Houdini: The Elusive American” by Adam Begley— The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Begley, Adam. “Houdini: The Elusive American”,  (Jewish Lives), Yale University Press, 2020

The World’s Greatest Escape Artist

Amos Lassen

Adam Begley’s “Houdini: The Elusive American” is the newest volume in Yale’s Jewish Lives Series and it is a fascinating read. Erik Weisz was born in Budapest in 1874 and became Harry Houdini. He grew up as an impoverished Jewish immigrant in the Midwest and became world-famous because of talent, industry, and ferocious determination. Begley asks and answers the question of what kind of man was this?

In 1916, the war was raging in Europe and prevented a tour abroad so Harry Houdini wrote a film treatment. The movie was never made but its title, “The Marvelous Adventures of Houdini: The Justly Celebrated Elusive American” is a short summary of its creator’s life.

Houdini hid the secrets of his sensational success as a matter of temperament and professional ethics. Nobody  has ever known how Houdini performed some of his death-defying tricks, and nobody knows why he felt he had to continually punish and imprison himself. Was it really necessary. Begley follows the restless Houdini’s exploits showing the man as not only central to the American experience, but also important to the fakery, fraudulence, and self-promotion that is happening even today.

About Jewish Lives:

Jewish Lives is a prizewinning series of interpretative biography designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences. Subjects are paired with authors to elicit lively, deeply informed books that explore the range and depth of the Jewish experience from antiquity to the present.

In 2014, the Jewish Book Council named Jewish Lives the winner of its Jewish Book of the Year Award, the first series ever to receive this award.


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