The Life & Many Deaths of Harry Houdini Ruth Brandon

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Brandon, who has written on Sarah Bernhardt (Being Divine) and the Singer sewing machine family, approaches this master of illusion with skepticism and sympathy. Houdini was born sometime in 1874 (virtually nothing about him was easy for his biographer to establish). She considers what psychological needs drove a man to jump handcuffed into an icy river to prove he could free himself, or to hang upside down in a straitjacket from the top of a skyscraper for the same reason; and she portrays ``this conspicuously brave man'' as also a ``conspicuously frightened man.'' Houdini's every performance carried the threat of death and, more important, the threat of failure. The dramatic escapes of this meticulous craftsman were in essence faked but nonetheless often highly dangerous. Obsessively devoted to his mother and to his wife, Bess, Houdini numbered among his friends both Edmund Wilson and Conan Doyle. He died in 1926 at the age of 52-from appropriately mysterious causes. Brandon draws the reader inexorably into the magical, slightly crazed world of the Great Houdini, born Erich Weiss in Budapest, or was it Appleton, Wisconsin?

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