Mrs. Houdini

A Novel

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About The Book

“Richly lyrical and thought-provoking” (Publishers Weekly, starred review), this “stellar debut from a novelist to watch” (Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author) explores the passionate marriage of Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess—a love story that defied death itself.

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.

In surprising turns that weave through the uncertain days of the dawn of the twentieth century and continue into the dazzling 1920s, Mrs. Houdini is a “dazzling and enchanting” (Shelf Awareness, starred review) tale, “a marvel that gallops through time and space” (Associated Press), and a “mesmerizing reimagining” (People) of one of history’s greatest love stories.

Excerpt

Mrs. Houdini Chapter 1 CONEY ISLAND June 1894
Besides the beach, there was no better place to spend a humid Saturday afternoon on Coney Island than inside Vacca’s Theater, where it was cool and dark. There were enough seats to make the place seem popular, but few enough that the stage always looked close, as if it were just on the other side of your living room. Bess had performed there three weeks earlier, right after she’d turned eighteen and joined the Floral Sisters, and the audience had been kind, throwing pink roses onto the stage. She and the girls knew better than to give their real names, which were dull, German names, and there would always be a crowd of eager men waiting by the theater doors afterward, wanting to know if they were really sisters, and was their last name really Floral?

This morning one of the girls had persuaded Bess to come with her. Her real name was Nora but everyone called her Doll, because she had tiny, rose-pink fingernails and eyes like moons. It was going to be a real riot, she said; a magician named Dash had saved her two seats and promised her a good show.

“You know, the other magician’s his brother,” Doll told her as they crossed the street from their boardinghouse onto the fairground. “And he’s unattached as well.”

“Of course he is,” Bess said. “And they’re always brothers.”

Doll rolled her eyes. “No, his real brother.”

“That’s what he told you, at least.” Doll was always giddy with the anticipation of love, always bringing Bess along on dates, and the worst were the dates with other performers. They all made their livings pretending to be something they were not—Bess and Doll included—but it was difficult for the men especially to be both charming and sincere at the same time, when in show business you could really only be one or the other.

Their seats were in the third row, left, and they had a good view of the stage when the two magicians stepped out and announced themselves to the crowd. They spoke loudly, and with authority, but the reception from the audience was merely polite. They were not transported yet; everyone could still hear the bells and laughter of the carnival outside, not quite muffled by the humidity of the afternoon. The women fanned their faces lazily, and no one was quite sure exactly who the Brothers Houdini were, although they billed themselves as “escape artists.”

“Which one’s Dash?” Bess asked, and Doll pointed to the taller of the two, who was tying the other inside a black cloth sack.

She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed, because the one Doll called Harry wasn’t as tall as Dash, or pleased, because Harry was clearly the more athletic of the two, with darker hair and a rounder jaw. She had always liked dark-haired men. In high school, she had come close to losing her way with a waiter who’d kissed her so hard he’d bitten her. Still, she had been charmed by his coal-black hair and the swagger of a hot summer.

Still inside the sack, Harry knelt down in a steamer trunk, which Dash then locked and wrapped with a heavy braided rope. There was no sound or movement from inside the trunk. Dash pulled a curtain around the trunk and himself so that both men were completely obscured from view.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he declared from behind the curtain, raising his voice to drown out the sounds of the music outside. Doll pressed her palms together in anticipation. “Behold”—he clapped three times—“a miracle!”

The curtain was opened by unseen hands, and there, on the other side, stood Harry, completely free, arms raised triumphantly in the air. The audience murmured and then broke into loud applause.

Bess leaned toward Doll. “That was slick.”

“Wait,” Doll said, grabbing her arm. “I don’t think it’s over yet.”

Harry, his white shirt miraculously undirtied, proceeded to unwind the rope from around the trunk and open the latch. Inside, emerging somehow from the cloth sack, also unrumpled, was Dash.

The audience cheered. “Bravo!” Doll called, getting to her feet. From the stage, Dash noticed them and smiled. Bess was impressed and curious. It had been a matter of only a few minutes since Harry himself had been tied up in that sack. How could he have managed to get himself out, and Dash in, so quickly?

Then, from the back of the theater, a voice broke out. “Youse a bunch of fakers!” someone cried. The crowd parted to reveal a scowling, gray-haired man with his fists in the air. “I know fakers when I sees them, and youse two are some fakers!”

Onstage, Dash and Harry looked at each other. “I beg to differ with you, sir,” Harry said, and the audience laughed.

“What you have here is a fake box, and I’m gonna show this thing up,” the man cried.

“Do it!” someone else called. “Go up there and do it!”

Bess felt sorry for the Houdinis. She wished she could save them. She saw Dash wince, and she looked at Doll. “Those poor boys. He’s ruining their act.” But neither brother seemed the least bit flustered.

The man made his way up to the stage, cheered by the audience, and when he arrived he stood face-to-face with Harry and Dash, his cheeks flaming red.

“I can get myself outta that cheap box,” he announced. “I been doin’ acts for thirty years, and you’re dirtyin’ the stage with your fake tricks.”

“Please,” Harry said, motioning toward the trunk still sitting in the middle of the stage. The audience laughed again, nervously this time.

The man climbed inside the sack and pulled it up to his shoulders and then over his head, still muttering to himself. When he was completely enclosed, Harry tied the sack and helped him kneel down inside the trunk. Dash closed the latch and locked it, then pulled the curtain around the trunk, and Harry and Dash sat down on the edge of the stage to wait, their legs dangling just above the floor.

For the first few minutes everyone was quiet; Bess was not quite sure whether they were rooting for the old man or for the Houdinis; it would make for an unexpected show either way. By the start of the third minute, the crowd began to murmur.

Doll looked at Bess and beamed. “Dash promised a riot, didn’t he? I’ll tell you what, this is wonderful fun. I wonder how long he’ll stay in there.”

Bess wasn’t so sure. By the fifth minute it was becoming apparent that something was wrong. The crowd was restless, and some people were beginning to boo. Harry stood up from his seat at the corner of the stage and held up his hand.

As the voices died down, the muffled cries behind the curtain became louder. Someone on the other side was calling for help. Dash jumped to his feet, and he and Harry yanked the curtain aside to reveal the trunk, still roped shut. Dash sliced the ropes, and together the brothers helped pull the man, still inside the sack, from the confinement of the trunk. He was writhing inside the cloth, and when they untied it and the fabric fell to his feet, he stood for a moment in the middle of the stage, his body damp with perspiration, and then collapsed on the floor.

The crowd cheered.



The brothers had promised to meet them at the stage door a half hour after the show. Doll begged Bess to go back to their room so she could change. “I hate this skirt.” She tugged at the coarse blue fabric. “I should have worn the red.”

“Won’t Anna be mad when she sees you brought me instead of her?”

“Nah.” Doll shrugged. “She’s got a beau of her own tonight anyway.”

Bess smiled, but she knew why Doll had asked her instead of Anna. Of the three of them, Bess was the plainest; she had the smallest bust and the cruelest shape. Anna, on the other hand, with her corn-blond hair and pillowed cheeks, was the principal among them, and always took the middle spot when they sang.

They lived, with most of the other performers, in West Brighton, in a neighborhood nicknamed the Gut. The rough half a dozen blocks were crammed with shanties, beer halls, and cabarets. The three of them lived in a cheap hotel alongside chorus girls who danced in the bars and hustled customers by slipping hydrate of chloral into their drinks and stealing their wallets. It was Bess’s dream to one day earn enough to stay in the Brighton Beach Hotel, with its white veranda and geranium-lined walkways.

In their room, in the tiny aisle between the bunk and the single bed, each with its own tiny brass lamp, Doll leaned into a hand mirror and examined her eyelashes. “I hate it in here,” she said. “It’s so crammed, and there’s hardly any light.”

Bess nodded but couldn’t complain. It was the most independence she’d had, having grown up under first her mother’s constant religious admonitions, then the protective watchfulness of her older sister. And she did not regret leaving her sister’s tiny apartment on Grand Street, where the wealthier townhomes of Bedford were always just within view, their elaborate stonework and silk-draped windows a reminder of what she could never have. When Doll and Anna had asked her to join the singing troupe, she’d had nothing to lose. She had only a year of high school left, and the careers ahead of her were wife, nun, or shopgirl.

Most of the Gut had burned down a decade earlier, but it was still a wicked place to live, and no girl walked alone there at night. They practiced their act instead in the afternoons, in the park adjacent to the Manhattan Beach Hotel. The performance consisted mainly of love ballads for soprano and alto, accompanied by swaying hips and flickering eyelashes. Onstage, they wore feathers in their hair, black ankle boots, and skirts hemmed to their shins. After a half hour of rehearsal, sprawled on the cool hotel grass, they listened to the guests splashing in the saltwater bathhouses next door and plotted how to win a spot in Henderson’s Music Hall, with its polished wood stage, red velvet seats, and gilded balconies. Bess had been in Coney Island for only three weeks, but already she was lulled by the routine of their lazy afternoons, their evenings at the clam bars or the racetrack, the easy and unpoliced flirtation between men and women. None of it seemed scandalous to her. It did not seem like Gomorrah but rather like Eden, the carousels and the ivory sand and the hotels with their burning lights and pastel awnings, the thick, syrupy smell of the confectioners in the lobbies. She could almost forget the hot, baked sidewalks of Grand Street, the raging nightly altercations of the couple who lived on the other side of the apartment wall. When she was onstage with the girls, the evening air drifting through open windows and the piano music echoing behind her, she could imagine herself living this life forever, accountable to no one, her dark hair braided with pink feathers and the sound of her voice carrying, After the ball is over, after the break of morn, after the dancers’ leaving, after the stars are gone.



Dash met them first, swinging his stage jacket over his shoulder and cracking some joke about Harry primping like a girl. He picked Doll up by the waist and spun her in a quick circle, pressing his mouth against hers. “I was hoping you’d come,” he said.

“Oh, the act was wonderful,” she breathed. “We wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”

He turned to Bess. “I’m Dash,” he said, pumping her hand. “My brother and I saw you in your show last weekend.” He nodded at Doll. “I stopped this one on her way out.”

Bess felt her cheeks burning. She hadn’t noticed them. “I usually don’t pay attention to faces,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry. I know that seems rude.”

Dash shrugged. “Nah.”

“Are you two really brothers?” she asked.

“We are.”

“You don’t look much alike.”

“We’re Hungarian,” he said, as if it were an explanation. Bess didn’t press him further, because the one Doll had called Harry had come outside and was striding over to them. His hair was newly brushed and he’d changed his shoes, but while Dash had switched shirts, Harry wore the same clothing she’d seen onstage. She couldn’t see any stains of perspiration on his shirt. She wondered if that, too, was a trick, whether he’d simply changed into an identical shirt to make it seem as if it had all been easy. If so, it had worked; she was impressed.

“Well, that was good fun,” he said, putting his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Now who are these lovely women here?” He spoke with a slight European accent, enunciating each word carefully, as if he were being especially cautious not to give himself away. Bess wondered what he’d make of learning that her real name was heavily German.

She introduced herself as Bess. When she held out her hand, he turned it over and, boldly, kissed the middle of her palm. She snatched it away, surprised and a little scandalized.

“My mother always told me never to shake a woman’s hand,” he said. “It’s disrespectful.”

Doll laughed and reached for Dash’s arm. “You magicians are quite cheeky, aren’t you?”

Bess considered Harry’s bold gesture. She wasn’t sure what to make of him. He was taller than she was, which was easy considering she was still the height of a child, but he had an arrogance about him that unnerved her.

“Are we going to the beach?” Doll asked. “Let’s, please. It’s sweltering out here.”

The sun was going down behind them, but guests were still pouring onto the grounds, and the streetlamps blazed like the white eyes of ghosts. Bess recalled her mother’s shame when she’d left home, but it was worth it, wasn’t it, to be here in the summer lights in this jewel-encrusted palace, a place with more color and life than she’d ever known.

None of the performers spent much of their free time in the fairground, though. The Bowery was always crowded, the food was expensive, and they didn’t get any of it for free. But mostly, there was always the possibility that theatergoers might recognize or accost them. Even worse than that, although no one said it out loud, was the possibility that they would actually be mistaken for the theatergoers themselves, ordinary men and women who ate hot dogs or waited in line for a goat-cart ride or the Switchback dime railroad. And the idea of it—such tedious, immaculate ordinariness—was abhorrent. They had all come to Coney Island to forge extraordinary, resplendent lives under the lights. Perhaps her sister would be content to wait in line, but Bess would not be one of the onlookers anymore.

“To the beach,” Dash agreed and took Doll’s hand, and Harry fell in step behind them. Bess walked beside him, as she had nowhere else to go, but he didn’t speak to her again. She was unsettled by his silence, and slightly insulted. It seemed outside the bounds of common decency. He was young—almost as young as she—and she wondered if he had ever even been with a woman before. Doll—who was an expert in such matters—had explained to her that when men made a show of their confidence it was often to disguise some sexual insecurity.

Finally she gave in and spoke first. “Tell me something.” She lowered her voice so Dash and Doll wouldn’t hear. “You knew that man in the audience was going to challenge you tonight, didn’t you? You knew he’d never be able to get out of that trunk.”

Harry smiled. “Why would you think that?”

“Or maybe it was all made up, and you paid him to get stuck in there so you could look like a hero.” She surprised herself with this. She hadn’t meant to be so brash. But she was stewing in the insult of his silence, and it had brought out another, harsher side to her.

His smile faded. “I’ll tell you one thing—not a soul in the whole state of New York can get out of that trunk except Dash and me. And I certainly don’t need to pay anyone to try.”

“You don’t have to snap at me.” She paused. “I could get out of that trunk.”

He looked at her, amused. “Could you?”

Bess nodded. “You’re clearly very skilled with ropes—that’s the most difficult part. You had your hands untied behind your back before Dash even pulled the sack up over your head. But the rope tying the sack was tricked—I suspect you just had to pull on it from the inside for it to open the bag. Then there’s the trick panel on the rear of the trunk.”

Harry’s smirk vanished. “You’re wrong.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t take a great deal of skill and practice to do it so quickly. I do think you should bind your ankles as well though. It would make the escape seem even more miraculous.” She saw Harry’s face darken and realized she had gone too far.

“I’ll tell you my own secret,” she said, more kindly. “My real name’s much worse than Floral. It’s Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner. The Bess comes from Beatrice.”

Harry’s anger seemed to soften. “That’s your secret? It’s not that bad.”

“Of course it is. It sounds like the name of some fat headmistress.”

“Beatrice was the name of Dante’s muse,” he argued. “He wrote her into Paradise.”

Bess glanced up at the dim figures of Dash and Doll, ahead of them, growing farther and farther away. “You’ve read Dante?”

“I’ve read everything there is to do with magic. Or at least I intend to, anyway.”

“But Dante’s books are about religion.” She recalled her teacher’s lecture on the Inferno in high school. She wouldn’t classify it as a study in magic—fantasy, maybe, if you took it lightly. But to Bess, the nine circles of hell were a Catholic warning against sin, about how carefully everyone treaded in this world, and how quickly fortune could be taken away. The Italian girls flaunted their untranslated copies of the book to show up the German girls, whom they considered bland and unsophisticated. Of course, on Sundays they all went to the same church, and outside their neighborhood, in the wealthier parts of the city, all of them tried equally hard not to give away any trace of their heritages, using American nicknames to disguise Old World names and American makeup to hide ethnic imperfections.

Harry snorted. “Magic and religion are the same thing.”

“You mean miracles?”

“Miracles don’t exist. I mean real magic.” He frowned. “Growing up, I watched my father pace uselessly around the room when the rent came due, saying, ‘The Lord will provide, the Lord will provide.’ But it wasn’t the Lord who found ways to pay our rent. It was me.”

Bess was taken aback. “I have to say I disagree with you. Miracles do exist.”

“Have you ever seen one?”

“No, but—”

“So how would you know?”

“It depends on how you look at it. A baby being born—that’s a miracle, don’t you think?” She felt her cheeks flush. It was becoming clear how young she was, how little experience she had outside the few blocks she grew up on. She knew the priests did not have all the answers; in fact, one of the ones she’d encountered in a church near the Gut had tried to run his hand along her leg. But it was difficult to admit that, to some extent, life was one great pool of floundering souls, everyone clutching for something to believe in. Church had always set her at ease—when her father died, when her mother remarried, and the house was full of screaming children—she could sit for an hour among the trembling brightness of the candles, the windows the colors of jewels, and all that breathless beauty, and be still.

“Listen,” Harry said. “The only miracle I’ve seen yet is the one that led me to meeting you tonight.”

Bess blinked at him. She wondered if he was making fun of her. She had insulted him, perhaps even humiliated him, and now he was proclaiming some kind of tenderness toward her? He hadn’t even touched her hand, but she felt as if he’d run his fingers down her back. She wrapped her arms instinctively around her waist. “You’re—you’re quite straightforward.”

Harry reached toward her. “Are you cold?”

She shook her head and changed the subject. “Are you saying you don’t believe in religion then?”

“Of course I do. My father was a Jewish scholar.”

“Oh,” she stammered, confused. “You’re . . . Jewish then?” She wasn’t quite sure which was worse—that he was Jewish, or that he seemed to have mocked her own beliefs. Or that neither of these changed the fact that she couldn’t quite bring herself to step away from him.

“I suppose.”

“Do you still practice it?”

“No.” He looked her up and down. “And you’re Catholic, then?”

“Why would you suppose that?”

He smiled. “You said Jewish with such forced politeness.”

She blushed. “I did not. And it’s not that. My mother’s very strict about her faith.”

“So you became a dancer. How very Catholic of you.” He frowned. “You seem to put a lot of stock in what you’ve learned from other people—teachers, parents, priests. But what about what you’ve learned for yourself?”

She felt, in a way, that, by standing here alone with Harry, she had made a decision without intending to. His breath was so warm she felt as if it might scald her. She realized now that she wouldn’t—couldn’t—go back. What she had once considered sinful did not seem wrong anymore. The routines of her new life—the wide-eyed stares of the men in the audience; the giggling late-night confessions of Anna and Doll in the bunk across from her—seemed not only harmless but honest and real. She had been looking for something during those hours she spent in the solitude of a church pew, but she had found it here instead, in Harry’s smooth, unblemished face, and in the way he seemed to want her not for being smooth or unblemished but for being wonderfully complicated, emerging from the banality of her past life to something enthralling.

They had reached the beach now, and the ocean, black as cloth in the distance, the froth of the waves cascading like plumage, was less than a hundred feet away. There was something spectacular about the sea at night—it was dangerous, unexplored; and if there was such a thing as magic, then it was certainly somewhere out there, in all that humid darkness.

They stood with their feet buried in the sand, looking out at the water. Dash and Doll were nowhere to be seen, but she could hear the unmistakable chirp of Doll’s laughter, somewhere down the beach. “You believe in miracles. But don’t you believe in magic?” Harry asked her, his dark eyes suddenly serious.

Bess blinked. “I—I don’t think so. You mean like flying carpets? No.”

“I’m going to tell you a secret, then. And it is essential that you know this.” He took both her hands and looked at her. A current of electricity shot through her. “There is no such thing as magic.”

Bess felt herself shiver, but she didn’t pull away. “Why do you say that?”

“Because if it was real, I’d know it.”

“That’s a ridiculous answer.”

He shrugged. “Perhaps.”

She was suddenly nervous to be alone with him. She didn’t care much for propriety, but it was odd that the beach was empty, even at this hour. A few hundred feet away was a thick, salty marshland, and swarming the air by their faces, clouds of tiny black bugs found their way into Bess’s hair and mouth. She was becoming more and more uncomfortable next to Harry. There was something animal-like about his movements, the strength with which he’d grabbed her. He had seemed to joke with her before, but there was not a trace of play in his black eyes now. He was watching her with intent.

“I wrote you off, back when I watched you perform,” he said. “I thought you were just another flirt singing silly songs.”

“Oh,” she said, alarmed. “Well, I don’t know what to say to that.”

“But you knew about tonight. You were right that we were onto that lackey who tried to discredit us. And the trunk trick . . . I’m not saying you were right about that. I’m just saying no one’s ever come so close to seeing through one of my tricks. You’re smarter than I expected. And bolder, too, I guess.”

She could feel herself growing dizzy in the heat. The waves seemed to be pressing in on them both.

Something occurred to her. “How many times did you see me perform?”

“Three or four.”

“I didn’t see you.”

“I was in the back. You wouldn’t have seen me. But we passed each other in the Bowery a few times.”

Bess was startled. “Why didn’t you say anything to me? Did you know it was going to be me here with Doll tonight?”

Harry slid his hands into his pockets. “I asked Dash to take Doll out, so you’d come.”

“Oh, that’s mean. Now she thinks he likes her. You should have just asked me.”

“Would you have said yes?”

“Sure.”

He smiled. “How much do you like me?” he asked.

“What?”

“Enough to marry me?”

Bess laughed. She couldn’t tell if he was serious now, or mocking her. “That’s a lark. And I don’t see how you’ll win me over by making fun of me.”

“I’m not making fun. I’m serious. I’m twenty and you’re what—eighteen?”

She nodded. “Yes, we’re still young. What’s the rush?” She was playing along now.

“You’re not a child anymore, Bess. You’re a woman. Don’t you feel that’s what you are?” He put his hand on the back of her neck. She felt the churn in her stomach. “You’re old enough by now to know what it is you want.”

“I suppose I am.” The words didn’t sound as playful as she intended. He was as confusing a man as she had ever met. No one had ever professed his love to her before. In fact, some of the men Doll had introduced her to had told her frankly that they couldn’t take her seriously; she looked too much like a child with her curly hair and small lips. Now this man she had just met—who was, perhaps, as much still a boy as she was a girl—was declaring himself to her, and she wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or suspicious.

“Don’t you want me?” he asked, with utter seriousness.

She shook her head. “I don’t know what you mean by that exactly. I’m not the kind of girl you might be thinking I am.”

He removed his hand from her neck and brushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “I mean, don’t you want to marry me?”

Rationally, it didn’t make sense. Neither of them had any money. She had known him for a night. He could turn out to be the kind of man who drank, who hit her when he was angry. He could miscalculate one of his tricks and die young. And she’d been in Coney Island only three weeks. Three weeks earlier, she’d been a schoolgirl, working at a shop counter in the evenings. She hadn’t had enough time to become someone else. What would she do if she became a mother? People who got married had children. Did she even want a child?

The sand hills loomed like mountains beside her, the scattered shells dimly white in the moonlight. She bent down and held one in her hand. The front was smooth, the inside rough with salt. She looked at Harry. He had his hands in his pockets and was staring at her expectantly. She laid her palm against her forehead. Harry knelt down beside her. “What’s wrong? Are you sick?”

She thought of what her mother would say if she brought home a Jew. “I can’t believe you’re actually serious right now. I can’t marry you, Harry. You don’t know a thing about me, nor I you.”

He considered this. “Harry’s not my real name. My real name is Ehrich Weiss. And no one here knows that but Dash, and you, now.”

“So you see then? I don’t even know what to call you.”

“You can call me whatever you like.”

“Harry—” she began.

He pulled her to her feet. “Come with me.”

“No, I can’t.”

“I’ll carry you then.” He picked her up like a trinket, laughing, then hooked his arms around her shoulders and knees, like a groom carrying a bride. “You’re very light.”

“This is preposterous,” she cried, but he was already walking in long strides across the sand, toward the marsh. “Where are we going?”

The marsh, they discovered, was really a quick rush of water the ocean had made into a river, through the sand. It had dug itself deep over time, and someone had built a small bridge across it. He put her down in the middle of the bridge. “Can you stand?” he asked.

“I can, you brute. But you’re mad. What in the world makes you think we can get married when we’ve only just met?”

“Damn it, Bess! How can you not see it?” His outburst startled her, and she stepped back. “We’re the same, you and me.” He wrapped his hands around her waist and held her tightly. “We see things. Things other people don’t.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you didn’t see me. When you were onstage you were looking right at me, and yet you didn’t see me. Because you were seeing something else. Am I right?”

Bess nodded. She’d learned that when she sang, the songs enveloped her. She saw sensations in front of her—colors, the heat of the afternoon like smoke rising, brightness like the sun on glass.

He went on, breathlessly, as if the realization had consumed him. “There’s something else out there, beyond what the mind can perceive. Maybe it’s religion, maybe it’s not. It’s not magic the way we think of it—that kind of magic is a game. It’s something else, something truer than that. Some people believe in it. A few can sense it. But me—I can see it. And then I met you. And I think—I think you can actually reach it.”

Bess was stricken. She could feel the pulse of his hands around her waist as if the blood was throbbing through his fingers. “Reach what, Harry?”

“What is out there. The other place.”

“Like heaven?”

“White gates and all that? No, no. I think there’s another plane of living right here where we’re standing. People who have been, people who have yet to be, what if they are right here with us? And yet most of us aren’t even aware of them.” His eyes danced. There was a madness to his passion, but he was not insane. There was something real and familiar about him. She felt he was putting words to something she had always known. And what if he was right? What if she possessed something extraordinary? No one, before Doll and Anna approached her and asked her to sing, had ever believed she was extraordinary.

“Speaking with the dead is sacrilege.”

“I don’t care if you speak with them or not. I was only trying to explain why I love you.” He seemed suddenly nervous, as if, in his arrogance, he had only just now realized that she could reject him. “I was trying to say that you’re perceptive. And I think you could make me better.”

He stepped back slightly, turning to face the lights of the Bowery in the distance. “I’ve never been one to take anything slow. I’ve got these great expectations, you know. I’m going to be famous, and very wealthy, and I’m going to take care of my mother so she never has to worry again, and I simply can’t do that living like everyone else. When you caught on to my tricks, I thought, This is it. This is the girl. And if I know you’re the girl, why should I wait to tell you?”

Bess blushed. “Surely you can’t tell that from one—”

“That song you sing in your act—what was it? O’er me you cast a spell, something-something-something.”

“Rosabel.”

He grinned. “Yes, that was it. Rosabel. I loved that song. How does it go?”

“Rosabel, sweet Rosabel,” she said hurriedly, speaking instead of singing, “I love her more than I can tell, over me she casts a spell, my charming black-eyed Rosabel—” She broke off. “I thought you said it was silly.”

“No, I said the songs were silly.” He shook his head; he had been listening, rapt. “But that one’s beautiful. I started to love you then—your face lit up when you sang it. I thought, This is a girl who hopes for things. She probably doesn’t know a thing about love yet, but once she has it, she’s never giving it up. And then, after you sang the last verse, it was as if you realized you’d revealed too much. So you laughed and did that little jig, kicking your feet up, and the audience was charmed. But I knew. Your face had given it all away.”

Bess stared at him. She felt herself being swept up by his certitude. There was a kind of grandeur about him, about the way he seemed to feel emotions so strongly, as if the rest of the world lay glazed with sleep while he danced furiously. “I feel like—you may know my thoughts better than I do.” She had always believed herself decisive, self-reliant, but now she felt flustered.

“It’s the other way around. Tonight, you saw through me—you saw me . . . It was you who cast the spell.”

Bess thought about the morning of her thirteenth birthday, when her mother had first proposed the idea of her entering the nunnery. Her mother had taken her to a shabby brownstone in the middle of Manhattan where rows of old ladies in black robes were seated silently on benches, stringing rosaries. Outside, the city roared with life. She couldn’t imagine spending the rest of her life as one of those somber women, while just outside the door there was so much incandescence, so many elegant shops and sharply dressed men waiting to love her.

But her mother was a strict, unforgiving German woman, whose body had borne ten children, and whose second husband was in and out of the house, most of the time stinking of beer, a poor replacement for Bess’s gentle father, who had died years earlier. That afternoon, Bess had vowed to accept the first opportunity that would take her away from home. The opportunity came four years later, in the form of two nineteen-year-old girls named Nora Koch and Anna Kappel, who had been slightly ahead of her in high school but had left when they were fifteen, with dreams of being in vaudeville. She ran into them on the street outside the grocer’s; they had had some minor success as a singing duo, but they were looking for a third, and invited her to go with them to Coney Island, where they had booked an act for the summer, and longer, if they succeeded. But recently the thought had occurred to her that if they reached September without a larger booking, they could not continue, and what would she do then?

The act was barely making them enough money to afford their room in the boardinghouse, and she couldn’t imagine going back to Brooklyn, even to Stella’s, and having Sunday lunch with her family once again and hearing her stepfather crashing through the door, slurring those terrible old German songs, and seeing all her brothers and sisters crammed into two bedrooms. If she were married, she would have a home of her own. She wasn’t quite sure what love felt like, but she liked the way she felt when Harry touched her. And he said he wanted her. No one in her life had seemed to want to love her so much as he did.

“All right,” she said softly. “I’ll marry you.”

“You see? That’s part of what I love about you. You always do the unexpected.”

Then he resumed his strange seriousness. From the other side of Coney Island came the echo of church bells chiming the hour. They seemed an anomaly against the faint cacophony of voices drifting from the Bowery. “There’s something you need to promise me first,” he said. “Before we get married.”

“What is it?”

Harry took her hands and lifted them straight up, clasping his palms against hers. They were rough as sandpaper. “Beatrice,” he said. “Raise your hands to heaven and swear that you will be true to me. Never betray me in any way, so help you God.”

There was not an animal in the water beneath them, not a single creature shuffling through the sand. Everything was stillness.

“I will never betray you,” Bess murmured. She could not take her eyes off him. His intensity was hypnotic.

“What I do—I have many secrets. When you’re my wife, you’ll know all of them. You’ll know everything about me. You’ll know more than Dash, even. And if you agree to marry me, it must be forever. You can never go back home again.”

There was something about the lateness of the hour, the bridge in the marshland, and the dramatic vow he’d made her take that gave her pause. She wondered if she was standing face-to-face with a madman. But there was something thrilling about what had just transpired. Harry was promising her a life of possibility, of magic, and it was unlike anything she had ever imagined for herself. And she could not help but envision, now, what it would be like to be his wife, to wake up beside him, to watch him stand in front of her, silhouetted against the window, the muscles in his back sharp as lines of charcoal. She wanted him to kiss her. She thought of that black-haired waiter in Brooklyn and the taste of blood on her lip where he’d bitten her; she had been frightened then, but she wanted Harry to put his mouth on her now. She wanted him to say he would never love anyone but her. She thought of the sheer strength he must have to pull off that escape trick onstage, and she wondered what it would feel like to know that strength.

She thought about what her friends would say when she told them she had fallen in love with him. Doll would be both thrilled and heartbroken. Anna would despise her for leaving the group, certainly.

“Don’t be nervous.” Harry put his arm around her shoulder. “I will take care of you.”

“Harry,” she whispered. “When we are old, I want you to think of me as I am on our wedding night.” She didn’t know where the words came from. “I want to please you. I want you to remember me.” It seemed a more binding vow than the one he had asked her to swear.

He pulled her to him then, for the first time, so their bodies were against each other, their arms intertwined. She could feel his stomach harden. He pressed his mouth against hers and kissed her. Gently, he lowered her onto the wood of the bridge so they were kneeling face-to-face.

She heard Dash and Doll coming up the beach toward them, breaking their solitude. They stood up quickly, wiping the mud off their clothes. Doll was waving. “Yoo-hoo!” she called.

“You devil, Harry!” Dash shouted. “We knew you two were up to something!”

“Do you think Dash will be cross when you tell him?” Bess whispered.

“No.” Harry shrugged. “And it doesn’t matter now. We’ve made our vows.”

“But—we’ll have a ceremony?”

“Of course.” Harry took her chin in his hand and kissed her again.



They bought her ring in the morning, at a secondhand jewelry store, pooling what little money they had. When it was polished it looked almost new, and Harry had the gold engraved inside with the word Rosabel, which would come to symbolize a time in their lives when everything was simplest, when a man could declare his love on a bridge in the middle of a humid night and everything usual or proper could be disregarded. In the afternoon they were married by the local ward boss, with his secretary as witness, and by the evening Bess had packed a suitcase with her few sets of clothes and photographs and moved into Harry’s room in the hotel across the street. He told her they would be leaving in a week, because Vacca’s was stiffing him and he’d heard of some opportunities in the South. She tried to imagine what her mother was doing at the very moment—some kind of embroidery, probably, or washing the pots, and she wondered what she herself would be doing thirty years later, when she was her mother’s age, and whether there would be anything left of the girl Harry fell in love with. She looked out at the roller coaster across the street, and the young girls in their white summer dresses and the boys staring after them, and the memories, beating with life, like tiny birds, before her eyes.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Mrs. Houdini includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
 

Introduction

Love transcends time and space in Victoria Kelly’s thrilling debut.

Before Harry Houdini dies, he promises his beloved wife that he will speak to her from beyond the grave through messages in a code only known to the two of them. Once widowed, Bess Houdini begins to discover the hidden codes in the most impossible places, leading her on a journey to reconnect with her late husband.

From the dawn of the twentieth century through the Roaring 1920s, Victoria Kelly’s novel presents a dazzling tale of history’s most thrilling romance. In Mrs. Houdini, Harry performs his most marvelous act of all: convincing readers to trust in the unknown and ultimately to believe in magic.
 

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Harry proposes to Bess the night that he meets her. What about Bess instantly captures his heart? Why do you think she accepts his proposal? How would you react if you were Bess?

2. Harry was a great believer in transformation: “It was a fact of human nature . . . that people wished to become something else. They wanted to travel to that mysterious in-between place that lives only in magic, which ordinary men and women cannot reach.” How does Harry use this knowledge in both his escape acts and his personal life?

3. Mrs. Houdini contains two hidden codes. Describe their figurative and symbolic significance to Harry and Bess’s relationship.

4. According to Bess, Harry’s fascination with celebrity “was a result of his having achieved a little fame, but not enough to secure their future.” How does this obsession manifest itself on the stage versus in his personal life? Which is more revealing—Harry’s desire for fame or Bess’s ideas about what drove him?

5. To Bess, Harry was “very much like a boy himself, a kind of Peter Pan, if you will, who never grew up.” Why do you think Bess makes this comparison? Do you agree with her?

6. Bess’s infertility causes her much grief on a personal and even religious level. In what ways does her inability to conceive—and the knowledge that she is the one at fault—affect Bess as a wife? As a woman? Although the novel is told from Bess’s point of view, do you think Harry truly understood his wife’s despair?

7. Bess often feels that Harry favors his mother more than her, even wondering “if Harry felt toward her the same fierce love and sense of duty he felt toward his mother.” Where do you think Harry’s loyalties ultimately lay? Contrast how Bess and Harry are affected by his mother’s death.

8. The Houdinis initially perform séances, billing themselves as the “Celebrated Clairvoyants,” but Bess eventually fears their act is immoral, realizing she “had spit in the face of the God she’d been taught to worship.” How are séances a source of religious conflict? Why is Bess haunted by her participation in them? How does her relationship with religion compare to her husband’s? What role do séances play in the Houdinis’ later life?

9. Harry attempts to find Charles throughout his life, even hiring a private investigator. If Harry had found Charles, how Harry’s life have changed? Do you think Bess would be supportive or devastated?

10. Bess feels a deep obligation to communicate with her husband ever since he told her on his deathbed “I’ll come back for you. Promise you’ll look for me. Don’t give up. I won’t be able to rest until I reach you.” Do you agree with Bess’s decisions to honor her husband’s request? In what ways does this devotion harm her life, and it what ways is it necessary for her in order to survive?

11. How would you characterize Bess and Harry’s relationship? Although they are very much a team on- and offstage, their marriage is still afflicted with secrets, doubts, and even betrayal. Do you consider it normal for such things to exist in any long-standing relationship? How do you explain Bess and Harry’s passion despite their struggles? Does it remind you of any other larger-than-life romances in literature or history?

12. How do you interpret Harry’s fascination with death? What is he trying to prove? Is our world permeable?

13. Victoria Kelly did extensive research on the Houdinis and the time in which they lived. How much did you learn about Harry and Bess from reading the book? How has your reading of Mrs. Houdini affected your ideas about Harry the man and Harry the magician? How about Bess?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Mrs. Houdini follows Bess and Harry through much of the 1920s. For your next book club meeting, throw a Roaring Twenties–themed party. Try reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, or Carl Van Vechten’s Firecrackers to help set the mood.

2. Choose a historical woman married to a famous man and write a one-page version of his story history from her perspective.

3. Read one of Harry Houdini’s many published works, such as The Right Way to Do Wrong: A Unique Selection of Writings by History’s Greatest Escape Artist; A Magician Among the Spirits; or Miracle Mongers and Their Methods: A Complete Exposé. What did you learn about Harry’s life and career? Do you think Victoria Kelly captured the spirit of Harry Houdini in her novel? Discuss your findings with the group.

4. In 2014, the History Channel aired a two-part miniseries Houdini, starring Adrien Brody. Watch one or both of these episodes with your book group and compare and contrast the representation of Bess and Harry onscreen and on the page.

About The Author

Photograph by Jessica Van Nest

Victoria Kelly received her M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, her B.A. Summa Cum Laude from Harvard University, and her M.Phil. in creative writing from Trinity College Dublin, where she was a US Mitchell Scholar. She is the author of the poetry collection When the Men Go Off to War. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in the anthologies Best American Poetry 2013 and Contemporary American Poetry, as well as Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwest Review, Prairie Schooner, and North American Review. She lives in Virginia with her husband and daughters.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (March 2016)
  • Length: 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501110900

Raves and Reviews

"A splendid debut novel...Moving effortlessly beyond mere fictionalized biography, Kelly delivers a richly lyrical and thought-provoking novel with closing twists that feel as impossible, inevitable, and satisfying--as magical, in short--as one of Houdini's own illusions."

– Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Kelly’s mesmerizing reimagining shines a light on the kind of love that burns strong even after death.” 

– People

"Victoria Kelly brings immense imaginative empathy to bear on the fascinating story of the woman who stood beside Harry Houdini, on stage, in life, and after his early death. Resonant, haunting and deeply felt, this is a stellar debut from a novelist to watch."

– Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author

"A grand story of secrets, codes and magic befitting one of history's greatest illusionists and the love of his life...Kelly animates the love story of this historic couple with a smooth blending of research and artistry...Dazzling and enchanting, Mrs. Houdini will captivate readers in a fashion that would make Harry and Bess proud."

– Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Victoria Kelly’s impressive debut is a magical, poignantly romantic tale of the world’s greatest escape artist and the remarkable woman who was his devoted partner, both onstage and off. In Mrs. Houdini, love proves to be the most mysterious and powerful of all death-defying acts.”

– Jennifer Chiaverini, New York Times bestselling author

“A magical trip through a magical time—a fresh and absorbing read.”

– Kate Alcott, New York Times bestselling author of The Dressmaker

“Kelly has a deft hand in setting a scene.”

– Library Journal

"For anyone intrigued by magic and illusion, and Harry Houdini in particular, Kelly's fictional biography of Bess Houdini will fascinate...The well-crafted characters and the mystery behind Houdini's vow to communicate with Bess after death propel the plot forward, captivating readers."

– RT Magazine

Mrs. Houdini is a dazzling blend of adventure, love, betrayal, and redemption.”

– Historical Novel Society, Editor's Pick

"Kelly confidently peels back layers of Bess, revealing a fiercely intelligent and independent woman trying to heal spiritual, emotional, and metaphysical wounds. Had the man who made an elephant disappear before hundreds of people pulled a similar trick on her and with her heart no less? Or, is love the deepest mystery and biggest illusion of them all?"

– NY1

“A marvel that gallops through time and space [and] vibrates with plot-driven energy, unforgettable characters and unpredictable twists…Mrs. Houdini offers a rollicking ride from a Coney Island music hall and a traveling circus in the 1890s to Hollywood and Atlantic City, New Jersey, in the 1920s. It’s a ghost story, a love story and a great tale of suspense…Without a single misstep, Mrs. Houdini is a pure delight from the first page to the last.”

– Associated Press

"Mrs. Houdini is, in its way, a ghost story, and like every good ghost story, it comes with an ending that will make you shiver. But it's not a shiver of fear that Kelly's fine debut provokes, though there's morethan a hint of the uncanny in its pages. It's the shiver one gets from an excellent story skillfully told, with characters whose fates are fully and sympathetically realized."

– Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

"Bess Houdini was swept into history by an impulsive and passionate love, and then left bereft when her world-renowned husband died too soon. And that is where we find her at the beginning of the novel. Kelly has drawn Bess with such charm and moxie that I felt myself pulled into the pages, racing alongside her to uncover the clues Harry left behind, then stunned and weeping when she discovers the future he imagined for her."

– Kaylie Jones, author of Lies My Mother Never Told Me

"Mrs. Houdini is a delightful read, and will resonate with anyone who's ever been struck by the illogical but nonetheless compelling notion that a lost beloved may yet reappear, despite all rational evidence to the contrary. The book answers that great "What if?" and does so in an eminently pleasurable way."

– Star Tribune

Mrs. Houdini is a thrilling tale that will take you deep into the heart of one of history’s greatest love stories.”

– BookReporter

“A poignant portrait of a satisfying marriage, the rupture of grief and the seemingly magical ability of love to survive the grave.”

– Forward

“By the time the sparkling ending is reached—an ending that couldn't be more perfect—you'll be entranced…especially if a bit of gauzy illusion is what you'd love in a romance. Mrs. Houdini is great escapism.”

– Naples Daily News

“This author’s debut novel will keep you turning the pages to find out if Harry finally reaches Bess.” 

– The Missourian

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.”

– The Military Spouse Book Review

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