The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini

[Amazon Link]

I put this on my get-at-library list after hearing Russ Roberts interview the author, Joe Posnanski, on the Econtalk podcast last year. Russ's opening comments called the book "very strange and delightful", and I concur. And I'm not much of a magic fan.

(Although I did watch that Tony Curtis movie when I was a young 'un. Posnanski debunks that pretty thoroughly.)

Although Posnanski did tons of research, lots of interviews, it's not really a scholarly tome, or a biography. It's a very personal exploration of the Houdini phenomenon, and why, of all magicians past and present, Houdini still grips our imagination today. We do get most of the details of his life along the way, roughly in chronological order. But (for example), Posnanski finds Houdini's late-career interest in debunking spiritualism boring, and zips over it in a single chapter. A "real" biographer wouldn't do that, but that's OK.

An interesting and recurring theme is the tension between other magicians and Houdini, which continues today. Strictly as traditional magic goes, Houdini was not that great. Plenty of others, then and since, out-illusioned and out-tricked him. But his fame relied on his specialty: escaping from handcuffs, straitjackets, sealed cans and boxes. That seemed to catch the public's imagination and catapulted him to his fame.

We also get a picture of Houdini's milieu, the popular entertainment of his era. I made Mrs. Salad laugh by reading some of the acts Houdini performed with. Texas Ben, the phenomical cowboy pianist who never took a lesson but can play any classical piece after hearing it only once. Leah the Whittler. John Rauth, the man with the longest head. Thardo, defier of snakes.

It was an interesting time. And Houdini was an interesting guy. But Posnanski is also very good at exploring Houdini fandom. Probably the most famous one is David Copperfield, who is probably the closest to Houdini in terms of fame; Posnanski hangs out with him quite a bit, and that's interesting too. (Over the years, Copperfield has bought and squirreled away a lot of Houdini paraphernalia, and he takes Posnanski on a tour.)

And there's a lot of interesting stuff that has nothing to do with Houdini. The actor Patrick Culliton is an obsessive Houdini fan, but he told Posnanski a pretty funny story about Robert Preston's reaction on hearing about the death of Yul Brynner. No spoilers here!