As the son of a famous concert pianist, Heller began his life as a musician studying at the Royal Academy of Music. After becoming fascinated with magic at age 14, Heller began copying his idol Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, from whom he adopted his first name. Heller left his scholarship at the academy to become a professional magician.
Heller's magic career began in New York City in 1858. In an attempt to copy the style of Houdin, Heller wore a dark wig and spoke in a French accent when he performed. His act was such a failure that he moved to Washington, D.C. to become a music teacher.
Heller married one of his pupils, the daughter of a wealthy Washington resident and would eventually return to New York. Deciding to try his magic act again, Heller abandoned the accent and image of before and focused on the presentation of his illusions. His tour that spanned from 1869 to 1875 became a success throughout much of the United States, Great Britain, Europe, and Asia. Heller's success prompted fellow magician Harry Kellar to change his name as to avoid the impression that he was copying the greatness of Heller.