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.