|Houdini's grandmother Hannah, aunt Rose & mother Cecilia Steiner|
One of the mysteries still surrounding Houdini’s early life is this: to what extent did his immigrant family interact with their relatives who already lived in America? If Houdini’s immediate family was undergoing financial hardship, why didn’t they try to get help from the in-laws?
The answer is - they did. And it was a disaster.
While Houdini’s maternal Uncle Simon Newman was getting rich outmaneuvering his business rivals, Harry himself in the mid-1890s was struggling to eke out a living as a circus performer.
He decided to take advantage of the Newman family business savvy and partnered up with his cousin to become a show business entrepreneur.
The cousin, Harry Newman, was the son of Uncle Simon, who had married Houdini’s Aunt Rose. (Harry Newman is often erroneously referred to as Henry.) Simon and Rose, Houdini’s mother’s sister, had emigrated from Budapest to New York in 1866 and proceeded to make a small fortune in America’s fledgling yeast, vinegar and distillery businesses. Uncle Simon became a rising star in business while Houdini was still stuck in the small time.
|Houdini's uncle Simon Newman|
By the 1890s Simon Newman’s Atlantic Yeast and Old Colony Gin were the only serious rivals to one of America’s great business successes, the Fleischmann brothers. In the Gay ‘90s it was by no means a foregone conclusion which of these Hungarian Jewish families would eventually became the nucleus of the Fortune 500 Company known as Standard Brands and publishers of The New Yorker magazine.
As we’ve written, the Newmans and the Fleischmanns were both business and social rivals. Charles Fleischmann’s children became patrons of the opera and the theater. Not to be outdone, Simon Newman’s son Harry bought a traveling show called the American Gaiety Girls Burlesque Co.
It was named for the highly successful Gaiety Girls troupe that was tearing up the London music hall scene, the beauteous chorines who inspired the expressions “chorus girl” and “stage-door Johnny.”
It is no stretch to imagine that when Harry Newman offered cousin Harry Houdini an interest in this smoking-hot enterprise, Houdini bit hard. He and another partner, one Frederick Harvey of Paterson, New Jersey, paid Newman $400 to become co-owners of the show itself and its theatrical clothing, according to the bill of sale registered with the authorities.
The details are still a bit murky, but as we reconstruct it disaster struck when the troupe was playing Woonsocket, RI in 1896.
|From the Woonsocket Call. Notice that Houdini is not a headliner, though he and Bess performed. He's the owner.|
Although the show played to packed houses, according to the reviews, Houdini and Newman discovered their partner and business manager Fred Harvey had drained the till to such an extent that the group could not be paid. It was front page news in Woonsocket.
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Harry Houdini had it out with Harvey’s wife, May Morgan, a lady wrestler. He and the others had Mr. and Mrs. Harvey both jailed for fraud. Betrayed, impoverished and disillusioned, Houdini left entrepreneuring and focused, with Bess, on performing their way to fame and fortune.
The American Gaiety Girls disbanded but Cousin Harry Newman continued as a show business entrepreneur. He eventually became an agent and married a client, the starlet of his Yankee Doodle Girls, Sadie Huested, a woman famous for her “enormous proportions.”
[Family pictures © Sharon Kurlansky]
HOUDINI FAMILY COMBAT
HOUDINI, TRUMP & BERNIE
THE RICH UNCLE & THE GREAT BLIZZARD
WAS HOUDINI A SOCIALIST?