About this series: I revisited my journals from my first year as a freelance writer and found they told a story of their own. In this series I get the rare opportunity to give myself and other writers career advice with nearly 50 years of hindsight. Enjoy!
That week’s paper “came out today — surprisingly — with no mistakes — amazingly!”
And so I took off my editor hat, went into town, and started thinking about fiction again:
Did I mention First Gentleman yesterday? I made some notes on what used to be Matriarch. Could be a good plot … if ever I get around to long-term writing.
Journal, Volume II 10 October 1979
No, I hadn’t mentioned First Gentleman. I don’t think I had mentioned Matriarch either, so I probably owe you an explanation.
Matriarch was my idea for a novel about the first woman to become president of the United States — which was only theoretically possible 40 years ago. No female politician had even reached the critical mass of name recognition to get that kind of attention. The concept of Matriarch was that once that happens, all the presidents after that would be women, ergo, a matriarchy.
But a story idea isn’t the same as a novel, or series of novels. It isn’t a plot; it isn’t even a character.
First Gentleman was a half-step closer. The title character was going to be Fred Warner, my recurring hero/alter ego. He would be the patient husband of Madame President and be thrust into the spotlight along with her.
Little did I know — because I was too young at the time — that the idea had already been done as a movie. Fred MacMurray was the First Gentleman in Kisses for My President (1964). Ah well, wrong Fred, I guess.
The next day, I was back doing routine reporter stuff before I called it a day and went back to my writer’s garret.
Back home, skimmed TIME, read and finished Techniques of Fiction Writing, and, inspired, launched back into “Disco Tex.” Aside from the idea of playing out the actual dance sequence (Beethoven’s Fifth instead of “A Fifth of Beethoven,”) as closely to the music as possible — practice for “Rhapsody in Blue” — my ideas were mediocre and my writing really terrible tonight. Oh well, I can’t always be brilliant.
Journal, Volume III 11 October 1979
I know I’ve told you about “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Disco Tex.” I don’t think I fully explained what I wanted to do with them, though. My thinking was that somehow I could adapt prose to tell a story that would be paced with the playing time of a piece of music. After all, song writers do it all the time, but they’re writing words and music together. I would have to deconstruct the music and set the story to it somehow.
I still have no idea how to do that. Oh well, I can’t always be brilliant.
Most of us are familiar with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, so for those who don’t remember the disco era, I leave you with Walter Murphy’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” from 1976:
I’ve always been a solo writer, although on rare occasions I’ve talked through story ideas with friends. In continuing to read my journals from my first year as a freelance writer, I found this entry from 44 years ago today:
Cold, March lion weather. Spent most of day in town, working for registration. I saw and talked with Ollie, who told me two stories he’d like to write someday (or have written!) — one about an all-too-successful embezzler, the other about a mysterious and successful bomber. There is potential for collaboration here. Other than that, a not very impressive day except that I chatted with people about writing — and almost started convincing myself! More Garp.
Journal, Volume II 26 March 1979
To put things into context: I was working registration for the opening of Dartmouth’s spring term, a one-day gig. Students, townies, and recent alumni like me would pass out paperwork and dorm keys to the returning students. Unlike most campuses, Dartmouth operates on a quarterly system under which students select which terms they are on and off campus.
The Dartmouth Plan, created when the college first admitted women to the Class of 1976, was still relatively new. By 1979 it was operating smoothly under the auspices of Associate Registrar Sidney S. Letter. Sid came to Dartmouth in 1971 to computerize the registrar’s office system in preparation for the influx of female students. He was easy to identify to anyone who wanted to talk to the man in charge: He was the man in the red jacket with the bow tie.
Sid recruited members members of our co-ed fraternity for the quarterly one-day gigs. Later, Phi Tau recruited him as our faculty adviser.
Ollie — his house nickname — was a fraternity brother a few years ahead of me. By 1979 he was about to graduate from the business school. He was a bit of a celebrity as The Amazing Ollie, the morning drive-time DJ on WDCR. (The rush hour in Hanover, New Hampshire in those days was about 15 minutes.)
I rediscovered this day’s journal entry a few weeks ago and concluded that it was just another missed opportunity. Not all ideas are good ideas, but if they’re good enough to write down, they’re worth following up or at least revisiting.
When I reconnected with him to write this post, Ollie told me that he never did complete those stories, although he started and abandoned the one about the embezzler. He also offered again to share them, so the potential for collaboration is still there. We made tentative plans to get together when I’m in his city later this year.
Perhaps a collaboration, pushing each other for ideas and with deadlines, might make a difference, four decades later.
My journals from my first year as a freelancer have brought me to St. Patrick’s Day weekend, 1979. Often my college friends and I would journey to Boston to celebrate at an Irish pub, but this weekend I made do with a phone call and letter from my Boston buddies.
Like me, they were going through some changes.
In those days I was trying to take weekends, particularly Sundays, off from my work. My journal from Saturday, the 17th, shows that I “made some significant progress” on the short story “Good King Wenceslas.” I also worked on my “baby dean” application as well.
Saturday’s mail brought a letter from a friend I would have visited had I gone to Boston. She was going to quit her job and go to a business school in the city. I wrote in the journal that “somewhere, somehow, there is a plan for her — and I hope she finds it.”
She did, eventually, in another professional field entirely.
Meanwhile, I feel very confused and many of my plans, or at least ideas, have been soundly shattered.
Second, on [Larry] and [Tex] — they’re lost, too — but Larry gave me a well-needed dose of encouragement on my writing, etc. telling me to hang in there. Even Tex, although raising the perennial question of whether I intend to go back to law school, gave me encouragement to continue and to try my luck for a few years, at least.
Journal, Volume II 18 March 1979
You’ve already met Larry, the film critic and creative writer who instead pursued a career as a lawyer. His encouragement to continue writing instead of returning to law school meant a great deal to me.
My college classmate Tex, his roommate, was a second-year law student at the same university as Larry. I didn’t know at the time that he was thinking about doing exactly what I had done: drop out and pursue his real passion, which was history.
The following fall, Tex enrolled as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he went on to earn his doctorate.
That evening, I grabbed a quick supper with one of my housemates before heading home:
… Then, after grabbing a quick dinner at Subway with Roger, we returned to watch THE classic episode of The Avengers — “The Forget-Me-Knot” by Brian Clemens. Peter Peel is found (he looks, from a distance, like Steed, which gives rise to some very interesting takes of MacNee and Rigg), and Tara King takes over. (“He likes his tea stirred anti-clockwise.”) Steed calls her Emma for the first and only time; they kiss lightly + brilliantly. “Mother” is introduced and the series begins to lose its credibiltiy and interest. (Steed lives at 3 Stable Mews, Tara at 9 Primrose Crescent. Gotta love it!)*
I fantasized about meeting Clemens, et al, in production — and better yet, of writing a story or screenplay that would reunite all the Avengers (and maybe Get Smart.)
I grew up in the Cold War era. For me, The Avengers will always be a spy-fi universe, not the Marvel Comics one. The one and only The Avengers was the British cult television series that debuted in 1961. (Marvel’s Avengers #1 came out in September 1963.)
I had a thing for Mrs. Emma Peel, played by Diana Rigg. (What boy my age didn’t? The character’s very name derived from M appeal, or male appeal.) Tired of being a teen fantasy, Rigg left the series in this 1968 episode. The series went off the air a year later. By 1979 it was in reruns. A new series creatively called The New Avengers (1976-77) never took off in the UK, or here when it finally made it across the pond.
As for my own fantasy of working with and reuniting the original cast, The New Avengers proved it would never work. The final nail in that coffin was the 1998 movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman as Steed and Peel (and featuring Sean Connery as the villain and the voice of Patrick MacNee as an invisible agent).
I’m glad I never wasted my time writing a reunion story, as much fun as it would have been. Sequels and what we now know as fan fiction rarely live up to the original.
Brian Clemens, Diana Rigg, Patrick MacNee, Sean Connery, even Larry and Tex, are all gone now, although Linda Thorson, who played Tara King, is still performing.
Ars longa, vita brevis.
*For those who missed “The Forget-Me-Knot” (or would like to see it again), here’s a YouTube link to the entire show:
In a change of pace, the entire journal entry for this date in my first year as a freelancer was about writing, so here it is:
A mild day, with my spirits warming up as well. Robert Huminski of the Bradford Journal-Opinion was pretty helpful and encouraging and promised to get in touch when a position (part-time) opens up in 2-3 weeks. Meanwhile, [campus radio DJ] J.T. suggested that I get in touch with WNNE-TV to offer reviews … not a bad idea, considering I’ve been thinking of it for some time. And a book I read today implies that 90% of all articles written on a go-ahead get published, so I feel somewhat better about TV Guide.
Otherwise, there are always other possibilities. For example, I gave some more thought to my Christmas Carol “Good King Wenceslas” — contrasting the rich and poor in northern New England. Some other ideas flowed today as well.
I also discovered that Turnabout had its origins in 1933 with Thorne Smith’s novel. Smith was a Dartmouth alum who also wrote the “Topper” stories and was known in his time for his wit and ability to write a good adult fantasy. I think I’ll read some of his works. He would seem a kindred spirit and an interesting model.
Howard W. Fielding Journal, Volume II 21 February 1979
If that all seems to have come out of the blue, let me add some context. Several times in these journals I had mentioned freelancing or writing part-time for a local newspaper, but this one, based in Bradford, Vermont, was a half-hour or more north of where I was living. That would mean both a strategic problem (how to show up for assignments) and a financial one (how to pay for gas).
I thought it was an old title, but I was only partly right about that. Bob Huminski was from New Jersey, like me. He bought and merged the United Opinion of Bradford and the Woodsville (N.H.) Journal only two years before. He and his managing editor, Tom, were looking to groom someone as reporter and editor when Tom moved on to the daily Union Leader in Manchester, N.H. Counterintuitively, neither newspaper hyphenated its name. I’ll have more on the JO in future posts.
Earlier, I mentioned Christmas Carols in passing a few times earlier in my journals. I envisioned a collection of short stories prompted by titles of well-known carols. I had started a bit on “Good King Wenceslas” and drafted another on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” but abandoned both. It’s still a good idea. I may get back to it someday.
And then there was Turnabout. This odd and short-lived series on NBC was another mid-season replacement, at about the same time as the campus comedies. Today we would recognize it as a “Freaky Friday” trope. A husband and wife trade lives, the way Mary Rodgers’ mother and daughter do in her 1976 book and four — count ’em, four — Disney movies. That book and the first movie were no doubt an inspiration for the Turnabout TV series.
The series was flat, sexist, and not very funny, which explains why NBC canceled it after seven episodes. But an adult fantasy had potential in a market where Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie had been successes earlier. My housemate R and I gave it a try. When we read the closing credits, we looked at each other and asked incredulously: “Based on the BOOK by … ?”
The next morning I headed to Dartmouth’s Baker Library to see if it had a copy. It did. There was a whole Thorne Smith collection — in the alumni authors section!
Smith, Dartmouth 1914, was best known for the Topper books (and movies and TV series) about a banker who sees two playful ghosts. Wikipedia describes him as “best known today for the two Topper novels, comic fantasy fiction involving sex, much drinking and ghosts.” My kind of guy!
His string of successful adult comic fantasies came out in the 1920s and ’30s and continued in reprints and films in the 1940s and ’50s. His The Passionate Witch (published posthumously in 1941) inspired the TV series Bewitched.
Smith used the walk-in-my-shoes body-swap trope long before Rodgers and Freaky Friday, and a few years before P.G. Wodehouse in Laughing Gas (1936). But Thomas Anstey Guthrie, writing as F. Anstey, beat them both with the father-son tale Vice Versa (1882). That’s been remade several times in the movies, too.
Since rediscovering him in this blog post, I’m reading his last book, The Glorious Pool, about a 60-ish couple, man and mistress, who discover that the swimming pool in her backyard has become a fountain of youth. The story is said to have inspired the 1985 Ron Howard film Coccoon, which is a much more complex science fiction plot. Much has changed in 90 years since publication of The Glorious Pool, including attitudes toward alcohol, immigrants, and aging.
Looking back through my journals of my first year as a freelancer, the entries begin to read like a script for “Groundhog Day” — except that the idea hadn’t been invented yet. Bill Murray wouldn’t relive the same day over and over for another 16 years. By then I’d be married with two kids and two jobs. No two days would be alike again.
Well, not until empty-nesting and retirement, anyway.
But only the day before, I had written that “tomorrow is anothuh day.” I was echoing Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.” But Scarlett was a manipulative, determined woman. Did Mitchell intend her to be looking for an opportunity, or just procrastinating? Or both?
I was in much the same dilemma — opportunity or procrastination — at the time. I wasn’t aware of a third possibility — that tomorrow is another day just like today — until I read these entries, which I’ll combine into one post.
Anothuh cold, frustrating, and wasted day. Car still won’t start and may need major repair because I overlooked simple tune-ups. Meanwhile we’re keeping her warm. I began redrafting the TV Guide article and continue to be dissatisfied with it. I drafted a letter to Kilmarx, though, so at least there was some accomplishment.
Howard W. Fielding, “Journal, Volume II,” 13 February 1979
For the record, the car in question was a lemon-yellow 1976 Chevy Vega wagon, which had an aluminum engine block that was notoriously fragile, especially in cold weather. They were, essentially, disposable engines. The reference to “her” was just a common practice at the time, like calling ships “she.” It was a term of endearment. Most people didn’t name or sex their cars, although many now do. Most of my cars have been male.
Next day came this entry:
Still cold, but Francis managed to thaw out my car, which I promptly took to Forward’s Garage* to make an appointment for Friday. Also did a little gift shopping in order to say thanks. Made significant progress on the TV Guide article and completed the first draft of the Kilmarx letter. …
op. cit., 14 February 1979
And then this:
Worked some more on the Kilmarx and TV Guide pices, then braved the cold to buy Francis a thank-you electric teakettle and myself a TV Guide. In the magazine I found an item about the death of “Coed Fever,” which makes my article that much more easy to write but that much less saleable.” …
Also had trouble starting my car tonight, but I promised to take her to the doctor tomorrow.
op. cit, 15 February 1979
That last sentence was awkward, but you see where this is going now, don’t you? If this were a novel or even a Bill Murray movie, I’d have telegraphed a few things already. But in NaNoWriMo terms, most of us live our lives as “pantsers.” We don’t plot out things in advance. We take things as they come, flying by the seat of our pants. And sometimes the fabric wears a little thin.
In writing this, I was delighted to learn that Forward’s Garage is now in its second generation and going strong as a family business. At the time of my frozen adventure, it was only in its third year after founding by Tom Forward in 1976.
Perhaps the busiest week, good and bad, of this season. And the strangest part is that most of it was completely outside my control.
The first part that was within my control should be obvious to regular readers of this blog (both of you). It has a new name, slogan and logo.
The “Living Here Together” brand meant little, especially as the namesake column on which it was based was now four years out of print. The brand is the site name: HWFielding, and that’s what I’ll be selling in the future, including any future books.
The slogan “Celebrating our Common Life, Liberty, and Happiness” was all right as far as it went. I’d like to use this site to share and celebrate things that we have in common. But my essays are–eclectic. They have political, literary, personal, and geographical themes–whatever crosses my mind. That doesn’t provide a consistent product for readers. But as with my old column, I’m writing about what interests me. In other words, “In other words…”
With the new branding, I needed a new logo, so I ran the Fiverr logo generator for WordPress and told it to include a typewriter. The template I selected had one with a pink typewriter, which also links to my brand. Is that too girly? Tough. It’s my daughter-in-law’s favorite color. And my mom’s.
Then I hopped onto Vistaprint and ordered up my first 100 business cards. So for less than $200 I now have a new brand identity and a business card to send people. It’s a start.
in other news …
Major milestone: I completed transcribing (and commenting on) my first 1976 draft of “Margery” for the book. “Harry Houdini and the Witch of Beacon Hill: An Exorcism in Two Parts” is now two-thirds complete. The first third is about the start of the project, in playwriting class — about 100 pages. The last third is the two-act play itself, about 12 pages. What’s left is the middle, what I did (and didn’t do) in between. This will require revisiting my journals, which I kept in the 1970s and 1980s. I’ll also review my rewrites, or starts, to get an idea where the story was going in between. There are at least three manuscripts and two typed versions.
Observations: The “cornerstone content” of this site continues to be the history of Bubble Wrap. I got another contact from a TV producer for an interview next month in NYC. Stay tuned.
Interaction: For the first time since I started this blog four years ago, someone reblogged me. Twice, once with excerpts and once with a link to my blog. It felt good! Someone liked my “Happy Constitution Day!” and “September in New England” essays enough to put them on their home page with full credit and links.
The problem came when I saw some of the other pieces on that page that were promoting points of view that I found offensive. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, even if I don’t like them. But I don’t want people to think I agree. I asked the site to take them down, and they did. No harm, no foul.
Professional development: I’ve taken to listening to the recommended podcast “The Shit No One Tells You About Writing.” Aside from the evocative name, it has a practical format. The first part is a chat with literary agents about query letters and pitches submitted by listeners. The second is an interview on how-to topics about writing and the business surrounding it.
The highlight of the week was today’s Authors Day 2022 at the Woodbury Library. The place was crowded with 35 local (Connecticut) authors selling their books and almost as many wanna-be types like me. i picked up inspiration and tips from the panelists, but was too introverted to actually strike up conversations with them. And the sales floor reminded me too much of our old days selling magazine subscriptions at camp shows.
But, as several panelists noted independently, introversion seems to be part of the writer’s psychology. Some seemed as nervous and awkward as I was. Another common characteristic: At least four panelists mentioned serendipity.
And keynote speaker Nan Rossiter gave a nod to God by talking about the importance of faith to her as a writer and in her works. That alone was worth hearing, and explains a certain voice that’s been whispering in my ear lately.
Next week: Back to Vermont to dive into the manuscripts and notebooks for the “lost years” of my manuscript, which is now about 30,000 words out of an estimated 50,000.
Fourth in a series. You’ll probably want to start here.
This much I knew: I wanted to be a writer. After all, I was distantly related to Henry Fielding, author of “Tom Jones” and other comedies, satires, and plays in pre-Revolutionary England.
There he is, off to the right. Handsome devil, no? You can see the family resemblance. I wanted to know more about him, perhaps follow in his footsteps.
So as an English major at an Ivy League college, I shied away from any creative writing classes and focused instead on study of 18th century English literature. I learned that old Henry was a lawyer, journalist, early novelist, satirist, critic, and playwright.
In retrospect, I guess that makes for even more of a family resemblance. I’ve dabbled in those fields as well. Everyone thought I should be a lawyer, but I had more fun as a satirist and writing humor for publications. That’s what brought me to The Reader’s Digest, and what brought to my attention a story that would haunt me for most of my life.
But how to tell it?
Learn something practical!
Not many employers are looking for people with a resume from the 18th century. But an English major at the time was considered good training for the law. You read a lot. You wrote a lot. You compared different works, learned to think critically.
But then, just about anything was considered good training for the law. There was no such thing as “pre-law” because law school taught you to “think like a lawyer.” You might as well enjoy your undergraduate studies while you still had a mind of your own.
What my mind enjoyed was theater criticism, even though my only experience on stage was in high school. I was arts editor for The Dartmouth, America’s oldest (some said oddest) college newspaper. So I took some of the Drama department’s courses to boost my street cred. The one that I had signed up for in the winter term of 1976 was Drama 30, Playwriting.
If the objective of the course is to “write the best one-act play he or she is capable of writing,” that seemed a low enough bar. And even though it was supposedly offered as Credit/No Credit, it was commonly known to insiders as “Write a Play and Get an A.”
With law school admissions looming and borderline honors credits, I could use that A. There was only one problem: As I walked into the classroom that Monday in January, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to write about.
Write what you know?
I toted my trusty green spiral-bound, three-subject notebook with the Dartmouth seal on the cover to a small classroom in one of the ancient, whitewashed halls in Dartmouth Row. There, Professor John Finch, chairman of the Drama Department, gave us the basics of playwriting–and all writing, for that matter:
Plot–the story from beginning to end.
Action–what the audience will see of the plot. The point of attack might actually take place far along in the plot. (Whoa! Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it later.)
Conflict–which causes suspense and makes the audience want to know what comes next.
A story idea, he told us, might come from any number of “germs”–characters, places, objects, habitual actions. He said sources for the plot might be people we know, school, news and current events, earlier literary works, overheard remarks, even dreams.
The one idea that hit home most with me, though, was:
So, of course, I’m violating that rule here. But I’m not writing a play, I’m writing about writing a play. There’s a difference.
Then there was a long list of things to avoid:
Don’t use a narrator crutch. (He’s right. I was the narrator in a high school play, and it was juvenile. Even old Henry Fielding inserted himself into some of his plays, which are pretty well forgotten now for good reason.)
Avoid excessive violence.
Avoid language for shock value, because you can’t shock people anymore. (This was the 1970s!)
Don’t write plays about lunatics, who are usually irresponsible and hence uninteresting.
Don’t write about the last people on earth, or people isolated by natural disaster. (Tell that to fans of the Walking Dead.)
Don’t write about artists. (He didn’t say why, but probably for the same reason not to write about lunatics.)
Don’t write propaganda plays. “Don’t let your characters know what you think.”
Now that we knew what to do and not do, he said, we should decide where to start and end the story. Once we had the material, we should get to know the characters.
Even at this point in the very first class, I had hit all the check boxes. Thanks to my internship, I had a story with conflict among great characters–Houdini, Doyle, Margery. And I knew those characters very well.
Or so I thought.
“Write honestly,” he ended the first class. “Write an honest play.”
I was ready to jump in, but first he wanted a plot outline and notes. More on that later. And before that, our first assignment was to write an icebreaker exercise of a dialogue. I have that, too. It’s awful. Should I put it on the “Outtakes and Bloopers” page?
Second in a series. You’ll probably want to start here.
A typical college internship introduces the student to a company and a career, and The Reader’s Digest hired at least two Dartmouth interns after their internships from Dartmouth. Good for them; the magazine was a great place to work and the leading magazine publisher in the 1970s. If you wanted to launch a career in the publishing world, there was no better place.
For me, the only problem was that the place of my internship was New York City. No matter what Mayor John Lindsay said, New York wasn’t Fun City in the ’70s. The daily commute took its toll on my mental health. The Pleasantville campus might have lived up to its name, but would have meant hourlong (at best) drives during rush hour over the then-hellish Tappan Zee Bridge (since rebuilt). No, thank you.
Nevertheless, my experience at RD left me with a better understanding of magazine publishing, a lifelong interest in Harry Houdini, and one fascinating story that wanted to be told and retold. Here is, as one might say, the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. Later I’ll tell you what I’ve done with it–and what I haven’t done it until now.
Beyond the grave
Houdini would be a particularly timely topic in 1976, the 50th anniversary of his death (naturally enough, on Halloween). The author and the RD editors got in on the wave early. This article would appear in mid-winter, but the story arrived on my desk just about 50 years to the month after the actual events.
Magician, escape artist, showman, the artist known as Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss in Budapest in 1874) was also the world’s first preeminent ghost-buster. The practice of mediums communicating with souls of the dead had started with simple parlor tricks by two sisters from Hydesville, N.Y. in the 1840s. With so many families devastated by losses in the Civil War and World War I, by the 20th century it had grown from a game to a cult to a cult religion called Spiritualism. Among its many adherents was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famed for his logical detective, Sherlock Holmes. Like many fathers and mothers of his generation, Doyle had lost his son in the first World War.
Houdini’s interest in communicating beyond the grave was driven by his own grief. His mother had passed away while he was on tour in Europe, and he never forgave himself. He desperately wanted to speak to her, to say goodbye, to seek forgiveness. He went from medium to medium, but found none who could give him results that he could not reproduce himeself.
Houdini and Doyle, who were both prone to mixing with other celebrities of their time, eventually crossed paths and became friends despite their strong differences over Spiritualism. They exchanged many letters on the subject, each in his own echo chamber. Doyle was convinced that Houdini had supernormal powers that allowed him to do his magic. Houdini was baffled by how the logical creator of Sherlock Holmes could be blinded by his faith in fraudulent mediums. He even devoted a chapter to Doyle in his 1924 book, “A Magician Among the Spirits.”
Their friendship came to a breaking point during a seance Doyle’s wife conducted for Houdini in Atlantic City. She used a process called “automatic writing” to channel a message from Houdini’s mother during a trance. She filled the pad with a hand-drawn cross and with effusively flowing English pouring out Mrs. Weiss’s love for her son.
Houdini, unconvinced, responded that the family was Jewish and his mother spoke only Hungarian and Yiddish. That secured his reputation as a fraud-buster but severed his relationship with the Doyles.
(Don’t put any stock in the short-lived but droll Fox television series. True, the two were contemporaries and, for a time, close friends. They didn’t do any sleuthing together.)
The Witch of Beacon Hill
Like Spiritualism itself, Houdini’s big case started as a parlor game. In the middle of the Roaring ’20s, a cluster of bored Boston socialites decided to put on a seance and see what happened. The idea probably came from Dr. Le Roi Goddard Crandon, a noted Boston surgeon who was developing an interest in psychic phenomena. It was enthusiastically supported by his wife, Mina.
The table tipped and floated. One by one, the sitters left the room but the phenomena continued.
Then it was Mina Crandon’s turn. She was new to Boston society, through her second marriage to Dr. Crandon. They had met when she was a patient. In her former life, she was mother to a young son by her first husband, a grocer. She was eager to fit into her new husband’s world.
When Mrs. Crandon left the room, the phenomena stopped. She returned to the applause of the group; obviously she was a medium. Among friends, who could have considered that she might be a fraud?
Their circle of friends expanded, and so did the phenomena she was able to produce. Soon it became clear that she was channeling her dead brother, Walter. He was witty and lively, if you can say that of a ghost, and he entertained their circle of academics.
Researchers from both Harvard, where Dr. Crandon had connections, and M.I.T. were investigating psychic phenomena at the time. Psychic researchers and Spiritualists alike took notice. So did the newspapers, who started calling her the Witch of Beacon Hill. To protect the family’s privacy, researchers and reporters dubbed Mrs. Crandon with the pseudonym “Margery.”
Clash of the Titans
Margery was riding the crest of a wave of excitement about the scientific study of psychic phenomena. In 1924, Scientific American magazine offered a cash prize for anyone who could prove genuine phenomena to its committee, which included Houdini. Doyle had heard of and sat with Margery and recommended her for the prize. Other committee members included Harvard and M.I.T. scientists and psychologists, who likely had heard of the case through their own connections.
The committee’s secretary, Scientific American staffer J. Malcolm Bird, wrote a series of articles about its investigations. After different committee members sat with Margery for dozens of seances, Bird was probably the one who tipped off Houdini that it looked like Margery was genuine.
Houdini, who had not sat with Margery, found his reputation as a ghost-buster on the line. His recently published “A Magician Among the Spirits” had devoted an entire chapter to Doyle’s credulity. Their friendship was already shattered. If the committee were to award the prize for genuine phenomena, his years of exposing frauds would be eclipsed. He had to either prevent her from creating phenomena, or catch her committing fraud. Even if he caught her red-handed, many believers would argue that it didn’t prove that all the other phenomena were faked.
Houdini was in a bind. But as an escape artist, he knew how to get out.
The Margie Box
In his sittings with Margery, Houdini had a few tricks up his sleeve, or his pants leg. He bound his leg with a tight bandage to sensitize it when he controlled the medium by holding one side of her hands and feet. (The other side was usually controlled by Crandon or Bird.) By arrangement with other committee members, he broke the hand-holding circle to explore the table and underneath it. He came up with explanations for just about every phenomenon she manifested.
But he couldn’t prove, exactly, that she had actually used them.
At an impasse, Houdini convinced his other committee members–and the Crandons–to allow his assistant to build a fraud-proof box to control the medium. It was roughly the size and shape of a narrow crate for an upright piano. The medium, or in this photo Houdini himself, sat inside with hands extended through holes in the side. The feet were inside the box, along with any potential props. Houdini said that even he couldn’t produce phenomena when controlled in this way.
So what did happen? Spoiler alert: As you’ll see in the headlines below, the Scientific American did not hand Margery the prize, nor was it ever awarded.
Still, Margery kept on doing seances and Houdini kept on debunking fraudulent mediums. He even testified before Congress about the danger of frauds. (Some of his collection is in the Library of Congress today.)
When Houdini died the following year–1926, on Halloween–Spiritualists the world over rejoiced and said Walter had predicted his demise. Houdini had promised his wife that if anyone could communicate from beyond the grave, he would contact her with a secret code. She conducted annual seances on Halloween for a decade before giving up, saying 10 years was long enough to wait for any man.
The real drama, though, took place in those hot days in the summer of 1925. That’s when the characters, the conflict, and the eternal question of faith vs. science all came to a head. That was the story I wanted to tell.
After such a long hiatus from this blog, I was tempted to lead with Mark Twain’s quote about reports of his death being an exaggeration. When I looked it up, though, I learned that the quip as we know it today was itself an exaggeration. So there’s your tidbit for the day.
I’ve spent the last few months reorganizing and taking stock of my projects, which by now include seven different pieces of full-length fiction, a series of humorous memoirs, several stand-alone short stories, and a play. Some of the short stories have been previously published (first serial rights) and I can share them here.
But the play’s the thing. I’ve been working on it for more than 40 years.
Digesting the Big Apple
The story-behind-the-story also explains my compulsion to fact-check before I publish anything. I took a leave term in the fall of my junior year in college to work as an intern in the Editorial Research Department of The Reader’s Digest in New York City.
This was back in the day when major publishers–at the time, RD had the largest circulation in the nation–had enormous investments in their credibility. They hired scores of librarians, researchers, and editors to fact-check for them. (Think Katherine Hepburn and her team in “Desk Set,” without Spencer Tracy’s computer).
Every word in your RD was checked by one or more researchers against two or more sources. I was part of a team of about 30 people on the 43rd floor of the Pan Am Building (now MetLife) at 200 Park Avenue. RD leased three floors there, mostly for research and other specialty work best done in the Big Apple. Every evening the company ran its internal courier service called the “pony express” to the main campus in Pleasantville, N.Y.
Tools of the trade
And every morning, the pony driver would bring articles–remember, this was in the day of typed manuscripts and galley proofs–back down to the 43rd floor for the RDERD (Reader’s Digest Editorial Research Department) to check and double-check. We would work from a fully stocked reference library on the interior of the floor. There was the usual array of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and the multivolume Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature. So, too, were racks and racks of magazines and periodicals from around the world that the guide would point us to.
Newspapers posed a different problem. With exceptions such as The New York Times, most did not publish an annual index to their articles. Even then, an annual guide was useless for articles that appeared after the most recent volume. RD employed a small army of reference librarians to clip and index newspapers that came in every day from major cities across the country and around the world.
What the RD library didn’t have, chances are the main branch of the New York Public Library, a short walk away, did. And if that didn’t help, we could reach out to RD researchers around the world. I even received a document from Paris on a newfangled facsimile machine!
Nothing but the truth
Our mission was clear: Fact-check everyone, from presidents to published authors to people on the street. Was there really such a thing as a burpless cucumber? The Burpee Seed Company spokesman assured me there was. Did the attack on Quebec in the American Revolution take place on December 30 or 31, 1775, or on January 1, 1776? I pored through first-person memoirs at the New York Public Library reading room to find the soldiers themselves weren’t sure; they were just anxious to go home when their enlistment was up at year-end.
The hardest part of this rule came when we had to turn down a story because it couldn’t be confirmed. One freelancer submitted a piece about a hermit for the “My Most Unforgettable Character” feature. He couldn’t provide the name of anyone else who knew the hermit (probably because the unforgettable character was a hermit). So I called the newsroom of the Ketchikan Daily News in Alaska to see if they knew of him. Nope. Hermits who live on islands don’t have phones or do interviews. That writer missed his big break, a great fee, and a debut in the most popular feature of the world’s most popular magazine.
Then, one day toward the end of my internship, the pony express rider reached into his saddle bag and pulled out an envelope that would change my own life as a writer. I slit it open, not knowing what to expect.
Inside was a 50-year-old mystery involving Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and a woman the newspapers dubbed “Margery.” It was a great story, with larger-than-life characters, deception, illusion, and conflict. I had no idea that it would haunt me nearly 50 years later.
History outdoes itself
That’s the play I’m working on today. I’ll tell you the story, and the story of writing and rewriting it, soon. But first, let me finish what I’ve started here.
Houdini’s day to that college internship was about 50 years. That internship to today is almost as long. The world has changed since then, too, only faster.
Research departments like the one RD had in the PanAm building are a thing of the past. So is the Digest itself; it’s smaller now and its circulation, while still more than 3 million, is a fraction of what it once was. The company closed its offices in the PanAm Building. A buyer converted its Pleasantville campus to apartments. The company that now publishes it is based in Manhattan.
In many ways, research is faster and easier because so much is online. But despite what many think, not everything is. For example, exactly when did that article about Houdini run in the RD? What was the title? I have a copy somewhere in my attic, but that doesn’t help much.
The Connecticut State Library, however, does have print copies of the guide going back to the early 1900s. We are grateful to reference librarian Stephen Rice for looking it up for us.
“Houdini, the Man No Lock Could Hold” by James Stewart Gordon ran in the February, 1976 edition. Gordon was the Digest’s Roving Editor, which meant he wrote pretty much what he liked, when he liked. Not a bad job. Today he’d probably be a blogger, or maybe have a podcast.
I think I may have met Gordon during my one-and-only luncheon with my editors in the Valhalla of Pleasantville on my last day of work for RD. We may even have talked about Houdini.
I didn’t tell him, because of course I didn’t know, that he had reawakened my own interest in the magician and that it would last the rest of my life.