February 9th, 2007
Houdini: America’s First Superhero.by Chip Maloney
In This First Of Two Parts, Chip Maloney Sits With Long Time Soho Resident, Larry “Ratso” Sloman, Acclaimed Author Of The Bestseller, The Secret Life Of Houdini: The Making Of America’s First Superhero.
From his Prince Street apartment, author and longtime SoHo resident, Larry Sloman has barely recovered from a long and vicious bout with the flu, a souvenir from the exhaustive publicity tour for his latest book, but he still graciously agreed to discuss his most ambitious and controversial work to date, “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero.”
Upon entering Big Wong’s on Mott Street for some of his first solid food in days, Sloman is immediately and affectionately greeted with the Chinese word for “rat” by the exuberant staff. “Ratso” is Sloman’s nickname, but for the last three decades, it has become his only name. The moniker was given to him by Joan Baez during his epic tour with Bob Dylan and The Rolling Thunder Revue, the result of which was his classic 1978 book, “On The Road With Bob Dylan.” Sloman has also authored or co-authored numerous other best-selling celebrity biographies and autobiographies, including Howard Stern’s “Private Parts” and “Miss America,” and Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis’ “Scar Tissue,” but it was during his recent collaboration with illusionist and escape artist David Blaine for his book, “Mysterious Stranger” that the idea for “The Secret Life of Houdini” was born.
With his extremely dangerous escapes and death-defying stunts, magician Harry Houdini became the twentieth century’s first international superstar and one of the most famous people who ever lived. His death at the age of 52 on Halloween night in 1926 has been shrouded in mystery and controversy for over 80 years, and while numerous books, movies and articles have detailed Houdini’s daring exploits, passionate de-bunking of phony psychics and spiritual mediums, and speculated about his demise, none have gone to the painstaking lengths that Sloman and co-author William Kalush have to finally unravel the many myths, and expose the truth about the man. “The Secret Life of Houdini” raises the possibility that Houdini was murdered because of his tireless crusading against spiritualist hucksters, but makes the shocking claim that he was a spy who worked for both Scotland Yard, and the U.S. Secret Service. While many Houdini experts and magic historians are shaken and disturbed by Sloman and Kalush’s claims, they cannot dismiss the book’s revelations and historical accuracy, or its endorsement by former C.I.A. Director John McLaughlin in the preface.
Nearly a million pages of documents were searched and examined, and many newly discovered Houdini family letters, diaries and other personal writings never before seen by the public were used and archived for the first time during the research for this book. In fact, so extensive is the amount of index material Sloman and Kalush collated, a second volume of notes is being published. Not only are all the dots brilliantly connected and all the names named in “The Secret Life of Houdini,” it is an enormously easy and entertaining read presented from both a historical and narrative perspective. Critics have posted rave reviews for the book, and the first print run sold prior to its release.
While Sloman admits that this was the longest and most daunting research and writing project he has ever undertaken (two-plus years of 14 hour days) he is also enormously proud of it and the resulting digital archive he and Kalush assembled for future magicians, writers, scholars and Houdini historians.
SoHo Journal: Having achieved most of your success writing celebrity biographies about living personalities, what prompted you to take on a subject like Harry Houdini, someone who died 80 years ago?
Larry Sloman: I was introduced to the world of magic by David Blaine. While working with him on his book, “Mysterious Stranger,” he wanted to include a chapter on Houdini as he had been strongly influenced by his work. He recommended that I get the historical information about Houdini from his friend, William Kalush. Kalush is a magic historian and founded the Conjuring Arts Research Center which is an amazing resource of historical information and material about magic and magicians. He has devoted his life and all his resources to building this massive collection and library. He also knows everyone in the magic world and got access to memorabilia collections and papers nobody had seen in 80 years. As we began the process of working together, I became enthralled with Houdini, read all the books about him ever written, and the first draft for the Blaine chapter became 40,000 words! What struck me about Houdini, and attracted me to his story, was the fact that there were all these gaps in his life’s story that nobody had ever looked into. He struggled for years trying to make it, and at one point, decided to quit performing, settle down and get a regular job as a locksmith with the Yale lock company. He didn’t, and pretty soon thereafter, got his big break after being featured on the front page of a Chicago newspaper performing a handcuff escape. Houdini’s triumph in Chicago proved to be important for more than one reason. In no time, he was commanding what would amount to today’s equivalent of $40,000 a week. He also became acquainted with a man named Andrew Rohan, a key figure in our research. Kalush also discovered a letter that was up for auction from a Scottish magician accusing Houdini of being a spy for the German government. Another unusual occurrence was the fact that just after Houdini hit it big in America, he suddenly decided to go to England with no bookings. The conventional story is that Houdini knocked around England for a few weeks before he was eventually brought to Scotland Yard by a theater promoter to perform a handcuff escape in the hope that this would get him some bookings. However, the real story is that just 48 hours after his arrival, Houdini found himself in the office of Scotland Yard Inspector, William Melville. Melville was Britain’s leading expert on counter-intelligence, and eventually, a founding member of MI-5. Inspector Melville heartily endorsed Houdini in the press, saying his escapes were nothing short of a miracle, and Houdini became an instant sensation with numerous bookings. Then, much like he did in the United States, Houdini just broke his contracts and went to Germany. He was even issued a fake passport by the U.S. Embassy to get there. It dawned on me then, that maybe there was something more, that perhaps Houdini had some sort of secret life. It would certainly explain his curious movements and stellar rise to fame after years of performing the same stunts to little fanfare, and as we dug further, we found all sorts of smoking guns and unusual connections to important figures. Eventually, the facts just began to emerge, and they are nearly impossible to dispute.
What sort of facts?
Key people around Houdini, people who were instrumental in helping him establish his career both here and abroad, were connected to various high-level government and police organizations around the world. You must realize that at that time, there was no CIA, FBI, MI-5, or anything like that. The Secret Service was the only organization in America resembling anything like an intelligence operation, and they were not only responsible for catching counterfeiters and protecting the President, they were charged with monitoring national security and carrying out various types of espionage. There was another somewhat shadow group called the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and they worked in tandem with organizations like the Secret Service and Scotland Yard collecting and sharing intelligence information of mutual interest. When Houdini performed in Chicago, a member of the I.A.C.P. named Rohan was so impressed by him, he lauded and endorsed Houdini to the local newspapers gaining him great exposure; this proved to be Houdini’s first big break. Rohan also introduced Houdini to a friend of his, John Wilkie, who was the head of U.S. Secret Service, and a very accomplished amateur magician in his own right. We know that Houdini acted as a courier between the I.A.C.P. and the German police force. As far as Houdini’s eventual relationship with the Secret Service, in an article published in the Washington Post several years after Houdini’s espionage career had ended, Wilkie described how he often employed magicians and sleight-of-hand artists to work as spies within his organization because they could not only gain access to sensitive locations and high-ranking officials through their performing, they were highly capable of filching important documents and getting in and out of places without being seen. Houdini was also of invaluable service to Melville at Scotland Yard. Houdini frequently performed in Germany, a country Melville was convinced would be England’s next big enemy, and of course, he was absolutely correct. Melville went on to become the spymaster for MI-5, and even though the British government tried to sanitize all his papers, his family managed to retain one of his diaries. In that diary, Melville documented many missions in which Houdini sent him vital information from Germany.
Before you ship out, can you tell us where to find “The Secret Life of Houdini?”
Any bookstore should have it, and you can also find it on www.amazon.com or www.barnesandnoble.com. If you want to contribute to a good cause, you can go to www.houdinithebook.com, or www.conjuringarts.org to get an autographed copy of the book with all the proceeds going to the non-profit Conjuring Arts Research Center.
(This Interview continues in the next Issue…)