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.


  1. Great interview! He had a pet eagle?

    1. Well, he said it was an eagle, but most who look at the photos think it was actually some kind of hawk. It's name was Abraham Lincoln. It was part of this particular show at the Hippodrome. He produced it from an American flag.

    2. My research shows that Houdini might have been the first magician to produce a bird from a cloth in the classical manner.

      Lafayette produced doves from a cloth, but it was gimmicked. We don't know Houdini's method, but it's possible that he stole the "eagle" from somewhere, maybe from a servante.

      However how he did produced the bird, it seemed that it was by some method of sleight of hand. Which gives him credit for producing a live bird from a cloth via sleight of hand and not by a prop.

    3. Wow, that would be something! But he's doing the eagle production in 1918. Seems pretty late in the Golden Age. I would think someone was doing a similar production before then. Keep up posted!

  2. John Hinson great nephew of Bess and Harry HoudiniMarch 18, 2014 at 2:02 PM

    Do you know if was the only intreview she did on Houdini ? what a geat interview.

  3. Nice article. Little snippets of information are great.
    Many thanks.

    1. Thanks, Narinder. I love the little snippets as well.

  4. I like the part where Louella describes the dark passageways that led to Houdini's dressing room. You can almost smell what it was like in there. In a place like the Hippodrome, it is not surprising to learn that the hidden side of the building would be a maze of dark halls and tunnels.

    1. Ironic that she likens it to a "spiritualistic seance."

  5. I love that interview. Thank You for sharing it and the bio on Parsons. I know she did interviews with other actors, but that is the only one I know of that she did on Houdini.

    1. It was still quite early in her career. Funny how she's already a bit of a diva -- too busy to go out to Yonkers to meet HH.

  6. We have heard she was not a nice lady. Power corrupts. People like her and Walter Winchell could make or break stars with just a few words in their columns. Unless you lived through the period you cannot imagine how all powerful these columnists were.

    On the way down, later in life, everyone who cow towed to Winchell turned on him and he died pretty much broke and friendless, from what we understand.

    Dick Brookz & Dorothy Dietrich
    The real Houdlni Museum
    The Only Building in the World Dedicated to Houdini

    1. She had a lot of power and in the matter of Citizen Kane she's been portrayed as Hearst's henchwoman (see RKO 281). There's a biography on her out that I wouldn't mind reading.

      But she was certainly good to Houdini in this piece. It's a very flattering profile.

  7. Ah, the amazing finds on this site! I always love interviews with Houdini. I found one in old newspaper clippings as well. I think they really capture his personality. I tensed up a little when she asked about his mother. I could tell by the date of this interview that she was already gone. Still, nice to see how he responds. Although, to say that he's "not much of a ladies' man" is a bit of stretch isn't it? ;)

  8. There's just something so great about the image of Parson's walking into Houdini's dressing room to find him sitting there with an eagle.