- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 16, 2006


When the magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died 80 years ago, he was as famous as screen stars Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin.

For most of 20 years, Houdini repeatedly had been in the nation’s headlines, seemingly miraculously escaping after being shackled, confined in a box or immersed in water. He also astonished theater audiences by walking through walls and making an elephant disappear.

The 80th anniversary of his death on Oct. 31, 1926, was marked this year with the publication of the biography “The Secret Life of Harry Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero,” by William Kalush and Larry Sloman.

Ever the illusionist, Houdini maintained in his professional years that he had been born in Appleton, Wis., on April 6, 1874. In reality, he had been born March 24, 1874, in Budapest and was a naturalized U.S. citizen. His father was a lawyer who became a rabbi when he moved the family to America.

Mr. Kalush, himself a magician, says that he and Mr. Sloman, an author, devoted an intensive 2 years to researching and writing the book. They were able to find “circumstantial evidence” that Houdini had spied for the United States and England in the early 20th century.

Houdini, whose father had a first cousin who was a famous magician in Europe, started early in magic. He realized that his name — Erik Weisz at birth, changed to Ehrich Weiss by U.S. immigration — lacked theatricality. He became Harry Houdini, the last name in honor of Robert Houdin, the pioneering French magician.

“At first, Houdini had success as a fraudulent spiritualist,” Mr. Kalush says, “but he realized that he wasn’t honoring his oath to his [deceased] father. He was taking care of his mother with his money, but he didn’t feel right. He gave up spiritualism; he’d rather fail than take this so-called dirty money.”

While traveling with a circus, Houdini discovered a surefire way to attract publicity in the cities where he appeared. He would visit a police station and offer to escape from any handcuffs the police could provide. He disappeared in an enclosure and emerged a few minutes later without cuffs. “Amazes the Detectives,” headlined a Chicago newspaper.

Houdini also knew that the emerging film medium was powerful. His first film was a short made in France in 1902. He often photographed his stunts, but not until 1916 did he start writing movie scripts. Between 1919 and 1923, Houdini appeared in and sometimes produced seven features and serials with such titles as “The Master Mystery,” “The Grim Game,” “Mystery Island” and “The Man From Beyond.”

“The films did extend his fame,” Mr. Kalush says, “but by the time his first film was released, his fame transcended being a normal, formal entertainer in the culture.”

Houdini was a commanding figure with piercing eyes, full lips and a shock of black hair. It was only natural that women would fall for him. “He had what women wanted: He had power, and he didn’t have to go by the rules of everybody else,” Mr. Kalush says. “He was an attractive man.”

He also had a “strange relationship” with his wife, Bess. They married young, and Bess became not only his wife, but his partner, assisting him onstage and being the foil in his stunts. As his success grew, he often was gone on long tours that provided opportunity for affairs.

In 1916, Houdini became fascinated by Charmian London, the beautiful widow of author Jack London. They had surreptitious meetings and talked by telephone, and she referred to him in her diary as “Magic Lover.” They continued exchanging ardent letters to each other until 1924, when he stopped writing.

It seemed only natural that Houdini’s death in 1926 would become shrouded in mystery. To this day, Houdini enthusiasts are at odds over what killed him.

While he was in Montreal for appearances, a mysterious young man punched him in the abdomen with four or five powerful blows. Houdini, who prided himself on being able to withstand such blows, was unprepared and suffered great pain.

A few days later, he was reading a newspaper in the lobby of his Detroit Hotel when three muscular young men approached. One of them delivered a savage blow through the paper to Houdini’s belly. He was barely able to get through the night’s performance.

Houdini was hospitalized against his will, and after two abdominal operations, he died on Halloween 1926.

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