In the 1930s and 40s, Edward Saint recorded private phone conversations while he and Bess lived in Hollywood. Magician John Booth first discussed Saint's secret recordings in a 1966 issue of The Linking Ring. Later Booth said, "Across the years, I have tried fruitlessly to find out who obtained these recordings from the Houdini estate. No one can tell me what happened to the voice records: they simply disappeared."
Well, they did not disappear entirely. Because today I'm excited to reveal two of them!
These remarkable recordings are owned by our good friend Mark Willoughby, who for years didn't know himself what these records contained. But now the recordings have been heard and Mark has graciously allowed me to share the details here. While these do not include Bess, what they do contain is pretty wild!
The recordings themselves were made on "Howard Home Recording Discs." Each side contains approximate four minutes of conversation. Each record is labeled with the name of the person being recorded.
The first (undated) record contains a remarkable phone conversation between Edward Saint and a man identified on the label as "Great Alexander's Press Agent." I'm not sure of the man's real name, but at one point Ed appears to call him "Mr. Runny"? Alexander was a famous mentalist and magician who also authored books on the paranormal. At the time of this recording, Alexander was retired and living in California. [For the life of Alexander, read David Charvet's Alexander The Man Who Knows.]
Incredibly, the press agent is pitching Saint on the idea of holding a fake Houdini séance in which Alexander will appear to have made contact and Bess would concur. Saint asks him for specifics:
SAINT: Well how would you have him receive this message, through crystal or clairvoyance or...
PRESS AGENT: Mr. Saint, I haven't even gone into that. That is something that I'd have to first get your okay, then I'd broach the subject to him, if only to bring him something to him unless I knew I could go through with it. And then have the two of you sit down -- I understand you are a very smart publicity man yourself, or along research lines that is I've been told so -- and then sit down and figure out a way in which it could be done, you understand?
PRESS AGENT: And the only thing that would be necessary for Mrs. Houdini in the matter would be to say, "Well, at last it came!" And there wouldn't be any public demonstration or anything of the kind of it.
SAINT: I see. Other words all you would need is a signed statement that it was...
PRESS AGENT: Yes, and have nothing public because the minute you make it a public thing it would look like publicity. This has to come at an opportune time, or you might term it an inopportune time. That Alexander didn't do it while the $10,000 that was offered -- I think that was the publicity at the time, is that right? Well whether or not it was makes no difference.
The press agent goes on to explain how he'd first like to "set a lot of things all around" Los Angeles, New York and London, but before he gets too deep into his scheme, Saint interrupts him and decides to shoot the idea down entirely:
SAINT: Well, I'll tell you, Mr. Runny[?], I know that the legitimate angle that Mrs. Houdini has carried from the time of Houdini's death all the way through the present moment would prohibit even broaching such a thing, and is to pervert or falsify or prostitute such a, well, I'd say almost a sacred thing as an occasion of Houdini... [the recording cuts off].
When the conversation is resumed on the second side of the record, the press agent is telling a story of how he once helped arrange (fix?) a jail escape for Houdini himself. The recording comes on as he's discussing a police jailer in Indianapolis named, as far as I can tell, Saul Bear:
PRESS AGENT: He was a very sour man toward show business because he had been a rank failure at it. And he laid in wait for anyone to come along with a handcuff act. He had lever cells which are unbeatable as you know.The conversation ends with:
PRESS AGENT: And so, Martin Beck... I happened to be doing, during the summer, I happened to be handling the publicity for Springfield and Terre Haute, Indiana. And I got to talking to Saul Bear here. And I dropped in and happened to see Harry at the Penn Hotel in Philadelphia. I met him there and I said, "I see you're into Indianapolis at the Orpheum there." He says, "Yes." I said, "Well, they got the new county jail there." He says, "Well I don't have to take..." He was doing some cabinet escape, I forgot what they called it, upside down in water or something. You probably remember.
SAINT: Aha. Yeah.
PRESS AGENT: I said, "Would you like to beat that jail?" Well he says, "Not necessarily." Well I says, Saul Bear's a friend of mine, and I said if you want to beat him, then I'll take care of that for you. Well he says, "I'll take care of you." And I says, "You don't need to take care of me." I don't know if Mrs. Houdini remembers it or not. But when he got there, everything was all perfectly arranged. Now that was ace publicity.
PRESS AGENT: But I don't want to try and convince you of anything, Mr. Saint, you're probably much older than I am and know all the answers and all the angles. The thought just came to me and there is no harm in everyone giving vent to what their real feelings are when they got the nucleus of a good idea.
SAINT: [laughing] Surely, surely.
While the idea of Alexander faking a Houdini seance is wild enough, evidence of an arranged jail escape is even more intriguing. However, I wasn't able to find any mention of an Indianapolis jail escape, and according to Bill Kalush, Houdini did his last jail escape in 1912. As Houdini was doing the Water Torture Cell at this time (the escape the press agent couldn't recall), this jail break would have to have been after 1912. But it's possible. Recently there's been a suggestion of a Houdini jail escape as late as 1923.
O'Conner had helped Bess and Ed set up a Houdini biopic at Paramount and had even worked on the script. But by 1942, nothing had come of the Paramount project, so O'Conner was looking for a new studio and a new angle.
On this recording, O'Conner is discussing with Saint a deal that would allow a pair of independent producers named Jackson and Stone to pitch a "life of Houdini" project to RKO Studios. O'Conner states that actor Paul Muni "is eager to do the thing, not just because of his knowledge of Houdini, but what can be done with the character."
However, O'Conner is very insistent that it needs to be a fictional version on Houdini's life. He explains his reasons thus:
O'CONNER: Of course, everybody in the show business knows Houdini, they know what he stood for and what he'd done, and it's merely a matter of devising a fictional treatment, see. They are not concerned with biographies at all, such as the Paramount thing is concerned, you see? Biographies are a dead issue. All the biographies have failed at the box office. That goes for all of them, including Pasture. That was a terrible flop by reason of it being a biography.
Saint agrees with a fictionalized approach. "That's okay. That's entirely okay," he says. O'Conner then lays out RKO's desire for a name screenwriter to pen the final script:
O'CONNER: The story has to be written by a top flight writer, such a Dudley Nichols or John Steinbeck. In other words they want something to exploit in the publicity. Life of Houdini by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck the author of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats and numerous others. Or Hemmingway, somebody like that, see? He'd probably do very little of the work, but his name will be used. All of which they call box office insurance.
At one point Saint broaches the subject of his own creative involvement in the writing process "to safeguard the thing." For that exchange, Mark has graciously allowed me to share a 30 second clip from the actual recording itself. Saint is the first man heard and O'Conner, much lower audio, is on the other end of the line. Enjoy.
Nothing ever came of the Jackson and Stone Houdini project at RKO. Possibly the would-be producers were unaware that RKO had already tried and failed to come up with their own fictional take on Houdini's life in the 1930s [read: RKO 589: Discovering Hollywood's first Houdini film].
Edward Saint would die the year this recording was made. But what incredible artifacts to have survived, and what a thrill to share them here today.
A very big thanks Mark Willoughby.
UPDATE: Since posting this I've learned that the full names of the producers were Ben Jackson and John Stone, and their 60 day option agreement was written up and signed on January 26, 1942. The agreement contained this interesting provision:
Such motion picture photoplay may be fictionalized, but may not contain any claim that either Beatrice Houdini or Harry Houdini, believes in, or advocates Spiritualism.