Sunday, August 21, 2005

The Houdini That Didn't Escape

I was all inspired to write about the painting in the last post, the one that didn't get away. But then, somehow, I lost the urge. So here's the story in a nutshell: 1. My soon-to-be-ex and I bought the painting together in Prague last year. 2. The painter is a quite famous Czech artist and it's an exceptional piece, in my opinion. 3. Now that my wife and I are separated, we both want the piece.

So maybe this one should have gotten away. Ba dum bum.


I have another, more interesting story to tell you, however, this one from fellow magi Jeff. In a comment to my Hofzinser post, Jeff mentioned his own great find, a signed copy of Houdini's 1906 The Unmasking of Robert Houdin, for which he paid $7.50 back in 1982.

I'll tell you more about the book in a moment. But first, here's Jeff's story in his own words:

I got it when I was in college; I won a book-collecting contest sponsored by the campus library, and one of the privileges of winning was being able to purchase some of the duplicates in their special collection. They kept another copy of the book...which was not only signed, but had some kind of message from Houdini to whoever he gave it to.

Compare the autograph with the printed signature on the frontispiece. Looks like a pretty good match!

These days, with the inflation in anything Houdini-related, I'd guess it's worth about $1000.00 - $2000.00, maybe more depending on the auction. But I'm keeping it.

About the Book

The Unmasking of Robert Houdin was a smear book written by Houdini against his former idol, French "Father of Modern Magic" Robert Houdin (from whom Houdini had taken his name). By all accounts it's a grossly unfair book filled with scurrilous arguments. Noted magic writer Jean Hugard even went so far as to publish a series of articles refuting the book in his magazine, Hugard's Magic Monthly.

Here's a great account of the whole silly affair that Houdini's friend, famed magician, magic dealer, and writer Will Goldston wrote in his book Sensational Tales of Mystery Men (1929). Goldston chalks up the whole embarrasing episode to Houdini's obdurate pig-headedness; Houdin's family had refused to meet with him in France and Houdini was not one to take any perceived insult lightly.

If you want to see what all the fuss was about, you can do so thanks to Chris Wasshuber's fabulous, which offers PDFs of classic magic books at very reasonable prices. They have a downloadable version of The Unmasking of Robert Houdin here. There's even a link to Hugard's 1957 response, Houdini's Unmasking.


Thanks for sharing the story and the pictures, Jeff. Since Houdini remains the most famous (and collectible) magician who ever lived, I think you win the "great magic find" award! Any other nominees?


fk said...

Thanks for the links.
The Will Goldston book is interesting and Goldston was right that this wouldnt reflect well on our hero.
I read a similar account in a review of a recent book by Jim Steinmeyer called,
Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear

"Houdini further infuriated his detractors in the magic world when he published a book denouncing Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, generally considered the first stage magician and the inspiration for Houdini's own name, as a fraud and exaggerator. In vitriolic tones, Houdini earnestly attempted to discredit the portions of Robert-Houdin's biography that other magicians had long and happily accepted as more legend than truth, and decried the “father of magic's” exaggeration and self-promotion. Houdini himself stood guilty of many of the sins of which he unfoundedly accused Robert-Houdin, and magicians and readers of The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, Steinmeyer included, remain puzzled about what motivated Houdini to lash out against the figure who had inspired him to become a magician."

In looking at this book on amazon, I noticed a new book about Dai Vernon's quest to find the great cardsharp Allen Kennedy
The Magician and the Cardsharp : The Search for America's Greatest Sleight-of-Hand Artist

Is Peacelove familiar with either of these books?

PeaceLove said...

Thanks for the long comments! The Steinmeyer book is a great read; lots of salacious insider history and lore. It's geared at a lay (non-magician) audience, but I loved it, too!

Steinmeyer is a very famous (among magicians) illusion designer, incidentally. So he knows of what he writes...

The other book I've only heard about but I did read a fascinating article (can't remember the magazine) about this a few years ago. It covers Vernon's quest for the mythical cardsharp who could deal from the center of the pack, a very difficult sleight.

Sounds like a pretty interesting read...

PeaceLove said...

The original magazine article appeared in American Heritage.