“I have been a fiction writer by choice and instinct for a long professional life. It has been a leap for me to tell the truth.” So begins the preface to Escape!, Sid Fleischman’s biography of Harry Houdini. Fleischman was delighted to find nonfiction “easier to write” than fiction, the plot and characters being “already served up.” At the same time, he was unnerved to discover a “harrowing downside”: “I was boxed in by the recorded past. I was unable to pluck Houdini’s conversations out of thin air. If he didn’t say something, neither could I….” Happily, the shackles of documented fact proved no more binding to Fleischman than handcuffs and ropes did to his subject. He “escaped” the trap of perfunctory prose and produced a biography that both informs and delights.
Fans of Fleischman’s work will understand his trepidation in approaching nonfiction. Many of his stories have historical settings that, despite well-researched details, don’t quite ring true. They are composites, unmoored from strict chronology. They feel mythical, fantastical–even when, as in The Whipping Boy, there is no actual magic.
Ah, magic. We learn in that two-page preface that Fleischman “did not trip over the Houdini story by accident.” During his “callow youth,” he trained to become a professional magician. He even made the acquaintance of Madame Houdini, the escape artist’s widow. At various times throughout the book, casually and without warning, Fleischman inserts himself into the text, using the personal pronoun, sometimes to provide his perspective as a magician, more often to propound his judgment as a biographer.
This device was disorienting in the first encounter. To explain the allure of sleight-of-hand magic in the young Houdini’s hands, Fleischman inserts, parenthetically, “As part of my magic persona in school, I used to read palms, which is pure bunk, but it gave me a chance to hold a girl’s hand.” Oh, really? Late in the book, in his discussion of Houdini’s attack on Spiritualism, Fleischman writes, “I have just consulted a magician’s supply catalogue…” Other biographers would have made the same point while staying in the third person. But Fleischman’s style works. It grows on you. It grew on me.
More often, Fleischman inserts himself in the text when making judgments. As he does, he makes clear that he is giving his personal opinion. He makes clear the evidence and reasoning his judgment is based on, yet acknowledges that its claim to truth is only provisional. He invites the reader to make his own decision whether or not to agree. On Houdini’s first alleged jailbreak, Fleischman says, “I would love to believe it. But is the myth a bit too neat?” and goes on to explain. On why the escape artist wrote a vitriolic book attacking the dead magician who was his spiritual mentor and from whom he took his name, Fleishman is even more direct: “I think this. Each field has its great icon. Einstein in science. Picasso in art. Edison in invention. There wasn’t room for two icons in magic. Robert-Houdin had to go.” Concluding the book, Fleischman shares his personal view on the entire project: “As a biographer, I found Houdini to be both a pleasure and a trial. To enter the world of the handcuff king was to find yourself in a house of mirrors. Conflicting information, rubber facts, and howling nonsense everywhere you look.”
“If [Houdini] didn’t say something, neither could I….” But Fleischman says plenty in colorful, muscular language. He is (appropriately) more restrained than in his fiction, yet his sentences still have the power to startle and enlighten. To wit:
- On the allure of the magical enterprise for the outsider: “Ehrich was a perfect fit. He was an immigrant, he was poor, his religion was unpopular, and he was short.”
- On the everydayness of prejudice in the early twentieth century: “The national pastime of gnashing one’s teeth at the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, and the Catholics was a social impulse even more tolerate than chewing plug tobacco.”
- On an early escape trick: “Houdini stood with his wrists behind him in a spider web of ropes. A bag was pulled over his head like a sausage casing and the top tied off.”
- On Houdini’s early, unrefined, stage persona: “He was a dees, dem, and dose magician.”
- On his touchiness: “With his onion-thin skin, Houdini was profoundly wounded.”
- On his arrogance: “Great and gifted men are, after all, human. They commonly harbor flaws and weaknesses of character. Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, despised children. The German opera composer Richard Wagner was a sputtering anti-Semite. Napoleon had a habit of invading other countries. French poet Francois Villon was a thief. Houdini was cocky.”
- And: “Houdini’s cocky pride and unblushing airs, laid end to end, would circle the earth, with vanities left over.”
- On the Houdinis’ return to New York after their European tour: “Martin Beck had promised brass bands to greet them as they stepped ashore from their triumphs across the pond. Not a piccolo was to be heard.”
- On Houdini’s aircraft during the period of his flying obsession: “The plane looked like a flying house with an outhouse tail following close behind.”
- On his mean-spirited polemic against Robert-Houdin: “The book is dazzling with riches while at the same time it is petty, sanctimonious, insolent, sneering, and tormented. It is also astonishingly hypocritical.”
- On the mystery of his disappearing elephant trick: “One thing is certain. The elephant didn’t go up Houdini’s sleeve.”
Fleischman died in 2010 at age 90, just four years after the publication of Escape! That still gave him enough time to produce two more biographies, The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West and Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World. The “callow” young man who had started out as a professional magician in the late 1930s produced a four-act writing career (with occasional interludes writing magic books) that extended over seven decades.
Act I: Cub reporter.
Act II: Adult novelist.
Act III: Award-winning children’s fiction author.
Act IV: Young adult biographer.
Surely Act III was the climax of his career, but Act IV made for a meaningful, satisfying denouement. We, his readers, are the richer for it.