Edna Ferber Interviews Houdini
In July 1904, Edna Ferber encountered Harry Houdini in a drugstore on College Avenue. Ferber, just 19 years old, was the first female reporter for the Appleton Crescent. She took the occasion to interview the famous entertainer, and her account of the meeting was published in the Crescent on July 23, 1904. This is her article...
IS MASTER OF
LOCKS AND BOLTS
HARRY HOUDINI TALKS ENTERTAININGLY OF
HE IS CERTAINLY A WONDER
Back in Place of His Birth After Visiting Many Countries-Has Made
Reputation and Competence.
In Great Demand
Imagination pictures a Sampson, massive, towering with enormous hands and feet, a great shaggy head perhaps, and a voice that roars and bellows and shoulders and limbs like pillars of rock. The reality is a medium sized, unassuming, pleasant faced, young fellow, with blue eyes that are very much inclined to twinkle. This is Harry Houdini, or rather Ehrich Weiss, as he talks pleasantly and very interestingly dressed in the conventional light grey summer suit, oxfords, flowing tie and sailor hat. One would never think him of the "profesh" unless maybe, his diamond shirt stud might speak. But then, Armour wears diamond shirt studs too.
Houdini, who left this noon for New York, arrived in Appleton, his birth place, Wednesday afternoon, accompanied by his brother Theodore, who travels with him and assists him in his performances. He spent the time here looking up old friends and renewing old associations. In August he will sail for Europe where he has a two years' contract and will give no performances while in America. He is resting here and one can see how he needs a period of quiet when one talks to him, for he is a quick nervous chap, inclined to jump when an unexpected noise is heard and to shut his eyes until they are almost closed; when speaking under excitement.
"My first performance? Well I remember it well as if it had taken place yesterday. I am earning now, from $900 to $2000 a week, but my first performance brought me slightly less than that. It took place in an old field across the track in the Sixth Ward and I did a contortionist act, giving three performances, for which Jack Hoeffler, who was managing them, as now, paid me exactly 35 cents. "Houdini threw back his head and chuckled reminiscently and thought of the $2000 per.
"What was your most difficult feat, the most difficult escape you ever made?" was asked.
"I think my escape from the Siberian Transport was my most difficult performance. I was placed in the great vault usually assigned to political prisoners, and when the great door was shut, I had the hardest time of my life, perhaps, in releasing myself. But nevertheless, it took me 18 minutes to walk out, and face the dazed officials.
"I think that in a year I may retire. I cannot take my money with me when I die and I wish to enjoy it, with my family, while I live. I should prefer living in Germany to any other country, though I am an American, and am loyal to my country. I like the German people and customs. Why don't I go then? Why it is too far away from my mother, who lives in New York City with a couple of my young brothers."
And right there you have the whole charm of Ehrich Weiss. It is worth all the sermons in the world to hear him speak of his mother. All his plans, all his successes, he weaves about that mother of his. The fortune he has made within the past ten years, he does not speak of as benefiting himself, "My mother can have everything that she wants," he says. Of his father, Rabbi Weiss, who died, he speaks just as affectionately and reverently and in these days of rush and hurry and often disrespect for old age, it is pleasant to hear such filial words.
Houdini's parents formerly resided here and three of the five brothers were born in Appleton. The father was at one time the Jewish rabbi here, before the Temple was built. The meetings used to be held above one of the stores on College Avenue, between Oneida and Morrison streets, and this morning Houdini made visit to the familiar place and the little office which used to be his father's and "where I used to get my spankings," he said.
"Where do you receive the best treatment? What people are the most cordial?"
"Oh, the world is alike. When they are pleased they laugh and are pleasant and when they think they are being cheated and are displeased then they scowl and jeer and hiss. They do this, you know, whether they are French, German, Russian or English, for after all they are all human beings and governed by the same impulses. I make the most money, I think, in Russia and Paris, for the people of those countries are so willing to be amused, so eager to see something new and out of the ordinary."
"Now, don't you exaggerate just a little bit when you are giving your performances? Don't you make is a trifle worse that it looks? And is it a feat of strength, or a trick that you resort to?" All these were put inquisitively to the young man.
"Well, I fail to see how any exaggeration would help me," replied Houdini good naturedly, "the chain and bolts and bars and handcuffs are of iron and steel, and I shouldn't care to exaggerate those. My secret? Well certainly it is a trick of my own. No house or bank would be safe from prying hands if I revealed it to the world. I should be doing a great wrong to give it up, for nothing would be safe. Why when I was in England I was offered an enormous sum of money if I would consent to establish a school of burglary there. Noted thieves and bank robbers came to me with the request."
The reporter was allowed to feel his forearm, which is amazing, as massive and hard as a granite pillar. His neck too, is large and corded.
Houdini carries with him an enormous book, wonderfully interesting to look at, containing hundreds of newspaper clippings from papers all over Europe, from England, Scotland, France, Prussia, Austria, Russia, everywhere, with cartoons, pictures, cuts, telegrams, challenges, bills and interviews. They go to show the furore the man created in foreign countries and one clipping Houdini proudly exhibits is that taken from the London Times, the most conservative paper in the world, which never gives a professional a voluntary notice and which gave Houdini half a column in flattering comment.
Houdini not only breaks chains and handcuffs, he writes, writes entertainingly and well. The New York Mirror, for which he is traveling correspondent while in Europe, prints whole pages of his letters, which are very chatty and readable. He is well paid for this work. Houdini was married when but a little over 19 years of age, and his wife, for whom he had a great affection, is staying now with his mother in New York. Mrs. Weiss accompanies her husband everywhere in his foreign travels, and assists him in his performances. Though only 30 years of age, Ehrich Weiss has made his own fortune and from a poor fatherless boy has grown to wealth and ease, both of which he shares with his mother and brothers.