When my novel, Mrs. Houdini, was published about Harry Houdini's wife, Bess Houdini, no one had ever written an entire book about her. Instead, she always appeared as a secondary character in biographies and articles about Houdini - despite the fact that they started their marriage performing magic as equal partners. But before I even wrote the first word of the book, something happened that convinced me that Bess supported my plans.
When Harry died in 1926, Bess was 50 years old. She had been married to Harry since she was 18 years old, when the two met while working at Coney Island. Because Bess was Catholic and Harry was Jewish, the marriage was unconventional; but they remained devoted to each other throughout their lives.
When I first heard about Bess Houdini, it was her seances I heard about first. Bess and Harry had spent a great part of their lives trying to prove whether or not life exists after death, and they had promised each other that whichever one of them died first, they would let the other one know they were okay. They even had a secret code word they would use.
I discovered that, devastatingly, Bess was never able to make contact with Harry's spirit. I found this unbearably sad. And it started me on my journey to write my novel Mrs. Houdini. What if, I wondered, she really was able to contact Harry -- but for some reason she couldn't make this public?
In 2013, I was sitting at the pool near my parents’ house, pregnant with my first daughter, with a pile of books next to me. I had the idea to write a novel about Bess Houdini, but it was a daunting task, and I was filled with anxiety. I had two graduate degrees in creative writing, a slew of short story publications, but no book yet published.
To start my research, I had stumbled across an old book online called Houdini: His Life Story, by Harold Kellock, and ordered it for around $10. This book was published not long after Houdini’s death, and it was the only book about him that Bess had agreed to be interviewed for. It was in nice condition, the edges of the red cover slightly worn, but it wasn’t valuable, as far as I knew; it was a discard from the Fresno City College Library. And I was planning to make lots of notes in the margins as I read.
Then I opened the front cover, and I saw it:
“Compliments, from the woman of this book. –Bess Houdini, Aug 1, ’28.”
Bess herself had signed the book. In the years since, I have only come across a handful of her signatures; they were very rare, because she wasn’t in her own right a celebrity. As I sit here holding the book, nearly a hundred years after her pen touched the page, it’s still hard to believe this was a “coincidence.” I’d like to think this was a sign from Bess, from the other side, encouraging me to go on with it, telling me that it would all work out.
She was right.