Harry Houdini makes an appearance in Encyclopedia of the Exquisite as an origami lover. But, as ever, his devoted wife and stage assistant Bess Houdini is all but overlooked. As successful as the great magician was in making his big escapes—from jail cells, straight jackets, handcuffs, from below ice and from airtight coffins—he might not have been so without Bess there to give him a final kiss. That’s the moment when she palmed him the file or wire he needed to pick any lock, sometimes secreted on-stage in a clever false finger.
The two met in 1894, when Houdini performed at Bess’ high school. She snuck out to meet him afterwards and the two spent a nice time at Coney Island then eloped on the spot. They toured the US as acrobats and trapeze artists until Houdini came up with the idea to perform as an escapologist.
After his death, Bess held a seance every Halloween for ten years, hoping that he’d deliver a special coded message they’d established years earlier in order to prove communication possible from the beyond. In 1936 she gave up, turning off a small light that she’d kept lit above his photo since 1926.
There’s a Houdini exhibition on right now at the Jewish Museum in New York.