Part Two TONIGHT at 9/8c on HISTORY

Monday, January 14, 2013

The Margery Files: Photo play

It's a very special week here at WILD ABOUT HARRY. This week we are Wild About Margery. Today I'm honored to share the first of several genuine artifacts from the Libbet Crandon de Malamud Collection, courtesy of Anna Thurlow, the great granddaughter of "Margery" herself.

Let's kick things off with Margery's own uncropped copy of what is certainly one of the most famous photos ever taken of her. It was used as the frontispiece in the book "Margery" The Medium by J. Malcolm Bird, and has appeared (cropped) in various books and articles over the years. But not many people know that this photo was taken by Houdini. It was one of a series of shots Houdini and Margery took together on July 24, 1924, some of which show a very different relationship than what has come down in history (remember this post?).

In a way, the story of this famous photo is the story of Houdini and Margery's curious relationship in microcosm. So lets look at three incredible artifacts from The Margery Files. First, the photo itself:


One revelation here is that the photo was taken not in front of Margery's home at No. 10 Lime Street, but in front of No. 11. There's also some very telling information on the back of the photo. But before we get to that, let's look at the amazing, never-before-published correspondence between Houdini and Margery about this famous photo set:

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

Not quite the combatants of legend, eh? What's even more remarkable is this exchange is after the July 1924 sittings in which Houdini detected Margery's methods and Margery knew that she had been caught (thanks to her informant, J. Malcolm Bird).

But here we see Houdini being disarming, cordial, even charming. He almost comes off sounding like a fan. But maybe he's just trying to reassure her that he's not going to come racing into the seance room and expose her at first blush during their upcoming August sittings (or come in with a big giant box to control her). Maybe he'll even play ball?

Margery in return is offering Houdini what I'm sure she sensed he enjoyed most: flattery. I especially love her line; "I am glad to able to say I know 'The Great Houdini'". But she's also being coy -- so casual and confident in her abilities that she isn't even sure when Houdini is scheduled to come sit with her. No advanced preparations necessary, you see.

So is this the sign of burgeoning friendship, or two seasoned gladiators showing civility before doing battle? Our generous patron, Anna Thurlow, great granddaughter of Margery, offers her own thoughts:

"It does seem to be a respectful and rather admiring tone, doesn't it? Quite different from their public conflict. It is also one of the very few exchanges from Margery to anyone (usually Dr. Crandon intercepted and assumed the responsibility of replying to her personal letters, often to the frustration of her corresponders), which says to me that this particular exchange meant a lot to her. Also, her tone in the letter is consistent with the family legend I grew up with - hugely respectful of Houdini. That is quite different from the tone Dr. Crandon reveals in his writing and correspondence, which is often derogatory."

Indeed, it appears Dr. Le Roi Crandon, Margery's husband and manager in psychic matters, at some point "intercepted" this photo as well. Because on the back we find in his handwriting:


No mention of Houdini taking the photo here. In fact, Dr. Crandon seems to be going out of his way to remove any connection to Houdini. Here he is assigning Copyright to "Small, Maynard Co.", who published J. Malcolm Bird's "Margery" The Medium in 1925. He is even going as far as stipulating that "Credit must be given." He wanted to make sure Houdini saw the slight -- which, it turns out, he did.

Because deep in a special locked room of the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle is Houdini's own copy of "Margery" The Medium. The book contains an annotation on the frontispiece photo -- this very same photo that Houdini took, shared with Margery, and promised not to use himself...

"Photo by Houdini & no credit given."

The battle is joined. And there's more to come. Especially as we next explore Subtle betrayals.

Additional thanks to Bill Goodwin and Lisa Cousins at the Magic Castle's William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library for allowing me to photograph Houdini's copy of "Margery" the Medium.

17 comments:

  1. John, I don't wear a hat, but consider said hat doffed!
    Your work and the others that contribute is beyond anything I couldve ever imagined,,,,,Keep Houdining my friend

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    1. Thank you, Michael. I love that this blog gives me an opportunity to connect with people like Anna and share things like this.

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    2. Me too :-)

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  2. Incredible, John. Very much looking forward to the next instalment!

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  3. Fascinating stuff, John! Thanks to Anna Thurlow.

    Dr. Crandon's writing on the back of the photo does not say "Credit must be gave." It says "Credit must be given."

    The "v" is curved like a "u", and its left side seems to join with the preceding "i" to form an "a". However, the combination is actually "iv". Confirming this, the two low bumps of the "n" after the "e" are visible trailing off to the right.

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    1. Nice. Thanks, David. I've corrected it.

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  4. This is too much to handle, John! Willard Greene might have been telling the truth when he saw Houdini and Margery riding off together in a car. Houdini once said that Margery's applesauce meant nothing to him...Okay buddy.

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    1. "Margery's applesauce". That would be a great title for another installment in this series. :)

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  5. "Applesauce" as 1920s slang means "BS" or "nonsense," not "sex appeal."

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    1. Oh really? That disappoints me a bit.

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  6. My husband Anthony I and researched this when we first read that quote, and as Eric says it was primarily meant to mean "nonsense" but it also sometimes functioned as a double entrendre. So still an interesting choice of words.

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    1. I don't recall the context. That might help determine how Harry meant it. Welcome to the discussion, Anna! :)

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  7. In Houdini!!!, Professor Silverman clearly meant it to mean Margery's sexual charms:

    From the beginning of the SA (Scientific American) investigations, he (Houdini) had been alive to the erotic elements of the seances. He told one Harvard investigator that Margery acted seductively, "making advances to every man in sight." (For himself, he said, he was immune: "her applesauce meant nothing to me.")

    Houdini also hinted at her charms in his writings on the Margery investigation. Silverman notes here: "Read between the lines," he (Houdini) told a friend, "and you will see I accused Margery of using 'sex charm' and it has been authenticated."

    Throughout the investigations of Margery, Houdini accused Malcolm Bird and Hereward Carrington of surrendering to her charms. It appears that Houdini was not really as immune as he wanted the world to believe.

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  8. BTW, since I've been working on this series, there have been several odd coincidences. On Saturday I walked across the street to Trader Joes and saw an actress I recognized. I couldn't quite remember who she was, but she was also looking at me like she thought I was familiar. The next day it hit me. She was in Jim Steinmeyer's play The Card Trick. She played...Margery.

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  9. Maybe Houdini meant that he was treating her sex appeal as irrelevant nonsense.

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  10. Willard Greene saw John and "Margery" leaving Trader Joes in a car together...

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