Living in the Great Moments: A Review of Victoria Kelly’s ‘Mrs. Houdini’

by Caroline LeBlanc (poet, Army veteran-and-wife)

Mrs. Houdini is an engaging addition to the tradition of books that seek to put flesh onto historical, but often obscure, women attached to famous men.  After a quick introduction to Bess Rahner, the German Catholic vaudeville singer, and Harry Houdini, the Hungarian Jewish vaudeville magician, the book tells quickly of their whirlwind engagement and marriage.  Thus begins the story of the Houdinis’  journey—told in chapters that hopscotch between the 1890s to 1944—from poverty and obscurity on the entertainment road in America and Europe, to celebrity, high living, and debt in their New York and Hollywood homes.  Additionally, in later life, the Houdinis were contemporaries and acquaintances of a number of celebrities who make appearances in the book, including Jack and Charmain London, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lady Jean Doyle.

mrs. houdini

Even beyond their different religious backgrounds, the couple’s families could not have been more dissimilar.  Bess’s rigid Roman Catholic mother rejected them outright. Harry’s warm Jewish mother embraced Bess as a daughter. Harry’s family figures large in their story, mostly because of his extremely close relationship with his mother, the widow of a poor rabbi.  Both Harry’s and Bess’s sisters were important figures in their lives, and particularly in Bess’s life after Harry’s death.

From the beginning of their life together, Bess was subsumed into the passions of Harry’s life. Harry had driving ambitions, but he was shy off stage. Bess was his confidant, social ambassador, and ardent supporter.

In 1926 Houdini died at the age of 52, from a ruptured appendix after a vicious punch to the abdomen by a mysterious visitor. It is not clear if this visitor was a simple blowhard or an agent of spiritualist revenge. On his death bed, Harry tells Bess, “We have to look for each other, Bess. Don’t give up.”

victoria kelly2

author Victoria Kelly

After Harry’s death, Bess had several obsessions, including recovering from the debt he left behind, supporting other magicians, particularly in her New York City Tearoom, and above all, making contact with Harry after his death.  To this last end, she held many séances until 1936 when she staged the last public séance in order to put public interest to rest.

Bess smoothed her white skirt and looked at the men. “Harry was too grand a magician to come back only to shake little bells or write his name on a piece of slate,” she told a reporter named Charles Radley. “He lived in the great moments, and now he is gone.”

“Do you think, if he can see us, he is laughing at the attempt?”

Bess shrugged. “I suppose I’ll ask him when I see him.”

While Harry was obsessed with escaping both physical and spiritual bonds, he was also as an adamant opponent of the Spiritualist pre-occupations before and after the First World War. Still, the spiritualist interest in contact between the dead and the living is the cornerstone of the Houdinis’ story, as told in Mrs. Houdini.

Little is made of Bess’s Roman Catholic background, but it is an important undercurrent through the book, from the discussion of miracles in Chapter 1, to her concern that their childlessness was punishment for their stage séances early in their careers.  Despite this, Bess turned to séances to connect with Harry after his death. Finally she has enough of personal uncertainty and public curiosity, and takes the strongest stand on her own behalf in the entire book.

My whole life, I have believed. Believe in the sacraments, my mother said, and I did.  I believed. Believe we’ll be famous, Harry told me, and I did. Believe people will come see the shows. Believe Holly wood will embrace us. Believe I will come back.” Her whole body ached; she could feel herself growing older, the slight papering of her skin, the slow laboring of her heart. “But I’m tired of believing. I just want to know.

Because of his profession, Harry had many secrets, most of which were known to Bess, who saw what others did not. According to Kelley’s telling of the story, the last public séance was designed to divert public scrutiny from Bess’s most satisfying private discovery of Harry’s most closely held secret—a secret which more than assured Bess that Harry had contacted her.  But this secret constitutes the most interesting turn in the book, so I’ll let the reader discover it between the book’s covers.


About the Author

victoria kellyVictoria Kelly graduated from Harvard University, Trinity College Dublin and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013, Prairie Schooner, Colorado Review and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others.

She is married to a Navy fighter pilot and has written two books of poetry, When the Men Go Off to War and Prayers of an American Wife, which won the 2012 Coal Hill Chapbook Contest.

Learn more at www.victoriakellybooks.com.

 

About the Reviewer

Caroline_LeBlanc_3A frequent contributor to the Military Spouse Book Review, Caroline LeBlanc is a former Army nurse turned Army wife-and-mother. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories.

Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.

For the Mil Spouse Book Review, LeBlanc has also written about the nonfiction compilation Baby, It’s You and two poetry collections, Local News from Someplace Else and The History of Bearing Children. She also took part in an interview here.

On Writing My Novel, We Held the Fort, by Theresa Owen

by Theresa Owen

Stacy gave up her career in Washington to join Mike at Fort Bragg. Following the attacks in 2001, she took the lead of the Family Support Group for her husband’s Airborne infantry company during a deployment to Afghanistan. She became the contact point, source of communication, aide and calm for military families during a war while raising her husband’s ‎ belligerent preteen daughter alone. The wives babysat each other’s children, buried each other’s dead, argued, gossiped and prayed. Then Mike came home. Unable to readjust to civilized life, he spiraled into self-destruction and was about to ruin their lives. This was different than previous redeployments. Something had changed.

we held the fort

Smoking Joe is the most badass officer I have known in this generation, and his wife Beth is the most effective and genuine military spouse I knew.  I was fortunate to work with them twenty years ago at Fort Bragg and was thrilled to see he recently commanded all of the 82nd Airborne Division, then moved on to the Pentagon this year.

Beth was one of two wives who inspired the character of the battalion commander’s better-half in my latest novel, We Held the Fort.  I have no doubt she could run Fort Bragg on her own if need be. Having such a dedicated couple still serving our military gives me hope for its future.

We Held the Fort is my attempt to show the dedication many military spouses give and how their struggles are unique.  I also tried to depict the cultural changes which are debasing our military.  Everything that happened in this novel is something I witnessed or experienced.  Because there is nothing more attractive to me than a man with a cause, and wearing boots, I dated military men for ten years before deciding to move to Fort Bragg.  And ultimately, I moved there because I was offered a teaching job in a poor district.  Despite Fayetteville being a dumpy town in the middle of nowhere, life was incredibly meaningful there for me.  I loved being a military wife. My two sons were born at Fort Bragg.  I volunteered to help military families in hopes it would keep my husband safer.  Unfortunately, my life with the military came to a heartbreaking end.  It was not a heroic end, nor was it uncommon.

The military and other uniformed services have developed a dark side over the past twenty years.  Painkillers, antidepressants and steroids are rampant and encouraged.  Have an injury?  Take a pill and carry on. Marriage is falling apart?  Take a pill and carry on.  Need that Army Strong look?  Take a pill and carry on.  These temporary solutions are creating larger long term problems and destroying lives. Domestic violence in military families and rape of fellow soldiers have increased dramatically.  Now military members returning from combat sit through short intervention talks just before being released, but if a soldier claims to have concerns, he is held back from going home. So the returning soldiers nod their heads, sign away the military’s responsibility to their actions, and carry on.

This novel does not discuss possible reasons for these changes, but simply tries to expose them for conversation.  Remaining silent to what I have witnessed would be accepting misconduct and I can’t do that.  Although there is a broader cultural issue, I find the current Army mission is indicative of the wrong direction it has taken: “To fight and win our Nation’s wars by providing prompt, sustained land dominance across the full range of military operations and spectrum of conflict in support of combatant commanders.”  Considering this statement does not mention the nation’s protection, nor the honor of our servicemen or citizens, but rather the taking of land ‘in support of combatant commanders,’ it is prophetically fitting for a time of perpetual war. 

My fellow military spouses: your sacrifice was beautiful!  

My next book is an historical novel about the life of Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman decorated with the Medal of Honor and whose name is on the awards given to Army spouses for exceptional service. 


About the Author

teresa owenTheresa Owen was decorated with the Walker Award for her volunteer service to the US Army as a Family Readiness Group leader, a position she held through two combat tours. She studied social sciences at Cal Poly, education at University of DC, taught in schools around the world, raised two sons and continues to write.