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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Books and Culture

Stefan Kanfer
Illusions
Harry Houdini always stressed that his miraculous tricks were the product of art, not the supernatural.
19 November 2010

Houdini: Art and Magic, by Brooke Kamin Rapaport (Yale, 280 pp., $39.95)

During his dazzling career he escaped from coffins buried under water, threaded needles with his tongue, dangled upside-down from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper while wriggling free of heavy padlocks, made a two-ton elephant vanish on the stage of the Hippodrome Theater, and spoke to ectoplasmic figures of the dead. Cumulatively, these effects convinced audiences that Harry Houdini was gifted with supernatural powers that allowed him to walk through walls and visit the beyond. The truth is somewhat more complicated.

Erich Weiss began life in total obscurity. His father, Mayer Samuel Weiss, was an itinerant rabbi who fled from Budapest to Milwaukee in the late 1870s, vainly seeking a position in the New World. The family of seven—his second wife Cecilia and five boys—was always in need of funds. Young Eric grabbed jobs wherever he could find them—peddling newspapers, shining shoes, working in a tie factory. When Mayer died in 1891, the 17-year-old plunged into show business, hoping to support himself and his beloved mother. Like so many other ghetto youths, among them Irving Berlin and Al Jolson, he started out by singing popular songs in taverns. Modest applause greeted his efforts. Then he tried his hand at magic. Overnight, Erich found his métier. Later, it all seemed logical to him: Jews had been magicians since biblical days. Hadn’t Aaron turned his rod into a serpent?

He teamed up first with a sleight-of-hand man. They billed themselves as the Brothers Houdini, an homage to the then-famous French prestidigitator, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. A year later, Erich and his real brother, Deszö, performed under the same name. After Deszö went out on his own, a pretty 18-year-old stepped into the act.

Bess Rahner came from a German-Catholic family, and when she and her partner fell in love and married in 1897, Bess’s anti-Semitic mother coldly ostracized the couple. Frau Rahner changed her tune when Erich Weiss morphed into Harry Houdini, who called himself—with good reason—vaudeville’s premiere escape artist. That was only the beginning. In time, through a series of spectacular stunts and a genius for self-promotion, Houdini was elevated to America’s most celebrated conjurer. By the first decade of the twentieth century, he had become—and remains to this day—the world’s greatest magician. Throughout his ascent, Harry remained proud of his heritage, but he was respectful rather than religious. This makes the Houdini tribute currently at the Jewish Museum in New York City a largely secular event.

The book that accompanies the exhibit, Houdini: Art and Magic, by curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport, tries to maintain a connection between Houdini and Judaism. It contains an essay, “Houdini, the Rabbi’s Son,” by NYU professor emeritus Kenneth Silverman, and another by Columbia professor Alan Brinkley entitled “The Immigrant World of Harry Houdini.” But the book’s main attraction is its lavish illustrations of magic before the age of special effects and Photoshopping. Here is Houdini manipulating cards, conversing with ghosts, and breaking free from handcuffs, giant manacles, sealed milk cans, straitjackets, and jail cells. Here is the great man performing before thousands in the U.S., on the Continent, and in Britain, where a cartoon in Judge shows America shackled with post–World War I “Blue Laws,” “Anti-Evolutionists,” “Book, Drama and Film censorship,” and a “Free Speech Gag.” The caption blares: “Page Mr. Houdini!”

Houdini died of peritonitis in 1926, at the crest of his fame. Yet long after that final disappearance, he inspired works by a slew of painters and sculptors. They include Alexander Calder, Joseph Cornell, and conceptual artist Alan Ruppersburg, whose witty installation features the 1959 biography Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls. That book, notes Rapaport, “progressively disappears (it shrinks in size) until it has completely vanished and magically appears as Denny’s, a Los Angeles fast-food restaurant.” Still, Houdini’s most valuable legacy is not for artists or magicians like Penn and Teller, James Randi, and David Copperfield, who do their own great escapes, obviously influenced by the Master. It is for the credulous public.

Throughout his professional life, Houdini had no illusions about his talent. He always assured onlookers that no matter how miraculous his tricks appeared to be, they were actually earthbound, consisting of muscular contortions, lock-picking skills, inventive gimmicks, and misdirection. He did his best to expose charlatans who claimed that their magic came from occult sources. One of his colorful posters is succinct: DO SPIRITS RETURN? HOUDINI SAYS NO—AND PROVES IT. In an epoch when programs like Paranormal State and Psychic Kids are watched by millions of naive viewers, healthy skepticism is in short supply. The exhibit, Houdini: Art and Magic, and the entertaining book that accompanies it, welcome a much-decorated veteran to the fight.

Stefan Kanfer, a contributing editor of City Journal and a former editor of Time, is the author, most recently, of a biography of Marlon Brando, Somebody.

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