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on 27 November 2006
The "Houdini was a spy" aspect of this book - so hyped in the media and debated by magic historians - is a distraction from what should be seen, first and foremost, as a major new Houdini biography loaded with fascinating new facts about the great magician's life and career.

But what of this "spy" thing? Okay. Very quickly - in 1902/3 Houdini sent "reports" from Germany and Russia back to Superintendent Melville of Scotland Yard (who was then head of what could be considered British Intelligence). Does this mean Houdini was a spy, or just a letter writer who felt compelled to report what he was seeing to his friend in London? Authors Bill Kalush and Larry Sloman do make some interesting connections back to America and the shenanigans with Houdini's passport application...but it's all very speculative. For me, this "spy revelation" is just one of many, many new nuggets of information to be found within these fascinating 560 pages...and it's not even the most interesting nugget at that.

I was much more taken with the revelation of Bess Houdini's suicide attempt; a potential third Houdini mistress (Milla Barry); the attack on Houdini's brother in his Harlem home; the Russian Royal family's Rasputian-like fascination with the magician; Montraville M. Wood's involvement in the development of the Milk Can and USD; Lord Northcliff's role in Houdini's aviation career; Houdini's private secret service formed to expose spiritualists (Houdini actually bought a barbershop and trained an agent as a barber so they could communicate incognito); and the very troubling revelation that Margery and Dr. Crandon may have had a hand in the disappearance of several young English boys (freaky stuff this).

I was also thrilled to see Kalush and Sloman incorporate breakthrough information containing in such recent studies as The Man Who Killed Houdini by Don Bell (which rewrites magic history by revealing Houdini suffered not one but TWO stomach punch attacks in his final weeks). And, last but not least, the wealth of never before seen photos contained here are wonderful!

I was surprised to see the inclusion of some stories I've always considered to be apocryphal -- the tale in which Harry, as a boy, frees a convict from a pair of handcuffs is one. But the authors promise that a complete set of source reference notes are forthcoming in a separate volume. (Already some are available online at the Conjuring Arts Research Center website.)*

The last major Houdini biography was Ken Silverman's 1996 Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (now out of print). I still consider the Silverman book the most authoritative Houdini biography, as well as the one that seems to best nail his complex character. But Secret Life uncovers many new facts not found in Silverman, and for the layperson it may be the more entertaining and provocative read.

It's been 10 years since Silverman and it was time someone tackled the subject of Houdini again. My congratulations to William Kalush and Larry Sloman for doing so...and succeeding so spectacularly!
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on 21 August 2011
In this comprehensive and thoroughly researched biography of Harry Houdini we are introduced to one of the most complex and sensational entertainers of the early part of the 20th century. Born Erik Weisz to a poor Jewish family in 1887 Budapest, they migrated to Minneapolis in the 1890's where his father eked out a living as a Rabbi and Talmud teacher. From a young age Erik discovered a fascination for locks and other contraptions and the skill to escape from them which lead him along his career path from itinerant escapologist; magician; aviator film maker and finally campaigner against "fraudulent mediums" and spiritualists. Each of his career changes would warrant a book in themselves and this is a tome of a book packed with details of his various ingenious escapes ; his dangerous exploits both on and off the stage; his work as an aviator and a spy for British and American intelligence whilst touring Germany and Russia; and his sometimes fractious relationships with other magicians and performers. Often turning friends into enemies and then vice versa. He even attacked Robert-Houdin, whose name he had taken in a book on him for faking many of his tricks whilst maintaining his continued admiration for him.

Houdini was a showman, a raconteur and someone known to bear a grudge and used his influence within magician's circles to lambast others who he felt were either frauds or plagiarisers of his inventions within his profession. However he was clearly out of his depth when he took on the likes of Conan Doyle, previously a friend through their shared interest in seances and medium ship when Houdini exposed Lady Doyle, a famous psychic and medium as a fraud starting off a feud that was to last for years and steering Houdini into the direction where he saw it as a religious duty to expose fraud in that rather frightening and sinister world. And no one were more sinister than the Crandons, Dr and Mina aka Margery,a celebrity medium known expelling ectoplasm from her vulva of all places, who galvanised the entire Spiritualist community against Houdini's denunciations.

It seems that none of Houdini's exploits were as dangerous as taking on this world which the authors characterise as corrupt, exploitative, and sexually perverse, with the Crandon couple as a veritable evil pair. Conan Doyle is depicted as a sad credulous dupe who seemed to have lost hie powers of deduction to what Houdini described as "religious mania". It seemed that the Crandon's and their followers would stoop to nothing in attacking Houdini including racial abuse via the spirit world and predictions of his death.

For me this was the most fascinating part of book. For others it could be the detailed descriptions of his escapes from prisons around Europe, after he would challenge prison authorities to imprison him in the impregnable cells. Or his work as an illusionist.

My two criticisms of the book are that it was somewhat over descriptive and fairly spare on details about his long marriage with Bess Houdini, which was not always so happy but far from loveless; his numerous affairs including with the widow of his friend the author Jack London, Charmaine London, and the sometimes difficult relationships with his siblings and their families. Secondly the conclusion of the book is slightly disappointing. It hints strongly at Houdini being murdered by the Spiritualists even suggesting a level of complicity from Conan Doyle and his wife( Houdini famously described him as more Dr Watson the Sherlock Holmes).

Unfortunately there is only circumstantial evidence for this and no one is precisely sure what eventually did kill Houdini at the age of 52. However as an entertaining and in depth account of his strange life I doubt that this volume could be bettered.
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4.5 stars

A rather daunting prospect - 600 pages of small type on any subject. This one, I just had to try though - after seeing the television miniseries at Christmas (2014), I really wanted to know more about Houdini, who was suddenly a much more complex and interesting figure than I'd ever realised.

And 600 pages did fly. I took a while over it as I read it over a holiday, but I thoroughly enjoyed the long look at what amounted really to several lives in one.

The authors had clearly done immense amounts of research and turned their hard work into a narrative based around Houdini's stunts, illusions and significant life events, using letters, eyewitness stories and known transcripts of what surely is one of the most significant and interesting lives of the last century.

We follow Houdini from a poor childhood into the world of magic, to meeting his wife, achieving success in his field, innovating and making waves around the world, to his experiments with early flight, cinema and a significant portion looking at his efforts to discredit fake mediums. Wow. Just one life, Harry?

The surprises just kept coming. The injuries he sustained, the lengths he went to for publicity and an audience, Houdini as a magician is magnificent enough a subject. And yet that's just one part of his story.

His famous demise is also covered in depth, and the long-lasting efforts to seek out the truth about his death is objectively covered.

Everything you would want to read about is here - bar one thing. I wanted to see behind some of his tricks, see how the illusions were created. Though I can understand that this isn't the point of the book, though I was disappointed. I did have an issue keeping all the names straight in my mind as well, so many friends, colleagues, enemies and acquaintances - maybe a bibliography at the end or a Who's Who guide to the characters would have helped.

This really is a comprehensive look at Houdini's life, with dozens of stills dotted throughout, which added to the mental image I started building of this remarkable man. If only all biographies were this detailed and interestingly written.

Recommended if you're a fan of the man, of magic or of twentieth-century history - he played quite a role in it.
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4.5 stars

A rather daunting prospect - 600 pages of small type on any subject. This one, I just had to try though - after seeing the television miniseries at Christmas (2014), I really wanted to know more about Houdini, who was suddenly a much more complex and interesting figure than I'd ever realised.

And 600 pages did fly. I took a while over it as I read it over a holiday, but I thoroughly enjoyed the long look at what amounted really to several lives in one.

The authors had clearly done immense amounts of research and turned their hard work into a narrative based around Houdini's stunts, illusions and significant life events, using letters, eyewitness stories and known transcripts of what surely is one of the most significant and interesting lives of the last century.

We follow Houdini from a poor childhood into the world of magic, to meeting his wife, achieving success in his field, innovating and making waves around the world, to his experiments with early flight, cinema and a significant portion looking at his efforts to discredit fake mediums. Wow. Just one life, Harry?

The surprises just kept coming. The injuries he sustained, the lengths he went to for publicity and an audience, Houdini as a magician is magnificent enough a subject. And yet that's just one part of his story.

His famous demise is also covered in depth, and the long-lasting efforts to seek out the truth about his death is objectively covered.

Everything you would want to read about is here - bar one thing. I wanted to see behind some of his tricks, see how the illusions were created. Though I can understand that this isn't the point of the book, though I was disappointed. I did have an issue keeping all the names straight in my mind as well, so many friends, colleagues, enemies and acquaintances - maybe a bibliography at the end or a Who's Who guide to the characters would have helped.

This really is a comprehensive look at Houdini's life, with dozens of stills dotted throughout, which added to the mental image I started building of this remarkable man. If only all biographies were this detailed and interestingly written.

Recommended if you're a fan of the man, of magic or of twentieth-century history - he played quite a role in it.
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on 17 July 2008
I've been a fan of Harry Houdini for a few years now, but I must admit this is the first book about him I've ever read. Therefore, this may or may not affect how you see my review. I hope it doesn't, because I thought this book was wonderful. The research was thorough, the photographs of Harry and his family were fascinating and it was a joy to read about his childhood and his supposed secret life as a spy.

I felt this book tried to break through the stereotypes of Harry Houdini which still exist in our society today. I do not believe that anyone will ever know everything about this great man, but this book is certainly a brave step.
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on 14 May 2009
This is a great book, the life, be it a short one this guy had was unreal. The book is factually written and broken down into easily absorbed chunks. It is 'littered' (in a good way) with old photographs and posters showing Houdini, his wife, places they performed and people he knew.

If you are interested in performing escapes or conjuring, then it is probably not for you. But if you want to know about the master of misdirection, escapology and his life then it is a MUST READ.
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VINE VOICEon 8 November 2009
Kalush and Sloman's biography of Houdini's event-filled life starts out by pointing to some new ideas it puts forward about Houdini's connection to the intelligence communities of the USA and Great Britain, thanks to new revelations from the MI5 archives. Astoundingly though, these connections to the nascent secret services are the least fascinating elements of the tale.

Featuring a mixture of reported conversations and correspondence within the context of the narrative, the book goes some ways to providing a picture of Houdini's personality whilst detailing his great genius and ingenuity. But there are no overt judgments in the text, whether talking about his affairs, his outbursts of temper and rabid need to be acknowledged, which is a good trick that allows the reader to come to a decision without being told what side of the fence they should fall on.

A weighty tome at over 500 pages, the intrigue never palls. From his humble, beginnings as the child of an immigrant family, through his hungry efforts to break into show business, to the height of his powers, to his war against spiritualism, there is a lot to chew on and think about. Some of the methodology of his tricks is revealed along the way for those interested in the magic, a lot is revealed about his philosophy and the extreme commitment that he had that made him a success. There are many highs, even as there seems to have been ructions in his personal life.

There are Presidents, Kaisers and fellow magicians to meet. All are fascinating characters. Arthur Conan Doyle is here too, portrayed in a less than positive light.

There is a shift in tone as the book heads to its conclusion. There is great darkness in Houdini's battle against fake mediums and the explanations of how they worked and the lengths they went to to stop Houdini from exposing them is quite disturbing. The term "psychic mafia" seems quite apt.

It is a fascinating tale of a man with a frightening number of skills, and a frightening drive to succeed. Of a man who made friends amongst the mighty, and enemies too. It's inspiring.
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on 27 October 2011
THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI: THE MAKING OF AMERICA'S FIRST SUPERHERO (2006) by William Kalush and Larry Sloman, New York, ATRIA books, 591 pages.

This is truly the greatest biography of Harry Houdini that has ever been written. Working from millions of pages of material, the authors give the finest account of Houdini's life, skills, accomplishments and impact. If there are two things slightly amiss here, they are simple: the title should have been kept short, and the personality of Houdini should have been better described (i.e., the authors never even agree on the color of Houdini's eyes, which were coincidentally the same color as mine).

The animadventures of Houdini's parents, which would lead to his successes, is outlined with loving care and accuracy. Houdini trained at a circus, with acrobats, contortionists, magicians and escape artists starting at age 12. By the time he was 20, he was performing great shows and would soon serve as a ('lay'?) policeman, and as a spy for the Secret Service. The disgusting Spiritualist movement and its probable responsibility for the death of Houdini is explored - and it is at that juncture this book becomes a haunting, addicting read.

As an example of the book's thoroughness - and seeming controversy of that thoroughness - here and only here you'll read about the fight to the death between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini. This may feel wrong to the English reader; yet the exposé is intense and accurate. Doyle had wanted Houdini to be the Spiritualist poster boy; Houdini was keeping Sir Arthur at arm's length. Houdini wanted to believe, but he had no sympathy for frauds.

Their friendship destroyed, both men went on the warpath, but Doyle's conduct is a disgrace. What is not commonly known is Houdini suffered at least two previous assassination attempts. Were these the work of Sir Arthur? Not only is Sir Arthur convincingly implicated in Houdini's death; the biography demonstrates the cynical way in which Sir Arthur pursued Houdini's widow Bess to join the cause after Houdini died (he referred to her in a disparaging way as "the widow"). Lonely, alcohol- and drug-addicted, Bess went along with any fakery proposed to her until she could take it no more.

Harry Houdini is a deserved global icon. He singlehandedly invented spycraft as we understand it - including his invention of the disposable one-time camera - and put it to good use prior to (and during) WWI. Houdini created strides in law enforcement and penology that were second only to the original work of Vidocq.

He laid the foundations of modern stage illusion, magic, even film stunt work. He served as an inspiration for, and was a lifelong friend of, Buster Keaton's (legend has it that Houdini gave Buster the nickname). Houdini's sad, agonizing death, likely at the hands of a Spiritualist-hired assassin, will leave you weeping.
Though I am refreshed by the pure information in the book, it is a minor irritant that there is not one single note or even a decent bibliography here - which I view as heresy. Instead, the authors opted to publish their notes online, and I will not go digging for them. I promise, by the time you get to page 13, you will not want to go digging either.

The book is too good and if I may contradict myself, frankly it is refreshing to keep the notes and annoying footnotes out of the way.

Erik "Harry" Weisz, a handsome, caring boy, the rabbi's son, grew to be an amateur scientist, the first scientific 'paranormal researcher', an inventor, author, engineer, machinist, spymaster, police/prison consultant, exposer of frauds, lobbyist for new American "anti-psychic fraud" laws, film producer and star, Secret Service Agent, spy and master illusionist (he made an elephant disappear in the middle of a circus ring, in my opinion his greatest trick).

To say he was a mere magician is an insult. He has inspired countless characters, undeservedly cheesy films have been made of his life, and everyone always fouls the details of his sad, untimely death.

This is the book to read to get all the details.
This is the book about that great man who came to be known as HOUDINI.
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on 24 February 2015
I gave up on this before I'd finished Page 1, which might not seem fair or reasonable - but I'll explain. It's not a biography, it's not non-fiction - it's a NOVEL! Of course, the authors would argue with me, but then the authors only have themselves to blame because they wrote stuff like " 'Am I pushing myself too hard? I'm forty-one, but I look fifty. I'm so gray.' Vickery began to admit to himself his concern....' etc etc. We have no idea whether these words ran through the minds of Houdini & Vickery, and neither do the authors - they made it up because presumably they believe that just dealing in facts is too boring for a modern audience. If you go along with them and with the modern trend of speculating on exactly what people were thinking at any given time in order to liven up factual historical accounts, then you'll probably really enjoy this book. If, like me, you believe that history and biography, if well written, can be just as entertaining and captivating as novels; and that inventing scenes to tart up factual accounts is sacrilegious and unnecessary, than steer clear!
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on 22 June 2014
I was leant this book by a friend who assured me I would love it, despite not before having professed any real interest in Houdini. I wasn't disappointed and have since bought it for others as presents. It's a long book, but never feels like a chore. It's great combination of 'how' the magic works and stories about his life.
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