The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini by Joe Posnanski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
At various points Harry Houdini lied about where he was born, when he was born, how he met his wife, and he routinely got fictional accounts of his escapes in newspapers. Hell, Harry Houdini wasn’t even his real name. So how do you write a biography about a man whose entire life was built around tricking people and sensationalizing himself?
What the writer has done here is to focus less on the details of Houdini’s life. Sure, we get the basic facts and educated guesses when necessary, and there’s a lot about various Houdini legends while comparing them to reality. However, that’s not the main point of this book. Instead of trying to figure out who Houdini was and how he accomplished what he did, the book is more interested in examining how Houdini continues to fascinate and inspire people to this day. Considering that this was a man who whose very name became synonymous with amazing escapes of any kind, that’s an interesting topic.
Here’s the odd thing for me. I don't really care about magic, and I'm not even that interested in Houdini although he certainly led a memorable life. So why did I read this? Because I am a big fan of Joe Posnanski.
Posnanski is a sportswriter who was an award winning columnist in Kansas City for many years, and if I had a nickel for every story I read that he wrote about a horrible Royals teams during that time I’d be richer than Bill Gates. I met him once, and he signed a copy of his wonderful book about Buck O’Neil, The Soul of Baseball. I’ve listened to the podcast he does with TV producer Michael Schur and I have even ordered the dish named after him, Posnanski Chicken Spiedini, at a restaurant called Governor Stumpy’s on more a few occasions. (Not only is it really good, but you get a huge portion that gives you great take home leftovers for another meal.)
The fascinating thing about Posnanski to me is that he isn’t your typical 21st century hot-take sports guy. By modern standards his sports writing could almost be called gentle, and he always seems to be looking for the bright side without seeming naive. He is almost effortlessly funny, too. The thing that really always stood out was that Joe had a knack for finding awe inspiring moments in places that might be overlooked. I always had the feeling that part of the reason he was a sports fan is that it’s a thing where somebody doing something unbelievable is always just a play away.
However, Joe left Kansas City years ago, and while he’s had several high profile sports writing jobs since, I’ve missed getting a dose of that that kind of optimism a few times a week when I cracked open a open a copy of the Star. Truth be told, I’ve drifted away from watching sports at all in recent years so I don’t seek out Joe’s writing like I used to. I did get a nice reminder of it when a story he wrote about taking his daughter to see Hamilton went viral that made Lin-Manuel Miranda cry.
So even though I’ve got little interest in magicians, I picked this up just to read some Joe Posnanski. And he delivers by giving us a story about wonder. Houdini might have been a bully, a liar, a jerk, and a shameless self-promoter, but as repeatedly gets pointed out, he was the ultimate showman with a relentless drive. The legend of Houdini has inspired countless other magicians and escape artists, and those are the stories that Posnanski is really telling us here. He wants to figure out why a flawed man whose main talent was putting himself in rigged situations to escape from has managed to flourish in the public imagination for decades after his death.
To try and answer that Joe talks to everybody from David Copperfield to a reclusive former actor who wrote an incredibly detailed book about Houdini that is nearly impossible to find. Along the way we hear about magic acts, tricks of the escape artist trade, debates about Houdini’s actual skill, and a variety of other topics that all are oriented around trying to puzzle out the appeal of the man. In the end I did learn a lot about Houdini, and it also gave me a lot to think about in terms of what creates legendary fame and how one person's image can inspire countless people long after they're gone.
If you’re thinking about reading it, and you’re not sure if it’s your cup of tea, here’s a link to the column Posnanski wrote about taking his daughter to see Hamilton . If you enjoy that, there’s a good chance you’ll like this book.
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