Part One TONIGHT at 9/8c on HISTORY

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The illicit loves of Harry Houdini

Did Houdini have extramarital affairs? As biographers have dug deeper and deeper into the Houdini story, his once chaste (even prude) reputation has come into question. One thing is for sure, he doesn't appear to have struggled with impotency, as Ruth Brandon theorized in her otherwise enjoyable 1993 biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. But if Houdini had affairs, who were the other women in his life?

Here are the major suspects:

Lila Lee - According to actor Georgie Jessel, Houdini and his Terror Island co-star Lilia Lee were romantically involved. Jessel worked with Lee in Gus Edward's School Days. Could they have hooked up while on location on romantic Catalina Island in 1919? Afraid we only have Jessel's word for this. But you know what they say in Hollywood -- all rumors are true.

Houdini turns on the charm with Terror Island co-star Lila Lee

Lee continued acting into the 1950s and died at age 72 in 1973. Shame she appears to have never been interviewed by any of the major Houdini historians or biographers of the day. Sounds like she had some stories to tell.

Daisy White at work
Daisy White - This first rumored Houdini mistress worked as both a "box jumper" (a magician's assistant) and behind the counter at Martinka Magic Shop in New York City (which Houdini once owned). Word of a Houdini-Daisy affair was common gossip in magic circles in Houdini's time and after. Maurice Zolotow, who took an active interest in Houdini's personal life and penned a veiled tell-all fictional biography (The Great Balsamo), claimed, "Houdini loved only two women, his mother and Daisy White."

By all accounts, Daisy was a stunner. She was memorably played by Adrienne Barbeau in the steamy TV movie, The Great Houdinis. After Houdini's death, she fell in with the Rev. Arthur Ford crowd and become a proponent of Spiritualism.

aka "Mate-Woman"
Charmian London - Well, Houdini is completely busted on this one. The widow of famous author Jack London recorded details of her trysts with Houdini in her private diary, which was uncovered by Ken Silverman in his book, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. The passionate three month affair took place while Houdini was playing the New York Hippodrome in 1918 and Charmian was staying in Greenwich Village. London called Houdini her "Magic Lover" and "Mate-Man." Houdini called her "the woman in white" and "Mate-Woman." No record of what Bess called them.

The affair broke off when London returned to her home in California, but she would continue to exchange passionate love letters with Houdini for years.

Mrs. Frank Gilmore with son Gary
Fay La Foe - Murderer Gary Gilmore always claimed he was related to Houdini. According to family lore, his grandmother, who performed in Vaudeville under the name Fay La Foe, had an affair with Houdini in California around the time of World War I. The affair produced Gilmore's father, Frank. La Foe, who later worked as a Spiritualist, described Houdini as a "pip-squeak and a cheap tramp." She also claimed to have taught Houdini "everything he knew about magic."

Considering the vague timeline, the fact that Frank Gilmore was a con-man and Gary a raving psychotic, I think we'll give Harry the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Before Bess got to her
The unnamed redhead - Bessie herself told this story to Linking Ring columnist, Jerry Anderson, of how, two weeks after they were were married, Houdini was spotted escorting an attractive red-haired showgirl from a dime museum after his show. Bess got wind of this and staked out the backstage door. When Houdini appeared with his companion, Bessie took matters into her own hands (and fists). "Harry had to pull me off," said Bess.

But was Houdini having an affair with this mysterious redhead, or just escorting her home in a rough neighborhood as he claimed? Bess ultimately accepted his explanation. When I hear this story, I always imagine this redhead as a Gibson Girl.

Milla Barry - Kalush and Solman smoked out this one in The Secret Life of Houdini. In 1903 Houdini shared the bill with singer/actress Milla Barry, and appears to have become personally entangled with her in some way. He confided in a close friend that Barry was attempting to break up his marriage. "I am having a hell of a time, and it will become worse," he wrote.

But was this an affair, or just a fatal attraction situation? I tend to think it was something other than romantic. Most of Houdini's mistresses come into his life in the late teens and early 1920s, when Houdini was in prime male mid-life crisis age. I also don't think Houdini would cheat while his mother was still alive.

I couldn't find a photo of Milla Barry, so here's a pic of Milla Jovovich instead. They probably they looked similar. You think? (Update: Pic of the real Milla here.)

Milla

Sadie Glantz Weiss - Say what? Houdini certainly had major issues with his sister-in-law. In 1917, Sadie left Houdini's brother Nathan for his other brother Leo. Believing their actions somehow contributed to his mother's death four years earlier, Houdini held a vicious life-long grudge against Leo and Sadie. Thing is, the rest of the family didn't necessarily have a problem with the switch. Even Nathan. So what's the problem, Harry?

It's worth speculating, as Ruth Brandon did in The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, that Sadie's real crime was choosing Leo over Harry. She certainly played the Weiss brothers, and this did take place right during the period of Harry's other amorous experimentations. Then his fury makes a bit more sense. It was Houdini scorned. You can see a photo of "Dark Sadie" over at Kevin Connolly's Houdini Himself.


Mary McGarvie - Did this sexy Scottish psychic seduce Houdini on his tour of Edinburgh in 1926? Nope, sorry. There was no Mary McGarvie. There was no tour of Edinburgh in 1926. This one only happened in the movies (Death Defying Acts, 2008).

Harry steps out in Death Defying Acts

But what of Bess Houdini in all this? 

Not long after Harry's death, Bess discovered a cache of love letters written to her husband (some reportedly from Daisy White) in Houdini's safe. She invited all the women to tea at 278. When they left, she presented each with a parting gift -- their letters.

Don't mess with Bess

Have any other suspects to add to the mix? Feel free to post them in our Comments section below. (And a big thanks to Eric Fry for helping me find the source of the elusive redhead story.)

UPDATE: Looks like I slightly bungled my information on Lila Lee. I originally wrote that she told Georgie Jessel she was involved with Houdini. In truth, Jessel, who knew Lee, claimed there was a romantic involvement between the actress and the magician, but where he got this information is unknown. The paragraph has now been revised.

17 comments:

  1. Oh wow ... this was worth the wait (and I've been staking out the Facebook page all morning in anticipation).

    One thing I've been wondering about is how much of Bess's "feeling sick" or "unwell" over the years was due to simply being married to the great man? Even without the affairs, life with him would never have been easy. I really liked how she got her revenge on those girls afterwards though. I could imagine them all arriving at the same time, checking each other out and then being handed their piles of letters to take with them.

    And yes, the Gary Gilmour story is just silly.

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  2. I think Bess had genuine heath issues. She was very frail and I think she probably has problems with her immune system. But I'm sure there was also stress and stain, and also I wonder at what stage she became alcoholic. That could account for many of Houdini's references to her being "ill" and "unwell" (and having her "brainstorms").

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  3. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always thought of Daisy White as the “other woman” in the Houdini saga. And oddly enough, I’ve always thought of her as looking just like Adrienne Barbeau. Now I’ll forever imagine Milla Barry as looking just like Milla Jovovich as well. In my humble opinion John, your important and lasting contributions to Houdini scholarship are increasing all the time.

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  4. I'm giving you a standing ovation on this one my friend! Bravo Bravo!

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  5. Thank you, guys. Means a lot to me to hear that. :)

    Best part of doing this article -- browsing for the perfect sexy pic of Milla Jovovich. :p

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  6. Yes, if you're going to be a bunny boiler, this is the kind of outfit to wear.

    How are we going? Is this post at the top of the blog yet????

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  7. Nope, but it's climbing fast. If you look below at the "Popular Posts", that's an automatic official ranking (but it's a little behind, the jail escape has passed Brothers Houdini).

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  8. Pat Culliton has just posted up this tease on his site. He won't say who these "girlfriends" are, just pics. Gotta say, the gal on the right is a stunner!

    http://www.houdinisghost.com/girlfriends.html

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  9. BTW, this story (now my most viewed) has received some good feedback, and some criticism, at The Magic Cafe. Join the discussion.

    http://www.themagiccafe.com/forums/viewtopic.php?topic=392870&forum=134&20

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  10. Yes, the one on the right was gorgeous. Would love to know who she was. Off to view the discussion at the Magic Cafe.

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  11. Actually, he's added more, so the one I was talking about is in the middle now. Great pic of HH too.

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  12. Yes I noticed that. I think we're all talking about the same girl. It's not just her looks ... there's something about the expression on her face that makes her seem very "alive" for want of a better word. It's something that's often missing in old photographs.

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  13. You know I just looked up some photos of Gary Gilmore on Google, and wow...he kind of looks like a very ugly, scar-faced Houdini with straight brown hair. CREE-EE-EEPY! O_o So even if the story is completely bogus, I can totally see why he would have thought he was descended from Houdini.

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  14. The stunt of giving each woman their letters is so cinematic. I'd die laughing if this was translated into an actual movie. What a brilliant move by the obviously territorial Bess!

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  15. Wow. Bess must've really been a charatcter!!

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  16. I agree with the person above, Bess WAS a real character :D The more I read about her, the more I like her. To be honest, I've always had my suspicions that Houdini was a bit of a ladies man, but it's also pretty clear that his real love was for Bess (his 'Precious Lump of Sweetness'.)

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