Joe Posnanski on the Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
Dec 23 2019

 Harry-Houdini-199x300.jpg Journalist and author Joe Posnanski talks about his book, The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini, with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Posnanski explores the enduring fame of Houdini who remains an iconic cultural figure almost a century after his death. Topics discussed include the nature of celebrity, the nature of ambition, parenting, magic, and the use of public relations to create and sustain reputation and celebrity.

[Note: Some revelations but no spoilers.]
Chuck Klosterman on But What If We're Wrong
Chuck Klosterman, author of But What If We're Wrong, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the possibility that things we hold to be undeniably true may turn out to be totally false in the future. This wide-ranging conversation covers...
Angela Duckworth on Grit
How important is grit relative to talent? Can grit be taught? Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance talks with with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the nature of success...
Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Dec 23 2019 at 1:03pm

Great episode, and I admit I was also one of the people who would have claimed Houdini was the greatest magician of all time. Two things that came to my mind during this episode were Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias and Socrates. The former to highlight that all attempts to immortalize one’s self are ultimately destined to fail. And the latter to show the unpredictability of what will and won’t be remembered. It’s ironic that many of the individuals Socrates encounters tell him that he is wasting his life by not pursuing fame and glory, and yet they are only remembered today through him (and eventually Plato).

Dec 26 2019 at 2:45pm

Great talk.  I have a dream that Joe returns to talk with Russ about “The Soul of Baseball”….

Steve S
Dec 28 2019 at 1:56pm

Houdini reminds me of Chaplin, another graceful, athletic performer of the early part of the century, who thirsted for fame, and worked hard to achieve it. He was also, as Russ notes of Houdini, a short, Jewish immigrant.

Chaplin was also a great risk taker, at least when young, as his relations with the studios and the scrapes he got into in his personal and political life, will attest.

Chaplin’s physical dexterity, displayed in small feats no doubt practiced as exhaustively as Houdini’s escapes, was also capable of inspiring wonder.

Jan 1 2020 at 8:24pm

For a great book on a meaning of escape and Houdini you may want to take a look at “Houdini’s Box – The Art of Escape” by Adam Phillips – it may help Joe not to think of his daughter as a cynical teenager 🙂

It would be quite a Houdini for Russ to interview Adam.

A reference to James Bond is quite misplaced, I think, – James Bond is a trained assassin, an imperial agent  – he dominates and imposes his will on those who refuse to submit the way he dominates women.

All in all thank you for the podcast and happy new year!


Tom Murin
Jan 3 2020 at 8:15am

This was an interesting episode and I am glad that I’m in the habit of listening to all of them – no matter what the topic. My only complaint was the Springsteen lovefest, but that was a small price to pay!

L. Rowyn
Jan 11 2020 at 11:09pm

I enjoyed the episode, but came to comment on a very minor aside made in it, about Billy Joel.  I expect that the quote of Billy Joel saying  ‘Well, the last one I put out, nobody bought it” was a tongue-in-cheek reference to Fantasies & Delusions, an album of chamber music. He stopped releasing pop music because he wanted to write chamber music, and that’s what he did. He was under no illusion that it would be the kind of commercial success that his pop music was, and that in no way deterred him.

Anyway, I think his career choice there was kind of the opposite of “someone who quit because they were no longer wildly successful.” 😀

Comments are closed.


This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:

* As an Amazon Associate, Econlib earns from qualifying purchases.

TimePodcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: November 6, 2019.]

Russ Roberts: Today is November 6, 2019, and my guest is journalist and author Joe Posnanski. Joe is probably my favorite sports writer working today and may be my favorite writer, period. He is a senior writer for The Athletic and he blogs at JoeBlogs. His latest book and the topic for today's episode--which is a little out of the ordinary for EconTalk but I think you'll see how it ties in--his latest book is The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. Joe, welcome to EconTalk.

Joe Posnanski: It's great. Thank you.

Russ Roberts: This is a very strange and delightful book. It's strange because it is not really a biography of Houdini--it looks like one, the life of--but it turns out we don't know much about him that's reliable. And I would describe it more as an homage to the idea of Houdini, the impact of Houdini on the world even today. And let's start off with why did you decide to write a book about somebody who died, I think, in 1926?

Joe Posnanski: That's right.

Russ Roberts: Is that right?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But is still very much alive. Why this style of book?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. Well, 'Why Houdini?' is certainly the question I get asked the most as a sports writer. But it relates a little bit to sports and to sort of what I've always viewed it as my career and what I've done. I think that, as a sports writer and in other ways, I've always tried to write about wonder--this idea of wonder, this idea of these little explosions in our minds that open up the world a little bit. And whether it's writing about baseball or writing about Bruce Springsteen or writing about moments with my daughters and--I've always felt like there was some connection there and I really wanted my next book to reflect that, to sort of be a story of wonder, which is how I viewed this.

And I was looking for a vehicle, a way to tell that story and the first thought that actually came to mind was to write about Babe Ruth, to do a biography of Babe Ruth, but it's been done a lot and I knew there was--

Russ Roberts: And done well.

Joe Posnanski: And done very well, done very well. And there was a major Babe Ruth book coming out by a friend of mine, Jane Levy. And so, you know, that wasn't interesting to me.

But I started thinking, 'Well, what about Harry Houdini?' I mean, here's a guy who, as you mentioned, died in 1926. He was a New York street urchin, basically, who decided to go into magic. Failed, essentially, as a magician; came up with this concept of escape and handcuffs and straitjackets and water torture cells. Which, you know, seems so of its time. And yet here we are a hundred years later, and he's still the paragon of magic. He's the person that everybody knows. And I wanted to know why, I really did.

Russ Roberts: So, part of my thing that I really enjoyed about the book is to realize how ubiquitous he is today. I'm going to read a very, a short passage from the book where you say,

Why do we know anything of this? Why do we know any of this? We're closing in on one hundred years since his death and yet when a thief in Bangkok slips out of his handcuffs and eludes a dozen police officers, what do they call him? Houdini. A baby in Mundaring, Australia continuously escapes a crib to the dismay and panic of her parents and the newspapers dub her "Houdini baby." A dog keeps slipping out of the yard and creating havoc in a neighbor's garden in Melbourne, Florida, and is similarly called "Houdini dog." (This is unoriginal; newspapers in San Diego, Des Moines, Rome, Amsterdam, North London also call particularly troublesome pooches, "Houdini."

And you mention, I think either in an article in the book that you have an alert, a Google Alert, on Houdini. What's that led to?

Joe Posnanski: It's incredible. I set up that alert probably a day, two days, into my process. Every single day since that, there's been some Houdini story. And often 25 Houdini stories.

And it's about a politician who gets out of a crisis or a sports team that gets out of a tough loss and a pitcher that gets out of a bases-loaded jam. And he's everywhere in this very, very small way. To the point where I think he's become, not just a word, but he's become a theme, like an idea of what the greatest possible escapes can be. And yet he was just a, as I write in the book, he was just a vaudeville performer who figured out a way to make a living. And it's so fascinating to me.


Russ Roberts: Let's do a thumbnail sketch of what we do know about him, which I just want to say after we agreed to do the interview and after I read the book, I asked, I don't know, 10 people just for fun, young, old, born in America, born outside of America, 'Who's the greatest magician of all time?' Eight or nine of the 10 immediately without thinking, just said, 'Houdini.'

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: Someone born in Israel said, 'David Copperfield?' and I thought, 'Well, that's very impressive.'

Joe Posnanski: It is impressive.

Russ Roberts: And I said, 'Well, how about someone from the past?' 'Oh, Houdini,' his first thing.

And then I asked them, 'How did he die?' And they, most of them said, 'Didn't he drown doing one of his tricks that failed?' I said, 'How old was he?' A lot of people said, '30,' which would have been my guess.

Joe Posnanski: Interesting.

Russ Roberts: I always thought he died young. But tell us actually a brief thumbnail of the arc of his life--

Joe Posnanski: Yeah--

Russ Roberts: and some of the deceptions and challenges of trying to decipher the man, given that he's very elusive.

Joe Posnanski: He is incredibly elusive, and basically there are no facts about him that seem real. But we know the general arc of his life. And it's so fascinating that you would say that about people, because most people do think he died in the water torture cell, which is how he died in the movie. That was the movie version with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, and that's how he died. And so people think that's a fact.

But the basics of his life were, he would tell people he was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, on April 6, 1874.

That was the opening line to the most sort of personal essay he ever wrote about himself, was, 'I was born in Appleton, Wisconsin, United States, on April 6th, 1874.' And not one thing in that, including the date, is true. Not one thing is true. He was not born in Appleton. He was born in Budapest and came over when he was four.

And he was so convincing, by the way, that 50 years after his death, a Magic Committee was put together by the International Magic Association, put together this committee just to find out where he was born. They called it the Houdini Birth Committee, and they traveled around the world, essentially, to find out where Houdini was really born, because he was so convincing.

He was born in Budapest, came to Appleton when he was four, and his father was the rabbi of the new synagogue that wasn't even built yet. They were still meeting in houses and in local churches where they let him in. He was fired shortly after that and never really held another steady job in his life. He tried to be a rabbi in Milwaukee, in New York, and couldn't make it. So very, very poor.

When he was 12, he ran away from home to try to--

Russ Roberts: Houdini?

Joe Posnanski: Houdini did, not his father. Houdini ran away from home to try to make a living and sent money back home. At 14, moved to New York, went to work for a neckwear factory and first came up with this notion of being a magician.

And, I think a lot of people know, he had read the autobiography of the father of magic, Robert-Houdin, and so fell in love with it that he called himself Houdini by adding an 'i' to the end of that, Houdin, the last name. He thought it was pronounced 'hudin'.

He and a friend became the Houdini Brothers. And for the next seven or eight years, he scuffled around trying to make a living as a magician, tried to make it as a comedian, as a singer, as an actor, anything to be on the stage. And was having no luck at all. Was ready to give up magic, was just about--at the break: he put out a catalog where he offered all of his secrets for a price. All of them. Every one. My favorite--

Russ Roberts: Breaking the code of the magicians.

Joe Posnanski: Exactly.

My favorite one of those was, because he said : specific tricks. He would teach you the needles trick for a $1.50; he would teach you how to escape from a box for $10.

But my favorite line there, and the one that sort of shows the depth of his despair was he offered, 'All I've ever learned about handcuffs, chains, and escape. Price on demand.' Like, he didn't even know what it was worth in his mind, he was just, 'Price on demand.' Nobody wanted any of his secrets. Not one person responded.

And he was at the brink of giving up when he ran into the luckiest break of his career, ran into a guy named Martin Beck, who is--there is still the Martin Beck Theatre in New York. He, at the time, ran the Orpheum Circuit of vaudeville. He liked what he saw a little bit with Houdini, called him to dinner, him and Bess had dinner, and he basically told him, 'Quit'--

Russ Roberts: Bess is his wife?

Joe Posnanski: Bess is his wife, yes. Beck basically told Houdini and Bess, 'Give up the magic. You're no good at it.' He says, 'Just stop.'


Russ Roberts: I just want to interrupt here for a sec. In the course of writing the book, you talked to some of the greatest living magicians, if not all of them. Both big, what I would call big-stage magicians like David Copperfield and sleight-of-hand people like Joshua Jay--

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: And anyone interested can go on the internet, look up Joshua Jay or Ricky Jay, who you talk about as brilliant card people.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: So big and small. A lot of them are, I would say, tormented by Houdini.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: Because almost all of them were touched by him in some way, in their career path; don't know much about him, inevitably because of what we're talking about now, and think he wasn't a very good magician. Which is hard for them to cope with.

Joe Posnanski: Let me put it this way. You mentioned Josh, Joshua Jay, who is a--you should look him up on YouTube or in--he's a genius. You go to New York and see his amazing show, Six Impossible Things. He's extraordinary. But I just did an event with Josh--and, which was wonderful and he's become a very good friend, and we were talking about this very thing. Somebody was saying, 'Because it's a consensus that as a magician when you're talking about card magic or state magic or illusion or any of these things, that Houdini was lacking. That he was not very good'--

Russ Roberts: Second rate.

Joe Posnanski: Second rate, in all of these things.'

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: And Josh put it in a way that I've never heard. I asked him if he'd ever said that before, he said, 'No, I thought of it on the spot.'

He said, 'It would be like in a 100 years from now, somebody said, 'Who was the greatest musician of 2019? And it was a wild consensus that it was Miley Cyrus.' Essentially the greatest guitarist, the great singer, the greatest everything: because that's how people view Houdini.

Russ Roberts: So at this point, go back to the bio, at this point he's struggling and scuffling, and gets this break and becomes a phenomenon as an escape artist.

Joe Posnanski: Yes, almost immediately, and it was after Miles, I mean Martin Beck, said that. He said, 'Do the math, do the escape. That's what you're good at.'

Russ Roberts: And he does that for a while, and then he has to take it up a notch--snd we're going to talk later about why--but he takes it up a notch and he starts appearing to at least put his life in danger, escaping from sealed milk cans and--

Joe Posnanski: Water torture cells, and jumping into rivers, hanging upside down, you know, five stories above the ground. He had to add the threat of death to the act.

And by then he's already world-famous. But, as I'm sure we'll discuss, it was never enough, and he had to just keep going higher and higher and higher.

Russ Roberts: And we're going to talk about that, tie it in to Adam Smith, of course, as listeners will not be surprised to discover.

Joe Posnanski: Of course.

Russ Roberts: How does he die?

Joe Posnanski: He does not die in the water torture cell as you know.

He died essentially of peritonitis, which was--he had his appendix removed; he had a very, very bad case of appendicitis. And by the time his appendix was removed, the poison had already leaked into his body and he died five days after his appendix was removed.

The big issue, and the big question, is: How did he get appendicitis?

And, either he got appendicitis and ignored it for a little while before what is--now many people know is the famous punch to the stomach--or the punch to the stomach itself caused appendicitis. And nobody knows for sure.

But essentially he was in Montreal, and he was doing an interview with some college reporters, and this guy came in and said, 'Mr. Houdini, I've heard that you challenge anybody, you can handle a punch in the stomach. Anybody can punch you and it will have no effect on you?' And Houdini was already in pain. He'd broken his ankle doing the water torture cell. He was old. Everybody--you know, he was 52, when he died. And most people do think he was much younger than that. But he was still performing and still at his height of fame. And he said he didn't want to talk about the punch to the stomach. Nobody knows for sure if he ever really did challenge anybody to punch him in the stomach. It seems a silly thing, but, but: Houdini challenged people to do all kinds of silly things. So nobody really knows.

But he did accept the challenge eventually. But, while he was getting up from the couch and before he was ready, the student punched him in the stomach as many as 10 times, and, before Houdini finally held up his hand and said, 'That will do.'

And then he fell back into the couch, ended the interview, not abruptly, but said, 'Okay, I need to go,' and he was in agonizing pain, but he refused to go to the hospital.


Russ Roberts: So, it's hard to understand why that sequence of life events is, 100 years later, almost a 100 years later, still talked about. And of course, the other part of your book, which we probably won't talk about so much, but there's a nontrivial number of people in the world alive today who are not just, as interesting guys.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: They're obsessed with him--

Joe Posnanski: And had their lives changed by him, yeah.

Russ Roberts: So this is really unusual. Now, one way to think about this, and I don't think it's correct, but it's interesting: We had Chuck Klosterman on this program talking about his book, But What If We're Wrong? And in that book, there's a chapter which we've discussed, which is: How is it that when you ask people, 'What's the great American novel?' 'It's Moby Dick.'

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: That wasn't true in 1910, say, I'm guessing. But there were points in America, it was until--there was a certain point where that became the answer. 'What's the most famous or greatest painting of all time?' 'The Mona Lisa.' Really? In 1850, that was not true.

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: And then he spends a fascinating amount of time wondering who will be considered. He doesn't list Miley Cyrus, who will be considered the greatest rock-and-roll star.

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: It's a short era, the rock-and-roll era, who will it be? Is it Chuck Berry? Is it Bob Dylan? Is it--who will be the person that people fixate on? And you could argue, and I think it's false in this case, but you could argue that--one more. Sorry. 'Who wrote the greatest marching band songs?' 'Oh, John Philip Sousa.'

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: Well, he wasn't the only one, but he's the only one that we remember.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And so you could argue, well, Houdini is the vaudevillian street performer, magician guy, from the early part of the 20th century. There were a thousand.

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: But he's the one that people latched onto, and now we've decided--I don't think that's the case, but that's one possibility, right?

Joe Posnanski: Sure, sure.

Russ Roberts: But there were other answers. What would you say, if you had to answer that question? Why is his fame, mystique, so lasting?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. And it's a great question, and I love the Klosterman book and that chapter and totally buy into it. But, one thing that is so interesting about him being so famous is, there have been other incredibly famous magicians since his time.

Russ Roberts: Correct.

Joe Posnanski: Right? And that's what--because somebody mentions David Copperfield, there's never been a magician who has had the success of David Copperfield. I mean, David Copperfield's a billionaire. David Copperfield owns islands. He's been seen by more people and paid by more than any magician ever. And then there are all these others, David Blaine and Penn and Teller, who are incredibly famous and incredibly popular, and yet Houdini, even then. And then of course, all of the people between. In his time, there was a guy, Howard Thurston, who was considerably more popular than Houdini as a magician.

Russ Roberts: Pretty confident, there isn't a single listener to this episode who could have known who Howard Thurston--

Joe Posnanski: Who could have named Howard Thurston. That's right. That's right. And yet in his time he was the magician .

And so, I think there's something more; and what I believe is, I believe it's a wide series of events and breaks and things. But I think the key is, I don't think anybody has ever been as devoted to being famous as Harry Houdini was. I think he wanted to be immortal and spent all of his life and all of his money and all of his time to make that happen. And his devotion to himself and to his fame and to his lasting memory is--it's odd and inspiring and not particularly likable. There are lots of things about it.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It reminds me a little bit of Ted Williams who allegedly said when he was a young kid, 'I want to walk down the street and when people see me, they go: There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.'

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: And you could argue it's not open-and-shut, but you can actually make the case , when you look at his lost war years, he's stayed in the top five, if not number one or two. Three at worst. So, he had a dream, he pursued it relentlessly; he was not a very likable person, actually--like Houdini. He had some trouble with his family. And yet there must have been dozens, thousands of other young men who wanted that vision and didn't make it. So it's not enough to wish that it's true.

Joe Posnanski: No, that's right. And it's really interesting. Because Ted Williams is a wonderful comparison in that desire to sort of reach this level of immorta lity that nobody else has, but, Ted--

Russ Roberts: And the other thing I would add is that both men in a time before the internet, before cable TV, somehow managed to be world -famous in an incredible way.

Joe Posnanski: This is exactly right.

Russ Roberts: We tend to think of celebrity as this modern thing . It's not.

Joe Posnanski: No . No. And in many ways, those people took it to a level that even today--today you can put something on Twitter and you can go viral. You had to work to go viral in those times.

But what I would say is a very worthwhile comparison with Ted Williams is: Ted Williams relentlessly worked on his headings[?headlines?]. Nobody has ever worked on his craft the way that he did. And Houdini worked on his craft too. But the difference is: Ted Williams didn't relentlessly work on being promoted, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He didn't have to, in the same way.

Joe Posnanski: He didn't have--but he fought with reporters; and he didn't plant stories of himself doing all these amazing things the way Houdini did.

And so Houdini's--I think Houdini's relentlessness, the way that he worked the media, the way that he created these events that are larger than life, I think, I don't know, maybe P. T. Barnum--there are very few that have ever tried to do it that way.


Russ Roberts: So, I think there's another thing I'm going to hold off on, but I want to give one more possible theory that you talk about in the book, I think very poetically, which is: There's something about escaping.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: Just talk about that.

Joe Posnanski: No, that's right. And I think once he realized that, that was a huge part of his success. But there is a, I think, universal sort of admiration for escape--from whatever it is. Like, that moment you feel like you're lost, that moment you feel--and it's personal, where we want to escape from situations all the time. But it's also global. I think that one of the most exciting things in football is seeing a quarterback who looks, like, completely surrounded--of course, one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history is that, against the Patriots and Giants, and--

Russ Roberts: We don't want to talk about that. We don't want to go there--

Joe Posnanski: We probably don't want to talk about that.

Russ Roberts: But I was afraid you might: so let's just have in mind that sometimes quarterbacks escape.

Joe Posnanski: Sometimes quarterback escape. But it is thrilling in a different way from almost anything else. And pitchers getting out of a bases-loaded jam. There's something--

Russ Roberts: The heroine tied to the railroad tracks. It's a motif, for sure.

Joe Posnanski: It's a motif. And he not only sort of reached a different level with it, but it does amaze me that after all of these years, we don't have another example of it. There are so many--you talk about this as the motif. Who escaped more things than James Bond, right? James Bond constantly escaped. Bullets, and everything else. And yet we don't say, 'Oh, he pulled a James Bond.' We say, 'He pulled a Houdini.' Houdini is still--and I think again, it's--he understood people's feelings about it, he knew how to take it up to higher and higher and higher levels as he went; and he's still the very essence of escape in our minds.

Russ Roberts: I'm going to give you a different theory that I thought of after reading the book, which is, I think, as you say, people think of him as a magician. It's not literally accurate. There was something magical about what he did--

Joe Posnanski: Right. And he tried to perform magic.

Russ Roberts: But clearly he was a magician in the very innovative sense that, when he was under a tarp, chained, manacled, handcuffed in a milk can and came out, that's a lot like cutting somebody in half and putting them back together. It's like, 'Something happened there I can't understand, and I'm amazed by it.'

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: So, the idea I want to put forward is: He was the first performance artist. He was doing performance art, what we now call performance art--meaning he was putting himself, he made himself vulnerable in front of a large crowd, and we recently talked about Marina Abromovic with Ryan Holiday. She had a--I've forgotten the details, but she gave a stranger a loaded gun, and let that stranger point it at her. And that's who Houdini-esque, right?

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: It's like: everyone in the audience thinks, at least, that this could end in death. Obviously it's part of the appeal of NASCAR [National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing], of car racing. But, death defying somehow; and I don't think--in my mind it's not so much escape as it is death defying--our mortality is, so haunts us. And to see someone come face-to-face with it and get away is exhilarating in a way.

Joe Posnanski: No; you're absolutely right. Part of this book--I took my daughters and my wife to see a show where someone was escaping from a water torture cell, and it was a different--

Russ Roberts: Explain what that is, by the way, for people who don't know.

Joe Posnanski: So, the water torture cell was a complete Houdini invention, and it's actually much smaller than you would think it is. But it's a box where he was lifted up, upside down, by this kind of crane contraption and then lowered in, upside down, into this fully loaded water cell. And then, it would go all the way down to the point where it locked up on the top and he would be underwater, submerged. And you would see him underwater submerged for a few seconds, 10 seconds, 15 seconds, and he's holding his breath and he's not moving, he's not doing anything. And then the curtain would drop and it would be a few minutes, and people would be in the audience freaking out and crying and losing their minds until Houdini showed up. And he would come out completely wet and perfectly healthy, and all of that.

Russ Roberts: And the curtain comes down around the box?

Joe Posnanski: That's right.

Russ Roberts: He isn't in backstage where somebody can lift him out.

Joe Posnanski: No, no.

Russ Roberts: The box is covered.

Joe Posnanski: Yes. The box is just covered. Right. Exactly.

Russ Roberts: We see that no one seems to go near him--

Joe Posnanski: That's right.

Russ Roberts: And is he handcuffed inside the box?

Joe Posnanski: He is handcuffed inside the box, as well.

Russ Roberts: It's not hard enough. Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. So he created this thing.

So, we saw a version of this. Those people still do it: several people still do it. So we saw a version of the water torture cell that was much different because the whole thing was exposed. You could actually see the person trying to escape, which was not how Houdini did it. But I watched--the performance was wonderful and all that--but I watched daughters and how they were gripping the side of the chair and how scared they were and how the clock is ticking just the way it was with Houdini; and you're thinking about how long you can hold your breath, and their panic, I mean absolute panic, until the relief when he escapes. And, I think that feeling is exactly the same. I don't think that that--that human feeling has not changed at all. So I definitely agree with that.

Russ Roberts: And you point out in the book that many of his escapes were under curtains, tarps, etc.

But the straitjacket one, he would writhe around on the stage; you would watch his agony. And then he had variations, where, he would come out from under the tarp still manacled--not in the water one--but still manacled, still handcuffed, ask for, say, to have his jacket removed. And the audience is not--this could be a failure. He might not make it.

It's similar to the card, sleight-of-hand performer, who says, 'Is this your card?' And sometimes it's not. Where, you tend to see the ones where it is, but every once in a while something goes a little bit wrong.

And in these cases--again, life and death was on the line and we don't know exactly how they were done. There's speculation. One of the things I love about your book, and we're not going to spoil this here, is that, I'm about 250--it's about a 300 page book--250 pages in, you finally tell me something I had already noticed, which is, like, 'Come on, how do you do these things?' You're very careful not to do that.

Joe Posnanski: I am.

Russ Roberts: And I thought, and we won't do it here. But of course, people have speculated. As you point out, you can get on the web and find out all you want to know, if you want.

Joe Posnanski: Sure. Yeah, I thought it was important because this book was as much about wonder, and that notion as it is about Houdini--if not more, I didn't want to reveal.

[Time mark 28:40. Note: No spoilers. Discussion about spoilers.--Econlib Ed.] And the only thing I do reveal--well, there are two things. One, I offered a theory that I have about what's called the Mirror Cuffs, which I probably don't want to go too deep into, but it is one of his greatest escapes and it is one that we still, no matter how far you look, we don't know for sure how he did it. And there are many theories about it; but there's no actual solution to how he did it. So, I offer my theory, because it might be wrong. And then one other one that I offer a little secret and it is only because I think it reveals something about Houdini and doesn't really tell you how he did the trick, but it reveals a little something interesting about Houdini.

But yeah, that was really important to me, to maintain some of that mystery. Because I think that's part of why it's so much harder to inspire wonder today. You know, if somebody does a magical performance on television--you know, you see it on Penn and Teller's, Fool Us, or on America's Got Talent, or whatever, the next day there are 35 YouTube videos explaining exactly how it was done. And you don't have to look at them. But they're there. And it's easy; and it's hard to believe in something bigger and more magical. Especially because, quite often these secrets, these behind the scenes--they're disappointing. I mean, you have this big idea in mind of how somebody does a trick and then you find out, oh, it's just a piece of thread; and it's, like, that doesn't--that sort of busts the bubble a little bit. So, I wanted to be very careful not to do any of that.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about wonder and then we'll move on to fame, which I think are the two deep, deep themes of this book.

I think it's an incredible insight to realize that people don't want to know. In a way you could say there are two types of people. There are people who say, 'How'd you do it? Come on, how'd you do it?' And we all have that in us a little bit. But we also have the idea that: Wouldn't it be wonderful--bad choice of word--wouldn't it be extraordinary if there's something here that's not explicable?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: That's a fundamental mystery. That this person has somehow the ability to do something that transcends hiding something up his sleeve, right?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. Well, I have a very personal view of this because I have two daughters and I do magic tricks for them from time to time. And I have one daughter, my younger one--

Russ Roberts: And you did them before you, you wrote the book?

Joe Posnanski: I did, even before I wrote the book. But I would say it's picked up since the book. But, yeah, I always liked it. I always loved doing little card tricks or little sleights. I'm not good at it. But I was good enough when they were young to be able to fool them. And I did my greatest card trick for them shortly after the book was finished. And, my younger one, my younger daughter who is now 14, Katie, she was, 'How did you do it? How did you do it?' And she's not stopped just asking me over and over and over again.

Russ Roberts: You haven't started to tell her?

Joe Posnanski: No; and I'm not telling her. I'm not going to tell her. I told her I'm not going to tell her. But my older daughter, who is 18, Elizabeth, she, as soon as I showed it, she loved it. And she's a pretty cynical--you know, she's a teenager, a high school teenager. She said, 'Don't ever tell me how you did it. I love that trick. I want to uphold it.' And I thought: 'Well, we all have a little bit of both of those things in there.' And so I think it's harder now to feel wonder because we know so much and we can grow so cynical and it's just a different time and an anxious time. And I just think it's much harder to be able to just say, 'Okay,' you know, 'I want to stop here and feel this,' you know. It's just: we're impatient and it's difficult to do that.

But I think it's important. I think it's an important part of our lives to be able to not be cynical all the time, and sometimes just go, 'Wow! I just want to take that in as a piece of art .' You know?

Russ Roberts: Well, one of the things I thought of from your book and you write about your daughters in other places, the story you just mentioned, I've read it. In many ways--this is going to sound ridiculous--but in many ways I think parenting, huge part of parenting is, for me anyway, was about instilling wonder in my children.

Now, for me, it covered a very wide spectrum. I'm religious, so religion was part of that wonder--the mystery of the universe and using religion as a way to express that.

Sports, the miraculous events of sports. The seemingly, not just that escape, but the pennant race, the person under pressure who does something unimaginably balletic and elegant and under the toughest circumstances.

And something else--I know you've written a lot about musicals. Taking my kids to musicals to see something imagined that you can't see anywhere else. That feeling--and one more, hiking in places like Yosemite.

So all of those to me are, I would actually categorize all of them as religious experiences for me as a religious person. But you don't have to be religious to feel wonder obviously. I think it's deeply embedded in us and in many ways growing older is about the death of wonder. And children have it because children can't imagine how you made that penny come from behind their ear. There's something gloriously beautiful about that. And to retain that sense of wonder as you grow older is, I think, a huge part of being a successful adult.

Joe Posnanski: I think you're right. And, you know, of course I've seen it many, many times in sports. But I just had this fascinating little moment. So my older--I'm actually about to write about this--my older daughter after 17 and a half years of, or even fully 18 years of caring nothing about sports other than it being the thing that takes Dad away, just no interest, has become a passionate, passionate Kansas City Chiefs fan. To a great extent. And it's fascinating to watch because it's like watching my own childhood. It's so interesting.

But we had this moment, and she doesn't know that much about it. But she's learning all the time. And she she fell in love with Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback, and it built into her.

Russ Roberts: He's a magician.

Joe Posnanski: He's a magician. He is an absolute magician.

But we had this moment and I loved this so much. We were watching and they went away to New York to show a highlight. And they showed a running back, they were on the one yard line, I don't even remember what team it was, on the one yard line they had it to the running back, he jumps over the pile to score the touchdown. And it's a play that people who have seen sports, watch football, have seen a a thousand times. But she'd never seen that before it. And she said, 'Oh my gosh, he just jumped over them!' Like, 'How did he do--how did he do--' And it was so great. It was just such a cool feeling of seeing her discover this thing that we've just taken for granted, and we shouldn't. It is extraordinary that you can play football, you can have offensive linemen and defensive linemen smashing into each other and a guy athletic enough to jump over it--

Russ Roberts: Takes flight. It takes flight.

Joe Posnanski: It's amazing. And I loved that so much. And to me, those are the moments that I cherish.

Russ Roberts: We've talked on this program about mindfulness, and for me, a lot of what meditation and mindfulness are about is preserving wonder. It's about appreciating the wonder of daily life, which, after a while we get jaded. We grow up, we've seen it a thousand times, doesn't impress us. And what I try to do is, I think I've used this example before: when I hear and see the geese flying information overhead on a crisp fall day with the sun coming through the leaves, I've seen it a thousand times, I want to enjoy it as if it were the first time and I try to. It's not easy, I don't always succeed, mostly fail, but I think it makes life a lot richer if you can tap into that.

Joe Posnanski: I think that's right. I've written about this before, that--and this is just a silly little thing that I do, but I do it every time--I've been on, as have you, how many flights have we been on in our lives, right? I mean, countless flights. And travel is so wearying, and it's gotten worse and we all know that. But, when I get on the plane and the plane is about to take off, I always look out the window and try to think, 'What am I seeing?'

Russ Roberts: 'This is a miracle.'

Joe Posnanski: This is a miracle. It's a miracle every single day.

Russ Roberts: It's magic.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: There's an expression in Hebrew that we say on Saturday morning, hadesh yameinu kekedem, which literally translated means, renew--it's often translated as--'Renew our days as of old,' which is I think not a great translation. But it's basically saying--and this applies to marriage, it applies to just about everything in life. It's like remember when you fell in love, when you've been married, I've been married 30 years, I still love my wife, and, but it's different.

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: In many ways, it's better than it was when we first met, but I want to hold on to that beginning as well. I think that preciousness of new and the wonder that's there is just, it's an important part of being human. I'm getting maudlin here and a little bit cliched, but it's so important.

Joe Posnanski: I think so too. And honestly, it makes me feel so great to have this conversation about this book, because that is the goal of this book. The goal is just to think about that kind of stuff. And you know, you're writing about a vaudeville performer who was a bully at times, and mean, and he was incredibly egotistical, and all of these things that people don't like about him. But he was able to inspire this in people, this feeling. And whatever his motivations were, which were they could be any number of motivations, he did.

And that's what fascinates me about him. And that's what's so interesting, and I think something that we can learn from and develop. Because I think it's never been more important. You know? And it will never stop being important, to be able to grab those moments and those things that make the world feel a little bit bigger, you know?


Russ Roberts: The other--I meant to mention this before--the other street performance artists that he reminds me of are Evel Knievel and Philippe Petit. Evel Knievel, for those who don't know, would jump over big things in a motorcycle--

Joe Posnanski: Buses, yeah--

Russ Roberts: Canyons--

Joe Posnanski: Well, he would try.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. And Philippe Petit walked a high-wire between the Twin Towers when they stood, tragically a feat that will never be duplicated, of course. There's a glorious documentary about that, which I recommend.

But Houdini asked, in the sense that they both risked their life; and part of the awe and wonder there was that, was they were watching someone confronting death that way, that they were escaping. And in those two cases, we knew how it was done. He got on a motorcycle, he went really fast, and somehow landed sometimes. And in Petit's case it was, 'Oh, okay, he's really good at walking on a wire,' But we understand that it's different when you're up that far and that high, and the wind and everything else about it. And yet Houdini took that and added--I don't know how he did it, which is even, you know, crazier.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. And kept adding and kept finding new chapters. I mean, that was the end of Evel Knievel, right: is that Evel Knievel was doing all of these things and doing these motorcycles and crashing often enough that you knew there was a chance you were going to watch him break every bone in his body, which we did. And then he was like, 'Okay, well time's run out on that. What are you going to do now? And that's when I'm going to jump the Snake River Canyon.' And everybody thought he was going to do it on a motorcycle and then he actually ended up in some weird craft, and then he didn't make it and he--

Russ Roberts: I don't even know what happened.

Joe Posnanski: No, he didn't--he didn't die. Yeah, he didn't--

Russ Roberts: Did he die?

Joe Posnanski: He didn't die. He didn't make it, and then the parachute came out and then he was out, and then everybody was like, 'Yeah, all right, that chapter's over,' and that's how it goes.

But, you're right. He was someone who--he thought of himself as a magician. And he did do magic. He made the elephant disappear and he walked through walls and he did various things. But, what he captured was what a street magician, a street performer, a tightrope walker can do, which is at their very best, just lift your spirits in a way that you just go, 'Wow! I've never seen anything like that.'


Russ Roberts: So, tell us the Sarah Bernhardt story. She was probably the most famous actress of her day. I just saw my grandfather's birth certificate. He was born in 1897, on my father's side. His first name was Burnhardt.

Joe Posnanski: Wow.

Russ Roberts: Spelled, B-U-R-N-H-A-R-D-T. He was called Burny all his life. But I think he was named after Sarah Bernhardt. Which is weird.

Joe Posnanski: Weird, yes.

Russ Roberts: She was like Houdini, an enormous celebrity.

Joe Posnanski: Right. And like Houdini, people had many, many, many differing opinions about her, but she was the actress of her day and many thought she was the greatest actress ever. Many thought she was the worst actress ever. It was very--she's a fascinating figure. Much forgotten. Which is--tells you how difficult it is. But in her time, her fame certainly surpassed Houdini's. She was enormously famous. And then toward the end of her life, she had her leg amputated. She long had issues with her leg and she it amputated. And then Houdini--being Houdini, always looking for headlines--connected with her because she was given an award and then she was asked to pay for the award, which is very strange, and Houdini saw this and immediately swept in and said, 'I will happily pay for this award,' and they became friends and she came to a performance of his.

And there's an amazing photo that captures this scene. She comes and she says to Houdini, 'Houdini, you are so great. Can you give me back my leg?' And Houdini is deeply, deeply moved and touched, and yet he has to say to her that, 'I'm not really magical. I can't really do that.'

And she didn't believe him. She insisted that he tried to bring back her leg. And there's a glorious photo: She's sitting in a car and he's standing outside and she's looking through the window, and there's a deep, deep sadness in her as she realizes that Houdini, her last hope, cannot bring back her leg. I think that story is so powerful.

Russ Roberts: I've read your book more recently than you have, but you describe it in the book he's saying: in response, Houdini says, 'I can only do the amazing. I can't do the impossible.'

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: And I think that gets at a really important aspect of this, which is: when you don't know how it's done, you think it's impossible. And you love the idea--some of us like the idea of that--that could be, you could get your leg back, you could live forever. Again, I think a lot of it comes to the mortality that hangs over humanity, right? But this idea that miracles--literally miracles, not just the 1980 Miracle on Ice, which is one of the more wondrous things I've seen--but the true miracles are about things that defy understanding. And we have a piece of us that wants that, and that story captures it for me.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. The original title of this book was "The Amazing and the Impossible." That was the original title. And then, as you well know with publishing houses, they were like, 'You're really going to write a book about Houdini and not have his name in the title? You're not going to do that.' So that goes.

But yeah; there is a very small but incredibly important line between what is amazing and what is impossible, and the greatest magicians--but I think also the greatest athletes and the greatest performers, the greatest musicians, the greatest singers and actors and--they walked that line. So that you see what Mike Trout does and you think, 'Oh my gosh, it's impossible. It's impossible for somebody to be this good at this game, with that ball coming at him 100 miles an hour and this and that the other.' And it's not. It's amazing, and it's just right at that line between amazing and impossible.

Russ Roberts: Right. The fact that we can't do it: I always liked this idea of what in sports can a decent amateur do and what can a decent amateur not do? So, a decent amateur can--a weekend tennis player can serve an ace--

Joe Posnanski: Well, sure.

Russ Roberts: Can return a fast serve. Probably, I'm thinking, probably can't touch a Roger Federer serve. Touching it would be an achievement. You might never get it back, literally, over the net into the court.

Joe Posnanski: It's so interesting you bring that specifically up because in one of my earlier episodes--I'm a tennis player, and one of my earlier episodes when I was trying to do my participant-type journalism, I faced Greg Rusedski who at the time had one of the great serves in the world, and he was taking it easy on me just so I'd, you know, just to--and I would barely get it back or I'd slice it, I'd touch it, whatever. And then he hit a serve and it's indescribable because there are things that, you're like, if somebody hit a 150 mile an hour serve like an Andy Roddick serve, of course you would never get to it. But that's not what he did.

He hit a serve that bounced so high, I literally lifted my racquet as high as I could go and jumped, and it was probably four feet above my racquet, and I thought, 'Okay, now you've seen it. Now you've seen what the difference is.' So yes, you would never be able to do that. But then there are some things you could do right [crosstalk 00:47:27]--

Russ Roberts: You can get a birdie in golf.

Joe Posnanski: Absolutely.

Russ Roberts: You would struggle to do it at the Masters, right?--

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: with the cup set up the way they set it up for the pros.--

Joe Posnanski: With the greens that fast, yeah.

Russ Roberts: But, one of the appeals, I think, of golf, and I'm a--I'm somebody who has golfed 20 times in his life--but one of the appeals of golf is that you seem on the surface to be doing something that the best in the world you're doing. You're not, but it feels that way.

Joe Posnanski: But it feels that way. It feels that way.

Russ Roberts: And playing in a softball game is actually nothing like standing against Randy Johnson--

Joe Posnanski: No, but you could catch a pop-up though, right?

Russ Roberts: You could, but I don't think you could touch, you or I, could touch a Randy Johnson pitch. The fear factor combination. Touch it, not hit a double in the gap, touch it. Ever.

Joe Posnanski: Ever.

Russ Roberts: And the amount of effort it would take to get to it. But we know it's not impossible because we know people do it.

Joe Posnanski: That's right.

Russ Roberts: They struggle to do it but they do it. And I think a lot of what we're talking about here is that, you know, some of these things, we don't know that anyone can do except this one man.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. That's 100% right. And it's exactly--and the ones who do it the best, this was what was so, what the difference between a magician and maybe a great pianist or something. So, if you're watching a great pianist playing and you're seeing that they'll have that close up angle, their fingers, you're like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't do that.' But a magician, you know, especially in today's world, they're doing that but making it look like they're doing nothing.

Russ Roberts: Right.

Joe Posnanski: So they're taking it to a whole different level. And so, you know, Houdini of course was constantly pushing the, 'I'm the only man in the world who can do any of these things.' Which really wasn't true, but the illusion was extraordinarily powerful. And so, yeah, I think that's--when you see something like that and you think, 'There's only one person who can do it,' that's really bordering on the impossible, right?

Russ Roberts: That's right.

Joe Posnanski: That's where it gets.

Russ Roberts: We're way out in the right hand tail, not just at the top 1%--the top one.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.


Russ Roberts: Let's talk about celebrity. I guess one way to think about Houdini that you've alluded to is that he was the master of PR [Public Relations], in the way he played the media. We've talked many times on the program about Adam Smith's insight from The Theory Of Moral Sentiments, 'Man naturally desires not only to be loved but to be lovely.' And Smith says--by loved he means, praised, to matter, to be honored, to be respected. He talks about when you walk into a room people say, 'Oh,' they notice that you're there. Whereas, other people are just more invisible, and how painful that is to us as human beings. We want to be loved, we want people to recognize our specialness. And we want to be lovely: We want to earn the praise and respect and honor of those around us honestly. And we can fool ourselves and delude ourselves about that.

But he basically says: There's two ways to be loved, to be seen as somebody. One is to pursue fame, power and money. People who have those three things, people pay a lot of attention to them. And he says, 'That's the wrong way to get there.' He says, 'That's the glittering path.' He says, 'You want to take the quieter path of virtue and wisdom.'

And I think about that a lot. And the quest for fame, particularly in the internet social media world, the challenges of not succumbing to that--and Smith would argue, he wouldn't necessarily say it this way, but pursuing that glittering path of fame, money and power is corrosive. You'll do things that you're going to be ashamed of, that are going to demean you. And I loved--I saw Houdini as an incredible example of this problem.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, absolutely.

Russ Roberts: You have this wonderful poem by Emily Dickinson that I didn't know. I'm a pretty big Emily Dickinson fan, I love this, it's called--well, it's not called anything, she didn't title her poems, but her poems are often called by their first line:

Fame is a bee.
It has a song
It has a sting
Ah, too, it has a wing.

And I thought--it gives me goose bumps to read the poem, and especially knowing that Emily Dickinson was probably the least famous person in her lifetime for how famous she is now.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. Yeah.

Russ Roberts: She is the anti-Houdini. She didn't promote herself, died--I think none of her poems were published, I think, at her death; and now is not just, 'Oh yeah, she was a good poet,' it speaks to moderns in an unusual way.

Russ Roberts: So, let's talk about that poem and how it applies to Houdini. "Fame is a bee.--It has a song--It has a sting--Ah, too, it has a wing." What are the song and the sting and the wing for Houdini?

Joe Posnanski: Well, I think he was neither--he was deeply in love with both the song and the sting. He didn't mind the sting at all.

So, the song is, of course, everyone knowing Houdini and the money he made and the fame and the cheers and the--he was obsessed with it and loved it so deeply.

The sting is the impersonators that came along that drove him mad. The many, many, people he alienated in his life, the friends that became enemies the--he was willing to pay all those prices. He was willing to the very end of his life to be hated by a group in order to be loved by another ; and it was something that was deeply embedded in him.

But the wing --the fact that fame could fly away, the fact that fame can end at any point--it haunted him. Haunted him every minute of every day. There are fascinating, fascinating diary entries that he would write. Right around 1909, he'd been famous for a decade, and much like what we talked about with Evel Knievel, there was a moment where it sort of, 'Okay, well, I've seen you escape from every possible thing you can escape from. Okay, I'm bored. I'm moving on.' And there's an extraordinary diary entry he wrote in St. Louis, where he just wrote, essentially, 'They didn't come. They didn't come to see me. Is this the end of Houdini?' Is this the end of Houdini?

And he meant it. I mean, scared he would--he was famous for telling people that, 'This could ruin me. This will be the end of me.' And it haunted him all of his life. And so he always did try to find the next thing. Next thing. 'Okay, now I've got to add danger. Now, I've got to add a whole other flourish. I've got to do the straitjacket escape upside down in the middle of town for free.' I mean that's the other thing, you know he came here to Washington and did the upside down straitjacket escape right by the Ebbitt Grill, and at the time, was a theater, Keith's Theater, and 15000 people came to watch him and flooded, flooded Washington, and it was all just as a promotion for the show. It was all just, 'Okay, you've got to see Houdini, come out to the show tonight.'

But it was much more for him. It was getting that crowd and having everyone see him, and he was desperate to always find that next stage, all the way to the end of his life, where his final stage really was this unmasking of spiritualists and mediums and--it was certainly a devoted cause for him, but it also put him back on the news and gave him headlines again. And, it was corrosive. There's no question.

And it's why there are people in this book who absolutely cannot stand Houdini. I mean, their voices are here too. It's because they felt--one of the great magic historians of today is a guy named Mike Caveney. He was a great magician as well and a wonderful person, and he does not like Houdini. And I said to him, 'Why is it you don't like Houdini?' And he said, 'Because Houdini, it was not enough to win: everybody else had to lose.' And I think that that's the corrosive part of needing to be more famous and more famous and more famous.

Russ Roberts: I'll just play armchair psychologist. He was short.

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: He was an immigrant--who was probably ashamed of not being born here because we know he lied about it.

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: Ashamed of his poverty.

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: Ashamed of his father's failure. Reminds me a little bit--talking about a weird parallel--reminds me a little bit of LBJ [Lyndon Baines Johnson] who had a father he felt didn't match up, didn't meet his expectations, and said, 'I'm not going to be that guy.'

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. Yeah. And he was Jewish, I mean that was a big part of his--

Russ Roberts: In those years, when Jews were looked down on often and struggled to get acceptance or were discriminated against, literally, in university admissions and elsewhere: he had a chip on his shoulder his whole life is another way to say it.

Joe Posnanski: Yes. Yeah, I think that's absolutely right. I think--

Russ Roberts: What a curse!

Joe Posnanski: It was a curse that he turned into something else. He definitely--there is a part of, I guess maybe this is--I don't think this is unique to Houdini but there is a part, 'I'm not going back. I'm not going to be that guy again. I'm not going to be poor again. I'm not going to be looked down on. Everyone will look at me and they will respect me and they will admire me and they will know my name and'--I think it's amazing looking from the outside looking in where you go, 'But at some point you're one of the most famous people in the world, right? Enjoy a little bit.' And he can't.

And I think that's precisely the corrosive nature. I think that's specifically what Emily Dickinson is talking about in there, is that, at no point does the bee ever stop flying, and you have to endure that.

Russ Roberts: There's a story I'm sure you know, that when Marilyn Monroe came back from, I think, the Korean War, her husband was Joe DiMaggio, at that time--she was married to some very interesting people: Arthur Miller.

Joe Posnanski: Arthur Miller, yeah.

Russ Roberts: Not that many people were married to Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, one.

Joe Posnanski: One.

Russ Roberts: So, she comes back from the tour, and Joe says, 'How was it?' And she says, 'Oh, you can't imagine the cheers,' and he said, 'Yes I can.'

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. I always haunted by that story. Yeah. 'You've never heard such cheers,' and he said, 'Yes, I have.'

Russ Roberts: And the tragedy of Joe DiMaggio for me--besides the fact that he's a Yankee, which I'll leave aside--but, that he ends up, he is remembered by many people as the spokesperson for the Mr. Coffee coffee-machine. You know, in the Paul Simon song, you know it's: Joltin' Joe has left and gone. Where are you?

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Joltin' Joe has left and gone away. [Paul Simon, "Mrs. Robinson"]

He's still around. He's selling coffee makers.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And that's--was it--obviously, it's for the money, but it's also, is it because he just wants to have somebody pay attention to him? I mean, it's just an incredible thing.

Joe Posnanski: It's so interesting. And of course one of the most--ever since I learned this, it's just stuck with me so much--that Paul Simon's hero was Mickey Mantle. It was not Joe DiMaggio. But Joe DiMaggio worked better in the song.

Russ Roberts: It worked for the meter, yeah.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, so he was just the lyric; he was more of a lyric at that point. And Joe DiMaggio at the end of his life insisting on always being introduced as the greatest living ballplayer. And, you know--it's sad. It's sad. But I do believe that is a rule without exception. I think of fame--fame does not ever lead to anything beyond the craving for more fame. Right? I'm not saying that fame is a bad thing. I'm just saying that the pursuit of fame never ends.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, that's--again, it's a challenge of life. You're famous, right? You're famous; but you could be more famous, Joe.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And you could spend a lot more time at it.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: I'm sure you spend a little time at it, but--

Joe Posnanski: I try to spend as little time at it as possible.

Russ Roberts: Because it is corrosive. I think writing a book is really an interesting experience, as you know, because at first it's all you care about--

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: And you think, 'I've just got to make sure it gets in this bookstore and it gets this publicity, and it gets this article.' And it's hard not to resist that siren call.

Joe Posnanski: Well, it is. Well, and with a book, it's a very different thing because you've worked so hard on it, and it's so many pretty lonely hours of struggle. And this book was so much fun because I got to talk to so many people. But it's still hundreds of hours of sitting in my little office by myself, my girls wanting to do something and I've got to just be sitting there typing and thinking and working and structuring and all these other things. And so when it's over, you want people to read it, you know? And so, that is, it is hard to avoid that kind of thing.


Russ Roberts: But I think some of it--it's theme of this conversation--is that: It's that thirst for immortality. I say this a lot. It's a joke but it's not really a joke: For most authors that I know, their books are like their children.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: They can't talk about them rationally. They love them beyond reason.

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: They defend them irrationally--

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: because it's their offspring--

Joe Posnanski: Of course.

Russ Roberts: their creation, their child. And both of them have this thing that they are somewhat of a gateway to immortality. There is something you can leave behind.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, I think that's right. I used to always have this dream of being able to walk into a library and say to the librarian, 'I'm wondering if you have any Fitzgerald? any Dickinson? any Posnanski?' That was always--I've never done it but it was always my dream. Yes, I think you want to leave your work behind, especially as a journalist where you know so much of what you do is gone immediately.

Russ Roberts: Fleeting.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, it's fleeting. But of course, so are books and so is--at the end of the day I have no--

Russ Roberts: You end up on the remainder table, yeah.

Joe Posnanski: Exactly. I have no irrational feelings that someday they're going to call my book Moby Dick. I don't feel that way. But, you know, you do work so hard on them; and you want them to be seen, you want them to be--in a way, that's a pursuit of fame. And in another way it's sort of a way to tell yourself that what you did was worth your time, you know?

Russ Roberts: Yeah. It's self-justification.

I want to read a quote from the screenplay of a recent movie yesterday which--have you seen it?

Joe Posnanski: I have. I loved it.

Russ Roberts: So, we're not going to talk about the plot, because there's going to be no spoilers here. But there is an agent who talks to a songwriter who has not been successful, and now all of a sudden he's a big deal. And she says to him, 'You've hit an extraordinary songwriting groove and you want to be the biggest star in the world?' He says, 'Well....' She says, '"Yes," is the answer to that question.' 'Well, yes, I guess.' 'Not, "Well, yes, I guess." Yes. I guess.' And then she says, and I just love this it's so Smithian, 'Buddy, what I'm offering you is the great and glorious poisoned chalice of the money and fame. If you don't want to drink it, which I would understand go back and have a warm beer in little bonnie England. If you do want to drink it, I need to hear you say, 'Deborah, I'm so thirsty, give me the goddamn chalice. So which is it?' And he says, 'I'll take the chalice.'

But I think that description--

Joe Posnanski: I love it.

Russ Roberts: 'the great and glorious poisoned chalice of money and fame,' gets at what Adam Smith was talking about, and what we were talking about.

I do think it's possible to keep fame in perspective, imaginably; but it's not our nature. And you have to fight against that.

Joe Posnanski: I think the ones that do, you know, the people that you see, the famous actors and musicians and performers, and scientists and economists and all this, who achieve--

Russ Roberts: I'm glad you put two different categories, scientists and economists. Keep them kind of separate--

Joe Posnanski: Yes, I want--Yes. I do that. No, but there are the people that do handle fame well: the ones that you talk to and go, 'Boy, it's like nothing--' We admire those people. And the reason we admire them is because it's hard. And your point about just someone like me: I, there are steps. You're on a staircase and you know if you take that next step you might get to be a little more famous. If you take that next step you might get--but, each step that you're taking, is taking you further away from what you feel like matters. And so, we all feel, there's a comfort level we all feel on that staircase. And I think Houdini had to get to the top of the staircase, whatever that was. And, of course, it doesn't have a top. It's a never-ending staircase.

Russ Roberts: Jacob's Ladder.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, it's Jacob's Ladder. Exactly.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, a different kind of ladder, anyway.

Reminds me--what did you just say? Say that again, what you just said? What was that, about--oh, you were on the staircase; yeah. If you're not careful, you're getting further and further, you said, from what matters. It reminds me of the coach or the politicians: as I want to go spend more time with my family, so I'm stepping down. Usually it's because they don't have a choice.

Joe Posnanski: Right.

Russ Roberts: Very few people actually choose to spend more time with their family . Which makes me very sad, but I think that's the reality.

Joe Posnanski: I think that's right. And I think you're 100% right. And I love--because I just invented that staircase thing just a minute ago--but I love that I'm stepping down. That's really what they always say. It's 'I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family' or 'to focus on my mental health' or to--whatever the case may be. When you went too high. You climbed too high.

Russ Roberts: It should be 'I'm stepping up.'

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But , yeah.

Joe Posnanski: That's exactly right.


Russ Roberts: Now, I know you're a big Springsteen fan.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: And , I did not see Springsteen on Broadway but I did watch the Netflix version of it.

Joe Posnanski: Which by the way was a wonderful experience , I thought. I thought, having seen it on Broadway and seeing it on Netflix, I thought they were different but equally wonderful.

Russ Roberts: So, it's beautifully done. He appears to have some--we don't know if it's acting or not, but he is reflective about fame in that show in a way that's very powerful. I think it makes a great experience rather than just--it's fun to watch him play acoustic versions of some of his great songs, but I think what makes it special is, his self-reflection about his childhood, his parents, his father, his desire to please his father, his need for his father's love. It's a very intense, again, vulnerable exposure which is part of what again--a great--I think performance is often what makes it wondrous and so moving.

And in his book, which I did not read but my brother did and told me, it's also interesting and very honest or at least appearing to be--

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: And, maybe you have to live long enough to put fame in perspective. And those who die young, which of course many do, because they flew too high or destroy themselves in other ways besides death, just never get that chance.

Joe Posnanski: Right. Well, I think the book is very similar to the Broadway show. There's a lot from the book in the show, so that's very similar. He just recently put out a movie called Western Skies which I saw and loved. He is definitely at a stage where--I think he always did try in a way that I think is a little bit unusual, to keep it in perspective, to think about what matters. When he had his first big huge bits of fame, he felt very uncomfortable with it and didn't like it and rebelled against it to a great extent. And then had a later moment where he tried to sort of embrace the fame and didn't find happiness doing that.

So he's at a--he's lived a fascinating life and a very public life and now, because he's Bruce Springsteen, and because he has this incredible fan base, he has the option, and he's taken the option, to sort of speak to those people, all of us, in an honest way about the regrets he has and the feelings of fame and what that was like and how he got here and what it was that created him. And it's a gift. But it's a gift that a lot of people had that opportunity. It's fascinating that he's taking that opportunity.

Russ Roberts: I'm thinking about what motivates artists. And my brother, who is a bigger--I'm a big Springsteen fan, you're bigger than I am, my brother is much bigger than I am--

Joe Posnanski: Probably bigger than I am too, yeah.

Russ Roberts: But meaning, he's seen him maybe 20 times. I've seen him three times I think, three times, two or three times. But my brother likes to point out that Springsteen is one of the rare artists--and I would put Mark Knopfler as the other one I can think of, who, at the age of 50, 60, and 70 is still putting out solo albums of new material.

Joe Posnanski: New. New, yes.

Russ Roberts: There are also artists who put out new albums that are compilations, live performances. And, first of all it takes a tremendous amount of skill to do that, but--Billy Joel had a great moment of honesty. He is somebody that I think is underrated, incredibly talented songwriter/performer who has not put out a new record in decades. And very few put anything out--really after the age of 40. It's kind of incredible in the pop world. And somebody asked him, 'Why aren't you putting out new records?' And he said, 'Well, the last one I put out, nobody bought it.' And, he wasn't interested in expressing himself, which is what is the ideal of the artist, if it wasn't going to be enjoyed by somebody other than himself.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: Maybe he still writes his own songs for fun. I doubt it. But, what's interesting to me about Springsteen; it's interesting to me about Dylan [Bob Dylan], and you can see Dylan's confronting his own--not literally, but it's revealed in the Scorsese documentary, No Direction Home, which is an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, his unease with fame. And part of his, I think, going electric, was an attempt to really put his finger in the eye of his fan base and say, 'You know, not only do I not care what you think: I'm going to enjoy not caring, that you don't like it.'

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: And I just think that's an interesting tension, and I don't have anything more to say about it; but what do you--

Joe Posnanski: No, I think that's all right. And I think there are people who have rebelled hard against fame like Dylan, but Dylan continued to put out music and continues to this day to put out music. The thing I love about Springsteen, the last 15 years, probably since The Rising, probably since 9/11, which sparked a whole different level of creativity from him. You know, he was so deeply moved by it, as we all were by 9/11, that he felt, 'I have something to say,' and it's--he's been really vulnerable. He's put out a bunch of music and not all of it's been good and not all of it's even--there are always Springsteen apologists who are, many of them, very good, good, friends of mine who will say--

Russ Roberts: They're all good.

Joe Posnanski: They're all good. Every song is great like--really? "Queen of the Supermarket"? No, I mean not every song is great. But I love that he's out there and still trying. And he could cash in, in such a big way just being Bruce Springsteen and playing "Born to Run" 500 nights a year. Yeah. I mean, he could do whatever he wanted but he's out there putting--I was just listening to "Western Skies" yesterday, and I was listening to the movie version where he plays with an orchestra. And it's beautiful. And I don't love all of it but I love most of it. And it's really vulnerable. It's totally different from anything that he's done before. And I think that's, I think that's really special. It's almost like: I love Bruce Springsteen's music, but I love the idea of what Bruce Springsteen is trying to do even more.

Russ Roberts: Well, you could think of different kinds of artists: some of them are so uneasy with taking a risk that they just perform their greatest hits over and over again. And I get that, and a lot of you think--talking about magical, I'm glad they're alive. It's hard to believe that Mick Jagger's alive--

Joe Posnanski: Exactly.

Russ Roberts: And others. And then there are the ones who get up and take a chance, and it's funny: I just think about "Born to Run," 'Will you walk with me out on the wire? I'm a scared and a lonely'--what's the next? I can't remember the next line, but--

Joe Posnanski: Rider.

Russ Roberts: Rider. Thanks. 'I wonder how it feels. I wonder if love is real.'

Joe Posnanski: Yeah.

Russ Roberts: But the idea of being out on the wire ties into what we were talking about before, the Philippe Petit, on the wire of between the World Trade Center and then Houdini again, right?

Joe Posnanski: Always pushing, always pushing to--you know, for Houdini, I think it was pushing for fame. I think it was pushing for headlines; and that's what equaled fame. He was of a time before radio, just at the very beginning of silent film. You know, he was always pushing for that headline. And I think other artists like Springsteen but many others, writers particularly--

Russ Roberts: Same idea. The same thing he did before.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah. I mean people will tell you, 'Do a sequel. Do a sequel of this.' I just saw Brian Koppelman who is a wonderful creator, does Billion, and did the movie Rounder. And he's only been asked 16000 times to do a sequel to Rounders and he's not going to do it, because there's no new ground there. There's nothing new for him to go out--

Russ Roberts: It's just money, which is pretty nice but--

Joe Posnanski: Which is nice, and fame. You can get a lot more fame, right?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: But, yeah, thankful for those. I'm thankful for those people that are--I'm thankful that you can go see The Rolling Stones perform "Satisfaction." I mean that's great.

But I'm more thankful for the people who are willing, for the authors that are willing to just write something entirely different because that's where their heart moves them or the musician that goes to a completely different place even if it upsets the fans because it's like, 'I'm on a journey and hopefully you'll come with me because you're a part of it.'

And I think that's really special, and a very special part of celebrity, and I think Houdini asked his people to come with him. But it was always conditional. It was always, 'You have to come with me in big numbers or I'm going to try something else,' because that's what matters.


Russ Roberts: So, when I started your book, I had a particular image of Houdini in my mind, which was magical, literally--just that he was this special, charismatic, unique thing that I didn't know much about. And I'm sad to say a little bit that now that I'm done with the book, he's fallen down in my estimation. It's not just about this Smithian thing about the pursuit of--

Joe Posnanski: Sure.

Russ Roberts: He was good to his mom, we should say that, we haven't mentioned that yet--

Joe Posnanski: He loved his mom.

Russ Roberts: Very good to his mother.

Joe Posnanski: Yes.

Russ Roberts: How did your feelings about him change over the course of writing the book?

Joe Posnanski: It's quite a bit just because of something we talked about at the very beginning which is, what part of him is real and what part isn't? And so much of what we know about Houdini is not true. And so much of what we think about Houdini is not true. And , it's hard to grasp. It's a little bit like fog, trying to grasp what is real about this guy.

And there are many, many--I should say because I feel like it's so easy to push the other side--many, many really likable qualities about Houdini. I don't think you become that successful and famous without having these really likable qualities. He was devoted to his mother. He loved kids. He really, for somebody who chased fame and money, he didn't care about money. He was--

Russ Roberts: The scorekeeper for them , probably.

Joe Posnanski: Right. No creature comforts ; he spent all of his money on magic books. And he was devoted to the art of magic to the point where he kept trying to find old magicians and learn from them and make them--he would, after magicians had died, he would spend his money to make their grave sites special. And he was devoted to a lot of really interesting--and even he was likable in so many different ways.

And then there was this other side of him that was very unlikable , and he was egotistical, and he was difficult and--the bigger he got.

Russ Roberts: And a little ruthless, was part of it. [crosstalk 01:16:51]--

Joe Posnanski: Not only a little, a lot ruthless.

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: No, he was. One of the famous stories that I tell in the book is that he heard about an imposter named Kleppini who was copying his act. And he stopped his tour, literally stopped his tour, for three days. And Kleppini was not famous: he was just a street magician trying to scrap for a few bucks. And Houdini heard about him and stopped his tour and went and found him, dressed up as an old man in a costume in the crowd--

Russ Roberts: A scene out of a movie.

Joe Posnanski: It's a scene out of a movie. He's in a crowd, dressed up, and then when Kleppini says, 'Okay, who has handcuffs to challenge me with?' Houdini goes, 'I do.' And he goes up with a cane and limps to the stage and puts Kleppini in handcuffs. And immediately after doing that, tears off the costume, says, 'The audience may go home now, for I am the great Houdini and no man handcuffed by Houdini ever escapes.' And, he was right: Kleppini couldn't get out of the handcuffs. And he waited a long time before letting Kleppini out of the handcuffs. So there was a ruthless, if he felt somebody was trying to take advantage of him, make a name off of his name, he was--yeah, absolutely ruthless.

Russ Roberts: It reminds me of the cartoon I've mentioned before on here, which is the, 'I'll be up in a minute honey. Someone said something wrong on the internet.' It's like he can't let it go.

Joe Posnanski: He can't let it go. Could not let it go. And so, you have this wonderful and not so wonderful mix of many, many, different qualities that Houdini had. So, as you're writing about him, there are things you really like about him, there are things you really don't like about him.

And I think what I came away with was this admiration for somebody who knew what he wanted--and whether or not it was worth wanting, it is not for me to argue. It wouldn't be for me, but for him, he was going to become the most famous magician in the world, the most famous person in the world. He was going to be remembered forever. And he made it happen out of nothing, out of literally nothing. He was just a poor kid in New York, an immigrant and a Jew, and someone who had to endure incredible odds to make anything of himself, much less to become this figure that we still remember all these years later.

Russ Roberts: And here we are, November 6, 2019, still talking about him in Washington, D.C. at the Hoover Institution. It's pretty amazing.


Russ Roberts: How did it change you? How did writing about a long-dead, mysterious, and really notable person change you, if at all?

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, I think there were a couple of pretty significant, sort of personal things for me. One is more structural, I think. This is my first non-sports book. I had written four--five, if you've count my collection--sports books before, and they're hard. Every book is hard. I wrote a book about Joe Paterno in the middle of the world's crisis.

Russ Roberts: That's pretty hard.

Joe Posnanski: Yeah, that was hard. So they're all hard. But, I was always on solid ground. I was always--I was a sports--

Russ Roberts: It's all in your wheelhouse.

Joe Posnanski: Right. I'm a sports writer and I know everybody in sports and if I don't know them I know someone who does and it was--and this was a book I knew nobody and knew very little when I started. I had this--I came into this book with an idea and I did not know a single person in magic, not one. I literally contacted David Copperfield through the Contact Us bar on his internet page, for his casino where he performs, and I knew nobody and had no real ins. And then, building and talking to people and developing relationships and them introducing me to another people, who introduced me to other people. I loved that. I loved being on the wire again, you know?

Russ Roberts: Yeah.

Joe Posnanski: That was--I didn't know how that would be. I really didn't. And you know it's so easy to get comfortable and just pick a baseball topic; and I know enough people in baseball, I can make it work. And, by the way, my next book might very well be that. But for this opportunity, I found it in myself how much I loved being nervous and anxious and not knowing what the next step was and not knowing where it was going to go. I wondered, that. Because I think it's so easy to get comfortable. And so I love that. That was the first thing I really learned about myself is that, yeah, there's still a part of me that wants that, that wants to be in a completely difficult and unknowable situation.

The second thing was: this really did sort of make me think about what my writing has been about and what I want it to be about. And, this idea of wonder was exactly how I came to this project. That was exactly my--that was the thing I told them at the publishing house, I told my agent, told my wife, that I really want to write about wonder.

But having done it and having written about all of these amazing characters--and, beyond Houdini--I started to think that this has been a theme of my life, sort of where we started this conversation. I think--I wrote, you mentioned this--I wrote a piece about taking my daughter to see Hamilton which went--

Russ Roberts: One of the greatest essays of the last few years. It's a spectacular essay--

Joe Posnanski: Thank you.

Russ Roberts: I'll put a link up to it. I sent it around to all my family, I've read it more than once. Read it last night again. It's great.

Joe Posnanski: Thank you. Thank you. And it was very special because it was obviously very personal. And I just put it on my blog. I just wrote that--but that's about wonder. And I started thinking about all of these pieces--taking my daughter to Harry Potter World for an essay called "Katie the Prefect," writing about my father and Springsteen and the connection there. And then of course all of the sports pieces that I've written and all of these, you know: my favorites. That's about wonder. It's about these things that are not quite explainable, these feelings that emerge from seeing that thing that's bordering on the impossible, right? Right there between the amazing and the impossible. And I sort of--I don't want this to sound overly anything because I'm an incredibly--I don't like saying anything good about myself, but I kind of think that's my purpose.

That's what I started thinking, was: I thought all of the success that I've had as a writer has sort of been me in search of these moments of wonder. And I think--I don't know that that book changed it, but it clarified that in my mind thinking, 'I don't want to do any projects that don't feed off of that.' Look, I'm a sports writer, so I'll write my takes on stuff that's gone wrong and I'll rip the NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] and do whatever the case may be. I have strong feelings. But, in a larger sense, I really do believe that my purpose is to sort of see about sparking that wonder in people. And so, that's a great gift that I got from this book.

Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Joe Posnanski. His book is The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. Joe, thanks for being part of EconTalk.

Joe Posnanski: Oh thank you. This was so much fun for me.