Saturday, April 12, 2014

Why does Jerry Seinfeld think Houdini was impotent?


Seinfeld is a television classic that will probably run in syndication forever. This is not the best news for Houdini. Because in Episode #65, "The Mango", there is this exchange between George and Jerry on the topic of erectile dysfunction:

JERRY
You know it happens to everybody. Happened to Houdini, and he could get out of a trunk underwater with his hands in chains. But he had a problem with that.

Later George returns to the subject...

GEORGE
Hey, is that a joke about Houdini?
JERRY
No.
GEORGE
Well if Houdini couldn't do it, what chance do I have!?

So why does Jerry Seinfeld think Houdini was impotent?

The answer has everything to do with when this episode was made. "The Mango" was taped on Tuesday, August 17, 1993 (directly across the street from where I'm writing this now) and aired on September 16, 1993. At that time a new Houdini biography had just been released in the UK, The Life And Many Deaths of Harry Houdini by Ruth Brandon. This was the first major Houdini biography in several years, and in it Brandon engaged in some amateur psychology as to why the Houdinis didn't have children and why Harry wrote love letters to Bess. On page 52 the author states:

One can only conjecture as to the reason for this childlessness. […] Infertility is not uncommon. But my own guess, based on his effusive daily--sometimes thrice-daily--outpouring of love-declarations--is that Houdini may have been impotent. Why all those protestations? What was so wrong that he had to keep proclaiming his devotion? Was this constant need to reassure both Bess and himself?

This salacious "revelation" was treated as a hook and featured in book reviews and in interviews with the author. Brandon also chirped her theory in the 1993 BBC documentary, Houdini, The Life of the World's Greatest Escapologist. It was in this environment that the Seinfeld writers wrote what at the time was a topical reference to Houdini's "impotency."

Of course, the reason the Houdinis didn't have children was because Bess suffered from a medical condition that prevented it, information that was shared with me by her niece, Marie Blood. (You can read more about that here.)

Brandon's theory received a dose of cold water when Kenneth Silverman revealed evidence of an extramarital affair Houdini had with Charmian London in his own biography, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996). Now the pendulum may have a swung a bit too far the other way with Houdini sometimes portrayed as a bit of a Lothario (we'll see how the upcoming Houdini miniseries handles all this).

It's too bad this blip in Houdini history had to be immortalized in pop culture. True or false, it's just not the kind of thing you want people to know!


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9 comments:

  1. Once again, Bessie told Ann Gwynne that Houdini sterilized himself playing with his brothers X-Ray equipment. Dr. Leopold Weiss was one of the first radiologists in New York, and his office was at 278 W. 113th.
    Being sterilized doesn't mean a man can't enjoy normal sex--just that he is incapable of co-conceiving a child.

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    1. Brandon actually mentioned this in that same paragraph. But she points out that Bess and Harry had been married for 10 childless years by the time Harry started messing around with the X-ray machine, which is a good point. I think it's possible Bess might have said this to deflect from her own condition. Or it might have been true. Who knows.

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  2. Brandon's bio is full of mistakes and unwarranted, even stupid conjectures. She's got a good reputation as a biographer but she really blew it with that book.

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    1. I admit I really liked the book when it was released. I thought she wrote well and while she didn't really break any new ground, she did a good job of pulling together what we knew up to that time. As far as her conjectures go -- yeah, I didn't need it, but at least in her writing she made it clear when she was offering up conjecture. That hasn't been as clear in recent bios.

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  3. As a tv viewer, I thought the Houdini reference, real or not, always came off as just a very funny analogy as to how physically miraculous getting an erection can be.

    George's problem was only a temporary one brought on by stress that his girlfriend was possibly faking orgasms. Jerry and George talk about getting an erection as a 'magic trick' and 'sometimes I think it would be easier to bend a spoon mentally than to make that transformation.'

    Whether it's true or not, I don't think this hurts Houdini's image in any way.

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    1. I did omit Jerry's final line -- "The real miracle is that it happens at all." That is pretty funny.

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  4. Seinfeld chose Houdini because everyone still knows of him, but he could've drawn a more apt analogy to Neil Foster....

    There's rather a lot to dislike about Brandon's unscholarly biography. Knowing her work on this one was weak, but hearing that she has done a good job with others, I wonder whether folks who know her other subjects well would agree that she had done them justice.

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  5. Also one must realize that Brandon was not Jewish and that makes all the difference. I would believe her if she was Jewish. But since she is not I must discount all that she says!

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    1. Hmmm...I probably shouldn't tell you then that I'm not Jewish.

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