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THE NEW YORK TIMES March 23, 1969 Page VII, 7; Column –


HOUDINI: The Untold Story. By Milbourne Christopher. Illustrated. 281 pp. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. $6.95


Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin, the French magician, once defined a stage magician as an actor playing a role—the role of a magician! In 1891 a young man named Ehrich Weiss read the “Memoirs of Robert-Houdin.” Born in Budapest, Ehrich was the son of an Orthodox rabbi. When he was a few weeks old, the family emigrated to Wisconsin—and, finally, to New York. As a youth, Ehrich worked in a necktie factory; he had already been practicing sleight of hand and performing parlor tricks when Robert-Houdin showed him a road to power. At 17, he changed his name to Houdini. He knew where he was going.

Houdini was not an ordinary magician like Thurston, Kellar, Blackstone or Cardini. He was not an entertainer. He was playing Prometheus. He was playing Christ. He was laying allegorical charades in which he died and was resurrected. He aroused the most primitive anxieties in his audiences: death by water, death by hanging, death by suffocation and strangling. Men and women watching him experienced intense stress and emotional catharsis. His act was unique.

During the golden age of vaudeville, from 1905 to 1925, he was a headliner. More than that, he got more newspaper space than any American entertainer before or since. And when people got bored with his escapes, Houdini began exposing spiritualist mediums, who were in vogue after World War I.

Milbourne Christopher, who is America’s leading magician, has written a new biography of Houdini, drawing on his private collection of Houdini letters, journals and scarapbooks. He has put together an absorbing and exciting chronicle. He has explored previously unknown facets in his subject’s family life. He has brilliantly captured the egotism of the man, as well as some of his perplexing insecurities. Having all his life been a student of magic and a historian of the black art as well as a virtuoso, he skillfully places Houdini in the context of the magicians who came before him and after him. Above all, he has made you feel some of the pity and terror which Houdini aroused in his audiences.

Unfortunately, the book falls short of being a complete story of one of the most fascinating and complex persons in American theater history. To paraphrase Robert-Houdin, Christopher is a magician playing the role of a biographer—and Houdini presents a special challenge. Besides his temperamental peculiarities and interesting sexual perversities, his work itself was wrapped around a secret. He pretended to accomplish his Promethean feats by means of courage and great physical strength. In fact, his triumphs were done by gimmickry, fakery and fraud. Now, while this was a well-guarded secret in the first decades of the century, why should it be concealed from the reader in 1969? What Houdini did behind the scenes is as much a part of his life as what he did on the stage.

In his opening chapter, for example, Christopher describes a 1904 “challenge” by The London Daily Mirror. Houdini was locked into a pair of handcuffs which had “taken a British mechanic five years to make.” The handcuffs had six sets of locks and there were nine tumblers in each cuff. Houdini tells an audience of 4,000 in the London Hippodrome, “I do not know whether I am going to get out of it or not, but I can assure you I am going to do my best.” He goes into his cabinet, the curtains are drawn, and for one hour and 10 minutes he struggles, while the audience vicariously shares his “ordeal.” At times, he appears, still bound. Once he asks for a pillow because his knees are bloody—and once for a drink of water. Finally he frees himself from the handcuffs and “tears gushed from his eyes.”

“Like many of Houdini’s feats, the exact method by which he accomplished this one remained a mystery,” Christopher writes. He denies that the modus operandi was Mrs. Houdini, who during the performance slipped him the keys in the glass of water. Christopher knows that Houdini never improvised his way out of “challenges.” He writes, “How little they [the ones who accept the key-in-the-water theory] understood Houdini and his methods. He would never accept a challenge, especially one as highly publicized as this one had been, without devising a sure-fire release long before the day of the test.”

Having revealed this and teasing us throughout the book with fleeting references to gaining slack in rope ties and the use of telescopic rods which could be worked by the teeth and to which were attached duplicate keys or lockpicks—Christopher recoils and speaks no more. We are not told concretely how Houdini contrived to escape from jail cells and from packing cases thrown into rivers and from straitjackets and the Chinese Water Torture Cell.

And we want to know. And it is obligatory that the biographer should tell us. Does Christopher perhaps feel inhibited because magicians are not supposed to give away the chicaneries of their craft? Yet, in 1930, Walter B. Gibson wrote “Houdini’s Escapes.” It was listed in Christopher’s bibliography. It was written with the approval and assistance of B.M.L. Ernst, then president of the Society of American Magicians. All of the secrets are fully revealed, and there are sketches showing the methods. The book was based on Houdini’s own notebooks.

In William Lindsay Gresham’s 1959 biography of Houdini, the secrets are further elaborated—how he used audience plants with fake handcuffs, how sometimes he stacked the “committees” which came on stage, presumably to validate the genuineness of the escape. Houdini employed three trusted aides—Franz Kukol, Jim Vickery and Jim Collins. They examined in advance every contrivance, be it a prison cell or a packing case, and they either made duplicate keys or figured out some hanky-panky so Houdini could beat the “challenge.” Neither the newspapers nor the general public ever had any inkling of what a virtuoso of imposture Houdini was.

Obviously, these revelations are central to getting the picture of Houdini the performer. And what of Houdini the man?

Here is Ehrich Weiss, reared in an Orthodox Jewish home, his father a venerable rabbi. He runs away at the age of 12. Later he returns, becomes a magician and escape artist at dime museums and carnivals. In Coney Island, he encounters Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, a dancer. He marries her two weeks later. Christopher, like both previous biographers, chronicles these curious events casually. To me, this sudden marriage to a Catholic girl suggests certain severe inner conflicts with his mother and his father. I want to know why he marries Bess Rahner. I don’t get the answers.

The questions are not even raised in this biography, though in 1894 the marriage of an Orthodox Jew outside his faith was a shocking occurrence and there were—and still are—great and terrible family earthquakes when such events take place. Was there not a certain hostility between Rabbi Weiss and his son the magician? Was there not also an Oedipal attachment to the mother, so profound that he was unable to marry a Jewish girl—because that might imply intercourse with the maternal figure?

Of Houdini’s astonishing love for his mother there is abundant evidence, most of it in his first biography by Harold Kellock (1928). Kellock wrote in that age of innocence when mother-love had no neurotic implications. But his very innocence permits him to paint a picture of one of the most mother-ridden Jewish boys of all time. Houdini’s mother hang-up is so monumental that it makes those neurotic Jews who abound in the stories of Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman look like well-adjusted males.

Houdini’s journals reek with references to his “Sainted Mother.” (Mother is always capitalized.) Once, he purchased an evening gown designed for Queen Victoria. He brought his mother from New York to Budapest. He garbed her in the Queen’s robe, gave a dinner party in her honor. She received the guests while sitting on a throne. Afterwards, Houdini noted, “Mother and I were awake all night going over the affair….The next morning, after living two ecstatic happy days, I escorted the Fairy Queen Mother en route to America.”

Houdini’s mother died in 1913, at the age of 71. Houdini was playing in Copenhagen. He was being interviewed by the local press. Then, writes Christopher, “someone handed him a cable as he talked. He opened it, read the words, and fell unconscious to the floor.”

In the opinion of no less an authority than Dr. Karl Menninger, Houdini’s mother obsession is related to his escape act. In his book on suicide, “Man Against Himself,” Menninger analyzes Houdini for several pages. He believed that Houdini’s escapes, especially from water, were an expression of a universal fantasy of returning to the womb, “to the undisturbed bliss of intra-uterine existence.” This book sedulously avoids any exploration of Houdini’s perverse feelings about his mother and there is no reference to Dr. Menninger at all.

Nor does Christopher get into the miseries of Houdini’s marriage, which were colossal, as you would expect when a husband is madly in love with his “Sainted Mother.” Bess was a quiet, timid person. She found the world of magic a deadly bore. Houdini loved the company of magicians—after all, they were the only ones who knew how clever he really was. Christopher avoids any dissection of Houdini’s marital tragedy and the rumors about Bess’ alcoholism.

Houdini loved only two women, his mother and Daisy White. Daisy, like Bess Houdini in the early years of the Houdini act, was what is known in the conjuring profession as a “box jumper”—a small, slender girl who can contort her body to fit into narrow places, and is used in stage illusions in which girls appear and disappear from cabinets (or “boxes”). A vivacious redhead, voluptuous and sexually wild, she had a crush on Houdini. Their affair has long been a subject of gossip among magicians. I like to think that, finally, late in his life, Houdini, for the first time, had a genuine and emotionally rewarding relationship with a real woman.

Houdini died in 1926. Among his papers, Bess discovered, to her dismay, Christopher writes “...a thick packet of letters from women who had fallen in love with her husband. Though he hadn’t reciprocated their advances, the letters apparently had appeal to his vanity to keep them.” Christopher describes a party given by Bess to which all these women are invited. She returned their letters to them. Daisy White is not mentioned—Gresham’s book hinted at the possibly erotic adventure. It happens that among Christopher’s source materials are 1003 letters by Houdini. Christopher owns the letters.

I have heard rumors that not only did Houdini keep Daisy’s amorous epistles—but he made carbon copies of his answers. Mrs. Houdini allegedly discovered the whole thing—but Daisy placated her. Both women became friends—and, through Daisy, Mrs. Houdini made the acquaintance of a medium, Arthur Ford. Ford held a séance in New York, and supposedly brought Houdini’s spirit back from the astral realms. Through Ford, he gave Bess a message which she affirmed was genuine. Christopher’s account of the Ford message is one of the best chapters.

This is the same Arthur Ford, who, not long ago, went into a trance on a Canadian television program, convinced Bishop James A. Pike that there was life after death and that he had brought him an authentic message from Pike’s dead son.

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