Sidney Hollis Radner, 1919-2011 – A personal remembrance

This article first appeared in The Mandala Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 1 (July/August 2011), pp. 26-27.

Magnificent Obsession

It seems as if I’ve always known his name. No, not Houdini’s—Sid Radner’s.

That Tony Curtis movie is what first sparked my interest in the monarch of manacles. An obscure 1971 BBC documentary is what really kindled the flame. The Truth About Houdini was televised in the greater Los Angeles area around Halloween of 1976, and I vividly recall a photo in that week’s TV Guide of the real Houdini with his striped shirt, his heart-shaped hair, and his ball and chain. It was a photographic still from The Grim Game, and at the time it was one of the few photos of Houdini that I had ever seen. I carefully extracted it from the magazine and packed it away in an Antonio y Cleopatra Cigars box with my other childhood treasures. Now and again, I studied it with care.

From that moment and for many years, I sought out books and information about Houdini. Because I’m the sort who mulls over footnotes, it seemed to me that Sid Radner was popping up everywhere. Randi and Sugar cited him. Henning and Reynolds thanked him. Christopher too, and eventually Brandon and Silverman, Kalush and Sloman, Koval and Culliton. And from the very beginning, the coincidental convergence of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner and Gilda Radner in my 1970s TV-saturated mind made Sid’s name unforgettable. I was Radner-aware.

Flash forward a couple of decades. Sometime in the middle 1990s, I was on the phone with Bill Brehm concerning the Houdini Historical Center in Appleton, and he realized I was in New England. “You should go visit Sid Radner!” he declared. “I should? I mean yes, yes. I should!” A little while later, the phone rang and Sid was inviting me and my wife to his home in Holyoke. From his perspective, I was a random stranger who happened to share his magnificent obsession. From my perspective, he was one of the last living connections to the Man Behind the Myth. Here was a chance to savor his unique perspective, and to see some of his collection.

I couldn’t wait.

Showtime

The house in Holyoke was unpretentious, and Helen and Sid received us warmly, making us feel at home right away. After providing refreshments, Helen vanished (our first clue that this part of the event was quasi-scripted) and we settled into our places on a sofa in the den. Sid went into performance mode. A grand old raconteur, he treated us to an overview of his experiences with Hardeen, his endeavors as a magician, his exploits as an escape artist, and his adventures in the realm of gambling. From somewhere, Sid produced a photo album with pictures of himself, Hardeen, and various other magicians. From elsewhere, he brought forth a heavy scrapbook containing letters he had received from chiefs of police and the like. These certified Radner’s achievements in prison breaking and escapology. As a sort of climax, he produced Hardeen’s own copy of the Kellock biography and dramatically revealed its famous handwritten inscription: “This book is full of LIES!”

We had looked on in relatively passive wonder at all of this, but then Sid began to probe our interests. I signaled that I was an insider regarding things magical and that I knew my way around the Houdini lore. But I didn’t want the focus on myself, and neither did he. For he was onstage, and he was having a ball. My role was to prompt him with just enough information about my interests so that he could select the perfect exciting artifact or unexpectedly apt anecdote.

The chemistry was beautiful. One moment, he was showing me a souvenir and pictures from a certain not-so-secret warehouse in Vegas. (David Price also dropped that name when I visited him. I think their pride over such attention is enlightening.) Another moment, Sid was on his feet and beckoning me toward the end of the room where tiers of shelves held volume after volume about Houdini and magic. He didn’t just want me to see how comprehensive his library was; he wanted me to note that he had multiple copies of all the most important books! To my surprise, lying on the floor in heaps near the bookshelves were chains and manacles—overflow of his inventory—and he poked through them until he found one with a story attached. Then we were off to the garage to see some charred, molten remains from the burned out Houdini Magical Hall of Fame. And then we were back inside so he could show me a poster he had recently had framed.

Since the conversation was still flowing, he took us to eat up near Smith College. Under the influence of lunch, all formality evaporated. He expressed at length his strong feelings about Bess. He speculated about double indemnity provisions and the tale of Houdini’s blow to the abdomen. He shared a theory about the fire in Niagara. He made ribald remarks about the circumjacent students. Sid was brash and excited, stern and comical. On a good day—and this was a good day—he loved nothing more than an audience. In this, he and Houdini were kindred spirits.

Something ventured, something gained.

Sid was in some sense a showman at heart. But he was also a businessman with an old school sense of tradition and a taste for backslapping and deal-making. He mentioned with school pride the regularity of his attendance at the Yale-Harvard game, and boasted of the connections he had cultivated through that custom. He recounted with admiration some hardball negotiations undertaken by Henry Muller in the context of venture capital. (He also repeatedly mentioned “my business” until finally I asked him what his line was. “Floors” came the reply.) At one juncture, he wondered whether there was an effective way to monetize the “Houdini Picture Corporation” name, to which he had just jointly acquired rights. When I mentioned the BBC documentary that had made me a fan of Houdini in the first place, he exclaimed “I was involved in that! I have rights to it!” Surprised, I mentioned how exciting it would be to see it again, and he pondered whether there was a market for it. (Soon after, it was made available. I have no idea whether there’s a connection. The new release restores performance footage of Radner himself that had been edited out for the original American broadcast.)

These details point to a second facet of Radner’s character that also carried forward the Houdini legacy: his favorite game was business. Show business, of course. Also the carpet business that Sid had inherited from his father. Perhaps most importantly, the “Houdini’s legacy” business that he had inherited from Hardeen, which evolved into the exhibition business in which he cooperated with Muller and others to find historically responsible commercial vehicles for his collection of Houdiniana. Sid was keenly aware that to safeguard a name is to manage an asset, and Sid wanted to be a good steward.

Even so, there was a tension between Radner’s business instinct and his childlike delight over all things magical. Often enough, when a collector or a historian or a fan came to his attention, Sid was generous with his time and eager to share his holdings. Often enough, his childlike delight trumped everything else.

Burning and burnishing

Observing these sides of Sid Radner—the showman, the businessman, the delighted child—I realized that he must have been a man who energetically fashioned new dreams as older ones faded away. His early ambitions had spanned an awkward cultural transition. He was enamored with Houdini’s escapes, celebrity, and unparalleled success. At some point, walking in the shadow of Hardeen and the aura of Houdini, Sid had wanted to be a Houdini. But Houdini’s challenge act was fundamentally mechanical, analog, and ragtime in nature. Radner inhabited a different world.

The era of packing cases and padlocks as telling symbols of constraint, liberation, and modernity had made potent sense back when industry was driven by raw goods and horsepower. But the machine age gave way to streamline moderne, chrome, electronics, broadcasting, space, and finally the information age. Houdini himself had made no small effort to keep up with the technologically evolving times. So trying to follow in Houdini’s footsteps by locking Houdini down in time and style was bound to fail. To be Houdini is to be dynamic.

For Hardeen, ready with a static clone of Houdini’s act, it was very difficult to keep the magic alive. Houdini had been the right man at the right time, but the opportune moment had passed and its echo was fading. If it was hard for Hardeen to emulate his brother, it must’ve been frustratingly impossible for Sid Radner, regardless of aptitude and ambition. And yet he went for it. He wanted to set the world on fire, and he followed the dream for as long as he could.

What’s an artisan to do when the mainstream becomes niche? As we enjoyed Radner’s improvisations that afternoon, I realized I was seeing evidence that he had come to terms with this impediment. The aspiring escapologist had found his way into the age of data. He had shifted from performer to historian, from well-equipped, practicing magician to eminent collector, from flamboyant showman to keeper of the flame. If the world no longer had use for a Houdini, Sid would ensure that the world remembered at least this much: being a Houdini was something special.

During the years after my visit, Sid found buyers to acquire his collection, and he thereby passed on the legacy of showmanship, business, and childlike delight. However necessary, and however awkwardly achieved, this must have been hard for him.

Pondering this, I now understand why Sid emphasized how many copies of each book he had: the first copy was keeping faith with Houdini, and all the other copies were exclamation marks.

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Dogged determination

I once heard Phil Leider say of Francisco Goya that he had only ever truly longed for two things: the career of Diego Velázquez and the love of the Duchess of Alba.

The Duchess of Alba in Mourning, 1797, collection of the The New York Hispanic Society (The Hispanic Society of America)

Maybe that’s so.

His last duchess Goya depicted several times, most memorably in an enigmatic painting in which her defiant stance seems to contradict the connotations of her mourning apparel. She points down toward the dust at her feet, where some finger — his? hers? — has inscribed “solo Goya”.

Seems like something‘s going on there. He kept this painting among his possessions from the time of its creation until his death in 1828.

However that may have gone, Leider was surely right about Velázquez, the greatest Spanish painter of the 17th-century, and maybe the greatest of them all — the painter of whom Ruskin supposedly said that everything he does “may be regarded as absolutely right” and to whom Ruskin ascribed “the highest reach of technical perfection yet attained in art.”

Why wouldn’t Goya want to be Velázquez redux? The earlier artist had lived a charmed life as court painter to Philip IV, under whose auspices he cranked out not only a seemingly endless supply of stock portraiture, but also some of the most psychologically and intellectually compelling images in western art.

It didn’t matter what Goya wanted, though. It was not to be. Living through the French Revolution and the Peninsular War, Goya was surrounded by destruction, corruption, incompetence, and folly. Sure, he became court painter — nominally the same position Velázquez had held. But Goya’s monarch was an imbecile surrounded by monsters. Recognizing the sad irony of his plight, Goya pulled no punches when it came time to speak truth to power.

Diego Velázquez, Las Meninas, 1656, Museo del Prado, Madrid

In the 1650s, Velázquez had created an unprecedented and beloved portrait of his king’s young daughter surrounded by her ladies in waiting and some courtiers on the entertainment staff: Las Meninas, as it has come to be called. There she stands, head turned charmingly to one side, while the universe plays out in orbit around her. Off to the side, the painter himself stands facing us, brush and palette in hand, and applies his wizardry to an enormous canvas– one identical in size to Las Meninas itself, the only painting of such a size in his oeuvre.

In the background, a silvery mirror reflects the King and Queen, implying that they’re standing just about where we stand when we behold this picture. Is Velázquez painting a double-portrait of them? Is he painting Las Meninas? The puzzle, typically Baroque, dissolves into play as the small fellow in the corner kicks the resting dog. His foot has made contact, but the dog has not yet responded; we’re trapped in hang time between the moment of order and the predictable chaos about to ensue. The painter waves his laden brush and weighs his options.

How could Goya, a deeply gifted critic of his world and times, not want the liberty to play such games, and in such style? Called upon in 1800 to portray the extended family of Charles IV, he creates this:

 

Carlos IV of Spain and His Family, 1800, Museo del Prado

In a knowing and telling play on the earlier artist’s work, Goya presents a travesty of Las Meninas. In place of that gloriously wonderful child, the Infanta Margarita, Goya installs the doltish King’s draconian wife, Maria Luisa; the turn of her head is the same, but hardly charming. The ignoble royals mill about unharmoniously, a senseless cluster. The woman who failed to show up for her sitting? Goya includes her anyhow, but turns her head away toward the darkness! The King, all decked out in regalia, medals, lace, and velvet? Nothing but periwig and prattle. That child nestled between the king and his bride? People say he looks a lot like the Prime Minister, Godoy.

In the shadows off to the side, behind an enormous canvas, stands Goya himself, just like Velázquez. He seems to sigh.

Like Beethoven, Goya went stone deaf; he lived another 40 years or so in silence as he watched the world tear itself apart. In his 70s, he holed up in a little two story house near Madrid, pondered his failures of nerve and will and fate, and nursed his unsurprising depression. For his eyes only, he filled the plaster walls of this house with oil paintings– dark, brooding, sinister paintings. Saturn (Time) Devouring His Children. The Fight With Cudgels. The Fates.

Quinta del Sordo, diagram, Wikimedia

Perhaps they speak of a heart unfulfilled, these paintings. Perhaps of a Goya who only ever wanted two things. Goya was able to project virtual worlds of his own design, to paint anything his imagination might offer. Looking back on a life that didn’t go as he had planned and considering a broken world teeming with corruption, why did Goya surround himself with vivid, symbolic depictions of that same chaos, that old night?

It’s something to ponder. It’s something to pity.

Francisco Goya, The Dog, one of The Black Paintings. Wikimedia.

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Between a Rock and a Void Place

Ryoanji garden. Photo by japan-guide.com.

In the northwest of Kyoto, in the Temple of the Dragon at Peace (Ryōan-ji), stands a garden where only the viewer grows. It is a rock garden— the greatest rock garden in the world. Since the late 1400s it has been tended daily by Zen monks in the service of those who go there to see what is or is not to be seen.

Ryoan-ji, Concentric circles

Ryoan-ji, concentric circles and lines, Blogodisea.com

The monks rake the rocks into straight lines where the large stones are absent, and they rake them into concentric circles where the large stones are present. The net effect is of an ocean’s regular waves lapping gently against every shore in a tiny archipelago, except that nothing is moving.

A rock garden such as this is an example of the art of karesansui, which is often translated “dry landscape” but which etymoliterally means “dry mountain water”; the evocation of land and sea is explicit.

There are many ways to interpret this garden and its elements.

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