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  Cover Story October 28th, 2010     

by Frederick Gomez

Harry Houdini. The name conjures up a plethora of images, and meanings, that seem as boundless as the man, himself. In the entire sweep of human history, and especially entertainment, Houdini occupies a secure place in the consciousness of the general populace, on a worldwide level. His magical career is a classic example of what many of today’s entertainers refer to as a “cross-over hit.” He was the world’s first, true “superstar,” whose celebrity cut across most cultural boundaries, unlike opera singers, music composers, or literary icons whose prose were not always received, internationally.

Will Rogers, America’s beloved satirical genius, sized him up as “the greatest showman of our time – by far!” Ireland’s Nobel laureate, playwright, and social commentator, George Bernard Shaw, went even further when he evaluated Houdini as one of the three most renowned individuals in world history!

At his zenith, he was a pioneer aviator (the first to conquer flight over Australian skies on a controlled aircraft), inventor, author, and the Grand Inquisitor to the world of Spiritualism. He virtually lived on the front pages of cosmopolitan newspapers.

Unless one lived during his age, it is difficult for contemporaries to feel the true pulse, and vibrancy of his influence, as when he walked the earth.

During his day he was the number one box office draw as a live performer on the vaudeville stage. In 1920, he set an unprecedented record as the highest-paid solo entertainer when he earned the staggering sum of $3,750 a week at the London Palladium! Even by today’s 2010 standard, that would be a gargantuan weekly paycheck, especially if that monstrous amount were to be translated into today’s dollars!

In his heyday, his annual income was more than double that of the U.S. president!

Ever the quipster, Houdini once said about all this fanfare: “With due modesty, I recognize no one as my peer.” Humor reminiscent of Oscar Wilde.

As a movie star he not only acted in several Hollywood feature films, such as ‘The Grim Game’ for Paramount Aircraft Pictures (1919), and ‘Terror Island’ (1919), but he eventually
wrote, produced, and created his own Houdini Picture Corporation.

HoudiniBorn Erik Weisz, in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, on March 24, 1874, the scion of
a Jewish rabbi, his early beginnings lost no time in becoming shrouded in mystery. As a young child, he was brought to Appleton, Wisconsin. After their arrival, ironically, it was Houdini’s mother, Cecilia Weisz (formerly Miss Steiner), who began the Man of Mystery’s enigmatic life. After their Wisconsin settlement, she arbitrarily claimed Appleton as his place of birth, and April 6 (not April 7, as some Houdini biographers have reported) as his birthday. It has been asserted that she wanted to jettison her son’s Hungarian birth so that young Erik would assimilate quicker, thinking he was American, not an immigrant’s son.

Diary recordings reveal that Harry was particularly close to his mother, as her motive for his acclimation into the New World was never applied to his siblings.

In a letter to his brother, Theo, Houdini vowed to continue his mother’s observance of his April 6 birthday, and Appleton as his place of origin. This devotion to his mother’s wishes begat the first of many mysteries of Harry Houdini’s life. In subsequent interviews, as an adult, this misled many newspapers, and other publications, to print both his birthplace and birthday, erroneously.

The man of mystery left a trail of controversy and puzzlement from cradle to grave. Like the consummate illusionist, his life became difficult to separate fantasy from reality.

Sir Winston Churchill once made a celebrated remark about Russia on a radio broadcast, in 1939, that could very easily apply to Harry Houdini’s life: “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

There have been legions of books and several films on the life of this great showman, so the intent of this article is to delve into those aspects which are less well-known to the casual observer. However, some prominent points of reference must be made to give a somewhat clear overview of the man’s life.

Specifics regarding Houdini continue to be as elusive as his escapes. For instance, several esteemed scholars disagree on such rudiments as his height, etc. Some biographers give his height as 5’ 2.” Other sources estimate him as 5’ 7” tall. Credence tends to favor his physical stature at 5’ 5” – and that remains the most authoritative estimate. Why are such details of importance? Primarily because accurate minutiae is a vital barometer in the overall accuracy of any pursuit. And secondly – and perhaps, as importantly – the general populace wishes to be so informed. It is highly democratic to give the people what they wish to know. Worldwide interest in Harry Houdini – even to this day --seems to substantiate this ‘craving for detail.’

As so often happens when the early immigrants came to America, immigration officials sometimes officiated their names phonetically, i.e. as it sounds, rather than how it should be properly spelled. Houdini’s birth name, Erik Weisz, was recorded at his port of entry as Ehrich Weiss.

Young Ehrich was often called by a pet name, Ehrie. To the indiscriminate ear, Ehrie sounds like “Harry,” and so the evolution was a subtle one: Harry Weiss. But, even this name transformation was only temporary. The young Ehrich Weiss soon became enamored with the great French illusionist, Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, after reading the great magician’s autobiography. So entranced was Harry that he wanted to become like Houdin, himself. A close friend (erroneously) told the smitten Ehrich that if he only added the letter “i” to Houdin, it would signify “like,” in the French language. Wanting to be like his idol, Houdin, Harry quickly added the “i” and subsequently became: “Houdini.”

Later in life, much of the fabrication that surrounded him was of his own making.

Houdini’s friends were names out of a Who’s Who book. One of his closest admirers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, distinguished author of the Sherlock Holmes books! The British writer was forever convinced that Houdini possessed supernatural powers; a claim that Houdini, himself, denounced as totally untrue. It was Sir Conan’s Doyle’s wife, Lady Doyle, that caused Houdini to become even more derisive about so-called spiritualists – mediums who claimed to make contact with the dead. This, despite the fact that a young Harry Houdini, himself, performed as a spiritualist, earlier in his career.

Regarding Lady Doyle, a rather uncomfortable episode transpired for the now-established escape artist, when she showed Houdini a demonstration of “spirit writing,” wherein she claimed to be an intermediary between Houdini and his deceased mother, Cecilia Weisz. When Lady Doyle wrote a message that she said came from his beloved mother, from the spirit world, Houdini became perturbed. The alleged message from the Great Beyond was ‘written’ in English, stating that Mrs. Weisz was happy, and for her son not to be despondent. The message was accompanied by a Christian cross, which further caused Houdini discomfort. Mrs. Weisz was obviously of the Jewish faith, the wife of a rabbi, and would never have included any Christian symbol. Neither would she have written anything in English. German was her first language and she both spoke and wrote German to him, having very little knowledge of the English language, as did her husband, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz, who was from the German Reform Judaism faith. Rabbi Weisz was fluent in three languages: German, Hebrew, and Hungarian. English was never mastered.

Little did Lady Doyle realize that her escapade as a spiritualist-medium -- who claimed to have made contact with Mrs. Weisz -- would help set into motion a crusade against Spiritualism, spearheaded by Harry Houdini, himself. The profane involvement of his mother’s name on such fraudulent terms vexed him to the point that he became relentless in exposing fake spiritualists from coast to coast. Houdini viewed such undertakings as insidious, causing many a grieving widow (and widower) to be misled, exploited, and often fleeced of their fortunes.

Like Don Quixote, Houdini tilted his lance, not at windmills, but at the charlatans who paraded as genuine mediums. Spiritualism was all the rage in 1920s America and Europe. So much so that even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle supplanted his Catholicism for Spiritualism, which had its genesis in the 1840s. Doyle and Houdini soon became estranged.

Houdini’s attachment to his mother was towering. Her name would not be allowed to be desecrated in the name of Spiritualism. This was the woman who some say even occupied a tier above his own wife, Bess (Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner). When his mother died, at age 72, when Houdini was away from her, performing in Copenhagen, Denmark, he physically collapsed, unconscious, upon reading the cablegram telling of her passing in the States!

Prior to his sailing, his mother kissed him and told him in German: “Ehrich, vielleicht bin ich nicht da wenn du zuruck kommst.” (Translation: Ehrich, perhaps I won’t be here when you return.”) She had uttered this before, but, this time it came to fruition. Houdini’s diary reveals the agony he endured. Long afterward, he would routinely visit her burial place, lying face-down upon her gravesite, speaking gently to her in revered tones. That Houdini was, in street vernacular, a “Mama’s Boy,” is something he readily admits to in his diary entries. There is no shame in it. Bar mitzvahed at age 13, Houdini kept the Torah’s law of honoring one’s parents, and so he did, Old World style.

Houdini’s death is often confused with that portrayed in Hollywood’s fictionalized movie version, Houdini, starring Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh (Paramount Pictures, 1953). To this day, many people are confused as to how he actually died. Another slice of mystery added to his legend and lore.

The beginning of his demise was at the Princess Theatre, in Canada, on October 22, 1926, where he was performing. Earlier, Houdini had presented a lecture on physical fitness, at McGill University. Ever the fitness fanatic – he never drank nor smoked -- he espoused the virtues of clean living. Throughout his life, Houdini prided himself, as a Spartan, for his agility, strength, and endurance. Early in his youth he excelled in sports, such as track, boxing, and swimming. He was such a formidable swimmer that he had once planned to compete in the Olympics in that event.

It is the apogee of irony that his physicality would, inadvertently, lead to his undoing. While reclining on his backstage couch, reading his fan mail, two McGill University students visited him. One was an artist who was busying sketching a portrait of the great showman, when a third visitor arrived, by the name of Whitehead. It has been said that Whitehead was an amateur pugilist who was curious as to Houdini’s ability to withstand solid punches to his midsection. Houdini had demonstrated this on previous occasions while lecturing on the importance of maintaining one’s physical fitness.

Whitehead inquired if the great magician would demonstrate to him how his abdominal muscles could withstand such a punch. Houdini acquiesced. Putting aside his fan mail, the great showman began his ascent from a reclining position on the couch. Not fully erect, and still not prepared in bracing his midsection, Whitehead unleashed a barrage of vicious punches! So ferocious were the punches that the other students thought Whitehead to have lost his senses! They were about to intervene when Houdini called them off. Sadly, the damage had already been done, but Houdini – by sheer physical fortitude – refused to let on.

He had a show to commit to, and his stubbornness stayed on. By curtain time, the pain to his stomach worsened. Somehow, he persevered through the entire show. Finally, the searing burn of internal damage had risen to the point where he confessed all to his wife, Bess. Incredibly, he traveled under his own power to Detroit for the next engagement – but barely. A doctor had been wired ahead to attend to him. Stubbornly, Houdini went directly to the Garrick Theatre where he was booked to perform, overseeing and helping set up his magic props. He had to lay on the floor of his dressing room, as his strength and constitution evaporated. A Dr. Leo Drezka was waiting at the Statler Hotel in vain, and finally found Houdini at the theatre. Dr. Drezka, upon examining him, urged him to be hospitalized immediately.

He refused.

When told the house was full, Houdini said he would not disappoint those who came to see him. Like a game cock that knows not when to quit, the renowned escape artist limped to the floodlights to welcome the assemblage. Sheer willpower, alone, carried him throughhis paces and when intermission came, he staggered and fell to the floor, out of view of the
audience. Perspiration rolled off his face and his fever rose to 104. He was getting worse fast, and he fought the inexorable advancement of internal poisoning.

What transpired has puzzled the medical profession, as well as biographers: Houdini somehow returned to the stage to complete the second half of the show – though at times his assistants had to take over as the debilitating pain prevented him from raising his arms! His stubbornness was his undoing. He was finally taken to the hospital. Dr. Charles S. Kennedy performed emergency surgery, extricating his badly ruptured appendix on October 25. Seventy-two hours of poisoning had already started its lethal work prior to the surgery. Streptococcus peritonitis set-in during post op. A frantic second surgery was performed on Oct. 29, but the toll was too much for even Houdini to endure. Sadly, he whispered to his wife, Bess, that he was tired of fighting, and that he felt his worsening condition would finally get the better of him.

It did.

At precisely 1:26 p.m., on Sunday, October 31, 1926, at Grace Hospital, in Detroit, Michigan, the greatest escape artist the world has ever known failed to escape his final challenge.

In everything Houdini did, he did in unprecedented style: his funeral was in New York at the Elks Lodge Ballroom, a stone’s throw from Broadway, the Great White Way, where all aspiring entertainers yearn to be. And he was supremely proud of his dexterity in manipulating a deck of cards; he was once billed as “The King of Cards,” a title he took great pride in. He died at age 52, the exact number of playing cards in a deck, the quintessential prop of all magicians!

Even his exit from this world was in typical Houdini style: he passed away on the most magical and supernatural day on the calendar, Halloween! And his funeral drew a standing-room-only crowd of over two thousand people – even unto death, he was a showman to the end!

From today’s perspective, we often lose sight of how much he challenged the standards of his time. He was photographed almost totally in the nude with only shackles adorning him. It was a sly way for Houdini to sell the ‘forbidden fruit’ of nudity to early 1900s America, in an age where full-body bathing suits were the order of the day, for both men and women! Houdini had no equal in self-promotion and he made world-headlines doing it. His mystique was so extraordinary, that legendary French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, once pleaded with him to restore her amputated leg! Despite his denials of such powers, her persistence brought tears to Houdini’s eyes. Though it is true that the great magician
created much of his own myth, he stopped short of ever claiming supernatural powers.

Despite these denials, there were others who swore to their grave, that they had witnessed Houdini’s other-worldly powers. J. Hewat McKenzie, president of the College of Psychic Science in Britain, claimed to have witnessed Houdini’s supernatural prowess when escaping from a confinement. McKenzie swore that while standing at the wings, backstage, at one of Houdini’s performances, he saw the mystical showman ooze out of a huge canister that he was confined in (curtained off from the viewing audience), and then he reshaped
himself back into human form! To his death, McKenzie never recanted his story.

Such pronouncements were scoffed at by Houdini, but, they nevertheless prevailed with large segments of society. Such was his impact on the consciousness of the world. Almost 85 years since his death, he is still the paramount name in magic.

HoudiniIt is noteworthy that I once pointed out to my dear friend, Conny Abrica, who scans photos for my articles, that she would be shocked if she had met the great Houdini in the flesh. The likely source of her unexpected surprise would be two-fold. But the shock would not encompass his nest of wiry hair, nor his steel-blue eyes, nor even his imposing presence. But, rather, my dear friend, Conny, would be almost eyeball-to-eyeball with this diminutive man, who is a giant in the world of magic! Secondly, it might be his voice. A slice of delicious detail that is absent from almost every Houdini biography! Though the accent may be surmised from his Hungarian background, it is nevertheless surprising to hear, still present, and distinctly his, apart from his kinsman. There is only one archival audio-source that exists of Harry Houdini’s voice. It was duly recorded in Flatbush, New York, on October 29, 1914, on what is called a Edison wax cylinder. Six cylinders in all comprise his voice recordings. Houdini’s heavily-accented voice can be heard practicing his Chinese Water Torture Cell introduction. His sister, Gladys, is also heard, in a poem recitation. Houdini repeats the poem in German.

That Houdini was ego-driven is axiomatic. Most Type-A personalities are. Like all mortals, he had both a good side, and a bad one. To report his faults is fine; to ‘exploit’ them would be to rob him of his humanity on unrealistic terms. All in life is imperfect.

Houdini cuts a wide swath. His life tugs at the heartstrings. This little Jewish boy, born in Budapest, Hungary, brought to America in his mother’s arms – only to suffer extreme early poverty -- grew up to become so dominant in his chosen profession that his name was entered into the 1920 edition of Funk and Wagnall’s popular dictionary as a verb: “hou’di-niz,” defined as “to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds, or the like . . . “

He was, and is now, the very personification of mystery, and magic, and the elusive dream we all chase after in life. He lived the American dream.

 

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