Two New Lives of Harry Houdini

Two New Lives of Harry Houdini
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If ever a life called for a brief reversion to Freudian psychobiography, it is that of the escape artist Harry Houdini. Born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, he was “a mama’s boy all his life,” Joe Posnanski writes in “The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini.” Years later, long after the Weisz (now Weiss) family had moved to America, his dying father, an out-of-work rabbi in Manhattan, reminded Erik (now Ehrich) of an earlier promise to take care of his mother, Cecilia. Nearly a quarter-century after his father’s death, having become famous as the Great Houdini, the performer demanded that one employer pay him in gold coins, and then took a sack of them to Cecilia. Reminding her of the commitment he had made to his father, he asked that she hold out her apron and, as Adam Begley adroitly puts it in his “Houdini: The Elusive American,” “poured the coins, a tinkling golden cascade, into his mother’s lap.” When she died a year later, Houdini “mourned extravagantly,” Mr. Begley writes, and was never quite the same again.

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