Saturday, July 30, 2011

The problem with Bessie

I've been sitting on this information for a long time. Sixteen years, to be precise. It's something I've shared with fellow Houdini buffs over lunches at the Magic Castle, but because of the personal nature of it, I've never felt I should "publish" it online or elsewhere. It's the answer to why Harry and Bess Houdini never had children, and it was told to me by Marie Blood, Houdini's niece on Bessie's side. As far as I know, it's never been revealed in any book or article. Until now.

Why now? Well, anyone who's followed this blog knows I celebrate Bess here and find her fascinating. But she's even more elusive than her husband. We just don't know all that much about her. What I have here is an important (maybe even critical) puzzle piece that helps further complete her portrait. It's nothing bad, and it certainly doesn't diminish the memory or legacy of this great woman. If anything, it draws her more into focus and helps us understand all the demons she was fighting.

First, the backstory.

In July 1995 I traveled to Colorado Springs to hear the late Marie Blood speak. I was excited to hear the remembrances of Houdini's last living relative. I had exchanged letters with Marie, so she knew I would be there. Her talk was delightful, filled with first hand memories of her Uncle Houdini and Aunt Bess, and she brought along a few precious artifacts, including a children’s book given to Houdini by his half-brother, Herman.

After the talk I introduced myself. Marie said she was impressed that I had come all this way just to hear her speak, and invited me to her hotel where we could talk more in private. We settled into the hotel lobby near a large fireplace and chatted for an hour or more. Interestingly, I found myself asking more questions about Bess than Houdini. Marie's memories of Houdini are limited as he died when she was still a child. But Bessie lived on for another 17 years, and even lived with Marie and her mother (Bess's sister) for a while. Marie knew Bessie very, very well.

Houdini's niece, Marie Blood
One bit of bombshell info was that "Aunt Bess" smoked. In 1995 this was completely unknown, and it blew my mind. "Bess smoked!!!" I wrote down at the top of my notes. Marie told me more things. She said Mrs. Weiss told Bess's mother that Houdini was "born on the boat" to America. (!) She said Bess died on the train in Needles while her sister (Marie's mother) was feeding her chicken gumbo. She said the dressing room attack on Houdini was not a accident; Whitehead (she called his Whitestille) just rushed in and "bam!" She also told me Houdini loved making Chicken Paprika, which made me smile because I do too.

I had brought along my copy of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, then the first major biography on Houdini in 25 years, and asked Marie sign it for me, which she did. She said she wasn't really a fan of the book, particularly the author's pet theory that Houdini was impotent, which at the time was getting a lot of press (it even got a mention on Seinfeld). Marie said she knew why Harry and Bess didn't have children and would have told author Ruth Brandon had she asked. But she said Brandon simply looked over her collection and didn't show much interest in what she had to say about her uncle, so Marie kept the information to herself.

Of course, I had to ask, "So why didn't they have children?" Marie learned close, patted my leg, and said she'd tell me.

Now, throughout our conversation, Marie continually emphasized just how small and "undeveloped" Bess was. This actually delighted Marie as a child because she could wear Aunt Bessie's shoes, which were a size one! Marie said Bess was very frail and often sick, and she never weighed more than 98 pounds. But part of this "undeveloped" nature was a lifelong heath problem. Aunt Bess, she said, never had her period in her life. She never menstruated. Hence, she could never have children. That's why the Houdinis remained childless.

Doing some research online, it appears what Marie was telling me is that Bess Houdini suffered from a condition called Primary Amenorrhea. According to healthywomen.org, "Primary amenorrhea is diagnosed if you turn 16 and haven't menstruated. It's usually caused by some problem in your endocrine system, which regulates your hormones. Sometimes this results from low body weight associated with eating disorders, excessive exercise or medications. This medical condition can be caused by a number of other things, such as a problem with your ovaries or an area of your brain called the hypothalamus or genetic abnormalities. Delayed maturing of your pituitary gland is the most common reason."

Wikipedia says that "Primary amenorrhoea may be caused by developmental problems such as the congenital absence of the uterus, or failure of the ovary to receive or maintain egg cells. Also, delay in pubertal development will lead to primary amenorrhoea."

This is a pretty interesting revelation, but also tragic. By all accounts, the Houdinis loved children and would have enjoyed having them. The poured their affections onto their pets, and actually fantasied that they had an imaginary child (who grew up to became President of the United States). Bessie even told a reporter in 1911 that they had a daughter who was about to be married. Why they didn't adopt...well, that's a mystery that I don't have the answer to.

Now, just because Bessie had a condition that made her physically frail, she was certainly not weak in mind and spirit. Bess Houdini, by all accounts, was as much a go-getter as her husband. She looked after a household filled with pets and family, kept Houdini focused onstage and off, wrangled the assistants for his full evening roadshow, and even made all the costumes. Houdini would say of his wife, "All my fights when she thinks I am right she is alongside, helping me load the machine guns."

One of my favorite quotes comes from a long-time Houdini hater, Guy Jarrett, who after badmouthing Houdini in a letter to a friend added, "Bessie is screwy too." Ha! Love it. They were two of a kind. The Great Houdinis.

Anyway, I hope revealing this personal information isn't a terrible breach of family confidence. But if Marie was willing to tell Ruth Brandon (had she been interested), then she was presumably okay with it becoming public knowledge. Did she tell Ken Silverman or Bill Kalush? If so, they didn't include it in their biographies. But she told me, and now I've told you.

Also see:

35 comments:

  1. "She said Bess died on the train in Needles while her sister (Marie's mother) was feeding her chicken gumbo."

    So it was murder!

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  2. Wait. I guess THAT was the real revaluation! :p

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  3. I have been an Houdini fanatic since the 70's. I must say that this web site is the most informative source for Houdini info I have ever seen. You are filling in many of the gaps, answering many questions I have had over the years. Keep the great work going!

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  4. Thank you. I appreciate that. :)

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  5. ..wow, that made my jaw drop. i never put much thought into the reason behind them not having children. very interesting stuff. especially the part about Harry being born on the boat.

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  6. Yeah, that bit about being born on the boat is interesting. Now, Marie wasn't saying she believed it, just that's what Mama said. I do believe that has been published.

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  7. There is nothing better than first hand information from those who knew Houdini and Bess. Sadly now, all those who knew them personally are gone.

    Another fine piece John. Keep up the great work.

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  8. Thanks, Dean. Yes, it is sad that, as of this year, there is no-one left (as far as we know).

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  9. Wonderful stuff. I too, sat up in my chair at the mention of Harry “being born on the boat” though. I don’t think we should believe it any more than Bessie did, as this statement is probably just a part of an immigrant family’s wish to be more “American?” What I found curious though, is the assumption here that Mrs. Weiss and Bess’s mother not only were friendly, but presumably able to converse together in English? Or would this conversation have been in German? I guess what I’m wondering about is, could Harry’s mother speak or converse, in English?

    Great post, and thanks to you John for making me too, feel like I too, got to have lunch with Marie Blood!

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    1. Most likely Mrs Weiss spoke Yiddish. Back then, it was typical for immigrants to keep to their original languages. Just an opinion, ya'll.

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    2. Actually, Mrs Weiss didn't speak Yiddish. Check out this post: The family language.

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  10. Wait a second. Wasn't Rabbi Weiss living in America for a couple of years before the rest of the family joined him? Saying Erich was born on the boat is saying his father wasn't Rabbi Weiss. Inconceivable that Mrs. Weiss would broadcast that. Very unlikely it would be true anyway.

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  11. Google ate my first comment. All it said was "Brilliant!"

    Born on the boat, eh? It sounds like HH got his tendency to confabulate from mama, just quietly.

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  12. You may not belive this but I was in contact with Marie Blood in the begining of 1990 and asked her the same question: why didnt the Houdinis have any children?

    She told me exactly the same that Bess was so tiny and coldnt have children. She told me that Bess overaries wasent developed. I still have the letter from Marie!

    The photo where the Houdinis are holding a child was claimed to be their own child who latter died. Acording to marie it was marie they where holdining!

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  13. Wow. I am gobsmacked! This is probably the biggest "bombshell" I've heard about Houdini or Bess since I read about Charmian London in Silverman's bio! But it makes sense. And as to why they didn't adopt... we'll probably never know. I remember reading about Houdini "nearly" adopting many-an-orphan on his visits to entertain orphaned children. Houdini clearly had some anxieties about parenting a child he didn't sire, or parenting in general. Bess on the other hand---maybe she was too busy mothering Houdini to have time or energy to force the issue of adoption. But who knows, really.

    It seems that Houdini and Bess, judging from how they lovingly cared for their niece Marie and their other nieces and nephews, would have been very loving parents, which is why it's all the more befuddling that they didn't adopt. I often wonder though, if Houdini and Bess had been able to have kids, how would that have changed the dynamic of their relationship? They were starving poor for the first few years of their marriage, so if they'd had kids I doubt they could have supported them. Their first children might have ended up being raised by either Bess' mom or Houdini's mom, and who knows how that might have affected the bond between parents and children. And when Houdini was facing the hard choice between continuing with magic in the vague hope that his dreams might come true, or throwing it all away to go back to the locksmith's---how much harder would his decision have been if he'd had two or three kids to feed? Perhaps Houdini's childlessness, tragic though it was, was part of what enabled Houdini to succeed so well---and perhaps Houdini realized that on some level. He may have subconsciously feared that children would undermine his success. But did Bess have any such anxieties---or given that she practically gave most of her life over to the service of her husband's ambitions, did she just give up on her dream of motherhood, as she'd given up on her dream of being a singer? Again, who knows, it's all a mystery, but it's interesting to speculate.

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  14. Interesting speculation there, Beth. Thanks. I'm glad you enjoyed this. :)

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  15. Hey, this story has just cracked my Top 5 all time viewed. Very pleased about that. Go Bessie! :)

    (BTW, the knives are coming out at Genii.)

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  16. John,
    Congratulations on another Top 5 post!

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  17. That's the sign of a home run!

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  18. We have only conjecture to draw upon now, but I believe Harry and Bess elected not to adopt children as a matter of practicality. I asked a famous magic husband and wife team how they handled raising their children (at the time, my wife and I had one child and she was seven months pregnant with our second, as a then full-time performer--with my wife often being part of our performance "team," my question wasn't meant to be offensive, I REALLY wanted to know). The wife in the team I broached my question to responded "Our family members take care of them." While I respected the magic duo in question, and did as long as they lived, I made a promise to myself, then, that I, my wife, or both of us, would always be there for our children.

    Harry and Bess lavished attention and sometimes extravagant gifts upon Marie Blood, from the time she was born. Somewhere, I have a photograph of the newly born Marie (then Hinson) in the hospital nursery. I was told the photo was taken by Houdini. While I don't believe there's any reason to believe The Houdinis treated Marie so well because she filled a void (having no children of their own) in their relationship, it's clear that, while Harry lived--and later Bess alone--little, and later teenaged, Marie occupied a special place in their hearts.

    Marie was a close confidant to Bess in the waning years of the latter's life. Bess and Marie frequently spoke, and exchanged letters on a regular basis after Bess moved out of the Hinson household. If the event you're reading this and you don't already know, Harry and Bess always slept in separate, single beds. When Harry died, Marie inherited his bedroom suite, after Bess sold the brownstone in Harlem. Marie slept in the late Houdini's bed until the evening she married Forrest Blood. Marie's sister, Ruth, slept in Bess's "old" bed.

    Steve inquired about how Marie Hinson (the elder--Marie's mom, and Bess's little sister) and Harry's mother were able to communicate. Contrary to what at least one biopic suggests, the two women, according to Marie, were indeed very good friends. Marie recalled just how common it was to see the two women together at family gatherings or just "hanging out" when Houdini was on the road. Each woman was fluent in German; the fact that few others in their daily life could communicate with them made their ability to commune in a common language all the more dear.

    Was Houdini "born on the boat" from Europe to America? Of course not. As Harry repeatedly claimed in public that he was a native son of Appleton, Wisconsin (a lie, likely spawned by the "all American boy" image he encouraged), perhaps Mrs. Weiss, having been present, as it turns out, when and WHERE Houdini was really born, was attempting to aid Harry by (we're reaching here, I confess) suggesting that her son genuinely "thought" he was a native of Wisconsin, as it's the earliest childhood home, and his first residence of record, after getting off of "the boat." Marie remembered that Harry himself cultivated his mother's story, privately, suggesting that he suffered terrible seasickness because he was born on the water.

    I just spoke with Jeff, Marie Blood's youngest son, yesterday morning. We're still gathering photographs and related items for my book project: "Harry and Bess - Marie Hinson Blood's life with The Great Houdinis."

    As I'm physically in a state permitting me to work, if very slowly, on the publication again, I hope to have it finished and published no later than the third quarter of 2012. Thanks again, John, for maintaining this wonderful site. I know Marie would be delighted with it, and Houdini would himself have been ecstatic to know, nearly a century on, that he still evokes wonder in the eyes of so many.

    Greg

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  19. Thank you for the comment, Greg. Your insight into this is greatly valued, and I'm really looking forward to you book.

    "Marie remembered that Harry himself cultivated his mother's story, privately, suggesting that he suffered terrible seasickness because he was born on the water."

    Wow! :o

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  20. Thank you for this incredible blog and all the information you are providing me. I am thrilled to read about the real Harry and his family. The man and his wife have always fascinated me much more than the magician and his stage partner.

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  21. I must say, I am a total Bess admirer :) She was clearly intelligent and hard working, and very strong for a woman of her era (not to mention a woman of her height,) and her complete loyalty to a husband with mad dreams who put her through unspeakable poverty (not to mention STRESS,) in his early career is quite endearing. Very sad that she never got to be a mother.

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  22. Bessie is great, but to me, she still seems a peculiar choice for Mrs. Houdini. If she was so childlike and underdeveloped, wouldn't that have affected their marital relations? How was he attracted to her? Still, the Bible says that one of life's mysteries is "the way of a man with a maid"! LOL. And I so agree with Anon.- her courage to go against her family and church and be in a mixed marriage with this man she loved shows that she really did sacrifice everything for him- her dreams, her religion, her health, any form of class status or respectability, etc. Hurrah for Bess. Were the Rahners a "respectable" family by the standards of the day? That would have just added more fuel to the fire that erupted when she married Harry.

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  23. This is a story Marie started back in the 80s. She had many wonderful tales about the Houdinis, that were not true. But these gave her an INSIDERS EDGE!. For example, she often told how she would go to the Houdini home and climb in bed with Harry and Bess, and he would pinch her with his toes.
    Marie Bloods brother Vinnie, and sister Ruthie both wondered

    how she was able to go across town in the early morning by herself.
    As for Bessie never having her period, I asked both Ruth and Vinnie, and they told me they never heard any such thing. Just because Bess was small doesnt mean she wasnt able to have children. Many traveling performers keep their
    shape by trouping. And few had children without wanting them.
    As for Ruth Brandons piece of waisted forrest trees, her whole book was an attack on Houdini by a spiritulist.
    Jon Oliver

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    1. That way I understand that story is Marie spent the night at 278. She talks about how in the morning she'd come downstairs and listen at their bedroom door. When she heard them awake, she'd go in and jump in bed with Houdini.

      Would love to know more about a Brandon/spiritualist connection. I'm prepping a post about Brandon and some of her ideas.

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  24. Psst...it's a year later... When's that post about Brandon coming out?

    Her biography was the first one I read, years ago. I understand that many hold a very dim view of it (and of course Silverman's bio, plus more recent ones, have long-since displaced it as a reliable source of info), but why the vitriol? Is it just the impotency theory? Was it poorly researched? Was it the writing, which was done in a very post-modern, author-inserted, non-linear style?

    Anyway, just thought I'd poke you about that.

    ~ Beth S

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    1. Hmmm...I wonder what I had in mind? Not sure now. But now I'm thinking of including Brandon in a post about "bad boy" Houdini books. Check back in a year. :)

      I actually don't dislike the Brandon book. Yes, the impotency theory has proven to be unfounded, but apart from that the book is well researched and very readable. I was very happy to have it in '93. I hate to say it, but I would still recommend it over the Kalush book. But Silverman stands head and shoulders over them all.

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  25. Thanks for the comment, John. Glad to know my copy of "The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini" is still worth having. (Hell, even if it was crap, I'd still want it. In any case, I loved it when I first read it).

    I wasn't directing my query on the vitriol at your views, per se, but I just noticed that some other people who follow this blog seem to hold their noses when Ruth Brandon is mentioned. That's all.

    I also fully agree: Silverman's book is king (and the compilation of footnotes is queen, lol). On another note, I finally got around to diving into "The Metamorphosis", and I don't know why I didn't read it sooner. So much new information to take in! Wow.

    Looking forward to that future entry on "Bad Boy" Houdini bios. I wonder who ranks at the top on the Naughty List? :p

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  26. Trivia question about Bess Houdini. In 1939, in Tampa, FL a magician was in his dressing room after performing, a theater staff member told the magician a woman wanted to meet him and congratulate him. He was too busy. The woman came back again and the magician said "Who does she think she is - Mrs Houdini?" Yes it was. Who was the magician?

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    1. Interesting. I've never heard this story. I'll guess…Blackstone?

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    2. Thank you for a guess on the name of a magician in 1939. I do not have the answer. It is a trivia question in Linking Ring magazine. I will know the answer in a couple of months when they publish it.

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  27. So then when did you see it?

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