Thursday, March 3, 2016
Houdini's diverse fame?
More than a hundred biographies, almost a hundred novels, ten times as many as any other magician can claim. A new novel, a new tv series, a new history book. For anyone, that would be an accomplishment, but it's extraordinary for someone who's been dead for so long. There are many explanations for the depth and longevity of magic entertainer Harry Houdini's fame. During his lifetime he repeatedly risked death and survived, which often draws a crowd. That and escape are powerful metaphors. After his death his fame only increased, apparently thanks at least in part to the efforts of his widow, a fascinating theory explored by writer and researcher David Charvet in a 1995 article which is one of my favorites of all time (just as his book on Alexander The Man Who Knows is one of my favorite biographies, but I digress). I'll have more to say about all of these topics. (On his widow's efforts, see "Bess Houdini: Did the Woman Behind the Legend create the Myth?" by David Charvet, Magic magazine, October 1995). (On the number of HH novels and bios, see the wonderful blog "wildabouthoudini.com" by John Cox)
While agreeing with all of these factors as partly explaining the power of the word "Houdini", I would like to add one that is, if less important, also less obvious and just as compelling: the stunning breadth of his accomplishments. He was not _just_ famous for his live performances, though he was famous for that. He was also an activist, author, aviator and filmmaker, and dabbled in more. He made headlines for his challenges to fake psychics, wrote about magic history, was credited with being the first person to fly an airplane in Australia, and was a movie star. Anyone investigating the history of any of these topics is going to run into his name. And, in retrospect, it makes him more interesting to me.
So indulge imagination and speculate: would Houdini be as famous today if live performance was his only medium (if you will pardon the pun)? Does anyone recall encountering Houdini in history, or remaining interested in his career, for some reason other than his live performances?
[Edited to add title...]