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The Secret Life of Houdini: the Making of…

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

by William Kalush, Larry Sloman

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4731421,857 (4.06)13

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Interesting bio of Houdini. I had just finished reading the Confabulist and it prompted me to read this bio. Much of the info crossed over from the novel to the bio but I still found some new facts about Houdini. There are some nice photos in this book as well. The book is really well researched and it reads quite quickly. Perhaps because I had just finished the other Houdini book I found this bio a bit tedious and lengthy at times. For anyone interested in his life and personality, this is a good reference. ( )
  bnbookgirl | Jun 15, 2014 |
Wow. First, let me just congratulate myself on reading every word of this 560 page opus! It's been years since I've read anything this long. In fact, it's really possible that this is the longest book I've ever read.

Secondly, I'd like to note that it's also very possible that I now know more about the man who was Harry Houdini than I know about my own husband. The authors were extremely thorough in their investigations...and that's putting it mildly.

Overall, I'd have to say that I like the person Houdini was. What often comes across as arrogance is often superseded by charm. Although, if the medical diagnosis on record is correct regarding his death, I'd say it was ultimately his arrogance that did him in.

One of the most fascinating facts in the book, in my opinion, was that Houdini was the first person to pilot a plane over Australia. That's neat! The incident a couple pages over about knocking loose a submerged corpse was pretty interesting too!

I was amazed by Houdini's efforts to raise finances during the war. He truly was a go-getter and, the fact that this unstoppable attitude brought about a million dollars' worth of sold war bonds in just a year, blows my mind!

The authors devoted a lot of time to Houdini's debunking myths and exposing falsehoods. I liked this because it showed that he had a strong humanitarian side and that he spent his last days doing good for the sake of others. I was shocked, several times, by the gullibility of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I was actually embarrassed for him when the authors discussed his surprise at the "removable thumb" trick. What a sad life he must have led---he was obviously possessed, insane, or both.

Unanswered questions include: what was the deal with Dr. Crandon and the boys? It would have been nice to have some follow up there---but perhaps that whole subject is still a mystery.

As a whole, I was really impressed with this biography of the Great Houdini. I will set this aside to release soon. ( )
  lostinavalonOR | Feb 25, 2014 |
First published on Booking in Heels.

This is the only biography of Harry Houdini that I have read, so I have no idea how it measures up in comparison to any others. However, I can tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I whipped through this thick, fairly heavy non-fiction in three days and enjoyed every second. It's engrossing, accessible and just generally fascinating throughout.

To begin with, it's thorough but not to the point of boredom. I don't feel the need for biographies to tell me the minutiae of the subject's life and Mr Kalush and Mr Sloman have respected my wishes in this area. It begins with Houdini's childhood but provides only a brief summary, for which I respect the book even more. Then we're straight onto his magic and escapism, which is conversely extremely in-depth.

It covers a lot of different areas - aviation, films, the Secret Service, the army, his challenges, his fellow magicians, etc. Naturally some are more interesting than others, but I never knew he dabbled in so many different things. Did you know he was the first person to a plane in Australia? Oh, and let's not forget the 'spy' rumours. I hadn't heard these before, but on the blurb of a different edition it says 'in exchange for his cooperation, the governments of these two countries (Britain and America) facilitated his rise to the top of the world stage.' Apparently it's A Thing that Harry Houdini was a secret agent. I would have automatically disbelieved it, but there is evidence (and I'm a lawyer - I'm holding them to a high standard of proof!) that he reported back to his government on the conditions of German jail cells and trained certain agents in escaping from restraints. I'm sceptical that he was involved any more than this, but it's still amazing that he actually was part of the war effort.

That's partly the conclusion I've come to, actually. I'm not sure he was a nice man (judging by his arrogance and how aggressively he denounced his competition), but I do think he was a good one. He spent $50,000 (back then!) just on entertaining the troops during the War and funded several charities with varying objectives, not to mention his perseverance in debunking fake mediums.

Ah yes. Spiritualists. I learnt an awful lot about this particular area and it was written absolutely amazingly. I had no idea he was so politically active - he tried to push a Bill through to prohibit phony mediums completely and attending every meeting to demonstrate how fake seances could be pulled off. He became such a threat that there were several attempts on his life by the spiritualists.

Which leads me neatly to Arthur Conan Doyle. Yes, that one. This part had me on the edge of my seat and opened my eyes to all sorts of new information. Did you know his wife was a medium and he was actually an active Spiritualist? He died with very little money due to opening a psychic bookstore near Westminster, just as an off-side. Anyway, apparently he and Houdini used to be good friends until this debacle exploded and well... spoilers! I didn't have a clue about any of this previously but now I think of it every time I see a Sherlock Holmes book. It just doesn't add up in my head with the methodical fictional detective!

I've somehow ended up reviewing the man instead of the book, haven't I? Sorry. Well, it's good, anyway. It's written in a strange mix of styles that actually works really well. A chapter will begin written almost like a story, with proper dialogue, thoughts and feelings but then switches almost seamlessly into standard non-fiction. It's weird, but I liked it. It might not be for everybody though - my boyfriend started to read this book but the style annoyed him to such an extent that he got distracted by something shiny and gave up.

Clearly Harry Houdini was the basis for books like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. He created his own magical encyclopaedia, controlled his own magazine, refused to recognise any theories but his own... Sound familiar? He does seem like he should have been a fictional character, which makes reading a biography all the more entertaining. The fun of a story, but you're learning! *shocked face*

I've done it again, haven't I? *swooshes back to discussing the actual damn book* Anyway, believe it or not, there are facts about Harry Houdini that I haven't already told you in this review, so you should go buy the book and learn them. It's well-written, entertaining and impartial (for the most part), so it's an excellent place to learn more about the legend you thought you already knew. ( )
  generalkala | Sep 6, 2013 |
This was written after listening to the abridged audio version of this book.

Houdini was a pretty interesting guy, I have to admit. I knew, of course, that he made his fame as the world's greatest escape artist, and I had heard that he spent some time debunking mediums, but I had no idea he was a prolific author, too.

His life seems so sad, in a way, because the way he's portrayed in this biography makes it seem that all his life he was searching for something spiritual, but he couldn't find it anywhere. I can't blame him; the phony mediums would certainly scare me off a spiritual path.

The author never really says (at least not in this abridged version) why he chose to call Houdini a 'super hero.' Did he do anything heroic? Is this how Houdini perceived himself when he stopped mediums from preying on grieved widows and miserable people? Is this a reference to his time training soldiers in the art of escape and his possible work as a spy? Is this simply recognition of Houdini's superior physical condition? I wish the author had said!

The book seemed to jump around a lot. The author spent a lot of time focusing on the relationship between Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to the point that this was a partially a biography of the author of Sherlock Holmes. It also suggests that Houdini may have been targeted for abuse or assassination by Spiritualists...but doesn't really back that assertion up.

Interesting book all the same, but I wouldn't call it a scholarly biography by a long shot. ( )
  makaiju | Sep 29, 2012 |
9 stars: Super, couldn't put it down.


From the back cover: Handcuff king. Escape artist. INternational superstar. Since his death 3eighty years ago, Harry Houdini's life has been chronicled in books, in filma, and on television. Now, in this groundbreaking biography... find the many 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. [This book] traces the arc of the master magician's life from desperate poverty to worldwide fame--his legacy later threatened by a group of fanatical spritualists 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.


I loved this book. I had a hard time putting it down. It is extraordinarily detailed, and the many pictures within are fabulous. NOt many secrets are given away; only a few. However, that isn't the point of this book; it is not just about his magic, but about this very complicated man. The allegations that spiritualists caused his murder are neither proven or disproven in my opinion. It is all a fascianting read. ( )
  PokPok | Mar 26, 2011 |
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William Kalushprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Sloman, Larrymain authorall editionsconfirmed
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For three wonderful mothers--Cecilia Weiss, Lilyan Sloman, and Jean Kalush
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The first shovel-load missed his torso and struck his neck, sending soil flying up his nostrils and into his mouth.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743272080, Paperback)

Handcuff King. Escape Artist. International Superstar. Since his death eighty years ago, Harry Houdini's 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 magician's 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:21:22 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

After years of struggling on the dime museum circuit, Harry Houdini got a break that put him on the front page of a Chicago newspaper. Soon Houdini was performing for royalty, commanding vast sums, and exploring the new power of Hollywood. At a time when spy agencies frequently co-opted amateurs, Houdini developed a relationship with a man who would later run MI-5. For the next several years, the world's most famous magician traveled to Germany and Russia and routinely reported his findings. After World War I, Houdini embarked on a battle of his own, creating a group of operatives to infiltrate the seamy world of fake spirit mediums. In doing so, he triggered the wrath of fanatical Spiritualists, led by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Death threats became an everyday occurrence, but the group would pose an even greater danger to Houdini's legacy.--From publisher description.… (more)

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