Deconstructing Harry: Born a Poor Jewish Hungarian Called Erik, Houdini Reinvented Himself as an All-American Entertainer David Herman Reconsiders the Master Magician

By Herman, David | New Statesman (1996), December 13, 2010 | Go to article overview

Deconstructing Harry: Born a Poor Jewish Hungarian Called Erik, Houdini Reinvented Himself as an All-American Entertainer David Herman Reconsiders the Master Magician


Herman, David, New Statesman (1996)


Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him. Tony Curtis and Norman Mailer both played him. He appears as a character in E L Doctorow's Ragtime, Adam Phillips wrote a book about him and Kate Bush sang about him. Now, there's an exhibition in New York--"Houdini: Art and Magic"--accompanied by a book that explores not just what Houdini did, but what he means.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Earlier generations were quite clear: Houdini stood for the American dream. One of those astonishing immigrants who arrived with nothing and became rich and famous. But more recently people have started to look differently at him. A darker, much more complex image of the great escapologist has emerged.

Harry Houdini was one of that generation of American entertainers who became world-famous at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of them were immigrants: Al Jolson, born in Lithuania, Irving Berlin from east Russia, Charlie Chaplin from south London, Rudolph Valentino from Italy. They were at the cusp of a huge cultural change as 19th-century circus, vaudeville and music hall gave way to the movies. Houdini started out touring with travelling circuses and performing at dime museums in the 1890s. By the turn of the century he was playing at top vaudeville theatres. Twenty years later he was posing for photos with Chaplin and W C Fields.

The other great entertainers of that period are easy to categorise, however. Singers and songwriters, comedians and movie stars. There is no one quite like Houdini today. The nearest would be Penn and Teller, David Blaine and David Copperfield: part-magicians, part-illusionists. Rich and famous, certainly. But packing out Las Vegas is not the same as the fame that Houdini enjoyed.

Houdini became celebrated for his tricks and illusions, swallowing packets of needles and thread and then withdrawing the needles, now threaded on to the piece of cotton. But he is best known for his escapes--"Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini!" said a poster. First, from handcuffs, then from wooden trunks, giant milk cans, elaborate water-torture cells and strait-jackets. Later, he would be locked and shackled inside a wooden box, then dropped in a river; or he would be tied up and hung by a piece of rope from a building or a bridge and dropped into a river, from which he would emerge triumphant. In 1912, at the Circus Busch in Berlin, he performed the Chinese Water Torture Cell escape for the first time: hanging upside down, ankles in stocks, he would be locked inside a glass booth filled with water. He freed himself sometimes in as little as 30 seconds.

It was an extraordinary act, performed in Europe and the US for over 30 years. More than that, it spoke to an audience--largely white, male and immigrant--that dreamed of other kinds of escape; not from chains, perhaps, but from old identities, poverty and oppression.

Born as ErikWeisz into a poor Jewish family in Hungary in 1874, the son of a rabbi, Houdini arrived in the United States in 1878. He was part of what Henry James called "a great swarming", "a Jewry that had burst all bounds", the great migration from central and eastern Europe to the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Houdini came around the same time as the Warner brothers, Berlin, Jolson, Louis B Mayer and Sam Goldwyn.

These new immigrants longed to assimilate to American values. They were only too happy to leave Europe behind. They dreamed of freedom from the Old World, with its restrictive traditions and piety. But also freedom from the worst of the New World. The drudgery of the assembly line, the long hours of the sweatshop and the poverty of tenements and slums. "He was a symbol of the escape from the figurative shackles that immigrants sought to shed," writes the American historian Alan Brinkley in Houdini: Art and Magic, edited by Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Like them, he had known poverty. His father ended up working in the New York garment district and young Harry had held jobs as a uniformed messenger and a necktie-cutter. …

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