Breaking: Séance Fails to Conjure Houdini!

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Photo: Getty Images

They sat there for a half-hour, fourteen writers, mediums, magicians, and old showgirls gathered around a circular table, 28 palms clasped together, 28 eyes shut, everyone waiting for the great Harry Houdini to come back from the dead. There was silence (save for the pesky clicks of a New York Times shutterbug). And there was more silence. (Click, click.) And then there was nothing.

The Great Houdini never showed.

Every year since his death on Halloween day in 1926, the Houdiniites hold this (as-yet unsuccessful) séance. But this year there was an extra dose of spiritual energy (and publicity): A new book, The Secret Life of Houdini, claims the magic man and master showman was a spy and that he was poisoned to death by spiritualists he exposed as frauds.

Among the Houdini buffs gathered at the Center for Jewish History on West 16th Street, not everyone was buying the new claims. "It's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," said Dorothy Young, the oldest at the Houdini séance table. The daughter of a minister, Young was 17 when Houdini picked her from some 200 girls to come work for his show. They called her Radio Girl, because she popped out of an oversize prop radio. Young is 99 years old now — and the last person alive who worked with Houdini.

"He was the most wonderful, kind gentleman I could ever hope to meet," she said. "I never, ever remember him turning down a fellow actor that needed money. At the stage door there would be people that needed money, and he'd give it to them. He was a soft touch." She remembers his eyes the most. "Every night when he'd lift me down out of the radio," she said, "I always remember, he wouldn't say a word to me, but his eyes would look right into mine. His eyes, they were electric."

They were also, to the séancers' chagrin, apparently occupied elsewhere this afternoon.

Geoffrey Gray

Earlier: The Magician Was a Spy? Ask Him Today!