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The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero


The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero Cover

ISBN13: 9780743272087
ISBN10: 0743272080
Condition: Standard
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Handcuff King. Escape Artist. International Superstar.

Since his death eighty-eight years ago, Harry Houdinis life has been chronicled in books, in film, and on television. Now, in this groundbreaking biography, renowned magic expert William Kalush and bestselling writer Larry Sloman team up to find the man behind the myth. Drawing from millions of pages of research, they describe in vivid detail the passions that drove Houdini to perform ever-more-dangerous feats, his secret life as a spy, and a pernicious plot to subvert his legacy.

The Secret Life of Houdini traces the arc of the master magicians life from desperate poverty to worldwide fame—his legacy later threatened by a group of fanatical Spiritualists led by esteemed British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Initiating the reader along the way into the arcane world of professional magic, Kalush and Sloman decode a life based on deception, providing an intimate and riveting portrayal of Houdini, the man and the legend.


In this groundbreaking book, renowned magic expert Kalush and bestselling writer Sloman team up to expose Harry Houdinis secret life as a spy, and the stunning plot to murder the magician and destroy his legacy. Photos throughout.

About the Author

William Kalush has been a dedicated student of the art of magic for more than twenty-five years. Founder of the Conjuring Arts Research Center and publisher of Gibecière, an esteemed magic history journal, he has helped create several world-famous magic stunts and prime-time network television specials. Larry Sloman is an award-winning author best known for his collaborations with radio personality Howard Stern on Private Parts and Miss America. He became interested in magic history after working with David Blaine on his best-selling memoir Mysterious Stranger.

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rollyson2002, August 25, 2012 (view all comments by rollyson2002)
Not to keep you in suspense any longer: The secret is that Harry Houdini may have been a spy, an operative for the U.S. Secret Service, and other police organizations here and abroad. Unfortunately, the evidence is circumstantial, the biographers' conclusions inconclusive.

To be sure, Houdini hung out with cops and ops. He was, after all, the handcuff king, escaping from every kind of lock and chain the fuzz fettered him with ��" including treacherous thumb cuffs that tore the skin on Houdini's fingers to the bone. Pardon the patois. I picked it up from William Kalush and Larry Sloman, whose hokey-cum-portentous prose is catchy, if not convincing.

Houdini was a showman and a fakeout artist. As a master of publicity, a dabbler in magic, the occult, card tricks, and just about everything else he absorbed from his early days in the circus, it is a wonder that he did not at least hint that he was also a spook. But of course, covert enterprises are by definition hidden from view ��" like Houdini himself when he retired behind a curtain to rid himself of his manacles.

The biographers are entertaining, with accounts of Houdini's breathtaking escapes and encounters with skeptics determined to prove him a fraud. But Houdini's brand of entertainment was suspect by nature ��" the series of conversations and scenes that accompany it belong in a novel, not a biography.

Messrs. Kalush and Sloman assure us in "The Secret Life of Harry Houdini." "We've made nothing up; in some cases we've just turned the facts into dialogue." That sentence is footnoted: "Every fact in this book has been substantiated, but the notes are so extensive, that we have decided to publish them online instead, at"

But when facts are turned into dialogue ��" beware! Facts? I hate to sound pedantic, but what do they mean by facts? Evidently, they mean newspaper reports, letters, diaries, and other documents that are evidence but not facts. The result of their masquerading evidence as drama is a bogus "you are there" spectacle.

This questionable conversion of evidence into dialogue was propagated in the early 1920s by Andre Maurois and other practitioners of what was called the "new biography," an attempt to enliven a stodgy genre that could not compete with the vivacity of the novel. By 1927, Maurois had recanted in "Aspects of Biography," regretting that he had blurred the line between fiction and biography. Since then, reputable biographers have rarely used dialogue unless it was presented as such in their sources. Even Norman Mailer, who wanted to stretch the boundaries of biography, was careful to note that he invented dialogue in "Marilyn" (1973) in order to speculate about matters his sources could not confirm.

The dialogue in "The Secret Life of Houdini" is sometimes taken from Houdini's own accounts of his exploits. The biographers give, for example, a blow-by-blow account of how Houdini escaped from the Carette, the "dreaded Siberian Transport Cell," lined with zinc sheeting and secured with steel bars.

After reading their account, you will know exactly how it was done. But do you really know? Turn to "Houdini!!!" (1996), by Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman:

Unfortunately this legendary feat [escaping from the Carette] is poorly documented. No photographs of it exist, nor even any accounts in the Moscow press . . . Nothing remains but Houdini's boastful, questionable retellings, and a poster he later produced in Leipzig, picturing the scene.

Mr. Silverman then carefully assesses the different ways Houdini may have performed his feat, in the process showing how canny his subject was about not disclosing details of his technique.

And what about all that spying? Much of it amounts to Messrs. Kalush and Sloman noting that Houdini knew spies and wrote to some of them ��" and that he appears in a spy's diary. But here is an example of the "facts": Inspector Melville of Scotland Yard's Special Branch notes in his diary, "Called at War Office to pass on letter from HH." The biographers call the letter a "field report" and say the diary entry acknowledges the importance of Houdini's information. Melville's mention of Houdini is intriguing but hardly enough on which to build a biography.

An even more egregious example: "It is interesting that an apolitical escape artist paid such close attention to the budding Russo-Japanese conflict, expressing amazement that the ‘Japs were able to bring the Russian bear to his haunches.'" If this is a specimen of Houdini's "intelligence," I wonder what value Scotland Yard saw in his "field report." Having read raw FBI files, I know that the amount of junk, gossip, and hearsay that intelligence agencies collect is astounding. And yet an agent like Melville would feel obliged to pass on the "chatter" ��" as it is now called ��" just in case some nugget of truth might emerge. Houdini liked to feel important, and he seems to have cultivated law enforcement and intelligence agents who were intrigued by magic and escape artists. Who was fooling whom is always an appropriate question to ask with respect to such relationships.

There isn't much reason to read "The Secret Life of Harry Houdini" because whatever Houdini might have done by way of intelligence gathering is still secret. Better to read or reread Kenneth Silverman, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning biographer, who writes in "Houdini!!!" with the care and elegance that befit a state-of-the-art biography.
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Product Details

s First Superhero
Kalush, William
Sloman, Larry
Atria Books
Historical - General
Entertainment & Performing Arts - General
General Biography
Biography-Entertainment and Performing Arts
HoudinibiographymagicmagicianillusionistKavalier and ClayDavid CopperfieldspySherlock HolmesHistory channelAdrien Brody
Edition Description:
Trade Paperback
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
bandw photos throughout
9.25 x 6.125 in

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Related Subjects

Biography » Entertainment and Performing Arts
Biography » Historical
Hobbies, Crafts, and Leisure » Games » Magic

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Product details 608 pages Atria Books - English 9780743272087 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , In this groundbreaking book, renowned magic expert Kalush and bestselling writer Sloman team up to expose Harry Houdinis secret life as a spy, and the stunning plot to murder the magician and destroy his legacy. Photos throughout.
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