Thursday, March 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Harry

Today is Harry Houdini's 137th birthday. Of course, Houdini's not here to celebrate it. He died of appendicitis, complicated by a punch in the stomach back in 1926. Halloween Day as a matter of fact.

According to one of the numerous legends that surrounded him, he would attempt to contact his wife, Bess from beyond, if it were possible. He never did.

Oddly enough, no one knew how impossible contact from beyond was more than Houdini. The latter part of his career concentrated on exposing spirit mediums, a trend that reached a peak in popularity after WWI, when so many young men died so quickly. The need for contact had never been so keen, and, apparently, organized religion fell short of assuaging that need.

Houdini, one of the last of the pre- Freudian mother lovers (not literally, of course) fell into an inconsolable funk after his mother died. She lived with him and Bess in their spacious Harlem brownstone (see L by L entry He constantly referred to his mother and his wife as his "two best gals," and there is evidence that Bess was not entirely happy about the relationship, or her place in it.

Houdini wanted to believe he could contact his mother, but the skeptic in him told him otherwise. Whether because of anger, frustration, compassion, ego or the usual combination of all of these, he set out to disprove that communication with the dead was possible. At all. And he pretty much single- handedly derailed what could have amounted to a large cult- ish religion, much to the anger and dismay of its millions of followers worldwide.

Houdini was, from all accounts, at best a mediocre stage magician. Aside from the escapes, which everyone agrees were terrific, his card work and illusions were ill- presented, compared to Kellar or Thurston. He lacked the grace and patter of Tommy Downs, the King of Coins, or the breathless skill of David Devant. What he had was a kind of immigrant bravura, a sense of confidence so huge as to dwarf those around him. 

But it was his crusade to debunk spiritualism that is his most lasting contribution to to the culture of America. This, ultimately, is why Houdini is a truly great man. He risked his life, and his reputation for several years, right up until his premature death, in fact.

By the time Houdini died, he was worn out. He was in terrible condition, battered, scarred and beaten. His escapes had taken a terrible physical toll on hisi once impressive physique. But he was unable to retire; his essence just would not allow it.

Perhaps his death was the best possible for a mythic entertainer like Harry. He didn't die in failure, secrets exposed (although most were common knowledge within the tight- knit magicians' community.) He died on Halloween, at the height of his fame, just as stage magic was on the verge of being replaced by the wonders of talking pictures.

You know, in show biz, timing is everything.

Harry and Bess

Escape from jail. Often these escapes were done nude.

Demonstrating his seance expose methods

A mock fight with Jack Dempsey. Houdini had a genius for promotion.

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