why houdini matters


Magic is an amusing, intellectual art in which what you see collides with what you know, and there’s a sparkling little jolt that makes you gasp or laugh. It’s recreation. Magic is clever and fun. We buy children magic kits in toy stores. When we shop for magic books, we find them shelved among the “games and pastimes.” In Las Vegas production shows, magic occupies the “variety arts” spot as an alternative to trained dogs that dance in tutus—a sorbet to refresh our palates between the important courses of perfect naked bodies. Even Harry Kellar, the “dean” of American stage magicians in the generation that preceded Houdini, declared that a magician should transport his audiences “to fairyland without scaring them with the devil.” This—with one hairstyle or another—has pretty much been the job description ever since. But there was nothing fairyland about Houdini (the subject of a major exhibition that opened recently at the Jewish Museum, in Manhattan, with a handsome catalogue by Brooke Kamin Rapaport). He was made of flesh—taut, handsome, muscular—and never let us forget it. The buttoned-up world devoured pictures of Houdini’s physique as he leaped handcuffed from the bridges we crossed every day. Houdini gleefully defied authority. He would challenge police to throw him naked into a jail cell (always a great photo op, with manacles discreetly covering his privates); his clothes were locked in an adjoining cell. A little later the officers—smugly congratulating themselves on stumping the Great Self-Liberator—would hear the telephone ring. It was Houdini, calling from across town.

more from Teller at Vanity Fair here.