Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | January 5 - 11, 2011


On view through March 27, 2011
At the Jewish Museum (Fifth Ave. and 92nd St.)
Exhibition Galleries, Hours: Sun., Mon. Tues.:
11am-5:45pm / Thurs.: 11am-8pm / Fri.: 11am-4pm
Sat.: 11am-5:45pm
Museum Admission: Adults: $12 / Seniors/65 & over: $10
Students: $ 7.50 / Children under 12: Free
Jewish Museum Members: Free / Saturdays: Free (11am-5:45pm)
For info, call-212-423-3200 or visit thejewishmuseum.org

Image courtesy of the Jewish Museum

“Houdini in Chains” — 1903.

Before Dick did waterboarding: What Houdini knew
Reconstructed Water Torture Cell part of exhibit’s bag of tricks


Mr. Richard Bruce Cheney, Esq.
Vice President Emeritus, USA

Mr. Vice President Emeritus:
I know you have long been a fan of something called waterboarding, and in that regard I wonder if you would care to join me in a sort of field trip — an educational expedition — to a museum in this city, where recently I was almost buried at the entrance by 40 or 50 little kids chirping away like so many happy sparrows while a couple of nice young teachers tried to make sure that not one sparrow had been lost en route.

The excited children were being swept into the Jewish Museum, a venerable but often quite daring institution that currently houses a compelling exhibit — “Houdini: Art and Magic” — all about the life and times of a performer who held this nation (and the world) in thrall as the dear old 19th century was turning into the corrupt and infinitely bloodier 20th.

But I do hope, Mr. Cheney, that those chirping little ones didn’t get too upset when, halfway through this fascinating display, they came upon an upright rectangular see-through chamber labeled “Water Torture Cell.”

Yes, Virginia, water can be used as an instrument of torture — it’s right there in print on the label — even if your Uncle Dick tells you otherwise, and even if we’re not at this moment talking about a board but a sort of glass and steel telephone booth.

Okay, let’s drop the Uncle Dick stuff. The point is that you could drown in this Water Torture Cell — unless you were Harry Houdini, magician and escape artist supreme (in which case you could also spring free of every other prototype object in this remarkable display, from heavyweight handcuffs to a massive traveling trunk to a triple-strength straitjacket to an oversized milk can to the Water Torture Cell).

The astonishing Houdini could, and did, escape from them and from much else — straightjacketed at the bottom of a river, for instance — over and over and over again. And would with no less astonishing modesty bill himself around the globe as, for one instance out of dozens on these walls — a vivid lithograph in the Western Mail, Cardiff, Wales, 1913 — “The World-Famous Self-Liberator! HOUDINI! Presenting the Greatest Performance of His Strenuous Career!” The “Water Torture Cell,” by the way, is the only reconstruction in this whole assemblage (the original having been destroyed by a 1995 fire at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame, in Niagara Falls).

Houdini did walk among the notables of his time, from Charlie Chaplin, whom he physically, athletically, and aesthetically much resembled (viz. the prizefight sequence in 1931’s “City Lights”), to Fatty Arbuckle, to W.C. Fields, to Sarah Bernhardt, to Theodore Roosevelt, to Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — whom he liked but disagreed with over the phoniness, as Houdini saw it, of spiritualism.

They and other greats of the period were his peers, even though Houdini — like Chaplin — was technically an immigrant. And this exhibit is not just about Escape. It is also about Immigrants.  

Escape and Immigrant — sometimes the same thing. Particularly if you were a European Jew.

Ehrich (or Erik) Weiss (or Weisz), the son of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss and Cecilia Steiner, was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 24, 1874 — though for some years Ehrich (redubbed Harry) claimed to have been born in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA. Maybe he really thought so.

The rabbi and his family had in fact emigrated to America — to Appleton — when Ehrich was three, and though the rabbi never did learn English, young Ehrich got Americanized quickly enough. At some later point, probably his teens, the aspiring young runner, wrestler and magician changed his last name to Houdini, in honor of the great French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1806-1871).

With some amusement, Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the freelance curator of this engrossing project, notes that Appleton, Wisconsin, has sent forth into the world novelist/playwright Edna Ferber, U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy and Harry Houdini, man of magic.

The first thing that hits your eye when you walk through the portal at the Jewish Museum that says “Houdini” is the projection on a sizable wall of a giant fish dangling and struggling at the end of a line.

Oh no, this isn’t a fish. It’s Harry Houdini, the man who can untie knots with his toes and his teeth, swinging in a straitjacket high over an amassed crowd, either in Times Square or in front of some other big-city newspaper building, all the better leap from feat to headline.

Pretty soon, as we move along, we meet petite, good-looking Wilhelmina Beatrice (Bess) Rahner, the Roman Catholic song-and-dance girl from Coney Island whose German-American mother never forgave her daughter for marrying a Jew. Bess soon got rather famous in her own right, helping Harry do Kafka one better with the Metamorphosis act in which they somehow exchange positions, sight unseen, he’s here, she’s there, alakazam!

What I did not know until this exhibit came along was how many people have played Houdini in movies — Tony Curtis, Harvey Keitel, Guy Pearce, Norman Mailer to name a few — and that Houdini himself was a star in a half-dozen works of the silent film era (he was the first man ever to fly an airplane in Australia, and performed acts of derring-do in thrillers like “Haldane of the Secret Service” (1923).

Even more astonishing is the number of artists — writers, painters, sculptors, photographers, conceptualists — who have come along in all these years since Houdini died to memorialize his existence through what they, these artists, do.

High among them is Matthew Barney, who not only made that film in which Mailer plays Houdini but also in this layout has an entire (small) room called “Cremaster 5: The Ehrich Weiss Suite” — which you look at through its glass door. What you see is a small white plastic casket and six or seven live high-collared Kite Jacobin pigeons whose defecations on that casket symbolize, in the words of the Jewish Museum, “that nature endures while life is fleeting.”

But nobody has paid better tribute to Houdini than novelist E.L. Doctorow, who gets the escape artist thing and the immigrant thing and the aviator thing all brilliantly together in 1975’s best-selling “Ragtime.”

The catalogue for the Jewish Museum exhibit is actually a 260-page Yale University Press hardcover book, and in it, among much else, there is a Q&A interview of Doctorow by Rapaport.

“When I was a boy [in New Rochelle],” the Doctorow who hits the 80 mark on January 6 tells her, “he [Houdini] served as one of the models for a child’s fantasy life. We children had a lot of them. There was Tom Mix, the cowboy, or the great comic book heroes like Superman, or Joe DiMaggio, or Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy. Some of them real, some fictitious. And in that pantheon was Harry Houdini.

“Kids in my generation…loved learning card tricks and sleight of hand, making coins disappear, trying to hypnotize one another, that sort of thing. And behind all that tomfoolery stood the figure of Houdini. Even though he was long since dead. Perhaps because he was long since dead.”

When Houdini tried and failed to raise his own beloved mother from the dead, he grew bitter and skeptical about all forms of spiritualism. Indeed, he spent much of the closing part of his own life debunking all psychics and spiritualists. You can’t flimflam a flimflammer, he’d acidly proclaim. And when Lady Doyle, the wife of his friend Arthur Conan Doyle, engaged in spiritual converse — in English — with Houdini’s late mother, the son let it be known that Cecilia Weiss had never spoken a word of English in her lifetime. This is replicated in the Jewish Museum exhibit by a fragment of film in which actor Paul Michael Glaser cries out, during a séance: “Mama, this is your son, speak Yiddish!”

What most impresses Rapaport, over and above the Great Escapes, is “the ordinary, mundane quality” of what might be called Houdini’s props — objects an immigrant would well understand — a big old traveling trunk; steel sewing needles (for swallowing, ugh!); an oversized milk can (“from farm to dairy to milkman to you”).

Ehrich Weiss of Budapest, Hungary — and Appleton, Wisconsin — died of peritonitis from a ruptured appendix on the afternoon of October 31, 1926 (Halloween eve) in Detroit, Michigan. Every magician now alive owes him more than can ever be repaid and will freely say so. But I do not think any magician now alive will freely and gladly go for a swim in Harry Houdini’s glass booth. We leave that to Deadeye Dicks.



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