I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini – Ruth Brandon
“Harry” implies approachable, down to earth. But “Houdini” sounds other-worldly and - to use that overused and abused word - awesome. So even his name vibrates and contradicts and attracts readers – like me - who are not necessarily interested in magic or escape artists, but rather the history of popular entertainment in general and vaudeville’s heyday of 1880 to 1930 in particular.
While the biographies of Houdini by Christopher and Gresham are well worth reading, Brandon too provides information about topics -- mother fixation, death obsession, unwilling skepticism, ruthless competitor, loyalty demanding - that make this biography a substantial, insightful read. Even the digressions give interest. For example, she delivers background information about medicine shows, which Houdini had to work early in his career. Starting in the Elizabethan era in Europe, such shows were traveling horse and wagon teams which peddled patent medicines and other products between various entertainment acts. The quack medications gradually took a backseat to the entertainment acts.
She also makes fascinating points related to cultural history. She asserts that Houdini became popular because the Indomitable Little Guy was a popular character in the early 20th century. Think of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp or Buster Keaton’s Stone Face. The little guy was always having to wrestle with and escape from bonds, from oppression. This resonated with immigrants and working people in North America, but people in police states like Germany and Russia really went nuts over Houdini escaping from handcuffs, cells, and black marias.
Brandon also turns to personality psychology to explain Houdini. The Freudian interpretations of Houdini’s dreams may or may not appeal to readers. More plausible are her interpretations of the marriage between Harry and Bess. For instance, for all his protestations of love and devotion, the narcissist Houdini was very controlling. It speaks volumes that by the time he died, she was drinking a lot. So few families of geniuses and artists are happy families, so much time and emotion are sacrificed to the creation of art and entertainment.
Brandon, a British biographer, novelist and historian, writes clear prose that’s a pleasure to read. Readers into the history of popular entertainment would probably like this biography.