporting the luckless and the desperate to Siberia. A street rhyme summed it up: “The great handcuff king/Who wriggles to freedom/From any old thing.” Where the emphasis before had been on suspense, now it was sensation. Each return engagement had to knock ‘em dead, with contraptions more elaborate and far-fetched. The apparatus for his celebrated Water Torture Cell required a freight car. The new note was in the new vocabulary:

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HOUDINI’S DEATH-DEFYING MYSTERY
FAILURE MEANS A DROWNING DEATH

If upping the ante is the essence of showmanship, it’s also the imperative. Houdini was tiring of locks and boxes. Now he was performing on stage in full view, without cabinets and curtains, without picks and gimmicks. These were real restraints, real punishments, real tortures—some of them devised for real people. With a magic trick you know you’re being fooled, you just can’t see how it’s done. Now audiences saw how it was done—at length, and in excruciating detail.

The theater itself was too confining, just another box. He wanted more room, greater challenges, bigger crowds. Crowds especially. In publicity stunts, all the world was his stage prop. The Upside Down Straitjacket Escape: Houdini, arms strapped across his chest, dangling head first from the roofs of tall buildings. The Manacled Bridge Jump: Houdini handcuffed and chained, like the Dying Slave, hurtling himself into murky waters. His expanded bare chest, stubborn stocky bowlegs (both helped with the slack), goofy untamed hair: Houdini returning to his circus roots—acrobat, contortionist, high-wire act, and, it must be said, something of the sideshow freak. There are no escape clauses in escape acts; now the risk was the act.

And they came; by the thousands, the tens of thousands. Bridges and riverbanks stampeded with spectators; traffic marooned in streets paved with hats. They weren’t the raucous roaring crowds of the circus, or fans rooting for their champion on the vaudeville stage. They were mobs, there to see Houdini dead or alive—and either way it was a winning situation.

Houdini’s career by this point recalls Kafka’s tale, “A Hunger Artist.” The Hunger Artist lives in a zoo. Fasting is his art. Once upon a time he was a star attraction, touring the world with his act. In town after town everyone turned out to marvel at his feats and cheer him on. His contract limited the length of his fasts, and a chalkboard tracked the days. As the end approached, they came from near and far to keep silent vigil at his cage. (Sound absurd? How about sitting and staring at a curtain for however long it took? Audiences in the Midwest were said to be the most patient.)

But crowds are fickle; overnight they lose interest. What did they care about fasting? the Hunger Artist asks. Now, ignored by crowds and keepers alike, he can fast to his heart’s content. Because he has to fast, because he can’t help it; he had never found the food he liked. At last the Hunger Artist achieves perfection: he dies. Even as he’s swept up, straw and all, a new star is taking his place: a young panther whose “noble body seemed to carry freedom around with it, too.”

Of all of Kafka’s Jewish parables, “A Hunger Artist” might be the most Kafkaesque, expressing the longing for health, simple pleasures, and a normal life. Not the panther is the rival here, but the crowds. Everyone knows feeding time is the biggest sensation at the zoo. This could also be a fable of failing celebrity.

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The war cut Houdini off from half his public and his revenues; in Germany alone he had been booked five years in advance. He was still one of the most famous men in the world, the highest paid performer in vaudeville, a household word. His name appeared in advertising endorsements, popular sheet music, children’s ditties, and, eventually, the dictionary: “Houdinize: To release or extricate oneself (from confinement, bonds, or the like).”

Turned down by the draft—he was in his forties—Houdini went all out for the war effort, organizing another charitable brotherhood, becoming a top fund-raiser at Liberty Bond rallies, entertaining the troops with patriotic extravaganzas featuring live eagles flapping out of hats, five-dollar gold pieces flung to the doughboys. All this on his own dime. It was inevitable that he should take a flier in Hollywood, venue of the rabbis’ sons and their wildest dreams. What were The Perils of Pauline but Houdinizing?

Immigrant Jews, who had seen the possibilities of mass production for mass markets in the garment industry, had been no less quick to see the future in mass entertainment. They were the masses. From serials to feature films, to his own production company, starring in his own scripts (he kept a sweatshop of writers busy with his ideas), to investing in the latest technology, to planning a chain of movie houses, soon Houdini was dreaming of empire.

What went wrong? He might have been the greatest mogul of them all, but there was only one role for him. Putting on weight, losing his hair, as poker-faced in the clinches as in feats of derring-do, he was no matinee idol. But that wasn’t the trouble. The movies, which suspended reality, made moot the suspension of disbelief. The medium was the magic. Not everyone could be a Valentino, but anyone could be a Houdini.

There remained one more act, another metamorphosis—the trick the rabbi’s son always had up his sleeve.

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A MAGICIAN AMONG THE SPIRITS

Houdini was a street kid. His formal schooling probably stopped when he hopped that freight car. It took years to get rid of his sidewalk-and-gutter speech, and he may never have rid himself of a sense of contradiction as a not quite literate Jew. But few men have had his guts and his smarts and fewer still his acquaintance with the run of human types, from crooks and con men to kings and queens. He learned the most at the bottom.

The hustlers he’d known took advantage of human nature—greed. The spirit mediums were taking advantage of grief.

Tables tipping, chairs thumping, banjos and tambourines floating in air, gauzy ghosts, mediums drooling messy ectoplasm (known in the trade as “geek effects”) and chatting up the dead—the spirits were nothing if not practical jokers. No one could fall for such slapstick and fakery and things that go bump in the night. No one but the bereaved, longing to hear again from their loved ones, to be told they weren’t lost and gone for good, only waiting on the Other Side. The war had decimated a generation of the young; a worldwide flu epidemic, following hard after, killed many times more. The apples were ripe. Never was there an audience more willing to suspend disbelief.

Houdini had been a medium and mind-reader himself, quitting when he realized that people actually believed he could do what the spirit mediums said they did. He knew their tricks—they were his own; it was all a lot of Houdinizing. He was king of handcuffs, master of manacles, monarch of leg shackles, the greatest escape artist of all time; Houdinizing was his game. And as for supernatural powers, though there were those who swore he had them, Houdini was not one to settle for second billing.

Testifying at legislative hearings, lecturing at universities, investigating on scientific panels (“It takes a flim-flammer to catch a flim-flammer”), exposing spirit techniques in his own stage routines—no one ever said Houdini wasn’t competitive. The Lord had delivered them into his hands. But there was more to it than that. More than a mockery of magic, the spirit act was a mockery of mourning, a mockery of the dead. And grief was sacrosanct to Houdini.

When his mother was alive, he would lay his ear to her comfortable bosom and listen to her heart; when she died, he visited Machpelah Cemetery, New York’s necropolis, every chance he got and knelt to lay his ear to her grave. Granted, sentimentality is a form of exhibitionism, and there was a staginess in all his relations, as if they were publicity stunts. And he was always attracted to places of confinement. In his mind-reading days he had done his legwork checking out inscriptions on local tombstones; in his travels he made a point of visiting the final resting places of once-famous magicians and—usually with a photographer handy—planting wreaths on graves. Solemn-faced, he posed against these maudlin backdrops, all in black, his hat over his heart.

But this is when it all came out. For taking on the spirit mediums, Houdini was called a Red, an agent of the Pope, a kike, a sheeny, “a low-minded Jew,” and received many threats. America was in a fervor of nativism. The golden door was shut. There were quotas on immigrants, quotas on rabbis’ sons. The spirits will get after you.

Maybe you know the end of the story. It was the fall of 1926 and the tour was off to a bad start. In Providence, Bess came down with ptomaine poisoning; in Albany, Houdini fractured an ankle being lowered into the Water Torture Cell. Resting backstage in Montreal, he received a couple of students from McGill, where he’d lectured on superstition. Enter another student, nervously talkative. Was it true that Houdini’s cast-iron belly could withstand any blow? Would he mind giving a demonstration? Houdini had never made any such claim, but neither did he ignore a challenge. As he began to rise, the young man—much younger, and much bigger—came out swinging, blows so deliberate, so vengeful, the other two barely managed to drag him away.

Houdini gave his performance in pain and passed a terrible night on the train to Detroit. The doctor summoned by Bess insisted that he be hospitalized. But the house was sold out, a crowd would be waiting, and crowds were fickle. The show must go on. Questions about his death may never be laid to rest, but this much is known: Houdini gave his last act in a high fever, with a broken ankle and a burst appendix.

“Houdini’s secret,” Bess would say, “was Houdini.”

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What was the food Houdini craved?

Ascetic Houdini, who neither smoked nor drank, who slept no more than four or five hours a night, was always in training, testing his body, torturing it, he said. Swallowing and regurgitating billiard balls to strengthen his throat muscles; submerged in coffins underwater to study slowing his heartbeat and holding his breath; immersed in bathtubs of ice to inure himself to cold. It takes a lot of practice to make a little magic. Prince of the Air, Wild Man in a Cage, Daredevil Houdini, whose noble body carried its freedom around with it: he could be the Hunger Artist and the panther both.

The escape act is also a disappearing act. How did he get away with it? This suggests what, now, can no more than be suggested: the force of his personality.

Many photos, a few film clips, a rare recording of his voice—but where’s the magic without the magician? We live in a different world now. There have been some interesting books about Houdini; it would be hard to write a dull one. The earlier tend to hagiography, those more recent to psychological speculation about the Dark Side of Houdini. What was he escaping from? His dream of seeing his parents under the tree becomes Houdini witnessing the primal scene, and the escape is Houdini acting out his fear of death. True, the wags on the vaudeville circuit long before were touting his act as “The Death and Resurrection Show.” But that was an in-joke, the shoptalk of show biz. The larger truth is that Houdini took the escape act as far as he could go without becoming the Hunger Artist.

Besides, who needs unconscious motivations? Houdini was all up front. He was an expression—a phenomenon—of his times, the extreme that raises the particular to the level of the general. The very peculiarity of his act tells us that. And he was an American phenomenon. How would he have fared as a German Self-Liberator? Or a Russian? On his Russian tour, an officer in full regalia stomped onstage and stopped the show. The audience sat in stony silence, the manager made himself scarce. The officer was a blueblood—and who was this little Jew? The magician knew the spell to make this joker disappear. “I’m a millionaire,” he said. America was the challenge act—and the magic charm.

As between failure and death, the operative word for Houdini had to be failure. Failure was poverty, failure was hunger, failure was humiliation. The rabbis’ sons knew it well: failure in America was real failure. He presented, as Jews often do, a test case: the mandate of the melting pot. His life was a spectacularly successful solution to the immigrant dilemma, the tragedy of the fathers, the liberty of the sons.

And that dream, that tree? Who can fail to sense the longing for the days of his dead parents’ happiness; for the only piece of childhood he ever had; for the cost, the loss, the garden of Appleton? Not as a collector, but as a son, fulfilling a pledge, Houdini tried to buy back the sacred books his father had sold off in those bitter last years. And wherever he found himself on the anniversary of his father’s death, in whatever farflung place, he sought out a synagogue where, wrapped in a prayer shawl, he could recite the mourner’s kaddish. Metamorphosis comes at a price.

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He died on Halloween. He had promised—circumstances permitting—to return, or send some message from the Other Side. And if Houdini couldn’t do it, who could? For ten years Bess kept the vigil, seated in a circle, holdings hands tightly grasping hers—like a medium in one of those séances Houdini had so zealously denounced. But there would be no return engagement; there would be no more magic.

And yet in one of his last photographs something of the sort seems to have happened. There is aging Houdini, in greasepaint, eyebrows stenciled, lips rouged, his arms bared above the elbow, his bald forehead gleaming. He stands inside a hoop slung across his shoulder, its paper cover a shattered sunburst. His hand extends in a practiced flourish. The spangle of the Big Top. Someone, something, has just jumped through. But who? Where? No one’s there. Only Houdini, the ringmaster, presenting Houdini.

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Epilogue: “I was there to pick up his props.” In her juggling act as Houdini’s wife and widow, Bess is the unsung heroine of this story. She died in a railway compartment, just as, along with ships’ cabins and hotel rooms, she had spent so much of her life with Houdini. She was buried in a Catholic cemetery, taking no chances with the next world. Her gravesite alongside his remains empty. In 1973, the bust of Houdini on the monument over the Weiss family plot at Machpelah was smashed by vandals. It was restored by the Society of American Magicians, of which he’d been so staunch and contentious a member. In 1995, part of his irreplaceable collection was lost in a fire at the Houdini Museum in Appleton. Police determined that the cause was arson and investigated the case, still unsolved, as a hate crime.

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About the Author

Bette Howland is the author of W-3, Blue in Chicago, and Things to Come and Go. She is currently working on a novel, City of Refuge.




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