Conversation about Bess Houdini between Victoria Kelly, author of Mrs. Houdini, and Rebecca Rosenberg, author of The Secret Life of Mrs. London
Rebecca: In your research about Bess Houdini, what did you did you discover about her personality traits?
Victoria: It’s ironic that Bess Houdini kind of melted into the background of Houdini’s legacy, because from what I learned she was quite a dynamic personality. She left home at 18 to join a singing trio in Coney Island, which must have taken some courage, and also the ability to be confident in front of strangers. Then, she married Harry Houdini after only knowing him for a few days–and in addition to that, she was a Catholic woman marrying a Jewish man, which was very rare in those days. I imagine she was a very brave and independent woman.
Rebecca: Do you think Bess was disappointed or proud when Harry left behind their magic act and became Houdini, the great escape artist?
Victoria: I think there must have been some of both feelings. I can’t imagine that Harry decided to perform on his own without discussing it first with Bess; they must have realized together that he had a greater chance of success if he billed himself alone. But even when he began performing without her, she was always intricately involved in his life and his act. She was one of the only people who knew the secrets behind the illusions, and I am sure she must have helped him create some of his acts.
Rebecca: I’m intrigued with Bess Houdini’s doll collection. How many years did she collect? Which were favorites?
Victoria: I actually didn’t come across much detail, other than the fact that she collected them. Both she and Harry were collectors–together, they collected pets. Harry amassed a huge rare book collection. So I imagine they had a lot of fun, especially on their many travels, looking to add to their collections.
Victoria: It has long been speculated why Bess and Harry Houdini didn’t have children. What did you find in your research?
Rebecca: What Houdini historian, John Cox discovered in an interview with the Houdini’s niece, Marie Blood, was tragic! Per John Cox: Marie continually emphasized just how small and “underdeveloped” Bess was. This actually delighted Marie as a child because she could wear Aunt Bessie’s shoes, which were size one! Marie said bess was very frail and often sick, and she never weighed more than 98 pounds. But part of this underdeveloped nature was that Aunt Bess never had her period, never menstruated. Hence, she could never have children. That’s why the Houdinis remained childless. Bess Houdini suffered from Primary Amenorrhea, a problem with the endocrine system.
Victoria: How did Bess’s friendship with Charmian London (wife of famous author, Jack London) begin?
Rebecca: Bess met Charmian at the Orpheum Theater in Oakland, California, November 15, 1915. Houdini was performing his Chinese Water Torture Chamber Escape. Jack London had brought his young daughter to see the show the day before, and brought Charmian to see the Great Houdini. Houdini and Jack London were the two most famous men of their time, and had photos taken at the theater of their meeting. The two couples hit it off and spent several days together, including Thanksgiving. They kept up an active correspondence. Charmian was obviously more taken with Harry, than Bess. She wrote in her diary:” Charming Houdini. I shall never forget him.”
Victoria: Do you think Bess every suspected Charmian and Harry of having an affair?
Rebecca: In light of Bess’s condition, and that Harry Houdini became a major movie star, with rumors in the newspapers, I imagine she knew about the affair. And Charmian London was not his only affair. Not long after Harry’s death, Bess discovered a cache of love letters written to her husband in Houdini’s safe. She invited all the women to tea at her house. When they left she presented each with a parting gift. Their letters!
Victoria: Yet, the Houdinis could never bear to be apart for long; in their Harlem townhouse, they used to send notes back and forth between different floors, delivered by servants.
Rebecca: Sometimes the women behind the men are the ones who should have been famous. Early in Harry’s career, he performed exclusively with Bess, who was a singer and dancer. Even after he gained notoriety as a solo magician, Bess remained his emotional support.
Victoria: And Harry’s legacy might not be what it is today without Bess’s fervent efforts to maintain his reputation after his death.
Find out more about Bess Houdini in historical novels, The Secret Life of Mrs. London and Mrs. Houdini.
The Secret Life of Mrs. London, by Rebecca Rosenberg
San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.
The book is now available on Amazon.
Rebecca Rosenberg, a California native, lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where Jack London wrote from his Beauty Ranch. Rebecca is a long-time student of Jack London’s works and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian London. Rebecca is a graduate of Stanford Novel Writing Certificate. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her debut novel, following her non-fiction, Lavender Fields of America.
Mrs. Houdini, by Victoria Kelly
Before escape artist Harry Houdini died, he vowed he would find a way to speak to his beloved wife, Bess, from beyond the grave using a coded message known only to the two of them. But when a widowed Bess begins seeing this code in seemingly impossible places, it becomes clear that Harry has an urgent message to convey. Unlocking the puzzle will set Bess on a course back through the pair’s extraordinary romance, which swept the illusionist and his bride from the beaches of Coney Island, to the palaces of Budapest, to the back lots of Hollywood. When the mystery finally leads Bess to the doorstep of a mysterious young photographer, she realizes that her husband’s magic may have been more than just illusion.
The book is now available on Amazon.
Victoria Kelly was born in New Jersey and graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University. A U.S. Mitchell Scholar, she received her M.Phil. in Creative Writing from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and went on to earn her M.F.A. in Creative Writing in 2009 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her debut novel, Mrs. Houdini, was published by Simon & Schuster (Atria Books) on March 1, 2016. Victoria is a two-time Pushcart Prize Nominee and has taught Creative Writing at the University of Iowa and Old Dominion University. She lives in Virginia. http://www.victoriakellybooks.com/
I love illusions and stunts and have been trying to teach myself some techniques ( though nowhere near the level of Houdini . He’s a great inspiration , though , and I’d love to read about him and Bess.
Thank you, Hera! Good luck with your illusion practice!