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Houdini | Article

Jack and Charmian London

Jack and Charmian London LOC 7a05645r.jpg
London, Jack, Mr. and Mrs., portrait photograph, between 1906 and 1916, Prints & Photographs Division, Arnold Genthe Collection, LC-G3999-0049-A (b&w glass neg.), Library of Congress

Jack London and Harry Houdini were two of the most remarkable Americans of the early twentieth century. That they quickly became friends when they met just before Thanksgiving in 1915 is not surprising, given their considerable similarities. Both had risen from modest backgrounds to gain wealth and fame; both men were noted for their courage, virility, and driving energy; and in their own ways both managed to embody their age while staying noticeably ahead of their time. But on that fateful day in 1915, they would have been shocked to know what their future held: London would be dead within a year, and not long after Houdini would carry on an affair with his widow.

Jack London, born in San Francisco, led an interesting life from the start. It’s not known who his biological father was, but when he was still an infant his mother, Flora Wellman, married a Civil War veteran named John London. After moving around the Bay Area the family settled in Oakland, where Jack finished grade school. But he soon displayed a restless spirit. Before returning to attend high school at nineteen he saw more of the world than most men do in a lifetime. Whether he was pirating for oysters on San Francisco Bay, sailing the Pacific to hunt for seals, or hoboeing around the country with Kelly’s Army of the unemployed, London’s teenaged adventures provided ample material for his later literary efforts. He also demonstrated an interest in progressive politics, earning the nickname "Boy Socialist of Oakland" for his impassioned street corner oratory on behalf of the working man.

In 1899 -- the very same year Ehrich Weiss was breaking into big-time vaudeville -- Jack London began publishing a series of essays in the "Overland Monthly" based on his adventures in the Yukon territory, and struck metaphorical gold. With the publication of "The Call of the Wild" in 1903, London became one of America’s most popular writers, a status reinforced by a steady output of short stories, novels, and non-fiction essays throughout his career. And just as Houdini transcended magic, London gained a measure of fame beyond literature. He would use this visibility to advance the progressive causes he believed in, such as socialism and women’s equality.

London’s enduring popularity can be attributed, at least in part, to his honesty; his readers always felt that his work was merely an extension of the unconventional life he led. His relationship with Charmian is a perfect example. London’s first marriage to Bess Maddern in 1900 had produced two beloved daughters but had not been a happy union. After an affair with Charmian Kittredge, a liberated free-spirit five years his senior, London divorced Bess and in 1905 married his "Mate Woman." From then on, Charmian’s adventurous spirit and progressive ideas made her the perfect companion for London, and she became the model for many of his female characters. Whether sailing for two years around the South Pacific or building their remarkable Beauty Ranch in Northern California, the Londons made a uniquely perfect pair.

Jack and Charmian first met Houdini in 1915. Always eager to rub shoulders with celebrated literary figures, Houdini was delighted when, after a performance at the Orpheum, he and Bess were introduced to the Londons. The two couples hit it off so well that they spent the next three days together, and made plans to see each other again when their busy schedules would permit. But it was not to be, as Jack died from kidney disease almost exactly a year later. Houdini and Charmian stayed in touch, however, and some time in 1918 entered into a romantic relationship. This may have been the only time Houdini strayed from his marriage vows.

Most of the evidence of their affair, convincingly reconstructed by Houdini biographer Kenneth Silverman, comes from brief entries in Charmian’s diaries. They saw each other over several weeks early in 1918 while Charmian was living in New York, where Houdini was starring in the patriotic World War I extravaganza, "Cheer Up." Charmian wrote that after they saw each other a few times, Houdini made a "declaration" that "rather shakes me up." They became intimate a short time later. She wrote that one visit by Houdini had "stirred me to the deep," and that he apparently felt the same, declaring, "I’m mad about you," and "I give all of myself to you." Throughout, she refers to him alternately as "Magic," her "Magic Man," or "Magic Lover."

As intense as it apparently was, their attachment did not last long. Charmian, the "New Woman" whose marriage to London had included open sexual experimentation, never stopped seeing other men. And as Silverman writes, "Whatever his motives in the amour, the moralistic Houdini seems to have cringed at what he was doing." He wrote to friends of "having a hard time with my private affairs," and seems to have backed out of later dates with Charmian. They would exchange occasional calls and letters for the rest of his life, but apparently never resumed the affair. Upon hearing of his death in 1926, Charmian wrote in her diary, "Stirred with regret . . . I scan his lovely profile picture with a magnifying glass. Sad over my Magic Lover -- dead."

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