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Showing posts with label Reincarnation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Reincarnation. Show all posts

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

When Louella Parsons met Houdini

Louella Parsons was America's first movie columnist. During her heyday with the Hearst press, her columns were read by 20 million people in 400 newspapers worldwide.

Parsons began writing for the Chicago Record Herald in 1914. In 1918 she moved to New York City and started working for the New York Morning Telegraph. It was here she caught the attention of William Randolph Hearst, who hired her in 1923. She went on to become a fixture of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and is famous for leading the attack (on behalf of Hearst) on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, and her rivalry with gossip columnist Hedda Hooper. She was portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1985 TV movie, Malice in Wonderland.

In 1918, when Parsons was still working for the New York Telegraph, she interviewed Houdini backstage at the New York Hippodrome. It's a remarkable piece -- her writing is a hoot -- that really captures what it was like to meet the Master Mystifier in person. There are also some interesting comments from Houdini about The Bible and meeting evangelist Billy Sunday, and his thoughts on making movies.

I thought this was one worth reproducing in full, so enjoy.

November 10, 1918
Louella Parsons

When Houdini became a legitimate subject for a motion picture story, there seemed to me no reason why I should not pay him a visit and ask him to tell me how he managed to wriggle his way out of a straitjacket while he was suspended sixty feet in the air, where he concealed the yards and yards of gay colored silk he apparently extracted from a water-filled bowl, how he unlocked a bolted and barred box without key or chisel.

The Rolfe studio way out in Yonkers didn't help solve this problem for me because it is too far from the haunts of man to permit a busy woman to wander there while there is work to be done. But his name on the Hippodrome program as one of the integral parts of "Everything" gave me an opportunity to visit him at the theatre.

We saw his performance first from one of the loges and heard him speak in a Liberty Loan voice, now the fashion among people who have done service for Uncle Sam. Then he disappeared from view, and Mr. Conway of the Hippodrome staff came and told me Houdini would see me in his dressing room.

"Find out how he does it," shouted all four voices. "Don't come back until he tells you," instructed an enthusiastic female in our party. With all these whispered words of advice simmering in my brain I followed Mr. Conway down the devious and mysterious back-stage passageways of the labyrinth-like Hippodrope. It was dark, and I had a sort of shaky feeling akin to the sensation one gets when the lights go out and a spiritualistic seance is put on with a ghostly voice sighing its way into the party.

A cheerful voice, a bright light and an interesting personality--all belonging to Houdini--made me forget the spooky feeling of a few moments earlier.

"Won't you come in?" invited Mr. Houdini. His pet eagle echoed the invitation by flapping his wings, and so I entered the presence of the master magician with the thought uppermost in my mind, "How do you do all this magic?"

The thought is twin to the voice and in two minutes I had put into words what had been singing in my mind.

"Won't you tell me how you untied yourself?" I asked.

"If I tell you," he said, "it will be no secret."

"But if I promise never to tell?"

"Ah, many have asked the same thing, but I have promised myself to carry my secret to the grave," he said. "If you knew, you would not consider the feat marvelous or even interesting."

Houdini, and his name has been legalized, comes from a small town called Appleton, Wis. Appleton is famous also as the birthplace of Edna Ferber and Dr. John Murphy, Chicago's great surgeon.

"When I was a small boy in Appleton," said Houdini, "my mother used to bake apple pie. She would lock it in a pantry and it would disappear. I was the guilty culprit. Apple pie is probably the only thing which would drive me to such desperate deeds--and even today, for a piece of my mother's pie, I would commit a theft."

"Doesn't she bake any more pies for you; and do you really think such rich pastry is good for you?" I asked, wondering if he didn't have to diet with so much depending upon his physical perfection.

He handed me a photograph of himself and two women. Pointing to the elder of the two, he said: "My mother left us five years ago. This is my wife, and we are unfashionable enough to still like each other after twenty-four years of married life."
Then we came to the subject of pie as a diet. Houdini makes no restrictions in eating when he likes. He is extremely proud of his stomach, an endowment, he says, of an ancestral cleanliness. He is proud of his family and spoke not only in tender, proud tones of the sweet-faced little mother, but of his rabbi father, who brought him up in the strict Hebrew church. Houdini is a Jew, and proud of it.

"Once I went to a talk with Billy Sunday," he said. "He talked about the Bible to me and I went home and read it; the next day I was a better Jew than I had ever been in my life--that is what Billy Sunday did for me."

We talked about every subject in the world but moving pictures. We talked about reincarnation, transmigration of the soul, the Sir Oliver Lodge theory, and in merely a superficial discussion, just scratching the surface as it were, Houdini betrayed himself as being a rarely well-read and well-educated man. He does not talk to get an audience, but after the manner of a man who knows his subject.

Finally we came to motion pictures. Houdini is right now nursing a broken wrist and a bumped head.

"I had to go into pictures to get these," he said, pointing ruefully to his injured members. "You see, I don't have any doubles. I do all the stunts myself. Some of the business Arthur Reeve left out of the scenario, with instructions for me to get out of any predicament I was in as best I could. Well, I followed his advice and got these."

But Houdini likes making pictures. He says it is a sinfully easy way to make money. Attention here, all you hard-working stars, who sigh over the vicissitudes of the picture-making game.

"Why, the director tells you what to do, and you do it. One thing," said the master magician, "there are no fakes in the serial we are making. I have done everything called for, without calling in any help, and our fights have been real fights."

The Rolfe serial, "The Master Mystery," is the subject of great enthusiasm with Houdini. He likes it, and thinks the public will enjoy the tale of adventure it unfolds.

"You know the only thing that worried me," he said, "when I was taking the picture. I have never acted with women and I was afraid my wife would not exactly like my making love to these girls, even if it was only for the benefit of the camera."

"Did she mind," I asked, amused at this naive confession from a man who had been learnedly discussing philosophy and religion but a few seconds ago.

"Not a bit," he said. "We both like the young ladies very much. They are sweet girls. You see, I am not much of a ladies' man."

I should say Houdini is very modest. He has nice gray eyes, a singularly attractive smile and a most engaging manner. The picture taken of himself some years ago with his wife and mother shows a very handsome young man. He is older now, with hair just beginning to grow thin at the temples.

Every few seconds we came back to his art. I call it art, for, black magic though it may be, he has certainly raised it to the plane of artistic endeavor. He stands unique and alone. There is only one Houdini. There will probably never be another one, for he is determined to bury his secret with him.

"I have not betrayed my secrets on the screen, though I have had some difficulty in keeping them from the watchful eye of the camera," he said.

I had to return to my box at the Hippodrome without the secret, but Houdini, much after the manner of pleasing a child who has been grievously disappointed, showed me how he can disjoint his thumb, a trick I have never before seen done.

Just as I was leaving Houdini's dressing room he confessed to me I was entirely different from what he expected to see. "I had a mental picture in my mind," he said, "and you are just the opposite."

He didn't tell me whether I had failed to measure up to his expectation, but then, as I said--Houdini is a gentleman.

If you're curious, the trick that so amazed Louella was Houdini's thumb racket, which you can see a brief clip of HERE. For another portrayal of Louella Parsons, check out the excellent HBO movie, RKO 281.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Unpublished Houdini: From Beyond

Welcome to Unpublished Houdini. In this series I share a new never-before-published photo of Houdini every Monday from our generous Hinson Endowment.

Here's a terrific photo of Houdini as Howard Hillary a.k.a. The Man From Beyond. The 1922 silent feature was the first film made by the Houdini Picture Corporation and reflected Houdini's fascination with reincarnation. The press book shows that this photo was used on an 8x10 lobby photo (captioned: "Dare you say there's no life after death"), so maybe this is not technically "unpublished." However, I've never seen that lobby photo reproduced outside the press book, and I love this clean image of Houdini/Hillary emerging from pure blackness…from Beyond.

Click to enlarge
"But there is something--of that I am convinced--in the theory of reincarnation. Just how much, I cannot say, nor do I believe it will greatly profit us to try and tear aside the veil. In due time it will be lifted, and we shall see beyond with Milton--'the bright countenance of Truth.'"
-HOUDINI, 1919

Houdini's interest in reincarnation is something that you won't find mentioned in any biographies. I'm not sure why this is, because when looking through primary sources, like newspaper clippings and press books, it is found everywhere. Houdini seemed eager to express his ideas about this particular form of "life after death." He even had his own theory about who he may have been in a past life. But perhaps it's a little hard for biographers to reconcile Houdini the skeptic and/or the Rabbi's son with the idea of Houdini the reincarnation advocate. Although according to, the idea of reincarnation is found in Judaism.

"Dare you say there is no life after death."

Seeing as we are on a somewhat spiritual journey with Houdini, next week I will share an unpublished photo of Houdini "among the Gods."

Monday, July 15, 2013

Lost Houdini Spiritualism scrapbook discovered in California

The lost Houdini scrapbook (and me).
Today I'm thrilled to share news of a truly incredible find. A hitherto unknown Houdini scrapbook -- which has possibly gone unseen for 83 years -- was recently discovered by an antique dealer in Southern California.

This amazing book, which Houdini compiled and labeled as "IMPORTANT SCRAP BOOK - MISCELLANEOUS CLIPPINGS," is jam-packed with newspaper clippings about Spiritualism and Houdini's own spirit busting activities. Many of the clippings have annotations in Houdini's own hand. The majority of the material is from 1925 with a few clippings from early 1926.

Of course, 1925 was the height of Houdini's anti-spiritualism crusade, and it was also the year of his exposure of Margery the Medium. Therefore this scrapbook is filled with clippings chronicling Houdini's most famous investigation. It also contains several clippings related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

While the scrapbook is devoted specifically to spiritualism, there are also several semi-related curiosities; such as a clipping about Friedrich von der Trenck (see: Is this Houdini in a past life?), a random Thurston advert, a story about whether pets live on after death, and a page devoted to Houdini's performance before the Roosevelt grandchildren, which is the only full account of this I've ever read (watch for a post about this soon). There are also two letters addressed to Houdini, one of which the magician has annotated, and a lengthy article about Houdini in French from a Montreal newspaper. Eerie to think that J. Gordon Whitehead almost certainly read this article.

So what's the story behind this amazing find?

A few weeks ago I received an email from Mike, a long-time California antique dealer, saying he believed he had found a Houdini scrapbook. Frankly, it sounded too good to be true. But the photos he sent were intriguing and he said an expert dealer had concurred that it was a Houdini scrapbook. He then graciously invited me to come have a look for myself.

So, on the following Sunday, I set off to see what I thought couldn't be. Well, I knew on first sight that the unbelievable was true. This is, unquestionably, one of Harry Houdini's original scrapbooks. In fact, I think this might be one of Houdini's most important scrapbooks (hence the title) as it's really a tool for the magician to use in his battles against spiritualists. Many of the damning incidents that Houdini would cite against mediums (suicides related to seances, etc.) as well as stories of their underhanded methods are collected here. And then, of course, there's all the Margery material.

In fact, the importance of this scrapbook might be why it went missing from the collection of over 100 Houdini scrapbooks currently in the Library of Congress, and why it wound up on the West Coast. Mike has no provenance for the book, but it could be that Edward Saint brought this book with him to California when he and Bessie relocated here in the 1930s. Spiritualism was still a hot issue for the couple, and having Houdini's research scrapbook was probably a valuable tool. After Saint's death, the scrapbook could have been sold or given to a magician or Houdini enthusiast by Bess, and then went into storage where it's been for an unknown number of years.

Amazingly, this is the first Houdini item Mike has ever discovered in his 30 years of collecting. "It was a good day," he says.

The exciting news for collectors is that Mike is planning on selling this. He says he would like this important Houdini artifact to go to someone who "will appreciate it and look after it" and also "share it in some way with other Houdini enthusiasts." He has not yet decided whether to sell it through a national auction or privately, but he is open to hearing from interested collectors.

Now, I'm not brokering this and I don't know what price Mike has in mind (I made him the best offer I could), I'm just volunteering to put him in touch with fellow Houdini collectors as thanks for letting me see this amazing scrapbook and share the news of its discovery here on WILD ABOUT HARRY.

You can reach Mike by sending me an email via my CONTACT PAGE. I will forward all emails onto him and keep all correspondence confidential.

Now put on your drool cups and enjoy these photos of Houdini's long lost Spiritualism scrapbook!

UPDATE: Nice to see this news getting picked up around the web. Here are some links:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why I should win JREF's one million dollar prize

Okay, bear with me because this is going to be a strange one. Or better yet, bail out now, because I'm about to prove just what a Houdini obsessed freakshow I really am...on possibly a cosmic level!

Still with me? Okay, here's the story.

When I was a kid and the Houdini fervor hit hard in 1975, I did what many kids do; I drew pictures of my new hero (I was a big drawer in this days, but not a very good one). The first picture I drew was of Houdini inside his Water Torture Cell. This was because I had just seen the Tony Curtis film and my drawing was very much inspired by the Curtis version of the escape. I didn't know any better. Still, I considered it my "best" drawing. (You can see my masterpiece here.)

Two years, several books, and many drawings later, I decided to redraw my "classic" USD picture, but this time I would draw what the cell really looked like. By now I had seen photos of the real cell in books and had even seen photos of the surviving cell on display at the Houdini Hall of Fame. I can remember going into this "project" with the controlling thought -- draw the real thing. What I drew was this:

Okay, here's the thing. I got much of it right, based on what photos were available to me at the time. But as I neared the end of the drawing, I suddenly decided to drawn two horizontal bars across the face of the cell. Now, I knew this wasn't correct. All the photos showed the front of the cell was a clear plate of glass. Still, I wanted to draw those bands, even though it invalidated the entire point of my "realistic" drawing, because that is how I saw it.

The picture went away and life went on.

Flash-forward 35 years later to earlier this year when a remarkable new discovery was made; a photo of Houdini performing the Water Torture Cell in Scotland in 1922. This is the first and ONLY photo of Houdini actually performing the escape on stage. One of the major revelations of this new photo is that there are two bands wrapped around the cell. These were probably necessary as a precaution to keep the cell from breaking apart when filled with water. Two bands.

Look at this photo and look at my picture from 1977. Two bands across the front! And look at the spacing. I didn't draw my bands evenly down the face of the cell, which would have looked better. I have the top band up high for some reason. Look the pic. The top band is in almost exactly the same place.

So what in 1977 I thought violated the accuracy of the pic -- but I somehow felt compelled to include -- is in reality exactly what the cell looked like when viewed on stage by the audience (those bands probably looked like a part of the structure itself). It's also worth noting the tarp below the cell and what looks like a hose on stage, both of which mysteriously appear in my drawing.

So what do we think? Was I channeling a vision of the real cell on stage from a past life? Does this somehow prove a cosmic connection to Houdini (of course, a 35 year obsession certainly indicates something). Should I apply for JREF's $1 million prize for proof of genuine "paranormal activity"? Perhaps a nationwide lecture tour explaining my amazing psychic gift!

Or who will give me a buck for the drawing?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Houdini's leading ladies: Jane Connelly

A mystery of Houdini's movie career is why he chose an unknown, first-time film actress as the leading lady in the first feature for his Houdini Picture Corporation, The Man From Beyond (1922).

We still know almost nothing about Jane Connelly -- who played Felice Strange and her past life incarnation, Felice Norcross -- except that she was born on May 2, 1883 in Port Huron, Michigan, and died on October 25, 1925 in Los Angeles. She only made one other appearance in a film, Sherlock Jr., for which she was uncredited. Even more perplexing is that Connelly was 38 when she was cast in The Man From Beyond, which made her an unlikely starlet in the silent era which saw ingenues as young as 15.

So why after working with established names like Ann Forrest and Lila Lee did Houdini go for a complete unknown? It's possible the budget was limited by his choice of emerging star Nita Naldi to play the vamp in the film. It's also possible Houdini knew Connelly from the past, as she was have said to have performed in Vaudeville with her husband, Erwin Connelly (who played Dr. Gregory Sinclair in the film).

But another, much stranger answer can be found in The Man From Beyond pressbook. In an article titled "Houdini's Perplexing Problem" it says that the production was "confronted with the strange problem that Houdini had to solve in order to engage the proper type of leading woman to support him." It continues:

The story of "The Man from Beyond," dealing with the theory of reincarnation, the psychic type was required for the leading feminine role. Houdini, determined to secure exactly this type, made composite photographs of Paladena and Eva Fay, Mrs. Piper, the Gohlier Girl and Mme. Tomychik, names, all of them, that are familiar in the field of psychic phenomena.

Equipped with this composite photograph, Houdini knew exactly what was needed in the way of type for his leading woman and after a long and exhaustive search through all the available talent among screen leading women, he selected Jane Connelly as being precisely the type required to interpret the role.

So much like the composite photograph was Miss Connelly's own portrait that it seemed as if she had posed for it.

Pretty wild, eh? And while this could just be typical ballyhoo (The Man From Beyond pressbook is filled with references to reincarnation, psychic matters, and even pro-spiritualist remarks), it does explain the unusual choice, and in light of my recent posts about Houdini's apparent belief in reincarnation, maybe he really did cast Connelly for her "psychic" quality.

Or maybe she was just willing to work cheap and didn't mind getting wet.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Is this Houdini in a past life?

Yesterday I did a blog post about Houdini's belief -- according Walter B. Gibson -- that he was the reincarnation of a "German magician named Von Treck." I noted that I couldn't find any magician by that name. But now David Byron, a magic historian for The Mandala Magazine and blogger at Baroque Potion, thinks he may have found our man.

David suspects that the person Houdini had in mind (and body) was Friedrich von der Trenck. While he was wasn't a magician and he didn't die doing a Buried Alive stunt, he was German and famous for having made several daring escapes from a Prussian jail in 1746. He was later accused of being spy during the French Revolution and executed by the guillotine on July 25, 1794. (Oh dear, is this now ammunition for the "Houdini was a spy" theorists?)

As David points out, this illustration of von der Trenck from Wikipedia (above) "makes perfectly clear why Houdini might've had him in mind!"

Sensational find! Thank you, David.

UPDATE: The plot thickens! Joseph Pecore has sent me a link to Friedrich von der Trenck's autobiography where he talks about being buried alive!

UPDATE 2: Armed now with the correct spelling, the great Bill Goodwin at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle has sent over several articles from Houdini's lifetime that draw parallels between Houdini and Friedrich von der Trenck (called "Baron Trenck" in most of them). There is a lengthy article by Irvin S. Cobb titled, "Houdini Not First Handcuff King", and Houdini's own Conjurers Monthly Magazine cites an article about Houdini in New Age by Henry Ridgely Evans called, "A Twentieth Century Baron Trenck." Below is an example from The Sphinx, July 1920.

Click to enlarge

Thank you, Bill!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Houdini, reincarnation, and a man named Von Treck

This one is a bit off the wall. Just want to warn you up front.

Recently I re-read Norman Bigelow's self-published 1983 book, Death Blow, which examines the question of whether Houdini was murdered (yes, that again). I'm not a fan or a supporter of the murder theories, especially after the recent Brad Meltzer's Decoded debacle, and I didn't find anything here that changed my mind. However, near the end of the book, Norm writes something that did catch my attention:

"In 1975, I spent and entire afternoon talking shop with historian Walter Gibson. He spoke freely about Houdini's belief in reincarnation. Gibson told us he had research material in his files on two people whom Houdini claimed to be in former lives. One of them was a German magician named Von Treck who failed in a buried alive stunt. He also told us Houdini went around everywhere talking about reincarnation."

Houdini believed he was the reincarnation of a German magician named Von Treck? This is pretty far out stuff. But there is ample evidence that Houdini did have an interest in reincarnation.

Bigelow cites The Detroit Free Press, November 1, 1926, which has a section headlined, "Reiterates Reincarnation Belief". And then there's Houdini's 1922 film, The Man From Beyond, which uses reincarnation a key part of its plot. In fact, The Man From Beyond press book contains a very pro story about "The theory of reincarnation", and Houdini featured the concept on advertising, such as the teaser on the right.

And then there's this little gem of a title card near the end of the film:

"Our personal beliefs are of no importance. The great teachers of the earth -- Zoroaster down to Moses and Christ -- who who have made civilization possible -- have taught the immortality and progression of the soul...reincarnation."

Okay. But what of Von Treck?

Unfortunately, I could find no record of any magician named Von Treck. Houdini's The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin -- a suburb source for pre 20th Century magic -- makes no mention of him (at least in the index). Even the eminent Bill Goodwin at the William Larsen Sr. Memorial Library at The Magic Castle could turn up no record of a magician named Von Treck. And would a magician really be doing a buried alive stunt before 1874, as this would have to have been in order for Von Treck to slip into the new born Ehrich Weiss?

Norman Bigelow (who it should be noted is a is a bit of provocateur when it comes to Houdini) says he doesn't know what ever became of Gibson files. But if this information did indeed come from Walter B. Gibson, who knew Houdini well, it's worth the mention.

Told you this was an odd one.

UPDATE: Our friend Joe Notaro over at Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence has posted a remarkable ad and article from The Grim Game pressbook that is even more aggressive in stating Houdini's "belief" in reincarnation. You know, I'm starting to think there really is something to this.

UPDATE 2: It now looks like we may have found "Von Treck". See: Is this Houdini in a past life?


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