It’s always been funny me how often that, in the process of becoming a household name, a person’s actual life story fades into anonymity. In Houdini’s case, his name is now synonymous with the art of escape, and very often the actual word for used to describe it, i.e. “That girl at the bar last night was a total Houdini. After I told her about my third nipple, she vanished.” Most people, however, would struggle to tell you anything else about Houdini. Like most legends, the actuality of his life and career has been distilled down to an iconic image of a man emerging from a steamer trunk draped in opened shackles. It was this realization, plus my constant fascination with all things turn of the century, circus, and vaudeville, that prompted me to pick The Secret Life of Houdini off the shelf of the cruise ship library that Marc and I raided while on our honeymoon. I spent the next several days totally absorbed in the thing–it was the perfect distraction from all those ill-advised bikinis and wrinkled military tattoos on the lido deck.
To tell the truth, I was surprised that I enjoyed the book so much. I love memoirs, but I’m not at all a biography person. All too often I find the tone boring and the narrator too distant to really bring the person to life for me. This was not at all the case here, although I guess you can’t give Kalush and Sloman all the credit–they pretty much would have have to consciously try to make a life like Houdini’s sound boring. Even more than learning about Houdini’s development into the greatest magician of his day and the thrills and close calls of his escape acts, though, I enjoyed the intimate details of Houdini’s life and personality that are offered up. And maybe that’s got a lot to do with the fact that Houdini was nothing like the man I had been envisioning.
Instead of being a pompous and egotistical vaudeville diva, Houdini may well have been the nicest guy to ever walk the face of the earth. Seriously, this guy was like the golden retriever of show business. Despite the nature of his career as a manipulator of people’s perceptions and imaginations, he was widely known for his honesty and integrity in his personal affairs and business dealings, even to the point of getting taken advantage of. He was an intensely loyal person, both to his family (Hungarian Jewish immigrants whose money woes were well taken care of after Houdini’s success) and to his wife Bess, who he married as a very young man, sticking by her through her pain over not being able to conceive and her lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. Possibly my favorite example of Houdini’s giant Care Bear heart, however, is contained in this excerpt from the book regarding Houdini’s remorse over a coincidentally correct prediction during his brief stint as a fake medium:
“Joe says he’s in a happy place. And he says ‘Don’t cry, Momma. There’ll be another one soon to take my place,’” Bess relayed.
The fact was Mrs. Osbourne was pregnant, a shrewd guess by Houdini since they were a young, grief-stricken couple. After the seance, an irate Harry Osbourne came backstage to give Houdini a thrashing.
“How could we know of your family circumstances if the medium was not clairvoyant?” Houdini asked him. Then he had Bess rattle off a number of other family secrets that had Osbourne mystified as he left the opera house. This incident made an indelible mark on Houdini. Twenty-six years later, Hallie Nichols, who had been in the opera house that night, went to see Houdini give a lecture on Spiritualism in Kansas City. Receiving a note that she had been in his audience in Garnett years earlier, Houdini asked her to come backstage after the show. She dined with Bess and Harry, and Houdini asked her if she was still in contact with the Osbournes. She said she was and gave Houdini their new California address. He eventually sent the Osbournes a long letter of abject apology for trifling with their emotions.
I mean, you just can’t help but like a guy like that, right? What supposedly sets The Secret Life of Houdini apart from other Houdini biographies are its conspiracy theory claims that Houdini worked as a spy for the British government and that he was eventually poisoned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s thug gang of Spiritualists, but for me those speculations came in a far second to its ability to paint an intimate and rich portrait of the man behind the handcuffs. Because, really, if after reading a biography I don’t feel like I’ve just sat at a coffee shop with the person and had them pour their soul out to me over croissants and lattes, I don’t see how you can call it a success.
The Secret Life of Houdini was exactly that, and if you’re looking for a delicious beach book this summer that also satisfies your inner steampunk, this is your ticket.