The worst thing about most biographies is the long list of "begats" you have to wade through before the main subject even appears in a baby bonnet. Thank God for Kenneth Silverman. By page eight of his engaging biography of Harry Houdini, he's got the legendary escape artist and illusionist all grown up and doing eye-popping tricks. From then on, Silverman barely pauses for breath: the great Houdini frees himself from endless pairs of handcuffs (sometimes while almost completely nude -- and in a police station, no less!), escapes from the claustrophobic confines of a water-filled milk can, wriggles out of a straitjacket while dangling upside-down high above the ground from a skyscraper, and gleefully exposes shyster psychics. Between stunts, he writes books and letters filled with flowery prose and spelling errors; lies and boasts bodaciously; makes friends with fellow luminaries Jack London, Sarah Bernhardt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and amasses the largest library of magic books in the universe.
Most biographers inject too much of themselves into their narrative. Silverman, a perceptive and straightforward writer, hangs back too much. Meticulously and painstakingly researched, Houdini!!! sometimes reads too much like an artfully detailed laundry list of the performer's exploits. Without imposing, Silverman could have easily given Houdini's story a little more shape and shading than he does. When he explains how heartbroken Houdini and his wife, Bess, were about not being able to have children, and how instead they doted on a pet dog, his lack of hand-wringing (not to mention his refusal to psychoanalyze) makes their situation all the more touching: "They carried with them in touring a small white dog, Charlie, sometimes smuggling him across national borders by using one of [magician] Ching Ling Foo's conjuring methods (although, Houdini said, 'scared to death for fear of detection')."
But Houdini!!! still works, and its simplicity gives it a kind of spare elegance. Even after amassing mountains of research, Silverman (who grew up across the street from the Manhattan tenement Houdini lived in as a boy, and who once worked as a magician himself), is still amazed and mystified by Houdini's feats, and he has us asking, too, over and over again: How did he do it? Three exclamation marks at the end of a book title may seem like overkill, but Houdini, the old rascal, earned every one of them. -- Salon
Destined to be the definitive Houdini biography.
Wall Street Journal
Fascinating....The captivating story Mr. Silverman tells of Houdini's career does justice to the man and his art.
Read an Excerpt
First, Hee Must Be One Of An Impudent And Audacious Spirit, So That Hee May Set A Good Face Upon The Matter.
Hocus Pocus Junior, 1634
He Runs Face Forward. He Is A Pursuer. He Seeks A Seeker Who In His Turn Seeks Another Still, Lost Far Into The Distance. Any Who Seek Him Seek In Him The Seeker. His Life Is A Pursuit Of A Pursuit Forever.
Robert Frost, "EscapistNever"
What Is Your Favorite Motto? "Do Others Or They Will Do You." Chapter One
Houdini, Answer To A Questionnaire, 1909
1874-1898 Mayer Samuel Weiss And His Son, Ehrich Weiss
A studio photo taken in America shows the Reverend Doctor Mayer Samuel Weiss wearing a barrettthe four-cornered miter of German Reform Judaism. He is bald or balding except for a salt-and-pepper mane, nearly shoulder-length. Through his dark mustache and gray whiskers his mouth makes an unsmiling stripe, so that with his small spectacles he seems intent and solemn, perhaps severe. Whatever he thought about his life in the United States he took with him to the grave. No record of his impressions survives, if he kept any. But to judge from the known circumstances, he found little in the New World but disappointment and failure.
When he departed Europe, Weiss (originally Weisz) was no longer young. A rabbi with several years' education at German universities and some training in law, he emigrated from Budapest in 1876, when he was forty-seven. He temporarily left behind his family: his second wife, Cecilia Steiner, a small, stocky woman twelve years younger than he; their four sons, ranging in age frominfancy to six years; and a fourteen-year-old son from his first marriage. After two years in America he located a rabbinical post in the Midwest, where Cecilia and the children joined him. They embarked from Hamburg, among 322 steerage passengers of the single-screw steamer Frisia. After a fifteen-day voyage they reached New York City on July 3, 1878, in ninety-five-degree heat. By September the family had reunited and settled in Appleton, Wisconsin.
Mayer Samuel could scarcely have found himself or his family a nicer situation. Set amid farms, meadows, and woods, Appleton was a classic American small towna progressive, expanding place of nearly seven thousand, surrounded by flourishing towns like itself. Appleton supported three newspapers, two fire companies, several hotels and banks, and retail stores galore. Humming mills powered by the Fox River converted grain from the nearby fields into flour, and forests of white pine into paper. The general prosperity gave rise to roomy houses shaded by giant elms, public parks for picnicking, and opportunities to see plays, concerts, or the cannonball catchers of P. T. Barnum's "Greatest Show on Earth." The presence of Lawrence College distinguished Appleton from similar semi-rural towns and lent to its air of well-being a dignity of purpose: "it would be difficult to find in the very center of civilization," the local Crescent boasted, "a more intelligent or genial community than this."
Mayer Samuel's new home also offered a promising professional life, or seemed to. Tolerant Appleton supported Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic congregations that amicably contributed to building one another's churches. A Jewish congregation had been organized in 1866, but lacked a settled rabbi until Mayer Samuel's arrival. He presided over some fifteen Jewish families, more than seventy-five worshipers. They had no synagogue but planned to build one. Meanwhile they gathered on Friday and Saturday evenings in a hall donated by the local Odd Fellows on the town's main street, College Avenue. On the High Holy Days, Jews from nearby towns and as far away as Green Bay came to the hall, as did many non-Jewish Appletonians, curious to learn about unleavened bread.
In his cassocklike black talar and white neckbands, Rabbi Weiss cut an exotic figure on College Avenue. The Crescent called his appearance "venerable" and remarked that it commanded "the most profound respect." Townspeople may not have known that he wrote essays and poems (and apparently published some), but they recognized his erudition. He was praised for his eloquence, quiet humor, and ability to speak Hebrew, Hungarian, and German. The Volksfreund, the local German-language newspaper, called him gebildeter"very cultured."
Despite the picnicking parks and the respect for his age and learning, Mayer Samuel lasted barely four years in Appleton. His congregation, synagogue still unbuilt, let him go. They may have considered him not so much "venerable" as simply too old. Even on his arrival the Volksfreund described him as schon bejahrter, "already advanced in years." Or, becoming Americanized themselves, they may have found him too Old World. According to one longtime Appleton resident, they wanted an English-speaking rabbi while he, a native of Hungary under Hapsburg rule, spoke and conducted services in German. For whatever reason, they offered his post to a rabbi from Westphalia. To weigh on the family's already oppressive situation, during their four-year stay Cecilia had given birth to a son and a daughter. At the age of fifty-three, Mayer Samuel found himself adrift in the United States with a wife, seven children, and no job.
A failure in idyllic Appleton, he fared worse in booming Milwaukee. Although the "Deutsch Athens" contained some five hundred Jewish families, a population that increased as pogroms drove thousands more from Russia, it supported just two synagogues, with only about 125 members. Even so, many Jewish businesses stayed open on the Sabbath, leaving the pews empty. "The greatest majority of men of Jewish descent in this city," a visiting journalist observed in 1880, "are almost unacquainted with the principles which make our religion the light of mankind." The notorious ignorance and indifference created little demand for rabbis.
Mayer Samuel became a Milwaukee rabbi without a congregation. He found none even when a third synagogue went up in 1886, and a fourth in 1887. To maintain his family, he seems to have conducted some services outside the city's organized religious life. In 1883, for example, he borrowed a shofar and Torah just before the Rosh Hashanah holidays, apparently to use in services. He also reportedly opened a "private school" on Winnebago Street. Whatever his efforts, they did not spare his family from having to beg. As the Weisses moved from one address to another, Cecilia was forced to appeal to the local Hebrew Relief Society for a half ton of coal against the winter, and a few dollars for provisions.
Mayer Samuel watched the decay of the city's Jewish life touch his own children. His son from his first marriage, Herman (originally Armin), married a woman named Dollie Patterson, a churchgoing Congregationalist. Herman not only married outside the faith but also loitered there. He and his new bride gave his half-brother Ehrich a book of children's stories entitled Our Boy's Chatterboxas a present for Christmas. But Mayer Samuel saw worse than assimilation overtake Herman. The young man developed tuberculosis and was sent to New York in hopes that a change might improve his health. He died in Brooklyn during the Christmas season of 1885, at the age of twenty-two.
Ehrich's development also gave Mayer Samuel plenty to think about. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest on March 24, 1874, he was the middle son among Mayer and Cecilia Weiss's five boys. To ease the family's need he shined shoes, sold newspapers, and ran errands. But he also gave signs of becoming the archetypal Cantor's Son of the Yiddish stage, seduced from the tragic spirituality of Judaism by the bright lights of modern secularism. He brought with him to Milwaukee his excitement over a trapeze artist he had seen in Appleton, and tried to imitate. At around age nine, he made his debut as a contortionist and trapeze artist, in what seems to have been a five-cent juvenile circus assembled by a friend. He wore red woolen stockings and called himself "Ehrich, The Prince of the Air."
When Ehrich was about twelve he ran away from home, perhaps twice. Intending to stay away a year, he hopped a train for Texas, but entered the wrong freight car and arrived in Kansas City, Missourino routine escapade in a traditionally closeknit Jewish family, much less a rabbinical one. On either the same or another flight, he headed for Delavan, Wisconsin, about fifty miles from Milwaukee. Working as a shoeshine boy, he was discovered in the local business district by a middle-aged couple, the Flitcrofts. They gave him a bath and a bed, mended his clothing, and then took him in for the summer, believing him to be homeless.