Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The illicit loves of Harry Houdini

Houdini and Terror Island co-star Lila Lee.

Did Houdini have extramarital affairs? As biographers have dug deeper and deeper into the Houdini story, his once chaste (even prude) reputation has come into question. One thing is for sure, he doesn't appear to have struggled with impotency, as Ruth Brandon theorized in her 1993 biography, The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. But if Houdini had affairs, who were the other women in his life?

Here are the major suspects:

Daisy White at work
Daisy White - This first rumored Houdini mistress worked as both a "box jumper" (a magician's assistant) and behind the counter at Martinka Magic Shop in New York City (which Houdini once owned). Word of a Houdini-Daisy affair was common gossip in magic circles in Houdini's time and after. Maurice Zolotow, who took an active interest in Houdini's personal life and penned a veiled tell-all fictional biography (The Great Balsamo), claimed, "Houdini loved only two women, his mother and Daisy White."

By all accounts, Daisy was a stunner. She was memorably played by Adrienne Barbeau in the steamy TV movie, The Great Houdinis. After Houdini's death, she fell in with the Rev. Arthur Ford crowd and become a proponent of Spiritualism.

Lila Lee - According to actor Georgie Jessel, Houdini and his Terror Island co-star Lila Lee were romantically involved. (Jessel worked with Lee in Gus Edward's School Days.) Could Harry and Lila have hooked up while on location on romantic Catalina Island in 1919? Afraid we only have Jessel's word for this. But you know what they say in Hollywood -- all rumors are true.

Lee continued acting into the 1950s and died at age 72 in 1973. Shame she appears to have never been interviewed by any of the major Houdini historians or biographers of the day. Sounds like she had some stories to tell.

aka "Mate-Woman"
Charmian London - Well, Houdini is completely busted on this one. The widow of famous author Jack London recorded details of her trysts with Houdini in her private diary, which was uncovered by Ken Silverman in his book, Houdini!!! The Career of Ehrich Weiss. The passionate three month affair took place while Houdini was playing the New York Hippodrome in 1918 and Charmian was staying in Greenwich Village. London called Houdini her "Magic Lover" and "Mate-Man." Houdini called her "the woman in white" and "Mate-Woman." No record of what Bess called them.

The affair broke off when London returned to her home in California, but she would continue to exchange passionate love letters with Houdini for years.

Mrs. Frank Gilmore with son Gary
Fay La Foe - Murderer Gary Gilmore always claimed he was related to Houdini. According to family lore, his grandmother, who performed in Vaudeville under the name Fay La Foe, had an affair with the young Houdini in California. The affair produced Gilmore's father, Frank. La Foe, who later worked as a Spiritualist, described Houdini as a "pip-squeak and a cheap tramp." She also claimed to have taught Houdini "everything he knew about magic."

Considering the vague timeline (Houdini was 16 and not yet a magician when Frank was born in 1890), the fact that Frank Gilmore was a con-man and Gary a raving psychotic, I think we'll give Harry the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Before Bess got to her
The unnamed redhead - Bessie herself told this story to Linking Ring columnist, Jerry Anderson, of how, two weeks after they were were married, Houdini was spotted escorting an attractive red-haired showgirl from a dime museum after his show. Bess got wind of this and staked out the backstage door. When Houdini appeared with his companion, Bessie took matters into her own hands (and fists). "Harry had to pull me off," said Bess.

But was Houdini having an affair with this mysterious redhead, or just escorting her home in a rough neighborhood as he claimed? Bess ultimately accepted his explanation. When I hear this story, I always imagine this redhead as a Gibson Girl.

Milla Barry
Milla Barry - Bill Kalush and Larry Solman smoked out this one in The Secret Life of Houdini. In 1903 Houdini shared the bill with singer/actress Milla Barry, and appears to have become personally entangled with her in some way. He confided in a close friend that Barry was attempting to break up his marriage. "I am having a hell of a time, and it will become worse," he wrote.

But was this an affair, or just a fatal attraction situation? I tend to think it was something other than romantic. Most of Houdini's mistresses come into his life in the late teens and early 1920s, when Houdini was in prime male mid-life crisis age. I also don't think Houdini would cheat while his mother was still alive.

Sadie Glantz Weiss - Say what? Houdini certainly had major issues with his sister-in-law. In 1917, Sadie left Houdini's brother Nathan for his other brother Leo. Believing their actions somehow contributed to his mother's death four years earlier, Houdini held a vicious life-long grudge against Leo and Sadie. Thing is, the rest of the family didn't necessarily have a problem with the switch. Even Nathan appeared okay with it. So what's the problem, Harry?

It's worth speculating, as Ruth Brandon did in The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, that Sadie's real crime was choosing Leo over Harry. She certainly played the Weiss brothers, and this did take place right during the period of Harry's other amorous experimentations. Then his fury makes a bit more sense. It was Houdini scorned. 

Julia Sawyer - Julia Sawyer was Bess's niece who became Houdini's private secretly when John Sargent died in 1920. Julia also featured as an assistant in Houdini's full evening roadshow of 1925-26. There are rumors that Houdini had a late in life liaison with one of his female assistants and Julia is the chief suspect. But no proof exists, and the incestuous nature of this one makes it hard to believe. Nevertheless, she makes the list.

Mary McGarvie - Did this sexy Scottish psychic seduce Houdini on his tour of Edinburgh in 1926? Nope, sorry. There was no Mary McGarvie. There was no tour of Edinburgh in 1926. This one only happened in the movies (Death Defying Acts, 2008).

Harry steps out in Death Defying Acts

But what of Bess Houdini in all this?

Not long after Harry's death, Bess discovered a cache of love letters written to her husband (some reportedly from Daisy White) in Houdini's safe. She invited all the women to tea at 278. When they left, she presented each with a parting gift -- their letters.

Don't mess with Bess

Lady Butler - The 2014 miniseries Houdini, starring Adrien Brody, shows Houdini having several affairs, including a kinky relationship with with British painter Elizabeth Thompson a.k.a. Lady Butler. But this is another Hollywood fiction. There's no record of Houdini and Lady Butler ever having met, let alone shackle-up together.

Sorry, Harry. Never happened.



  1. Oh wow ... this was worth the wait (and I've been staking out the Facebook page all morning in anticipation).

    One thing I've been wondering about is how much of Bess's "feeling sick" or "unwell" over the years was due to simply being married to the great man? Even without the affairs, life with him would never have been easy. I really liked how she got her revenge on those girls afterwards though. I could imagine them all arriving at the same time, checking each other out and then being handed their piles of letters to take with them.

    And yes, the Gary Gilmour story is just silly.

  2. I think Bess had genuine heath issues. She was very frail and I think she probably has problems with her immune system. But I'm sure there was also stress and stain, and also I wonder at what stage she became alcoholic. That could account for many of Houdini's references to her being "ill" and "unwell" (and having her "brainstorms").

  3. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always thought of Daisy White as the “other woman” in the Houdini saga. And oddly enough, I’ve always thought of her as looking just like Adrienne Barbeau. Now I’ll forever imagine Milla Barry as looking just like Milla Jovovich as well. In my humble opinion John, your important and lasting contributions to Houdini scholarship are increasing all the time.

    1. Not to be rude but this is complete bullshit all we have is a few words in the diary and no physical evidence of any such counters soon af not to be rude but this is complete bullshit all we have is a few words in the diary and no physical evidence of any such encounters. Who the heck cares if he walked a woman to a carriage he was an actor with twinkling eyes when the most famous people of the time what do you expect careful not to believe everything you read.

  4. I'm giving you a standing ovation on this one my friend! Bravo Bravo!

  5. Thank you, guys. Means a lot to me to hear that. :)

    Best part of doing this article -- browsing for the perfect sexy pic of Milla Jovovich. :p

  6. Yes, if you're going to be a bunny boiler, this is the kind of outfit to wear.

    How are we going? Is this post at the top of the blog yet????

  7. Nope, but it's climbing fast. If you look below at the "Popular Posts", that's an automatic official ranking (but it's a little behind, the jail escape has passed Brothers Houdini).

  8. Pat Culliton has just posted up this tease on his site. He won't say who these "girlfriends" are, just pics. Gotta say, the gal on the right is a stunner!


  9. BTW, this story (now my most viewed) has received some good feedback, and some criticism, at The Magic Cafe. Join the discussion.


  10. Yes, the one on the right was gorgeous. Would love to know who she was. Off to view the discussion at the Magic Cafe.

  11. Actually, he's added more, so the one I was talking about is in the middle now. Great pic of HH too.

  12. Yes I noticed that. I think we're all talking about the same girl. It's not just her looks ... there's something about the expression on her face that makes her seem very "alive" for want of a better word. It's something that's often missing in old photographs.

  13. You know I just looked up some photos of Gary Gilmore on Google, and wow...he kind of looks like a very ugly, scar-faced Houdini with straight brown hair. CREE-EE-EEPY! O_o So even if the story is completely bogus, I can totally see why he would have thought he was descended from Houdini.

  14. The stunt of giving each woman their letters is so cinematic. I'd die laughing if this was translated into an actual movie. What a brilliant move by the obviously territorial Bess!

  15. Wow. Bess must've really been a charatcter!!

  16. I agree with the person above, Bess WAS a real character :D The more I read about her, the more I like her. To be honest, I've always had my suspicions that Houdini was a bit of a ladies man, but it's also pretty clear that his real love was for Bess (his 'Precious Lump of Sweetness'.)

  17. Houdini was a man who set an example for all of us at some point.but to be honest i do not understand how any man could be with more than one woman at a time this also does not mean that i do not like Houdini infact he is the man i look up to and forever will.

  18. Did Houdini teach punctuation to escape you?

  19. Actually I discovered the Houdini=Charmian London connection at the Huntington Library, and advised Kenneth Silverman of such. I discuss in my book Jack London's Women.

    1. Oh, wow, I will pick up your book. Thanks for commenting.

  20. what is the actual name of lady butler character ?? pls answer ..

  21. Ok sorry to sound harsh but this is complete bullshit we forget that he was an actor very charming and though he was believed to have an affair is no actual physical evidence any sexual encounter or adultery some records and some words in a diary aren't exactly physical evidence how would I know this because im the great-nephew great nephew of Harry Houdini

  22. Sorry to sound harsh but this is complete bullshit some reports and a diary aren't exactly physical evidence of an encounter there's no physical proof just words passed on from generation. I mean come on the woman in white classic poetry almost makes me laugh so the next time you think of the conspiracy theory bring up physical textual evidence and then you'll sway the minds. my great uncle would be appalled if he were alive today and ha dent died 1926

    1. I was trying to be clear throughout that almost all of these "suspects" are based on speculation and downright gossip. I'm not saying HH had affairs with any of these women. Just that these are the ones that have been whispered about.

      I tend to put a lot of trust in Ken Silverman's instincts as a researcher and biographer, and that's why I do give more weight to the Charmian London claim. But like you, many have suggested that her diary entries might be romantic exaggerations. I admit I've never read them myself.

      But I appreciate the comments as I do what to be clear that none of this is known fact. It's speculation and, yes, somewhat sordid.

    2. Appalled at having a great nephew who cannot spell or punctuate, yes. Appalled at having such a narrow-minded prude defending him, probably.

  23. Looks like he slipped out of that too.