Friday, June 29, 2018

Bill Kalush has been to the mountaintop


It's official. William Kalush now knows more about Houdini that anyone living (if he didn't already). That's because Bill, who co-wrote the 2006 biography, The Secret Life of Houdini, was recently granted unique access to Houdini's private diaries.

Last weekend Bill gave a talk about the diaries at the Cincinnati Magic Collectors conference (aka "Gathering of the Vultures"). I've only heard snippets about what Bill shared, but what I've heard has blown my mind!

The diaries start in 1904 and are handwritten with some typed inserts. Houdini appears to have added to his original entries over time. Bill showed several photos from the diaries, many that featured images of unknown posters. One photo shows Bess sitting at wheel of Houdini's Voisin bi-plane. Bill also showed ads that Houdini placed trying to sell the plane in 1910. There was also photo of a cabinet that Bill described as a possible precursor to the Water Torture Cell.

The diaries also revealed the existence of two hitherto unknown assistants; Thomas Clarke Pendrigh, who worked with Houdini for two years, and Harry Wittaker, who stole Houdini's secrets and went out on his own (and failed miserably). Houdini supported a female escape artist known as Oceana. He had gaffed cuffs made by Froggatt & Company. He once struggled 80 minutes inside a U.S. Navy boiler. And Bess once left £40,000 worth of jewelry in a cab in England. (Later recovered.)

One bombshell was the revelation that Houdini might have had a half sister named Peppi (possibly a daughter of Mayer Samuel before his marriage to Cecilia). Also, Chung Ling Soo told Houdini he had three wives, including a Jewish one.

During the Q&A, someone asked Bill if the diaries contained any information about Houdini being a spy. They did not.

While Bill said he could not reveal who owns the diaries, it's pretty well known that the family of Bernard M.L. Ernst, Houdini's lawyer, have held a collection of diaries since Houdini's death. So I'm assuming that's what Bill saw. The family have only provided limited access to select researchers in the past. In fact, Bill could not even get access to the diaries when he was writing his own book.

Here's hoping Bill will share what he learned in some larger way, perhaps in an upcoming issue of Gibecière, the journal of his own Conjuring Arts Research Center. But, for now, I'm perfectly happy knowing that someone has been to this particular mountaintop, and confirmed it is indeed a place of special knowledge.

Thanks to an attendee tipster, Bill Kalush, and Phil Schwartz at the excellent Thayer Magic forums for the info.

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13 comments:

  1. Wow! Great stuff John! Thanks to Bill for this new info. Let's hope it comes out in a future issue of Gibeciere.

    That's Voisin--not Vision.

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  2. Super interesting, to say the very least. At the risk of sounding negative (apologies upfront), it irks me that some collectors, for whatever reasons, hoard their stashes that would otherwise be so incredibly useful in piecing together Houdini's biographical puzzle. I mean no disrespect to the Ernst family, but why are they so protective of the content in those diaries? I understand if they want to someday publish them, but how long have they had them? To even try and conceptualize the type of thorough, mammoth, updated Houdini biography someone could write with the additional materials the public has never seen or known about truly baffles and pains the mind. I beg of anyone to please correct me if I'm being too hard on these collectors. Not just the Ernsts but anyone who has valuable materials but refuses to make them available at a reasonable price or to make them available at all. I'm open to being enlightened if I'm missing something important.

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    1. I don't consider the Ernst family collectors. I think this belongs in a different category. This is a family inheritance and a legacy (and there may be be a foundation in the mix here somewhere). In an interesting way, I think they are continuing Bernard Ernst's work -- protecting his most famous client. And they DO grant access. We see that here. They also gave Ken Silverman access, and hence we have a brilliant Houdini biography. So they are by no means hoarding. I think they are just very careful. I think you have have to have a genuine purpose and pure and transparent motives to access these. I fine with that. These are Houdini's diaries. That's a big deal.

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  3. Hi, thanks for the post. Two comments.
    First, according to my notes of the talk, Oceana was born Wanda Tim and became the first woman performing as "Miss Trixy." I hope we learn more about this.

    Second, if you'll forgive me the ego, I was the one who asked about HH as a spy, and Kalush said he didn't have any new info from the diaries or any other source since the publication of the book.

    Thanks again for the post John.
    --Michelle :)

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    1. Oh! Well we knew about Wanda Timm aka Miss Trixy. That was the performer HH created to do the USD in Germany to undermine Miss Undina. But I had never heard the name Oceana. So I guess that isn't a revelation after all. Thanks.

      Glad you asked that question, Michelle. Maybe one day the smoking gun will emerge. But I'm happy to move on from this and maybe Bill is too? Houdini's life is interesting enough without having him be James Bond.

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  4. Good points by everyone posting. I want to thank Michelle for revealing herself here and for asking Bill the spy question. I find it telling that it's not in an important set of diaries.

    The Ernsts did indeed grant Silverman limited access to their HH diaries. But he was given a very short amount of time that forced him to record the contents he read in a small tape machine. What for? Why not let the man carefully parse the information? I can see it from the Ernst family point of view: The crowds in the Coliseum should be thankful for the few loaves of bread the Emperor tosses at them.

    The Sanford papers have sold and moved on into somebody's collection. I suppose this individual is reluctant to share the information it contains. That might devalue the market value of those papers.

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    1. There's no problem here except our impatience. I think the only responsibility of the owners is to provide access to legit historians for the purposes of real research, and that is what's happening. I don't think every dip-shit with screenplay idea needs to rummage through Houdini's diaries. I'm fine with the constraints and control.

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  5. Our impatience? It took three generations for the material in the Ernst diaries to surface. I wonder if Kellock, Gresham, and Christopher tried and were denied access to those diaries.

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    1. We know Kellock had access because the diaries are quoted throughout that book. Not sure about Gresham. I expect Christopher might have. He doesn't quote from them, but his timeline is extraordinarily exact. And Christopher was a true magic historian.

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  6. I believe Bess still owned those Ernst diaries before the stack changed hands, so one can see how Kellock was able to look at them. Christopher doesn't list those diaries in the General Bibliography section at the back of Untold Story, but he does list a Mrs. Roberta Ernst in the Sources and Acknowledgements section among a list of others for their for their recollections and helpful suggestions.

    Could it be the Ernst family allowed him to look thru the diaries on the condition of anonymity?

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    1. The credit to Roberta Ernst I think is a pretty good clue that he had access. Also he was Milbourne Christopher. He was plugged into the Houdini world in a major way.

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    2. Yep--the list of acknowledgements, those who had died, and alive, at the time his book was published reads like a who's who of big names in magic that were connected to Houdini.

      Sometimes the stars fall into the right alignment. Christopher was the right guy at the right time to write the next Houdini bio after Gresham.

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