Pure escapism

<strong>The Secret Life of Houdini: the making of America's first superhero</strong>

William Kalu

Harry Houdini spent the best part of his 52 years travelling the globe boasting that he could get out of anything. Handcuffs, straitjackets, packing cases, water-filled glass boxes, buried coffins, even a man-sized envelope - Houdini escaped from them all. Knowing how to free yourself is nothing, said André Gide - the tough bit is knowing what to do once you're free. Houdini knew what to do. Freedom was his way of making money. Never unfree for long, he made lots of it. There were shekels in those shackles.

The son of an impoverished Budapest rabbi, Houdini, or, as he then was, Erich Weiss, made his first escape at the age of two: his family, fleeing Hungarian anti-Semitism, moved to New York, then to Appleton, Wisconsin. In neither place did Rabbi Weiss find his feet, and by the time he was 12, Erich was the family's major breadwinner. Semi-literate and skill-less, all he could do were odd-jobs for nickels and dimes. But the boy had bravado. When he came across a queue of people chasing a job cutting neckties, Erich thanked everyone for their interest and told them the job had been filled. Then he went inside and announced himself as the only applicant. Another time, while working as a runner, he penned the ditty: "Christmas is coming/ Turkeys are fat/Please drop a quarter/In the messenger boy's hat."

I'm not sure such verse qualifies even as doggerel, but the words had the required effect. Erich arrived home that night claiming magic powers and demanded that his mother shake him. As she did so, coins flew everywhere. There was almost enough to pay the rent.

Impressing his mother meant a lot to Houdini. The only ties that ever held him were those that attached him to her apron - emblems of an obsessive relationship that has made Houdini a sitting duck for the Freudian-minded. Those escapes from watery, womb-like crates and churns have been grist to more than one biographer's mill, as has Houdini's childish rant Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, a work of Oedipal ire which argued that his one-time hero's famous illusions were less than original.

Praise be to William Kalush and Larry Sloman, then, for at least attempting to come up with a USP for their new life of Houdini. Alas, the USP in question is as tendentious as any amateur-hour psycho-babble. The Secret Life of Houdini contends that all the while that he was touring with his escape and magic act, the great "mysteriarch" - a nom enclature quite of a piece with Kalush and Sloman's histrionic prose - was also working as a spy for the US secret service and MI5. Stranger things have happened, though it should be said that the case mounted is somewhat less than convincing.

There is no denying the enormous energy Kalush and Sloman have brought to their researches, but it would be a charitable soul who described their evidence as other than circumstantial, their conclusions as better than, well, inconclusive. Yes, Houdini had pals among the Feds. But as a guy who worked with handcuffs, it would have been surprising if he hadn't. As for his being murdered at the behest of a cadre of crooked clairvoyants, the only people dumb enough to believe that would be those people dumb enough to believe what they're told by phoney fakirs. The bigger problem is that Kalush and Sloman get nowhere near solving the real Houdini mystery - how, night after night, he got people to pack into theatres to watch . . . what? Five minutes of a guy in spotty underwear being chained up and then hour upon hour of nothing, as he struggled behind a curtain to release himself. (Actually, he was usually free within a few minutes; he would read the papers for an hour or two, letting the tension in the auditorium build.)

In our culture of the jerky and jittery, the act sounds like a dud. But Houdini was loved because he made people feel they need not be prisoners. Man is born free and is everywhere in chains. Drunken binges, summer holidays, New Year's resolutions - these, we tell ourselves, are the keys that will unlock the fetters of the soul. Having sloughed off our old self we shall be free to remake and remodel.

Most such hopes come to nothing. Harry Houdini's came to quite a lot. Entrapping his audience in order to show it liberation, he proved it could be done. For all of Kalush and Sloman's efforts, he just did it again.