Monday, June 22, 2015

William Lindsay Gresham on the Houdinis marriage

Today, on the 121st wedding anniversary of Harry and Bess Houdini, I'm offering up a recent find which, if we are to believe it, casts the Houdinis 33-year marriage in a different light. This one definitely falls under the category of the salacious and gossip, but when the person doing the gossiping is William Lindsay Gresham, who in 1959 wrote the first major Houdini biography, Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, it's worth a listen. So here we go.

While visiting the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan last month, I came across a letter written by Gresham to his agent, Bernice Baumgarten, in 1954. In it Gresham pitches the idea for his Houdini book, taking aim at what was the only other Houdini biography in print at the time, Houdini His Life Story by Harold Kellock. Gresham writes:

I'm sorry you didn't like the Houdini book idea. What you saw (the carbon of the True booklenghther) is just a bare outline of what that guy really was. There has never been a real biography written -- the book by Harold Kellock, Houdini, His Life Story, is just posthumous publicity, with Bess portraying her marriage as a 33-year idyll. It was like hell.

Later, Gresham turns to the subject of Daisy White, for which he appears to have had a singular fascination:

Perhaps I'm just an enthusiast but I'd love to write a true account of Houdini's life and my years as a fact-detective editor have given me enough know-how to avoid libel. Incidentally, many years ago there was a cute little redhead bombshell who worked in the old Martinka's magic store. She was named Daisy White. After Houdini's death Bess Houdini found a stack of carbon copies of love letters Harry had written Daisy. The schmuck, he thought he took one great secret with him to the grave! What a character.

This last paragraph contains a true bombshell. Love letters "Harry had written Daisy." By the time Gresham writes his book, the author and nature of these letters has drastically changed. On pages 291-292 of Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls, Gresham writes:

Knowing Houdini's prudishness and ultraconservatism in his attitude toward women, Daisy had written him several torrid love letters just to see what would happen. Houdini never threw away any scrap of paper unless it was a clipping which boosted and imitator. He kept the gag-love-letters hidden. After his death Bess found them and is said to have pitched quite a fit until Daisy explained the circumstances and managed to pacify her.

So which version are we to believe? Did Houdini write Daisy love letters, or did Daisy send Houdini "gag-love-letters"? The difference is enormous. The truth might be revealed in Gresham's assurance that he knew "how to avoid libel." Did he change the truth to make the letters innocent so as not indict Houdini? Or, with further research, did he discover what he had written to Bernice was incorrect? Tough one.

And what are we to make of Gresham's claim that the Houdini's marriage was "like hell"? Certainly his final book did not reflect a troubled marriage. In fact, in a lengthy passage on pages 75-76, Gresham paints the Houdinis marriage as, yes, idyllic. He even adds: "There was only one thing of which she could be absolutely sure: he was not interested in other women."

So was Gresham exaggerating in this letter, trying to make his book sound more salacious and therefore more appealing to his agent who wasn't yet sold on the idea of Houdini biography? Was he repeating gossip or making a snap judgment that he later backed away from? Or, again, did he avoid the topic entirely in his final book to protect himself from libel?

I want nothing more to believe the fairytale -- that the Houdini's marriage was what Bess characterized as "33 years of heaven." But I have to admit that the more I do primary research, the more I encounter troubling indicators, such as this Gresham letter, that there might have been some problems.

The wild card for me is the extent of Bessie's involvement with alcohol. If she had a serious drinking problem during the marriage -- if she was an alcoholic -- then there certainly could have been times that it was "like hell." But we also have ample evidence of the Houdinis love and affection for one another.

My guess is the Houdinis 33-year marriage was, like many long term marriages, a complex personal relationship. I doubt it was all "heaven." But until we get more evidence, I find it hard to believe it was "like hell." Still, this is a curious letter from a man who seemed committed to uncovering the truth about Houdini.

Thanks to Alex and Keli Hindenach of the American Museum of Magic for providing me with a copy of this letter, and to Diego Domingo for his help identifying Bernice Baumgarten.

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28 comments:

  1. Wow, dynamite! Great find! There could be a slightly softer reading for "like hell." Instead of meaning that the marriage was "like hell," he could mean "like hell, it was an idyll."

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    1. Ah, now that's a good point. That could be. Hmmm...

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  2. There was undoubtedly a huge level of affection between Harry and Bess. Certainly she kept a shrine of him for many years after his death and the constant attempts to reach him must have meant something other than a publicity shot. I also am drawn to the letter Bess wrote soon after his death where she states how she cradled her husbands head in her arms begging Harry not "to go" on his death bed.

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  3. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry Houdini.June 22, 2015 at 10:38 AM

    Do not forget the needle point she made for him.(just a bunch of love).

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    1. That definitely falls under the category of ample evidence of their affection. :)

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  4. I know divorce wasn't as common in those days as it is now, but the fact that they managed to stay together through all the ups and downs that come with a show-business career while both being rather "quick-tempered and arbitrary" (Houdini's words) is a testament to how strong their affection must truly have been for each other. Happy Anniversary, Harry and Bessie!

    -Meredith

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  5. I think Gresham made snap judgments about dear old Harry and toned it down when it came time to put the story on paper. It's easy to arrive at fast conclusions when starting a research paper, but when facts are uncovered, thoughts and opinions can turn around.

    Who could have sued Gresham for libel? Harry, Bess, and Hardeen were gone before the 1950s.

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  6. Daisy White was described to me as a magicians' groupie. She worked behind the counter at Martinkas and she played piano for the S.A.M. shows and banquets. THIS IS ACTUALLY MEANINGFUL: After Houdini died, Bessie and Daisy White opened a business together: A tea room called "Beatrice Houdini's Rendevous. They had to be friends.

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    1. Re your comments, Mr. Culliton, I completely agree. I've always been of the opinion that the majority of salacious details were created by biographers grasping at hearsay in order to claim that they had discovered something 'new.' I think the scandal-mongering comments in the letter were just Gresham's way of trying to justify the existence of a new Houdini biography. And that isn't even considering the fact that he always seemed too ready to be over-impressed by Ms. White, something he freely admitted to in the footnotes.

      -Meredith

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    2. It's not just authors, it's the publishers who demand this. Very hard to get a biography published these days without some Hollywood grabbing hook. It's impossible, actually. Smaller presses and self-publishing appear to be the only way to get a magic biography published without selling out integrity, it seems.

      But what we see here from Gresham is really the opposite. He has the dirt, but it doesn't go into the book. That's what I find so compelling about this.

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  7. When did Daisy White die?

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  8. According to Brandon, White knew HH was prudish and sent him love letters as a joke to ruffle his feathers. No mention if HH wrote back.

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    1. Well, Brandon got that from Gresham. That's exactly the paragraph I quoted above.

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    2. In fact, all the subsequent bios use Gresham's published version of what these notes were. But I have a feeling what he wrote in this letter was the real truth. He knew they were carbons, so he appears to have seen them. Besides, who writes "gag love letters" to a married man? That never sat right with me.

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  9. Yes, you're right John, the paragraph from Gresham is evidently the source for Brandon's info. Where are those carbons/original HH/DW letters? In somebody's collection? If HH did write back to White, something may have been going on between those two.

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    1. Exactly. Where are these now? Would love to know. Unless Bess didn't keep them and Gresham only heard about them. Or maybe Daisy had them -- her "gift" at Bessie's supposed dinner party in which she gave Houdini's "admirers" back their letters. But now I'm off in speculation land.

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  10. Hi, I have been reading many of the interesting things on this site-it is great-almost like a continuing novel every day! Anyway I just finished reading all the biographies and wasn't it the last one that said that his wife confronted Miss White personally about the letter and that she was able to pacify her by telling her it was a gag or something. Also apparently who the other women were is not mentioned but he obviously received love letters from other women(how many I suppose is not certain).What I don't understand especially from a woman's point of view is why he would leave them for his wife to find after his death when he was obviously so careful about taking care of so many other details.

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    1. Well, Gresham is the one who first mentioned that Bess confronted Daisy over the letters. That's the paragraph I excerpted above. This was picked up in subsequent bios. Does it appear in Kalush (the last bio)? If so, I expect his source was Gresham. It all goes back to Gresham.

      I don't think Houdini expected he was going to die so suddenly and so young. Maybe he would have gotten rid of such stuff later in life.

      Thanks for the kind word about my site, Carole. It's always a pleasure to see a new comment from a reader. :)

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  11. I get what you're saying but he seemed to me first of all as someone who completely though through things and certainly planned ahead-I'm sure he didn't expect to die at the time he did-but being a magician I would also think he would have kept them but in a place that wouldn't have been so obvious. Also how were any of these letters mailed to him-at his house-did he take care of the mail?(obviously C. London was writing back and forth also for many years).

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  12. I also agree that HH delayed jettisoning the letters because he didn't expect the Grim Reaper so soon. I'm sure he kept all those love letters/fan mail? because they fed his ego. He most likely hid them somewhere in his densely cluttered office up on the 4th floor. Safe from the prying eyes of the females who occupied 278, in that room those letters would have been as difficult to locate as a needle in a haystack.

    I'm amazed those letters avoided detection when they arrived at 278, unless Harry received them in other locations like performing venues.

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  13. I believe they were in his safe. One of the biographies say this.

    But we are speculating based on Gresham's revised version of what the letters were. In his letter to his agent, he originally said they were carbons of letters HOUDINI WROTE to Daisy, not letters from her. That's what intrigues me about this.

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  14. Not to be a nitpicker, John, but Bess's "perfect smoothness" quote was in reference to her relationship with Mrs. Weiss, not Harry. Even disregarding the possibility of "other women" and her use of words such as "ideal" in describing their marriage in letters after his death, I don't think she ever deluded herself into thinking of her life with Harry as perfect, at least in private.

    -Meredith

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    1. Ah, dang it, you're right. I misread that. I'll need to fix that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Meredith.

      The quote I was really in search of was something Bess said after HH died..something about having had "33 years of heaven" -- something like this. But I couldn't for the life of me find this quote. Any ideas where it might be or what it was?

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  15. I believe that Bess quote came from a letter she had written to someone not long after HH passed away. I don't remember who the recipient was.

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    1. Yes, it was definitely in a letter, but I can't find where that letter is quoted.

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    2. The closest I can find is a quote from a letter she wrote to W.A. Rogers for Christmas 1926, in which she said that "We were married thirty-two years. Our love was ideal."

      -Meredith

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  16. @ Leo Hevia:
    "Where are those carbons/original HH/DW letters? "

    "[Bess] admitted that at her husband's death she had found, and returned to their writer, a packet of letters written by Daisy White." NY Sun, 1/15/1929

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