Saturday, September 27, 2014

Houdini the unhappy commuter

On Wednesday I had the great pleasure of seeing Teller's Tempest at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, thanks to the generosity of magician and Magic Castle librarian Lisa Cousins and Tim Quinlan of Inside Magic. The play was as amazing as the rave reviews promised, and it was great to see it with a group of magicians from the Castle. ("What do the magicians think?" someone eagerly asked me at intermission.)

But what I want to share today was a discovery we made after the play. Our group returned to the Magic Castle to ring in the birthday of "Princess Irene" Larsen at midnight. But before the clock struck 12, Lisa and I stole down to the closed library where she wanted to show me a recent discovery in their special "locked case" collection.

It was a copy of the book The Missing Link in Modern Spiritualism by A. Leah Underhill of the Fox Family, which had belonged to Houdini. Tipped inside where two remarkable letters. The first was from Houdini to his friend and research assistant Oscar Teale. What I love about this letter is it's a great slice of life, and it reveals a different side of Houdini. And have we ever heard about this Long Island rental before?

Click to enlarge.

Now, not to get all Bernard Meyer on us, but it seems to me that this letter comes from a Houdini who is a little depressed. There's also a strong sense of abandonment here, both by Bess and Teale. Houdini was almost certainly a workaholic, and I do think he was prone to slipping into funks when he wasn't working. It's not the first time this depressed Houdini shows himself while on vacation. It's also worth noting that this letter was written the day before the 12th anniversary of his mother's death. That could be the real explanation for his mood here, even if Houdini wasn't aware of it himself.

The second letter is Teale's response, and it's just as personal and revealing. Teale seems to be going out of his way to cheer up Houdini and reassure him that he isn't alone (I unfortunately didn't photograph page 1 in which Teale explains why he wasn't able to make it to the S.A.M. meeting). Teale was an older man, and as a past National President of the S.A.M. (1908-09), he might have been somewhat of a father figure to Houdini. This unique exchange hints at that kind of a relationship.

Click to enlarge.

Teale tipped these letters into the book and it remained part of his collection until his death. Today many of Teale's books, several of which had come direct from Houdini, are housed at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at the Magic Castle.

Thanks again to Lisa and Tim for the invite to the play, and permission to share this treasure here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

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11 comments:

  1. Absolutely thrilling John! You hit another one out of the ballpark! Houdini was 51 years old by the time he wrote this letter to Teal, and I have to say that travelling becomes a hassle as you age. You just don't want to deal with the aggravation anymore.

    Note where Teal mentions that travel consumes a lot of time. It's easy to forget how much time travel consumed before the airline industry, fast cars, and the highway system.

    I take it that Houdini did not accompany Bess to the rental house in Long Island and decided to just stay home. It might be a good idea to flip through the rest of Teal's books in the Castle library.

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    1. Sounds like Houdini travelled between 278 and the Long Island rental a few times a week, and that's what he didn't like. Think Bess was spending the full summer there.

      Oh, yes, Lisa has invited and encouraged me to go through the rest of the Teale books, and I intend to!

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  2. I love these little insights into Houdini's character and private life. Keep up the good work. I think it's funny in Teale's letter when he sends his love to the family; Mrs. Rahner started out so opposed to Houdini marrying Bess, and then they end up living together under one roof, with even friends calling her "Grandma".

    -Meredith

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  3. And just who are Miss Kircher, Grandma, and Julia?

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  4. Grandma referred to Mrs. Rahner, Bess's(Mrs. Houdini's) mother. Julia and Miss Kircher were Julia Sawyer and Julia Karcher, two of Bess's niece who doubled as assistants in Houdini's shows.

    -Meredith

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    1. Wow, Meredith, I'm extremely impressed that you knew "Grandma" refers to Mrs. Rahner. I only know that because John Hinson recently shared with me photos of Balbina after Houdini's death in which she's identified as "Grandma." Good job. :)

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    2. The most recent reference I read to that was in Kellock's book. After Houdini emerged from the buried-alive coffin, he chatted with Mrs. Rahner before running off the the YMCA to work out, and it mentioned him calling her Grandma.

      -Meredith

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    3. Good old Kellock. I really should re-read that cover to cover some day. There are forgotten gems in there. Thanks, Meredith.

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  5. According to Kalush on page 467 and 468:
    When Houdini wound up his tour in mid-June 1925, his lawyer and intimate Bernard Ernst, noting that Houdini looked drained, persuaded Bess to take a summer rental in Glen Head, Long Island. At first, Houdini thought that it might be a place where he could do “some writing and thinking,” but a cavalcade of invited relatives kept the house crowed all summer. “I have a four hour job of commuting every day, which upsets my ‘equilibrium’ as well as my business affairs,” he wrote to a friend just a week into the rental. As it turned out, Houdini spent only about ten nights in Long Island the whole summer.
    The affairs he was tending to might not only have been business-related. According to gossip circulating in the magic world, Houdini had been smitten with a stunning redhead named Daisy White…

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    1. Ah, great. Thanks Joe. I checked Silverman for this, but not Kalush.

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