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The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  2,163 ratings  ·  292 reviews
Handcuff King. Escape Artist. International Superstar. Since his death eighty years ago, Harry Houdini's life has been chronicled in books, in film, and on television. Now, in this groundbreaking biography, renowned magic expert William Kalush and best-selling writer Larry Sloman team up to find the man behind the myth. Drawing from millions of pages of research, they desc ...more
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published October 31st 2006 by Atria Books (first published 2006)
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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May 28, 2019 rated it liked it
In this book's introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.
Sep 03, 2011 rated it it was ok
Being Hungarian, there are a few things we take credit for: goulash, the Rubik’s Cube, and Houdini (born In Hungary to Austro-Hungarian parents). William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s “The Secret Life of Houdini” came to my attention after visiting a local museum exhibit on fellow-Hungarian Houdini and magic.

Although looking forward to “The Secret Life of Houdini”; I almost forfeited (before even truly beginning) when the authors announced that they have “dramatized scenes, “shifted what people sai
Lalo Dagach
May 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites, atheism
I started reading the book this morning and couldn't put it down the whole day. It's 4 am and I just finished the book. Everything about Houdini's life is incredible. Not just becoming the world's greatest escape artist, but also his work in international espionage and his crusade to demystify the emerging religion of fraudulent spiritualism by creating a network of spies to infiltrate their séances.

In a wonderful description, after Houdini preformed a trick for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle author of
Tony Mercer
Jul 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I knew about as much as the layman about Houdini; he was the greatest magician ever and an expert at escapes. This book was really revelatory and fascinating. I never realized Houdini grew up as an extremely poor Jewish Hungarian immigrant who left home as a teenager to make it big. More than just a magician he was an author, an actor, an investor, one of the early airplane pilots, a spy (though I'm not sure how involved he was), and the leading antagonist against spiritualist mediums communicat ...more
Aug 25, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
4 stars earned because the subject of this book led such an interesting life. 2 stars earned because the tedious writing style pulled off the feat of making Houdini's exploits seem quite mundane. So I've split the difference to give it 3 stars. Overall I'm glad I read this book. What I came into it already knowing about Houdini only scratched the surface of his accomplishments. I had no idea that he was a major participant in the earliest days of airplane flight. Not until reading the jacket cov ...more
Lancelot Schaubert
Mar 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
(originally @ )

As a kid, I ingested Houdini biographies like most kids ingest chocolate. As a kid, Houdini snatched up Robert Houdin biographies like most kids snatched up wallets. I found myself taunting my brother to handcuff, shackle and hog tie me to my own bedposts and lock the door just so I could escape through the bedroom window and go wash dishes until he found me again. Houdini contorted himself as often as the manager at The Welsh Circus allowed him to. I practiced card m
Greg Pettit
I just couldn't get through it. Although I am very interested in Houdini, the style of this book made it difficult to get into. I found myself struggling to get through chapters, and not looking forward to picking it up each time. That's not the kind of book I want to read, especially about a character as interesting as Houdini.

Another problem for me came in the unorthodox style of the narrative. Overall, it was chronological as you would expect, but within sections it would jump aro
Carl Rollyson
Aug 25, 2012 rated it did not like it
Not to keep you in suspense any longer: The secret is that Harry Houdini may have been a spy, an operative for the U.S. Secret Service, and other police organizations here and abroad. Unfortunately, the evidence is circumstantial, the biographers' conclusions inconclusive.

To be sure, Houdini hung out with cops and ops. He was, after all, the handcuff king, escaping from every kind of lock and chain the fuzz fettered him with — including treacherous thumb cuffs that tore the skin on H
Rebecca Rosenberg
Feb 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: novel-research
This was a great research book for my novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON, the love triangle between Houdini, Jack London and his wife, Charmian London. These historians uncover things about Houdini never revealed, including the affair with Charmian London, but also alluding to Houdinis work as a spy! Entertaining and educational.
Apr 06, 2009 rated it liked it
Before reading this, I knew next to nothing about Harry Houdini. But after getting through this incredibly long slog of a book, I feel like he and I have come out on the other side as friends. It's like we were both in it together, and the whole time he was saying to me, "Hey, don't blame me, I didn't write this thing" and I just kept saying, "Don't worry Harry, it's not your fault." He was an incredibly interesting and all around amazing and likable guy. He definitely had his crazy moments, but ...more
Jun 03, 2012 rated it liked it
Very interesting life of Ehrich Weiss AKA Harry Houdini, was a very interesting figure. This book discussed the meagre upbringing of Houdini and how he was able to turn a childhood passion of magic to a brilliant career. During his zenith, he was very wealthy man. It also delved into the dispute with the spiritualists and how eventually lead him to his downfall. This was an interesting book. I was not sure if I would like this book, but I enjoy biographies. I enjoy story of resilience where peop ...more
Jul 10, 2008 rated it it was ok
I really wanted to love this book -- Houdini has been one of my favorite characters from history since childhood. I watched the Tony Curtis movie about him over and over again, got really into magic (had my parents take me to see David Copperfield live, I bought many magic trick kits), and was always fascinated by him. I was obviously really excited when this book came out, but it became extremely boring very quickly. The book goes into such great detail and trudges along at such a slow pace, it ...more
Maura Heaphy Dutton
May 18, 2019 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
"A thousand thoughts cascaded through Harry's brain ..." And the sound you hear is this awful, bloated, badly organized and amateurish mess of a book hitting the wall.

I made it to page 23, admittedly by skipping the "dramatized" sections. Given how cramped and tiny the print is in my edition, that is probably equivalent to almost page 50.

From the pictures that are generously scattered throughout the text, it's clear that this was a labor of love, with lots of research and
Jul 23, 2018 rated it it was ok
Shelves: did-not-finish
DNF. While Houdini’s life is fascinating, this account is not. I gave it 2 Stars only because the authors probably worked really hard to put so much detail into it. However, the detail and repetition caused me to finally give up after several starts and stops. I’m glad the book has finally escaped the heavy shackles of my bookshelf...
Nov 05, 2017 rated it liked it
Good, but every Houdini book I read feels like a supplement. Nothing seems definitive.
Brenda Osborne
Mar 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
What a fascinating man! I teach a short unit about Houdini in my sixth grade classroom and I thought I knew a lot about him. I learned so much from this book! This book goes into interesting details about his many years of struggles perfecting his many escapes. Knowing how he does some of them in no way diminishes his accomplishments. I was fascinated to read about his childhood complicated relationship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I don't want to spoil the book but if you know a lot or nothing ...more
Aug 29, 2012 rated it it was amazing
First published on Booking in Heels.

This is the only biography of Harry Houdini that I have read, so I have no idea how it measures up in comparison to any others. However, I can tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I whipped through this thick, fairly heavy non-fiction in three days and enjoyed every second. It's engrossing, accessible and just generally fascinating throughout.

To begin with, it's thorough but not to the point of boredom. I don't feel the need for bio
Scott Klemm
Sep 22, 2011 rated it it was ok
The excerpt from the London Sunday Times review that appears on the dust jacket of The Secret Life of Houdini praises the authors Kalush and Sloman for raking through “every known Houdini archive to produce the most comprehensive and controversial biography ever written about the man, with its contention that he was a spy who may have been murdered by a cult.” If all the facts are fully documented, why is there any controversy?

In their Introduction the authors state, “To make certa
Jan 14, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone who loves a great story
i knew next to nothing about harry houdini (the erstwhile erich weiss) before reading this book. after reading it, i felt like i'd know houdini my entire life. such is the incredible detail the authors injected into the book. and i think i can honestly say he's the coolest dood ever.

more than anything, i came away from the reading with a profound admiration for the man behind the magic. he may very well be the most dynamic personality of the first quarter of the 19th century. while h
Lauren Schumacher
Sep 09, 2013 rated it liked it
Most of my understanding of Harry Houdini comes from the musical Ragtime, and his songs are usually the first up on the abridgment chopping block, so almost everything in this biography was new information to me. I was aware that Houdini was the child of Jewish immigrants, and that he was a famous magician/escape artist who died after inviting someone to punch him in the abdomen: that was it.

I had no idea that Houdini was involved in (and most famous for in his time for) unmasking and discre
Tony Hightower
Mar 22, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Honestly, this is the only book on Harry Houdini most people will ever need. This tome covers his ancestry and birth in Hungary as Ehrich Weiss, his family's emigration to the United States, his growing fascination and obsession with magic, his long and phenomenally successful career as the greatest theatrical performer of the first half of the 20th century, as well dropping loud hints about a potential side career doing espionage work and how it evolved into an obsession with debunking spirit m ...more
Rhed Morgan
A good book. I'd never read anything in depth about Houdini. I knew him as a magician, an escape artist. This book introduced me to Houdini the aviator (first man to fly in Australia), Houdini the spy, Houdini the public crusader.

The authors set out to prove, as the subtitle suggest, that Houdini was America's first superhero, the first superman. Houdini worked his whole life, beginning as a kid and eventually getting into vaudeville. His break came when he visited a police station i
Jun 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in Biographys and/or Magic
Recommended to Amanda by: My Father
I enjoyed the book. It was a lengthy read for me because of the style of writting, but I enjoyed it throughly. No person is perfect and Houdini made it certain that everyone knew that of himself, while also perfecting his "magic". I don't like Biographies that come across as nothing but praise for the person, this almost hit that note... nothing and no person came close to Houdini... that is what the Authors did... although mentioning that he had many love affairs... but only mentioning them. On ...more
I enjoyed this audiobook very much. I thought the author did a very good job presenting the great magician's life story. I live near Harry Houdini's boyhood hometown of Appleton, WI and have a business in the downtown College Avenue and Third Ward district area where young Harry use to run and play. I knew some of Houdini's past but learned quite a bit more from this biography by William Kalush. Love the story of how Harry first figured out how to unlock a pair of handcuffs after a local Appleto ...more
May 11, 2013 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Houdini fans.
An enjoyable trip back to my youth, when I was fairly completely obsessed with Houdini. So were most kids back then, I suppose. I'm not sure if he's the cultural icon now as he was then.

I never knew (or didn't remember) that he was deeply involved in the early aviation days. The book says he was the first person to fly a plane in Australia. I've read since that is debatable, but still, no one doubts that he was one of the earliest aviators.

Nearly half of the book is a deep look at his fig
Nov 09, 2008 rated it it was ok
I think this was a lot harder to read for me than it probably was for a lot of other people. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I think it has something to do with the lack of interest the authors showed in who Houdini was during his heyday.

There was a lot of detail in this book...a LOT...but not so much about Houdini's tricks, shows and escapades. I mean, they would throw in an occasional tidbit about how he did something, such as shoving a key up his arse when doing his nude-esc
Mar 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I've always loved magic shows and magicians, and of course that means Houdini. But aside from the standard information everyone seems to pick up, I didn't know anything else about him.

Boy, did this book teach me a lot! The research is detailed and in-depth. The authors are speculating a bit about the "secret life" he may have led, but the evidence they have to back it up is pretty compelling. Some of the things that they tease out about Houdini are astounding - did you have any idea
Jan 01, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I wanted to read this after seeing an exhibit on Harry Houdini at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, even though I'm not usually a major biography fan. I'm glad I did. Well researched and full of fascinating details that provide historical context and personal interest, The Secret Life of Houdini presents Houdini's personal and professional story as a gripping yarn, making this bio great fun to read.

There's a lot going on here to think about: Houdini's story as an immigrant made g
Sep 09, 2009 rated it liked it
From a little boy on up, I've always been intrigued by the great escape artist and magician, Houdini. The authors do a good job of fully setting forth his life in words and pictures. I wanted a bit more about the times of this superb athlete and showman, but I have no real criticism with what was delivered. The concluding chapters of this long 550+ page opus detail his battles with Arthur Conan Doyle and the rest of the Spiritualists who took great pleasure in Houdini's untimely and suspicious d ...more
Oct 14, 2008 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Houdini fanatics
Shelves: memoirs-and-bios
You know, I'm totally the kind of person who should have LOVED this book wasn't very lovable. Yes, it was very well researched--the authors even brag about some creepily detailed computer program they built from scratch to track Houdini's life "day by day, as much as possible. But the book had no soul, no effusion, and no ease.

Houdini lead a fascinating life and was a fascinating person--why is this book not fascinating? Partly because the authors are too focused on "proving" their flimsy t
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