Saturday, February 9, 2019

Houdini's claim that he was building a "health house"

Recently Arthur Moses uncovered a remarkable interview with Houdini in the Dec/Jan 1923-24 issue of Back To Nature magazine (right). It contains lengthy quotations from Houdini about health and fitness and, most curiously, how he is building a special "health house."

The article kicks off with Houdini saying: "If we expect to have the health of the nation, we will have to make some radical changes in our present mode of civilization." He then describes his own health rituals.

"I believe that I owe my tremendous strength, health and success to 'CLEAN LIVING.' I have never used tobacco, alcohol, or liquors of any kind in my life. I drink all the water I can possibly take, and particularly in the morning upon arising and at night upon retiring. I have never eaten salt or pepper, and I have always considered it a matter of common sense that condiments of all kinds would irritate the delicate membrane and tissues inside the body. I always eat whole grain bread, never white, and I have found that the eating of raw bran is especially fine for the bowels. I never eat white bread or drink coffee and a large part of my diet consists of fruits of all kinds. I always carry oranges when traveling and for my lunch in rush hours I eat bananas. I find that raw foods give me greater strength than cooked foods.

In my home in New York, which is a four story building, I have my library and office on the top floor. I am quite a book-worm, and I do a great deal of studying. I have to walk down the four flights for my meals, and that gives me exercise which strengthens the muscles in my limbs and keeps my wind in shape. In  fact I never use and elevator when I can use the stairway. I have my desk built high so that I am obliged to stand while using it, and this prevents me from becoming stiff and sluggish from sitting down too much. I take a great deal of exercise in the form of hikes and swimming, and I am especially fond of tennis.  When I am on the road I always try and secure a room on the top floor, whenever possible, for the air is fresher and purer and I get away from the smoke and dirt. When sleeping, my windows are always wide open and I open them when I go out in order to ventilate the room while I'm away."

After expressing his belief that all children should be taught to swim (by law) and be trained to be ambidextrous (as he claims he is), Houdini turns his attention to health and architecture.

"Our present-day architecture is all wrong from a health standpoint. Most of the homes today get very little, if any, sunlight. The landlords of today build their houses in such a manner as to utilize every inch of space, making most, if not all rooms inside, so as to squeeze all the rent out of their tenants and the sunshine, air and health as well. If we are to have real health, we must make radical changes in the building of our homes. I am building an eight-room house for myself in the country near New York. It will be two stories, and the top of the house will be built so that it revolves, every room getting two hours of sunlight each day. The closets will be built in the center of the house on the first floor, making all rooms outside rooms. Sunlight kills microbes and germs. The Aborigines, or prehistoric savages, lived within the natural forces. They made their cures through nature's remedies--sunlight, air, water and foods in their natural state as God grew them, and I believe those things we must use if we hope to have health, strength, and I might add happiness, for one cannot be happy if he is in ill-health. When I have finished the building of my health house, I will be happy to have any of the Back To Nature readers come and see it, and if they like, pattern one after it for themselves."

There's so much to love here!

First, I've never heard anything about this "health house" before. I suspect it only existed in Houdini's mind. I've also seen many references to Houdini drinking coffee. His rejection of condiments seems a little wacky. But his swearing off of white bread in favor of whole grains is downright modern. So too his belief in the benefits of fruit and raw foods. One wonders how radical these ideas were back then?

But I do think Houdini is playing a bit to his audience here. In a 1907 letter to Bess, he describes a meal in Chicago that hardly sounds like the diet of a health nut:

"Had spaghetti dinner, roast beef and mashed potatoes, washed down with excellent coffee and lady fingers inserted in cream."

Thanks to Arthur Moses for sharing this healthy find.

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    20 comments:

    1. I wonder if he felt his NYC "mansion" was too dark. It faces north.

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      1. Yeah, it is funny how he talks about the importance of sunlight because everyone who went into 278 commented on how dark it was.

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    2. BTW, another mention of a 4th floor office in 278.

      It is a little strange the HH says his "library" is up there as well as we know the two large bookcases remained in the back of the parlor. But maybe all of 278 was becoming his "library" at this point.

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    3. He forgot to mention the bread and butter custard dessert he was fond of. The high desk forcing him to stand has to be made up. Photos show him sitting at his desk.

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      1. The high desk. Another very modern idea!

        I don't believe we've ever seen a photo the 4th floor office or desk. The famous shots of him at his desk were taken in the parlor level library.

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    4. If he actually did have some sort of raised desk then that is (seemingly) another pretty forward thinking thing...standing desks being quite trendy these days. Definitely interesting that he presented all these lifestyle choices, even if many are somewhat comfortably exaggerated for the audience at hand. HH continues to show his versatility.

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      1. Yes, even if he didn't actually have one, just the idea shows how forward thinking he was. Maybe we can even consider this another Houdini invention. Like the wardrobe trunk! (Which he claimed he invented.)

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    5. "I am especially fond of tennis".

      ...I would love to see a photo of Harry on a tennis court, swinging a racket.

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      1. First I've ever heard of him liking tennis. I've always noticed that he seemed to prefer individual sport activities like running and swimming to participatory spots. But I know he liked handball. And boxing as a youth of course.

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      2. Harry also played golf? There's a photo of him with Beck out on the links.

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      3. I kinda suspect Houdini just picked up a club and posed with Beck and his partners for that photo. If he was playing, I don't think he'd be in his three-piece suit.

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    6. Wow, yet another great post (thanks, John, and thanks, Arthur). Houdini's nutritional perspective is surprisingly contemporary (Yes, the condiment thing is pretty quirky! Thought condiments in those days may have been spicier, especially mustards, and maybe more acidic.) Your letter excerpt about the spaghetti, roast beef, etc. made me laugh - though it's hard to eat healthy on the road (still true today - lack of good options from town to town, and many places may have been closed after Houdini got out of the theatre. Though performing all the shows he did, rehearsing in between, traveling, etc. probably more than compensated for unhealthy eating on tour.) I was also interested in his comment about going 4 flights down to eat in 278 - I guess Harry and Bess must've taken their meals on the street level floor in that room where the old piano was? And perhaps on the parlor level if they had company? In old townhouses, the kitchen was usually at ground level (as it still is in 278) and the dinner would be brought up to the parlor level by dumbwaiter). As you say, SO much to love here - and the first-person Houdini posts are especially great!

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      1. Yeah, I think HH probably traveled down to the kitchen to have his lunches.

        Yes, I love it when we find first person Houdini stuff like this. Always informative and frequently a hoot!

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    7. According to Dunninger, on his fateful last evening get together with Harry, they ate pastrami sandwiches at some deli near 278.

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      1. Love it! (And I guess Harry must've told them to "hold the mustard!")

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      2. Haha.

        Was it a deli or a bar that sat right on the corner of 113th Street? People in the neighborhood still recall it, and, of course, there's a legend that 278 had a tunnel that connected to it.

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      3. I remember having heard it was a bar on the corner. Though I wouldn't be surprised if they served food as well, especially if it was an Irish bar. And there were probably delis on that main avenue off 113th. Serving "healthy pastrami," no doubt!

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      4. Heck--it's NYC. There's a deli in almost every block. According to Dunninger from Gresham's book, Harry called him at 2:00 in the morning and asked him to drive to 278 and help him with moving out some boxed papers and magazines. Then they walked around the block to the eatery. What place is open at that time? Coulda been the bar.

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      5. One thing I forgot about is Prohibition. It started in 1920 and wasn't officially repealed until 1933. Maybe Houdini and Dunninger each had a bottle of Moxie with their pastami sandwiches!

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