Before writing my novel Mrs. Houdini, I did more than a year of research on Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess. What I discovered was that while there were many stories about Harry's private and public life, Bess was often pushed into the background, despite the fact that she and Harry were almost never apart. It was difficult to pin down information about her. Here are ten little-known facts I learned about Bess Houdini that also appear in my book:
1. She married her husband Harry Houdini a week after she met him.
Bess Houdini, then Bess Rahner, was an 18-year-old girl working at Coney Island in a singing troupe called The Floral Sisters when she met Harry Houdini. She was a devout Catholic and he was a devout Jew—not a common pairing in the 1890s. Allegedly, he immediately fell in love with her and proposed to her days after he met her in 1898 (although she was initially courted by Harry’s brother). Within a week, they had a civil ceremony, a ceremony with a priest, and a ceremony with a rabbi. She said, “Bess saying, "I’m the most married person I know, three times and to the same man." They were married until his death in 1929.
2. She was a magician too.
Bess was notoriously tiny, which made her the perfect person to squeeze into small spaces in Harry’s escape trick, Metamorphosis, that was his signature trick at the time. She took over the role that had initially been filled by Harry’s brother. They were billed as a duo in the early days of their careers as “the Houdinis”, and they performed other acts together on the vaudeville circuit, including a puppet show and, falsely, as psychic mediums. Bess was intricately involved in Harry’s entire career, becoming his stage assistant when he went into performing solo.
3. She couldn’t have children.
Bess loved children, but she couldn’t have any. According to her niece, Marie Blood, she never weighed more than 98 pounds and never menstruated, thanks to a health condition called Primary Amenorrhea. Instead, her dogs became her children, and she and Harry had many throughout the course of their marriage.
4. She made a great bread pudding.
Bread-and-butter pudding was Harry’s favorite dessert, and Bess often made it for him. The recipe was published in 1916 in Celebrated Actor Folks’ Cookeries: A Collection of the Favorite Foods of Famous Players, 1916:
10 slices of day-old brioche bread, crusts removed 1 cup milk 1 teaspoon vanilla extract softened butter for the baking dish 3 eggs, separated 1/2 cup almond flour 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon 2 tablespoons clover honey 1/4 cup sugar 3/4 pound bing cherries, pitted 2 tablespoons sliced almonds, lightly toasted
Cut the bread into 3/4-inch cubes. Combine the milk and vanilla and toss with the bread in a medium bowl. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours or longer. 2. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter a 2-quart baking dish. Arrange the pitted cherries in the dish. 4. Remove the soaked bread from the refrigerator and beat with a whisk or an immersion blender until it becomes a mush.
Beat in the egg yolks, almond flour, cinnamon, and honey. 6. In a clean, dry bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, begin beating the egg whites on low speed. Gradually add the sugar, turn up the speed to high and whip until the egg whites form a soft meringue (about 1 minute). Be careful not to over beat, as you do not want the mixture to dry out. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg whites into the bread mixture.
Scrape into the baking dish over the bing cherries. Sprinkle the sliced almonds on top. 8. Bake 40 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Serve warm.
5. She was a businesswoman.
When Harry died, Bess was only in her 50s – she had much of her life still ahead of her. Until then, her whole life had revolved around Harry and his career. She opened a magic-themed tea room in New York City called Mrs. Harry Houdini's Rendezvous, which a lot of magicians and celebrities frequented. A tea room, back then, wasn’t what we know it as today. They were social places, served full meals, and she often hosted wild parties that went long into the night.
6. She appeared in one movie.
While Harry Houdini had a career in Hollywood in his later days, starring in five movies, Bess herself only appeared in one, after his death. Bess Houdini appeared as herself in the 1938 film Religious Racketeers (later named Mystic Circle Murder), directed by Frank O'Conner and produced by Fanchon Royer. She has just a few lines. The movie tells the story of a wealthy young woman, who becomes involved with a phony medium after her mother dies.
7. She isn’t buried with Harry.
Because Bess was Catholic and Harry was Jewish, they sadly aren’t buried in the same place, despite a marriage that lasted nearly three decades. Harry Houdini is buried in Machpelah Cemetery, a Jewish cemetery, in Queens, New York; and Bess is buried at Gate of Heaven Cemetery, a Catholic cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.
8. She died on a train.
Bess Houdini died on a train traveling from Los Angeles to New York City, on February 11, 1943. The train was in Needles, California at the time. She was traveling with her sister. According to her niece, Marie Blood, Bess was eating chicken gumbo when she died. She was 67 years old.
9. The seances she started for Harry still go on today.
Bess and Harry Houdini made a vow that whoever died first would try to reach the other from beyond the grave. Bess hosted a séance every Halloween (the date of Harry’s death) for ten years, beginning in 1927. When she couldn’t make contact with his spirit, she allowed the seances to continue with a different host, and they still continue today, hosted in a different place each year (always a place Harry had lived in or visited).
10. Bess’s Harlem townhouse is worth $4 million today.
Bess and Harry lived in a townhouse on 113th Street in Harlem for 22 years, until he died. The house included many features reflective of his career, like the giant bathtub where he practiced holding his breath underwater, secret doors, and more. Today, it has been converted into a 3-family home and sold in 2018 for $3.6 million.