The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

October 22, 2019

The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini 

by Joe Posnanski

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster

Length: 336 pages

ISBN13: 9781501137235

$28.00

 

 

 

Houdini had it. So did Ruth. So did Ali.

I’m talking about charisma, that quality that elevates superstars above their mere accomplishments, shooting them to universal name-recognition, for generations past their own lifetimes, by their last names alone.

Nothing against Ty Cobb, or Mike Tyson, or David Copperfield-- all accomplished men in their fields, arguably as much as Ruth or Ali or Houdini, but something in their personalities falls a trifle short, and leaves each of them merely famous, not transcending fame.

This is all highly subjective, of course, maybe even just personal, depending perhaps on when each of us first encountered each of these figures, searing our consciousness with them as the pre-eminent figures in their field. But I think each of us keeps some very short list in our minds of charismatic, emblematic figures who embody their field.

Ruth is the embodiment of Baseball.

Ali, Boxing.

Houdini, Magic.

If we were to go into fields I know little about, but perhaps you’re very knowledgeable in, such as Hockey, you could probably nominate someone you feel strongly is that field’s charismatic figure—Gretzky? Orr? Maurice Richard? Gordie Howe?—and also nominate other famous players who, to your mind, lack that certain something, that je ne sais quoi, that makes up charisma.

As I say, highly subjective.

But not entirely.

The subjective part of this concerns what I would call "sweetness," that part of their personalities that extended itself to the public beyond their accomplishments, and which came across as "charm."

Perhaps the best example of charm and counter-charm I can conjure up for you is Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. Marilyn (in her case, the first name is all she needs) is a phenomenally famous actress considered in proportion to her actual acting career, which was very short and not all that distinguished. I can certainly name you dozens of her contemporaries who played five memorable roles for every one she played, but very few who approached her level of renown, which I attribute to something very much like "charm," a tenderness of personality, an entry into her true self, which communicated itself even through the mask of her public persona.

DiMag, her negative number in many ways, lacked that sweetness, that vulnerability, that charm. He was certainly as accomplished as she was, in some ways as accomplished as Babe Ruth, for that matter, at least potentially, but he was too closed-off, too private, too surly, too something, to give us access to even a glimmer of his private self that we could all identify with.

My favorite Marilyn/DiMag story, possibly apocryphal but I think true, is about her gushing to her husband about the warm reception she received when touring before U.S. troops in Korea: "Oh, Joe, you never heard such cheering, thousands and thousands of men, screaming your name!" to which Joe D. supposedly replied quietly, "Yes, I have." Joe gets the better of the story, the topper, the squelcher to his insensitive, ignorant young wife not realizing who she’s talking to,  but there’s just something about her excitement, her naiveté in forgetting momentarily what her husband used to do for a living, and how well he did it, that I find charming, and there’s also something nasty and bitter and charmless I find in her husband’s need to restore himself to an equal footing with her in her moment of glory.

My point is that, yes, he did deserve that equal footing, and yes, he was probably a far greater ballplayer than she was an actress, but charisma isn’t about accomplishments as much as it’s about the humanity that allows us to glimpse each of their inner selves. She had it and he didn’t. Or more precisely the humanity he lets us glimpse in this anecdote is a tightly sealed, stingy humanity, the only kind he had to share with others. Not very charismatic.

It’s not just a male-female thing, I think. Ali, for all his bluster and belligerence and public posturing, had a part of him that had been hurt, that was reacting to the pain he felt, the anguish he tried to express, and which came across despite his often inarticulate voicing of it. He could treat reporters to the same callous personality that DiMaggio did, but I never got the feeling that there was anything personal in his hostility to reporters’ questioning. You can often see, in fact, Ali’s public belligerence with a reporter breaking down in mid-interview, and his face would turn suddenly from hard and impenetrable to soft and compassionate.

Not DiMaggio. He was a tough nut to crack all down the line, from a shy, sullen, mistrustful rookie superstar to an elderly, arrogant, self-promoting hoarder of his privacy.

Anyway, in discussing the subject of "charisma," it is easy to get carried off on the bullshit wagon, especially by people who disagree about the particular objects of one’s worship. If you’re not a Marilyn fan, or an Ali devotee, you may be thinking "Don’t get it. Does nothing for me. It’s just hype," and I may well think that way about your particular objects of reverence. What we all share, however, is having special people in our minds whom we hold in that sort of reverence that goes way beyond whatever objective measures we can argue they’ve surpassed.

There are lots of figures worshipped by a great number of people who leave me completely cold. Pete Rose, for example, or Ronald Reagan, or Jimi Hendrix—not because I don’t care about baseball or politics or rock’n’roll, but because I find these men exemplifying hype, not gifted with godlike talents, just in the right place at the right time, skilled at packaging their mystique,  and hungry for success.

 

CATEGORY

HAS CHARISMA

FAKES CHARISMA

HAS NONE

Rock ‘n’ roll

Jagger

Madonna

E. John

Baseball (batting)

Ruth

Rose

Ripken

Baseball (pitching)

Pedro

McLain

Hershiser

Boxing

Ali

Foreman

Liston

Politics

RFK

Reagan

Dukakis

Rabble-rousing (left)

Malcolm X

Sharpton

Tom Hayden

Rabble-rousing (right)

Wm. F. Buckley Jr.

Palin

Pat Buchanan

Movie Acting (Male)

Brando

Nicholson

Beatty

Movie Acting (Female)

Marilyn

Grace Kelly

Sharon Stone

Football

Jim Brown

Tebow

Peyton Manning

Basketball

Jordan

Marbury

Karl Malone

Comedy

Pryor

Chevy Chase

Seinfeld

Directing

Welles

Tarantino

Scorcese

 

Your list may be completely different from mine, and mine may be full of fakes and poseurs and wannabes to you—that’s ok. My point is that I have a list and so do you, and mine wasn’t too hard to conjure up.

This isn’t a list of people who are on it because of their talents, though they’re all damned talented. This isn’t a list of my favorites, either. Orson Welles’ movies often bore me into a vegetative state, but, man, is he riveting talking about his movies, or about magic, or hoaxes, or reading from page 394 of the St. Louis telephone directory.  Fat as he was, he was greater than the sum of his parts. (Hmmm—not a bad phrase to have inscribed on my own tombstone. Some day. Don’t be impatient.)

Anyways, this is supposed to be about Joe Posnanski’s new book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini.  Under "Magic," I had listed Houdini, naturally, under "Has Charisma" and had listed Penn under "Fakes Charisma" but couldn’t think of anyone in particular who "Had None," and since the rest of this article was going to be about Houdini, and Posnanski, and other masters of the dark arts, I figured I could leave that entire category untouched.

Foolishly, I was expecting Pos’s book to be a biography of Houdini, and based on the title, an examination of the spiritual side of his strange life, but it isn’t.  I’ve taken some incoming lately for criticizing books that fail to be the book that I would have written if I’d written it, instead of dispassionately reviewing the book the author wrote, but in Posnanski’s case, I’m not sure I see what the "Afterlife" is. Naively and incorrectly, I was remembering that Houdini had vowed to try his level best to communicate with loved ones (or maybe his attorney?) from beyond the Mystical Veil of Death, the idea being "If anyone could pull that one off, it would be Houdini, and if he can’t pull it off, then that’s as close we’ll get to proof that it couldn’t be done." I was hoping for an entire book focusing on this one phenomenon, and what I got was a couple of pages dwelling on this aspect.

That’s on me, not Posnanski. The chief problem of anyone who sets out to write a book, of almost any type, about one of these charismatic figures is that it’s been done before, and sometimes brilliantly. In the case of Babe Ruth, for example, Jane Leavy had Robert Creamer’s definitive biography standing right in front of her, smirking, "Okay, try it, hot-shot," and she did—she tried it, and she succeeded in writing what is now the definitive, authoritative Babe Ruth book. But that’s a big order, and as I explained here, https://www.billjamesonline.com/leavy_rhymes_with_heavy/ , she couldn’t actually write a conventional biography of Ruth, because, as good as it would have been, we would have fallen asleep before the Babe started wearing long pants. We’ve simply read that narrative too many times before, so Leavy had to come up with some organizing principle that defeated our expectations. (She focused, if you don’t remember my ravings, on the Babe’s off-season and off-the-field dealings, filling us in on the usual stuff only in passing.)  Posnanski has taken a tack here that is perhaps equally inventive, the subjective biography of Houdini—the life story of the great magician filtered through Posnanski’s own story about his lifelong fascination with the man, and his interviews with other Houdini-nuts, fans, fellow practitioners of the black arts, etc.

It's an interesting approach, especially if you’re familiar with Houdini’s life story, as I am not. My primary source of Houdini-lore, in fact, is the Tony Curtis biopic of his life, which I saw as a young boy. Oddly, that’s also Pos’s touchstone, to which he returns throughout the book, as an illustration of the ways Houdini’s legend has gotten distorted, romanticized, exaggerated and screwed up in popular culture. "Houdini" conjures up a wide variety of thoughts for most of us—I had categorized him under "Magic" but he wasn’t exactly a magician in the pure sense of the term, was he? He was a specialist in "Escape Artistry" and also in "Debunking Magic Tricks" more than he was purely a magician, a performer of illusions. And as I say it was a sub-set of the latter category that mostly fascinated me, his hatred of magic that pretended it was real, the quintessence of which is those magicians who pretend that they can communicate with the dead, defrauding the hopeful believers who want desperately to hear another word from their beloved departed ones.

Harry Houdini was a technical master, an ingenious, fiendishly hard-working technician, and a great athlete of sorts, performing many of his incredible escapes partly by dint of training his body to endure inhuman punishments, depriving himself of air, ignoring physical pain, and risking his life time and again. He would practice and rehearse grueling stunts, and perform them innumerable times, until he became inured to the pain they would entail, and his audiences would marvel at his ability to take punishment that no human could possibly endure, amazed at the invisible trickery Houdini was evidently employing. But often there was no trickery: he simply had trained himself to take the pain.

That’s what killed him. As Posnanski tells it, he had a long-standing offer to take a few hard punches to his gut from anyone who cared to give him some. One autumn evening, a student towering ten inches over Houdini took him up on the queer offer, entering his dressing room at a time that Houdini, unknowingly,  happened to be in the early stages of an appendicitis attack, and belted him in the stomach, hard, hitting him with "up to seven successive blows." The next few days and nights, still performing his act, Houdini was in agony, but he ignored it, as par for his chosen course of challenging strangers to punch his stomach, masking the pain that was a symptom of appendicitis. He died of a ruptured appendix on Hallowe’en of 1926.

He’s buried, by the way, within easy walking distance of my New York City apartment, a fact I wish I'd known before I moved out after nearly 30 years. (I’m returning to it for ten days in November, to clear out the odds and ends the moving van left behind but that should be my final stay there before I return for a brief closing ceremony this winter.) He’s buried a few hundred yards from Jackie Robinson, in fact, whose grave I was aware of but which I never visited either, and I think I’ll have too many tasks to do in those ten days to make either pilgrimage. My maternal grandparents are also buried in another cemetery in that area—the borderline between central Brooklyn and central Queens is filthy with graves—and I’ve walked to their graves a few times over the years.

I’m not too much on visiting gravesites, and contemplating the dead in general. Well, "contemplating." I think all the time about the dead people I have known, and the past in general, nearly obsessively. I’ve been writing a long memoir about odd or disturbing moments in my life, many of them involving analyses of various people I’ve known, some now dead and others still living, going so far into my past as to write (and publish: https://www.full-bleed.org/migration/2017/5/8/the-verboten-journals-of-mordecha​i-goldblatt) an account of my paternal grandfather’s life, a man who was born (I’m not kidding) in 1856. I never knew him—he died while World War One was going on, quite a bit before my time—but I’ve devoted a lot of time and thought and serious contemplation to him. And I’ve twice visited his grave in Hamilton, Ontario, too, but here’s the thing: I don’t get visiting gravesites. When I do it, I’m usually puzzled by my own motivation. I don’t really understand spiritualism, other than as an abstract construct.

I don’t get what are people are doing when they go to the site where a relative is buried, and talk to the headstone, or even just think a speech inside their heads addressed to the dead person. I certainly don’t understand praying for the dead, because I don’t think they exist any more, other than in the memories of the living, and I can’t make myself believe that asking God (in Whom I don’t believe) to take care (?) of their souls (which I don’t think exist) is anything other than wish-fulfillment of a rather grand theatrical nature. 

I’m a materialist, pure and simple, and that’s one trait I share with Harry Houdini, and with Joe Posnanski, who writes:

Let me make an admission:  I don’t much care about spiritualism. I don’t much care about Houdini’s late-life exposure of mediums. There are many people, countless people, who are obsessed by this chapter of his life, who can’t hear enough about his great battle with the medium Margery, his friendship and bad blood with Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle, and his hunger to speak with his mother after her death. I get it. Houdini reached new levels of fame and notoriety when he took on spiritualism and dedicated his life to exposing mediums as frauds. The last years were filled with controversy and threats and triumphs; in many ways this was the battle that Houdini was born to fight.

But I can’t lie: It bores me. I prefer the escapes. I’d rather talk about the magic.

It might seem odd that someone as repelled by spiritualism and mysticism as Houdini was would "hunger to speak to his mother after her death," but that hunger requires food before being satisfied, and Houdini never found a scrap of food.  He couldn’t make himself pretend that air was food. He was unhappy, profoundly miserable, that his mother remained unreachable after her death, but he accepted his misery rather than pretend that he knew how to communicate with her.

After his own death, he similarly had his widow go through an elaborate series of events to speak with him from the spirit world, if any existed, but they never spoke.  (As part of his act, he had worked up a code with his wife, who assisted him on-stage, whereby several normal English words would represent numbers: 6 represented "Please," 9 represented "Look," 3 represented "see," and so on. She "would ask someone in the crowd to pick a number and whisper it in her ear. Then she would shout out something like ‘Please look inside your heart and see this number.’ And Houdini would know the number 693.") He instructed her that after his death he would send her a message that consisted of a strange-seeming series of words whose initials would spell out the word "BELIEVE" in the numerical code that only he and she would understand.

Like his mother failing to speak to him after her death, Houdini’s failure to contact his widow after his own death simply reinforced his lack of faith in spiritualism, and his contempt for those whose livelihoods depended on it. He gave spiritualism chance after chance to prove itself genuine, and it came up completely empty. (His widow did, however, become susceptible to alcohol and to gigolos after Houdini’s death, and she did drunkenly reveal their code to one young handsome con-man, who then claimed a successful communication with the deceased magician in the Houdinis’ private code.)  Houdini understood the trickery that he and other magicians could employ to make the gullible feel that they had witnessed genuine magic, and his legacy, his "afterlife" if you will, is to give spiritualists a chance to prove their ability to speak with the dead, which they could do, as he showed, only by clever trickery.  

Posnanski describes one episode in which Houdini fooled former President Teddy Roosevelt into thinking he had read his mind at a séance but then Posnanski revealed how Houdini had simply guessed shrewdly at the question Roosevelt would ask, the answer to which he had secretly researched in advance. When the astonished Roosevelt had asked if Houdini had divined the answer through genuine spiritualism or legerdemain, Houdini answered him, "It was hocus-pocus." Posnanski describes the con as Houdini’s demonstration of the art of deceitful manipulation of his audience.

This book about Houdini’s life is both more than a biography and less. It is a catalogue of the numerous biographies that have been written of Houdini over the past century or more, most of which are full of errors, such as the first sentence of "Houdini by Houdini," an autobiographical article in the Magical Annual of 1910:

                My birth occurred April 6th, 1874, in the small town of Appleton, Wisconsin, U.S.A.

He had been born on March 24th, in fact, and not in the U.S.A. at all, but rather in Budapest, Hungary. His name wasn’t even "Harry Houdini," but rather "Erik Weisz," and very little else of the biographical information about him was accurate, whether derived from him as a primary source or from others. Most of the biographies have gigantic holes in them, but Posnanski is more interested in finding and filling in these holes than he is in presenting his own traditional biography. The story he tells, instead, is one of how he, Joe Posnanski, came to learn about Houdini, and his legend, and the place he holds in cultural history. He tells this story by recounting his own exposure, through the Tony Curtis movie and other flawed media ("if any phase of Houdini’s life is shown on screen," he quotes the magician Milbourne Christopher, "you can be sure it didn’t happen the way it’s pictured") and through visits to other devotees of Houdini, some of them famous magicians themselves, some of them proprietors of Houdini museums, some of them con-men, some of them scholars, some of them just dedicated lifelong Houdini-freaks, finding out the complications and the contradictions of Houdini’s life.

This is very much the tale of Joe Posnanski learning the true story of Houdini, in stops and starts, in bits and pieces, rather than a straightforward biographical account of the man. Flaubert famously observed that in his book, an author must be like God in the universe, everywhere present but nowhere visible;  Posnanski’s approach, however, is to be everywhere visible but often absent from the main narrative. Like any fine writer, what Posnanski gives here is greater than his ostensible subject. His true subjects are celebrity and charisma, the qualities Houdini had that elevated him into the pantheon above mere entertainers, mere performers, mere superstars. His ultimate word for Houdini is "showman," someone who devotes his own life to presenting illusions that people mistake for magic. Houdini told his audiences that he was deceiving them, and then showed them nothing of what he was really doing to deceive them. They ate it up, and they are still clamoring for more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (17 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Maybe I expressed that thought poorly, johnvgps. I meant that the anti-spiritualist crusade Houdini was on for the last few decades of his life (which I'm clumsily labelling his "lack of faith in spiritualism") is reinforced (for us) by his failure to reach out from the spirit world. He promised in effect to find a way to send his wife a message, and I take the fact that he didn't as a bit of evidence against spiritualism. Sorry for any confusion.
5:07 PM Oct 27th
 
OldBackstop
Your writing has greatly improved.
12:42 AM Oct 27th
 
johnvgps
I can't get past one sentence: "Houdini's failure to contact his wife after his own death simply reinforced his lack of faith in spiritualism."

So now that he's dead we know somehow that he's even more skeptical about mediums and spiritualism?

Doesn't seem like the "he" you're talking about here is Posnanski, not sure what you might be trying to say.
8:32 PM Oct 26th
 
steve161
I saw Janet Leigh at a Democratic fund raiser sometime in the early sixties. I had seen her on screen, of course, but nothing prepared me for how stunning she was in person.
9:58 AM Oct 25th
 
bhalbleib
Thanks for the review. I have to say that every time I see the Tony Curtis biopic of Houdini, my thoughts usually start with, wow Jamie Leigh Curtis's mom was an absolute knockout. And then I usually (and unhappily) mentally note that is it too bad, that while Jamie Leigh inherited her mom's figure, she inherited her dad's face, which looks great on a man, not so great on her.
9:01 AM Oct 25th
 
Fireball Wenz
Enjoyed this very much.

Doug Henning. Doug Henning has no charisma.
7:16 PM Oct 23rd
 
bearbyz
Loved the article, has gotten me interested in the book. Disagree a lot with your charisma list. Only one on the who has charisma list, but a lot of fake charisma and the none list.
6:32 PM Oct 23rd
 
steve161
Thanks for this, Steven. It does exactly what I want a review to do: it gives me an idea of whether or not I'd want to read it.

I was of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I have at most a passing interest in Houdini. On the other, I've yet to regret reading anything by Joe Posnanski. I think you've tipped the scale in its favor. I don't expect it to match his book on Buck O'Neil, but it sounds like it'll be worth the time.

On the subject of charisma: I've never associated it with charm. Rather I see it as an especially magnetic aspect of personality that compels one's attention. The dictionary says it compels loyalty, but I think Bill Clinton has it, yet I feel no loyalty to him whatsoever.

I do like your chart, even though I might quibble about some of the names. In hockey: Orr, nobody else comes close. And that despite a pretty bland personality off the ice during his playing years. Another candidate: Mark Messier. More recently: Alexander Ovechkin.
6:01 PM Oct 23rd
 
paulw112
Enjoyed the article. I've been looking for years and have not found anything resembling a definitive biography of Houdini -- does anyone have a recommendation?
And off subject, but my favorite quote about illusion came from the late great Ricky Jay: "David Copperfield's act resembles magic in much the same way that Velveeta resembles cheese."
4:57 PM Oct 23rd
 
OldBackstop
This was well written.
1:36 PM Oct 23rd
 
shthar
That's the biggest link I ever seen.
12:52 PM Oct 23rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sorry about the formatting glitches--we here at BJOL (i.e., someone other than me) are working on it. I tried adding the category of "Directing" (I'd deleted it because I couldn't come up with a good "HAS NONE" candidate, but then remembered that I discussed Welles so it needed to be restored) and editing tables is harder than I thought, well above my pay grade.
6:42 AM Oct 23rd
 
Gfletch
The secret to charisma (as opposed to charm, which I believe people often mix up) is what you identified about Marilyn Monroe: the opposite of privacy...vulnerability, sometimes only glimpsed but often enough that we see some part of the true self. That true self should motivate empathy, though, or what would have been charisma will motivate only contempt.

John Lennon...I loved John Lennon not just because of his songwriting and singing (both of which I rate very, very high) but because of his courage in revealing his true feelings, his vulnerability.

That's all I got.​
1:05 AM Oct 23rd
 
hortonwho
Say what you will about Marilyn's acting, she was the lead actress in the greatest movie comedy of all time. So she's got that going for her!
10:58 PM Oct 22nd
 
isaaclightstone
You really had to go back to Dukakis to find a politician with no charisma? Really? Hillary has zero charisma and two epic fails as a frontrunner to prove it.
10:17 PM Oct 22nd
 
mpiafsky
Got the book last night at Joe's launch (moderated by the ever-laconic Nick Offerman). By far the most interesting stories Posnanski told were about David Copperfield's private Houdini museum, which sounds bonkers.
7:53 PM Oct 22nd
 
mvandermast
1. I enjoyed reading this.

2. Does Joe say elsewhere in the book that he is a thoroughgoing materialist? I don't see it here. Googling "spiritualism," I see two definitions right away.

noun
1.
a system of belief or religious practice based on supposed communication with the spirits of the dead, especially through mediums.
2.
PHILOSOPHY
the doctrine that the spirit exists as distinct from matter, or that spirit is the only reality.

When Joe writes, "I don't care much about spiritualism," I would take him to be saying he doesn't care about spiritualism in the sense of definition #1, not that he disbelieves in spiritualism in the sense of definition #2. Any number of nonmaterialists (myself, for example) are uninterested in and/or skeptical of claims that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by living humans, especially professional mediums.
7:30 PM Oct 22nd
 
 
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