When Harry Met Queenie

New York City, April 1923

VICTORIA HOLKHAM, generally known as Queenie, was used to the bustle of a big city. After all, her home was London, then still the biggest city on earth. New York City was different: a more concentrated bustle, a distilled essence of bustle, and Queenie loved it. She walked slowly along the pavement (sidewalk, she corrected herself) taking in the sights and sounds as she made her way northwards along Sixth Avenue.

     She had seen pictures of New York, but they were all of the great landmarks of the city like the Statue of Liberty or the Brooklyn Bridge. None showed life in these great canyons of streets where she now found herself. Even the traffic sounds were different from home. There were the usual mix of horse-drawn and motor vehicles but overlaid on that was the thunder of trains passing on the Elevated Railroad which stretched for miles along the centre of the street like an immense iron caterpillar. The people too were like none she had heard before. No, they were like all the people she had ever met, all at once. She could hear American voices speaking English as she had expected, but also Irish and Scots accents and voices speaking German, Yiddish, Italian, Chinese and languages she couldn't begin to recognise. Hungarian or Polish perhaps?

     From time to time, Queenie felt in her coat pocket to reassure herself that a certain piece of paper was there. It was a telegram she had received at her hotel on the previous day in reply to one she had sent earlier. The message was short but succinct:


     Queenie had travelled to the United States with the intention of learning how to launch herself as a variety performer. After years as a schoolteacher and governess, an unexpected legacy had enabled her to begin to realise a lifelong ambition to make a career on stage as an escape artist. She had put in a good deal of effort into achieving a superb level of physical fitness and into learning to wriggle out of ropes and chains. Queenie, however, was well aware that there was far more to being a truly great performer than the mere application of technical skills and she wanted to learn about showmanship and show business from the man she regarded as the Master of the business: Harry Houdini.

     At length, Queenie's walk through New York brought her to her destination. She paused in astonishment at the sheer size of the Hippodrome Theater. She knew that it had been built in 1905 by Thompson and Dundey, the Coney Island showmen and that it had three levels of seating round a full-size circus ring, which had housed the Ringling Brothers' circus for several seasons. Even knowing these facts hardly prepared her for the immensity rising before her eyes. In addition to the performance spaces, the theatre housed all the usual subsidiary accommodation such as dressing rooms, practice studios and workshops. It also boasted a sizeable amount of office space. Many theatrical agents, costumiers, property buyers, insurance brokers and travel bureaux had their offices there, indeed the whole spectrum of the business side of show business was there.

     Queenie walked purposefully up the steps at the front of the theatre. A doorman in a splendidly gold braided uniform stood at the top. He would not have looked out of place as an admiral of the fleet in a comic opera. "How may I help you ma'am?" he asked with a welcoming smile. Queenie was expecting the New York accent that her English ears still found so difficult but the tones were carefully modulated and roundly delivered. Evidently he was a 'resting' actor.

     Returning the smile, Queenie unfolded the precious telegram. "I have an appointment to see Mr Houdini."

     "Certainly, ma'am," the doorman replied smoothly. He opened the door for her and indicated a small doorway at the side of the empty theatre lobby. "Fourth floor, and turn right as you leave the stairway."

     The stairs were narrow, steep and austere, unlike the opulent interior of all the public spaces in the theatre. Nevertheless there was that strange odour of sawdust, greasepaint and carbolic soap intermingled that Queenie thought of as the unique smell of theatre.

     Queenie turned right as instructed and walked along a gloomy corridor, inspecting the nameplates on doors. None of them bore the magical name Houdini. Finally, she knocked on an office door at random and asked directions. She was one floor too high in the building. It seemed that the myriad differences between American and British terminology included the numbering of the storeys in a building.

     Once she had returned to the stairs and descended to the floor below, the Houdini office was easy to find, but she had eroded the margin of time that she had allowed herself and it was exactly 10:30 when she knocked on the door.

     "Enter," came a voice from within. Queenie turned the handle and stepped inside. She was in a small office furnished austerely with a dark wooden desk, several filing cabinets and bookshelves. Two partially glazed doors led into other rooms. Only the posters on the walls promoting past appearances of Houdini gave any hint that this was not the office of an ordinary business.

     Behind the desk sat an imposing-looking woman in her 40s or 50s, large and powerfully built and smelling strongly of lavender oil. Queenie handed the telegram to her. "I have an appointment to see Mr Houdini," she explained.

     The woman read the telegram then looked up at Queenie. "Mrs Houdini will see you presently; please take a seat," she responded, with deliberate emphasis on Mrs.

     Queenie was taken aback until she remembered that Beatrice Houdini had been Harry Houdini's stage partner for much of his career and played an important part in managing his business. The telegram had just been signed HOUDINI and she had simply assumed that it was Harry Houdini who had sent it.

     As there was no alternative, Queenie settled down on one of the rather hard chairs the clerk had indicated and studied her surroundings. In a way it was disappointing that the office was so ordinary, but she supposed that the trappings of commerce would be much the same for almost any business on either side of the Atlantic. The clerk paid no attention to her but ploughed on purposefully with a pile of paperwork. Queenie watched her idly. There was something odd about the clerk's hair, she thought. Could she possibly be wearing a wig?

     After a few minutes, a woman appeared from one of the inner offices. "You must be Miss Holkham," she said with a welcoming smile and extending a hand.

     Queenie stood and shook the offered hand, realising as she did so how very small Mrs Houdini was. Her movements were also very neat and precise which made Queenie feel large and clumsy by comparison.

     As Queenie's intention had been to meet Harry Houdini, she decided to make that point immediately. "I'm sorry," she began tentatively, "but I was expecting to meet Mr Houdini."

     "And I hope that you will," Beatrice Houdini replied. Without explaining herself further, she turned to the woman at the desk. "Miss Feuerstein, please get the box marked 'AUDITIONS' from the shelves behind my desk. It's brown and about this far up." She pantomimed a shelf about four feet from the floor. Turning back to Queenie, she added as an aside, "Miss Feuerstein just started today; she's still finding her way around."

     Queenie was about to protest that she had not come for an audition, but decided to let it pass and see what Mrs Houdini had in mind.

     Miss Feuerstein returned a moment later carrying a large cardboard carton with a loose fitting lid, the type of box used for archival storage of old files. The word AUDITIONS was boldly crayoned on one end, just as Beatrice Houdini had described it. Miss Feuerstein put it down on the floor at Mrs Houdini's feet with a thump; it was evidently quite heavy. She returned to her desk without a further word.

     Beatrice Houdini lifted the lid of the mysterious box to reveal an interior packed with bundles of rope, leather straps, chains and handcuffs. "Now," she mused, "let's see how good you are." So saying, she knelt down beside the box and started rummaging through its contents.

     Queenie was not expecting anything like this. "Mrs Houdini, I don't understand," she queried. "What do you mean by 'see how good I am'?"

     "Surely that is plain," came the answer. "You have come here expecting to learn the methods and secrets of the Houdinis. We expect certain standards from anyone in whom we might choose to confide. I just want to see how you measure up and I plan to do that by giving you a little test. You will be more comfortable if you slip your coat off before I tie you up."

     Queenie's jaw dropped open in astonishment. Gathering her wits, she replied with as much hauteur as she could muster, "I came here expecting to see Mr Houdini, not to be subjected to some absurd audition."

     "Well," Mrs Houdini responded, "you can just walk out now if you wish, but if you want to see Houdini, you will have to satisfy me that it will be worth his time to see you."

     It was now obvious to Queenie that there was no dignified way forward from this impasse. Trying not to show her ill grace too obviously, Queenie removed her coat, as Mrs Houdini had suggested and also her hat, scarf and gloves. Under her coat Queenie was wearing a practical black serge skirt, a crisp white high collared blouse and a thin round-necked sweater. She sometimes wondered if she would ever stop dressing like the schoolteacher she had been. Still, it was a comfortable outfit and shouldn't hamper her escape attempt too much.

     "Very well," Queenie announced with an air of exasperation, "you had better get on with it."

     Beatrice Houdini said nothing but set to work immediately. She had already selected a sizeable bundle of flexible cotton rope about a quarter inch in diameter. She stood behind Queenie and gently but firmly took hold of Queenie's left hand. She wound rope around the wrist several times, finishing off with a firm knot at the back of her hand, well out of the reach of probing fingers.

     The operation was repeated with Queenie's right wrist. Both Queenie's arms were slightly behind her, so she could not see precisely what was going on. However, it was obvious just from the feel of the situation that her wrists were linked by about eight inches of rope. How odd, she thought; after all, common sense would suggest that wrists should either be bound together or far apart to prevent one hand from freeing the other.

     "Sit down please," Mrs Houdini instructed, indicating a wooden chair with an arched bent-wood back. Queenie meekly complied, instinctively stretching her arms out behind her so they would go behind the chair back. As she sat down, Mrs Houdini carefully kept the rope she held out of the way and guided Queenie's arms so that they were between her back and the woodwork of the chair. Queenie could now understand how she was tied. Her wrists were indeed tied separately as she had suspected. However, it was the middle of a sizeable coil of rope that had been used to achieve this and the remainder was now in two smaller coils which Beatrice Houdini held in her hands. Any tension on that rope would clearly pull Queenie's wrists apart and prevent her from reaching either wrist binding with the opposite hand. Having her arms confined between her body and the chair would also complicate matters.

     Miss Feuerstein had been watching developments with interest and was no longer even making a pretence of doing any work at her desk. Seeing this, Mrs Houdini summoned her to help. With two pairs of hands on the job, the remainder of Queenie's binding went very quickly. Mrs Houdini worked first with one coil of rope then the other, while Miss Feuerstein kept the other end of the rope tight. Turn after turn of rope was wound round and round Queenie and the chair. It was wrapped snugly round her arms and body and over her lap. Some turns went over her shoulders and some went under the chair seat. Every so often Mrs Houdini would thread the rope through the bars of the chair back or loop it around the top of a chair leg for added security.

     Beatrice Houdini finally tied the free ends of the rope together in Queenie's full view in the middle of her lap. The knot might as well have been on the Moon for all that Queenie could do to reach it. Queenie was now securely imprisoned in a web of rope from her knees to her shoulders. After a moment's pause for thought, Mrs Houdini selected two more short lengths of rope and used them to lash Queenies ankles to the front legs of the chair.

     Privately, Queenie was not entirely certain that she could escape from her predicament. She was good at escaping, both in terms of fitness and skill, but escaping unprepared from a completely unfamiliar and skilfully applied rope tie was a daunting challenge.

     "Now what?" asked Queenie, wearily.

     Mrs Houdini consulted her watch. "It's 10:41 now," she announced. "Houdini's office is through the door in my room. Please report there at 11 o'clock to meet him."

     "You mean I have to get out of this in 19 minutes to be allowed to meet Mr Houdini?"

     "Absolutely," Beatrice Houdini replied with a grin. "And if you're still in that chair by then, we'll put you out on the sidewalk still tied to it!"

     Queenie's temper finally boiled over. "I came here in good faith expecting to meet Mr Houdini," she barked. "I didn't sail 3,000 miles to be tied up like a madwoman!"

     "Miss Holkham," Mrs Houdini retorted, sounding distinctly put out, "may I remind you that there are people in offices all around us who are trying to work. Please keep your voice down."

     Lowering her voice just fractionally, Queenie continued, "That's as may be, but I came here apparently at Mr Houdini's invitation to engage in serious research and discussion."

     "If you will not keep quiet, you leave me no alternative," Mrs Houdini hissed in a whispered shout. She rummaged once more in the box of ropes and drew out a red and white bandanna. "This will do," she commented to herself as she folded it into a strip which she then forced between Queenie's teeth and knotted the ends behind her head.

     Queenie knew that the bandanna would not be particularly effective in preventing her speaking, but she preferred not to demean herself by continuing an argument by mumbling around a gag. She sat still and fumed in silence.

     Just then a man entered the office. He was well below average height but of a compact and powerful build with wavy hair and a strangely penetrating stare. Queenie recognised him instantly as Harry Houdini.

     Houdini stopped in his tracks and eyed Queenie up and down. "You must be Miss Holkham," he said with apparent delight.

     "She's due to see you at 11," Mrs Houdini informed him.

     Houdini glanced at his watch. "Only 16 minutes," he told Queenie earnestly. "Better get a move on; it might cause quite a stir if we put you out on Sixth Avenue like that."

     Somehow, coming from Houdini in person, her challenge seemed like a goal worth working for rather than a meaningless obstacle. While Houdini left some notes with Miss Feuerstein and then went into his own office, Queenie started to explore the ropes securing her.

     With her wrists tied several inches apart, all Queenie had to do was to untie each wrist with the opposite hand. However, the tension on the ropes beyond her wrists meant that she could not bring her hands together. She had to obtain some slack from somewhere first. With the length of rope wound round her, there was sure to be some slack somewhere, after all, she only needed about six inches out of the forty or fifty feet of rope binding her. She tugged on the ropes experimentally, first with one hand and then with the other and watched carefully to see which of the visible ropes across her front were tightening. She concluded that the right hand had more immediate obvious effect.

     The strategy was straightforward but slow. First Queenie pulled as hard as she could on the rope leading away from her right wrist, trying to force her right hand towards the middle of her back. Then, while maintaining the tension on the rope, she wriggled and squirmed her body to encourage the rope to slip a little. Each repetition yielded a fraction of an inch of slack. It was hard work, especially with her arms trapped between her back and the woodwork of the chair, but Queenie progressively gained the precious inches of slack she sought. After about three minutes, she could make her fingertips touch. After another two, she could reach each knot with the fingers of the opposite hand.

     Queenie's escape technique had the unfortunate side-effect of pulling the knot on her right wrist even tighter than it had been tied by Mrs Houdini. She therefore concentrated her attention on the other knot. Untying an unseen knot with no free ends using only the fingertips of one hand is no easy matter. However, Queenie's hundreds of hours of patient training paid off handsomely. She was able to reconstruct the shape of the knot in her mind's eye as clearly as if she had it in front of her and to choose her best line of attack. two full minutes' patient picking at the knot were needed before she was able to pull any of it open. Another minute loosened the knot sufficiently for her to wriggle her left hand free. She glanced at the office clock: eight minutes left.

     Even with her left hand free, it was not much easier to undo the knot at her right wrist than it had been to undo the first knot. Another three precious minutes ticked away.

     There was now only a single knot securing the bindings on her upper body, so all Queenie had to do was to reach it. Her hands were no longer tied behind her back, but even so, the yards of rope confining her stymied any attempt simply to reach round to the front. She patiently fed slack back from the rope that had linked her wrists into the ones wrapping her upper body until at last she could undo the knot on her lap with her finger tips. There was so much friction between successive twists and turns of rope that it was no simple matter to loosen them. She had to work methodically following each coil and working it free from its neighbours. The pressure on her body from the ropes steadily lessened until at last she was able to push about half of the rope up over her head. Only two minutes left.

     Queenie leaned forwards and felt for the ropes securing her ankles. She was delighted to find the knots at the front and lost no time in untying them. It took only a few energetic kicks to free her ankles after that.

     Now that her legs were free, Queenie slithered down in her bonds, sliding the rope up over her body until at last she emerged from under them, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis or a snake shedding its skin. She ended up kneeling on the floor in front of the chair.

     It was 10:59, so without further ado, Queenie grabbed her bag and made for Houdini's office, pulling her gag down as she went.

     Harry and Beatrice Houdini were both in the office. Harry looked genuinely delighted to see Queenie. "The audition tests were Bess's idea," he explained. "We get troubled by so many hopefuls who want to be the next Houdini. It discourages them and gives us no end of harmless amusement."

     "Would you really have put me out on the street like that?" Queenie asked, as she untied the gag from round her neck, her curiosity piqued.

     "Not really," Houdini replied, "but it was entertaining to have you believe that. We have had a few guests tied up the greater part of the day, but we always set them loose eventually."

     "I am delighted that my humiliation was only to be in private then," Queenie commented drily.

     "Not a humiliation, but a triumph surely," Houdini corrected her. "After all, you had a time limit and you took your escape right to the wire in the best show-business tradition. So tell me what makes you think you want to be the next Houdini?"

     Queenie drew herself up to her full height. "With respect, sir, I have no desire to be the next Houdini or indeed the next anybody else. My glory will be my own, not a pale imitation of anyone else's. I intend to be the first and the one and only Victoria Holkham, Queen of Escapes."

     "Well said, Miss Holkham!" Houdini replied, obviously impressed with her speech. He spread his hands wide and adopted a mournful expression. "But I am Houdini and I know only how to be Houdini. How can I teach you to be you?"

     "Well, in all modesty, Mr Houdini, I believe I already have the technical ability I need. What I lack is the skill and experience to turn a trick into a show, what you Americans call 'know-how'." She glanced at the Houdinis faces to see if they were following her; both nodded for her to carry on.

     "When I watched your show in London back in 1908, I had a wonderful experience. It was magical in every sense of the word. I already knew some magic myself then and I was expecting marvellous things beyond my wildest imagination. Here was the surprise then: there were big marvellous illusions, of course, but there was also material that was little more than drawing room tricks or parlour magic for children."

     Mrs Houdini looked quite affronted at Queenie's assessment of her husband's act but Houdini himself was listening with a wry grin.

     Queenie continued. "The real magic to me was the ability to take any trick and transform it into a thrilling experience for the audience and to send them home believing they had witnessed something very special."

     Houdini was laughing by now. "I want to learn two things from you Mr Houdini," Queenie went on. "I want to learn how to put together a show that has that spark of magic that an audience will remember. Also, I want to learn how to make a business out of magic: how to book venues, attract audiences, sell tickets, pay my bills and make enough money to live on."

     Beatrice Houdini was looking surprised at the direction the conversation had taken, but her husband was clearly enjoying it.

     Houdini stood and walked to the window. After a long pause, stretched out while a train on the Elevated Raiload rumbled past, he turned and addressed Queenie. "Always there are rivals or would-be rivals trying to steal my secrets or trying to set themselves up as other Houdinis. But you, Miss Holkham, you have divined my one true secret of casting a spell over an audience and you don't stoop to attempting to steal it; instead you march in here and you ask me to give it to you!"

     Queenie's heart fell. She had overplayed her hand. She braced herself for the dismissal that would certainly follow.

     "But surely," Houdini announced expansively as if addressing an audience, "there is room in the world for both a Harry Houdini and a Victoria Holkham. Your audacity and your candour impress me Miss Holkham. You shall have your wish!"

     Queenie was delighted and clapped her hands, both in applause at Houdini's impromptu performance and in pleasure at his reply.

     It was agreed that Queenie could accompany Bess Houdini over the next few days in order to gain an understanding of the business of running a vaudeville act. In return, she would act as an unpaid assistant, helping out Mrs Houdini or Miss Feuerstein as necessary.

     The rest of the working day passed in a blur for Queenie. She began by helping Bess Houdini sort the day's mail into categories. The other room leading off the outer office was a meeting room with a long table and eight chairs. The table was a convenient surface to separate mail into bills, payments, requests for personal appearances, advertising material and (the category which Queenie found most fascinating) the fan mail ranging from carefully written appreciation, through children's interestingly constructed and spelt praise to insane ramblings.

     Queenie next sat next to Miss Feuerstein and helped her to send off form letter replies to most of the fan mail, enclosing photographs of Houdini in some of them. Queenie marvelled at the speed with which Miss Feuerstein could address envelopes on her typewriter. She had always thought of her own slender hands with long fingers as being a prerequisite for dexterity, but Miss Feuerstein's hands, which appeared large and clumsy at rest, fairly flew over the keys. Queenie also surreptitiously studied Miss Feuerstein's hair. She was now convinced that it was a wig. She knew that some Jewish women hid their real hair under wigs. Queenie knew that Feuerstein was German for flint, but was it also a Jewish surname?

     Later on, Queenie helped Mrs Houdini make travel arrangements for various appearances Harry Houdini was to make in the weeks to come. She quickly mastered the idiosyncrasies of making telephone calls in New York and learned the correct way to make out telegram forms.

     By late afternoon, Queenie's mind was in a fog and her fingers were stiff. She had no idea how much clerical work might be involved in running a successful act. She promised herself that if she ever got of the bottom rung of the ladder as a performer, she would hire herself a good secretary to do all this stuff for her. Nevertheless, she was pleased at her contribution to the bag of outgoing mail that she would take to the post office later.

     As Queenie took a well-earned break with Miss Feuerstein over a cup of excellent coffee (far better than anything she could get in London), Harry Houdini bustled into the office. He had already changed into the trousers of the suit he planned to wear for the evening's performance and was wearing them with a dress shirt, still lacking its collar and with the sleeves rolled up. Queenie was astonished at just how crumpled his clothes looked already. (She was later to learn that this was typical of Houdini's maltreatment of all his clothes.)

     "Come down and see the stage if you've few minutes free," Houdini invited with a grin. "I'll bet you've never seen one as big as this."

     Queenie's tiredness left her quite abruptly at this suggestion. She quickly gulped the remainder of her coffee and followed Houdini with alacrity. He led her along a succession of narrow corridors and down a bare concrete staircase. The theatre had already begun to metamorphose into its evening nature, with almost all of the offices now dark and silent. Suddenly the way ahead was blocked by an enormous figure coming towards them, a man in dungaree bib overalls and a checked shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbows. "Mr Houdini, we got a problem," he announced, spreading his arms dramatically.

     "What is it, Miller?" Houdini asked, stopping so suddenly that Queenie almost cannoned into him.

     "It's Kelly, boss," Miller replied. "He's burnin' up with a fever. He's way too sick to handle the props in the show tonight but he don't wanna let you down."

     Houdini nodded in understanding then turned to Queenie. "Go back up to the office," he instructed, "and get Bess to give Theo a call and say I need him."

     Queenie thought quickly. "Would that be Mr Hardeen, sir?"

     "Yes, that's right, my brother," Houdini confirmed. "I know he's free tonight and I'm sure he'll help out if we catch him in time. I'll go down and see that Kelly gets sent home."

     It wasn't much of a job, but Queenie was elated to be entrusted with an important message. She turned on her heel and retraced her steps back up to the Houdinis office. As she went, she realised that she had been paying attention to Houdini on the way down and not on the route they had taken. All the corridors looked exactly the same, differing only in the names on the doors. After wandering for a few minutes, she saw a nameplate she recognised from her initial search for the right office that morning and it was easy to regain her bearings from there.

     Queenie opened the office door and hurried in. Miss Feuerstein appeared to have left already. The lights were on in Mrs Houdini's office, visible through the frosted glass in its door. Queenie knocked on the door politely and then went in without waiting for an answer. There were papers spread over the floor and every horizontal surface. Queenie already knew that this was a symptom either of Houdini's chaotic approach to organisation or of Mrs Houdini's efforts to sort out the muddle for him. Mrs Houdini was not in her room, but the lights were on in Mr Houdini's office beyond, so once again Queenie knocked and then entered.

     Bess Houdini was indeed in her husband's office but not doing clerical work as Queenie had expected. Instead she was securely tied to a wooden chair, a twin of the one in which Queenie had been auditioned. She was facing Queenie with her arms largely hidden behind the chair and her own body. A band of some eight or ten turns of rope secured her to the chair at waist level, several more strands of rope went over each shoulder, crossing in the middle of her chest like a Mexican bandit's bandoliers. Mrs Houdini's skirt was bunched up by the rope lashing her legs together above and below her knees. Her ankles were bound together and the rope cinched between them then tied off to the centre of the bar linking the chair's front legs. Her mouth was hidden by a band of white cloth covering the lower part of her face from just below her nose to the tip of her chin.

     Queenie froze; this was possibly the last thing she had been expecting. She hesitated while she worked out what to do. Was Mrs Houdini really in trouble or was this some sort of rehearsal exercise? Should Queenie release her?

     While Queenie dithered, Bess Houdini was shaking her head frantically. The message was, "Don't try to rescue me", but Queenie only understood it as a strong arm was wrapped around her neck from behind. The pressure was more on the sides of her neck and hardly at all on her throat. Queenie clawed helplessly at the arm and as her vision started to darken, she recognised the grip as the 'sleeper hold' she had read about but never experienced at first hand. It took only a few terrifying seconds for Queenie to lose consciouness completely. Lavender, she thought recognising an unexpected scent as she slumped senselessly in her assailant's grip.

Harry Houdini

Part 2

© Copyright Gillian B 2003

The Adventures of Queenie Holkham

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