Friday, March 11, 2016

The Flatbush years


One hundred years ago, Houdini returned home after an exhausting seven month coast to coast Vaudeville tour. But the New York home he returned to was not his famous brownstone at 278 W 113th Street in Harlem. It's not generally known, but Harry and Bess Houdini lived in Flatbush for 3 1/2 years between 1914 and 1918. In fact, it was in this Flatbush house at 394 East 21st Street (pictured above) that Houdini produced what today might be considered his single most important surviving artifact, but I will get to that.

When Houdini purchased his Harlem brownstone in 1904, it was to serve as a new Weiss family home and, primarily, a new home for his mother. At the time, Houdini was performing in Europe and only returned to New York for short periods. As a family home, 278 saw a steady rotation of resident Weisses (and Rahners). Houdini's brother Leopold even set up his radiology practice in the parlor.

When Cecilia Weiss died in 1913, Houdini was devastated and reportedly didn't like the memories that came with the house. At least that's the official story. Jon Oliver, who spoke with Harry Hardeen Jr., claims the real issue with 278 was that mama's corpse had been left inside the house for the week it took Houdini to return from Europe, and it had become uninhabitable (and unsellable). Whatever the truth, Houdini felt the need to escape.

Houdini's brother Dash, who performed as Hardeen, had purchased a home in Flatbush in 1912. Hardeen's pitchbook identified the address as 394 Kenmore Place, but in reality it was located at 394 East 21st Street. However, it was more house than Dash required (or could afford?) and in July 1914 he put an ad in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle looking to sublet the top floor:


The tenants Hardeen ended up with were the Houdinis. Houdini moved to 394 East 21st Street in September 1914. On his new stationary (rimmed in black to show he was in mourning) he wrote to a friend:

Click to enlarge.

The Flatbush house became the hub of activity during the years Houdini was land-locked in North America because of the war in Europe. It was during his time that Houdini began to build what he hoped would be one of the world's greatest dramatic collections, and the mounds of new material he acquired flooded into Flatbush. When Houdini met Harry Kellar in 1916, he invited him to the house where he showed off his collection and also amazing the great magician (according to Kellar himself) with card magic.

But it was on October 29th, 1914, that the Flatbush house became the sight of what might arguably be the single most important Houdini artifact of them all. It was here that Houdini used an Edison wax cylinder phonograph to record his voice, now the only recording of Houdini's voice in existence. While I can't say conclusively that he made the recording in the house itself, he identifies his location as "Flatbush, New York" and his sister Gladys is with him, so I'm thinking it's likely this was done at home.

The Houdinis (and, presumably, their many pets) lived on the top floor of 394 while the Hardeens (and their children) lived below. Was living in such close quarters a strain? Possibly. In his book, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss, Kenneth Silverman identifies a few cryptic references in Houdini letters and diaries that suggest tension. "I do not like atmosphere re certain things in Flatbush" Houdini wrote to Oscar Teale. And when Houdini was honored at an S.A.M. banquet, he noted curtly in his diary: "Dash and Elsie did not wish to go."

The shared residence also caused some amusing confusion. When Hardeen was arrested for speeding, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that it was Houdini who received the $25 fine. The paper later printed a retraction, quoting Houdini himself as saying that he had "never been arrested nor fined, and does not drive a motor car."

1929 map showing the location of 394.

Harry and Bess moved back to 278 in February 1918. His magic and drama collections alone filled six moving vans. Some of the papers mistakenly reported that Houdini had recently bought the house. Houdini transferred legal ownership of 278 to Bess on July 22, 1918. He would go on to make 278 the home that it really never was to him before.

Hardeen moved out of 394 in 1921, relocating a few blocks to 537 East 21st St. This would be the home he and Elise would live out the remainder of their lives.

Today a modern apartment block sits at the site of Houdini's forgotten Flatbush residence.



A very big thanks to Bill Mullins for his invaluable help in locating Hardeen's house and for the Brooklyn Eagle classified ad and map.

Also thanks to Joe Notaro of Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence and Jon Oliver. The Houdini Flatbush letter is reproduced from the collection of James Crossini on page 29 of The Illustrated Houdini Research Diary, Part 4: 1911 to 1915 by Frank Koval.

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14 comments:

  1. Good work! Been wondering about this. My grandfather lived in Flatbush for 75 years, and my mother also grew up in Brooklyn. So if Houdini wasn't driving - what? The D train? Taxis? A limo?

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    1. Well, we know he did all three. We've also seen Dash driving him around. But I wonder what his normal transport into the city was -- and to the film lab in New Jersey.

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  2. Excellent! So well written and thoroughly researched!

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    1. Thanks! Bill Mullins was the one who really helped crack this one.

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  3. Three thumbs up! This is a well written and researched article. I thought the Houdinis might have stayed downstairs given all of the material HH had hauled into the house.

    Mama's corpse making 278 uninhabitable sounds weird. I thought HH rented 278 out to college students from nearby Columbia University. Knowing that HH would take a week to return home, she must have been embalmed?

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    1. Thanks Leo.

      I went back and forth about whether to include that mama corpse info, but I've never been able to forget it since Jon Oliver told me about it. Houdini leaving the house just because of the memories always seemed a little odd. This offered and much more realistic, although gruesome, explanation. However, she was embalmed and HH lived in the house for a year after her death when you'd think that would have been least possible. So it's a question mark. But considering it came from Harry Hardeen Jr., I thought it was worth including.

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  4. BTW, I think the building on the right is still the same building from Hardeen's time.

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  5. Yeah, I also suspected that. That lower brick front looks identical to the one in the old photo. That old photo of Hardeen's home was probably taken in the 1930s or 40s? I doubt that building on the right was there when HH rented the place out.

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    1. You can see the building in the pic of the house in Hardeen's pitchbook, so it was there. And the trees in that photo match the photo above, so it also appears to be from Hardeen's time.

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  6. Seems odd for her to be embalmed. The widow of a rabbi? Kind of goes against Jewish custom.

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    1. Does it? Then possibly I'm wrong. I know she was taken by an undertaker from Asbury Park, "Undertaker Burtis", and I just assumed she was embalmed. We know Houdini was embalmed.

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  7. As we know, HH would on occasion make exceptions and bypass ancient traditions. His monument to himself in Machpelah is one example.

    When he requested that his mother not be buried until he returned from Europe, I don't think his family had any other choice but to preserve her body until his ship arrived.

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    1. And they say not burying her shortly after death was also technically going against Jewish custom. Although the custom does allow for delayed burial if relatives are away and need time to return. So that's what was happening here.

      Houdini did not strictly adhere to any Jewish custom. He was not orthodox. Although every time I look up one of these customs that Houdini supposedly defied, I find there are always allowances.

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  8. Thanks for this--I presently live on East 21st Street in Brooklyn, about a mile from there, and I had never known about the Houdini/Hardeen connection!

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