I recall sitting spellbound in the City Line Center movie theater one Saturday afternoon in the 1950s, watching as the final scene of the Tony Curtis biopic Houdini unfolded. If you know the film, you may recall that the bang-up finale depicts the last moments in the great magician's life: He's lowered, head first and tightly bound in chains, into a tall glass chamber filled with water. This was his final trick, the movie insisted, one he wasn't able to pull off; and when it became clear he wouldn't succeed, the glass was broken, and the magician and all the water that had encased him both came spilling out onto the stage. A weakened Houdini reassured his wife Bess, played by Janet Leigh (was this life imitating art, since Leigh and Curtis had married two years earlier?) that he would come back even stronger, but all of the visuals reinforced the sense that the poor man had just been flushed directly toward death's door.
When, years later, I discovered that this final scene, and most of the rest of the movie was a fabrication, I was mightily upset. Wasn't that the perfect final curtain for such an obvious and flamboyant showman? What I went on to discover, however, was that Houdini's eventful life was a good deal more fascinating than even a multitude of Hollywood tall tales strung together.
A profusely illustrated new book called Houdini: Art and Magic revisits this multifaceted individual and the life he lived, both in private and as a very public celebrity. The work is written in part and edited by Brooke Kamin Rapaport, with contributions by scholars Alan Brinkley, Gabriel de Guzman, Hasia R. Diner and Kenneth Silverman. The publisher is Yale University Press, and the work is tied to a show running through March 27 at the Jewish Museum in New York.
First, let's get that last scene of the Tony Curtis movie straight. According to a section of the book devoted to Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell, drawn from the pages of Kenneth Silverman's fascinating biography, the great magician, after much practice, debuted the trick at the Circus Busch in Berlin in 1912, fully 14 years before his death. The presentation was so powerful in its day, we are told, "that imitators … exploited Houdini's headline-grabbing success." The citation also touches on how Hollywood made the cell "an evil contraption," falsely causing Houdini's death.
Houdini, who's referred to by Kamin Rapaport in her introduction as "the most famous magician who ever lived," was born in 1874 in Budapest, the son of rabbi. His real name was Erik Weisz (changed later, we're told, to Erich Weiss), and he died from peritonitis in 1926 after being punched in the stomach on Halloween night, of all times, by a McGill University student bent on testing the magician's purported strength.
The various essays in this volume look at aspects of the man and the spirited performer: The editor examines "Houdini's Transformation in Visual Culture," especially how he was depicted in contemporary posters; Brinkley looks at the immigrant world the showman inhabited; Silverman writes about "Houdini, the Rabbi's Son"; and Diner discusses the magician's wife, who was also a performer (and not Jewish) and who devoted herself to her husband's various astonishing "escapes," often acting as his assistant.
According to Rapaport, "for Houdini, escape was literally and conceptually the aftermath of his impoverished boyhood. His liberation from his immigrant past into celebrity culture resulted in his choice of everyday objects as magic apparatus. The confining vessels that Houdini chose for performance purposes were associated with escape by other immigrants as well as African American slaves … .
"Certain names given to Houdini were similarly related to his status as an agent of escape: Handcuff King, World's Handcuff King and Prison Breaker, 'death defy-er,' World Famous Self-Liberator. In documenting and displaying examples of the objects for which Houdini became best known, we can see how the metaphor of escape arose from the authentic, treacherous breakaway experiences of countless individuals in the 19th century who moved from oppression to freedom."
All of the essays are informative, some downright entertaining, and there's lots of additional, supporting material to peruse; but it's distinctly the plethora of illustrations that make the book so vivid — echoing some of the energy and color displayed during actual performances. Hats off to Yale press, yet again, for creating another visually stunning volume.