By Tom Interval
Despite the title of this blog entry, I have to come clean: I have no idea if Harry met Larry. I’m talking about Harry Houdini, of course. But who the heck is Larry?
Larry E. Lewis, a banquet waiter, magician, escape artist, runner, and self-proclaimed centenarian who lived from possibly the late 1860s to 1974, repeatedly asserted he was Houdini’s assistant and stand-in, traveling around the world with him for 33 years until the famed escape artist complained of chest pain and died in his arms in 1927 at either the Empire Theatre or Temple Theater in Detroit.
Was Larry really Houdini’s assistant? I’ll get to that in a moment. First, I’d like to dispel the claims relating to Houdini’s death. While it’s true Houdini died in Detroit, the year wasn’t 1927 but 1926, and the location wasn’t the Empire Theatre or Temple Theater but Grace Hospital, Room 401, Corridor D, in the old John R. Wing. And his death, caused by peritonitis, certainly didn’t happen in Larry’s arms. The only people in the room besides maybe medical staff were Houdini’s wife Bessie and three out of four of his living siblings: Nat, Theo, and Gladys (Houdini and the fourth living sib, Leo, had a falling out after the latter married Nat’s ex-wife).
As for Larry being Houdini’s assistant, it’s highly unlikely. Aside from there being some historical inaccuracies in Larry’s claim, I couldn’t find any record of him even meeting Houdini, let alone assisting him for more than three decades. There is, however, a record of another Larry Lewis meeting Houdini and even getting his autograph on March 11, 1909. However, that Larry Lewis was “London’s Quaint Comedian” and “Songster,” whose great-granddaughter, Alison Young, wrote about a couple years ago on her blog, Music Hall Alice.
According to Alison, songster Larry’s manager was Harry Day, who also managed Houdini’s European tours. So if magician Larry knew of songster Larry’s second-degree connection to Houdini, it’s conceivable that magician Larry fabricated stories based on that connection. That’s not to say our centenarian friend was a pathological liar. My guess is that he concocted his Houdini-related tales simply to embellish his own backstory. Claiming to know all of Houdini’s secrets, Larry said he escaped from a straitjacket years before Houdini did (not true) and broke out of jails and “insane asylums” in the U.S. and Europe. It’s worth noting that Houdini’s first public straitjacket escape occurred in San Francisco in 1899.
The date of Larry’s birth isn’t quite as debatable as his assertion that he assisted Houdini, but it’s arguable, nonetheless. He claimed he was born on June 25, 1867, on a small Native American settlement that would later become Phoenix, Arizona. At some point, Larry, the eldest of 13 children, moved to San Francisco and lived there for the rest of his life. The California Death Index (CDI) lists Larry’s birth date as June 21, 1867, and apparently the San Francisco Board of Supervisors agreed, at least with the year. On June 24, 1963, the day before Larry’s supposed 96th birthday, the board gave him a certificate attesting to that age.
But it gets a bit murkier. According to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI), Larry was born on June 25, 1871, which would make him four years younger than he repeatedly claimed. I tend to trust the SSDI because those data draw from the state or territory where the social security number was issued: Arizona. However, even that isn’t necessarily reliable because, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services, registration of vital records in that state began in July 1909, roughly 40 years after Larry’s supposed birth date. And the Social Security Administration didn’t even start issuing Social Security numbers until mid-November 1936, when Larry was already in his mid 60s. All of that said, it’s probable the only records of Larry’s birth are his parents’ notes and memories, so who knows how accurately or inaccurately the official records reflect the actual date.
The details of Larry’s life become clearer as he gets older. Regardless of whether or not he actually met or knew Houdini, he was obviously influenced by him. At some point, Larry developed an interest in magic and escapology, and there are a few records of him performing in public as “Happy Larry.” News clippings about him state he performed in the Ringling Brothers Circus, but accounts of exactly when vary. This is important when examining Larry’s claim that he was Houdini’s assistant.
According to Larry, he and Houdini met when they played Ringling together in the 1880s. There are three primary problems, among others, with that assertion: 1) Born in 1874, Houdini was between the ages of six and fifteen throughout the 1880s. 2) Houdini, whose real name was Ehrich Weiss, didn’t even adopt his stage name until around 1891 at the age of 17 and probably didn’t perform professionally until later that year when he and a work friend named Jacob Hyman entertained as the Brothers Houdini. 3) Houdini never performed in Ringling. The Welsh Brothers Circus? Yes, in 1895 and 1898. But not Ringling.
As for Larry himself performing in Ringing as an aerialist and magician, that part could be true, but it’s not clear exactly when he actually began that stint. The San Francisco Examiner of June 28, 1959, claims it was from 1893 (countering Larry’s earlier 1880s claim) until Houdini’s death, then back again at some unspecified date until 1941. The latter year is closer to the truth. In 1942, when Larry was in his early to mid 70s (if any of the birth-date estimates are to be believed), back-to-back articles in the Tucson Daily Citizen and The Arizona Daily Star mention him being in the circus at the time and announcing his performance at an upcoming ball in Tucson. One Daily Star article, dated January 25, claims that “‘Dare Devil’ Happy Larry, the only person in the world doing a 65-foot drop while getting out of a straight jacket in mid-air…” had been a feature with the circus for the past five years, which implies he started around 1937 when in his mid-60s.
When this article was published, Larry was supposedly in his 70s. If he really ended up doing the straitjacket stunt at the ball as written, he would have been one of the oldest escape artists in history (but apparently not the oldest; that distinction belongs to Ron Cunningham, aka The Great Omani). But that might not have been the case for very long. A blurb in The Billboard published about a week before the Daily Star article claimed Larry was in his final season at the circus. The sad truth is, none of these numbers add up, and I still have no idea when his circus stint began or ended, let alone if he was even in the circus. His accounts in newspapers differ depending on which one you read.
Other Daily Star announcements that week claimed Larry also would perform “many interesting disappearing acts” (Jan. 29) at the ball and that his “incidental repertoire will include card tricks and other sleight-of-hand routines practiced during his association with Houdini” (Jan. 30). But it seems his main interest was escapology. Before his straitjacket escape at the ball, he had planned to do a challenge escape from 50 feet of rope tied by Edward F. Echols, a rodeo champion and the sheriff of Pima County, Arizona, from 1937 to 1946.
Sheriff Echols wasn’t the only one tying knots around that time. According to the 1942 Billboard blurb cited earlier, Larry married Florence Hale in Las Vegas on December 31, 1941, when he was in his early to mid 70s depending on which of his birth years you believe. I found no other record of his marriage to Flo, but several newspaper stories written about Larry in future years said he was married twice: once when he was in his mid to late 70s to his supposed first (late) wife, Rhetta (or Retta), and again in his early to mid 80s in Reno in the early 1950s to Bessie Phillips, a woman of Russian descent who was about 30 years his junior. I’m sure the coincidence that Houdini’s wife also was called Bessie wasn’t lost on Larry. In any case, Bessie might have been Larry’s third wife.
Around 1945 or ’46, a year or so after his mother died, Larry, a healthy five-foot-seven, 148-pound dynamo, began working as a banquet waiter at St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco and continued to perform at veterans’ hospitals in his time off. The fact he was working in a job demanding such high energy at his age got him publicity as early as 1952. The San Francisco Examiner of June 4 that year announced his marriage to Bessie, referring to Larry as “the noted St. Francis waiter who is merely 85 yrs. old.” By the time he was in his 90s, he supposedly woke up each day at 4 a.m., jogged six miles at Golden Gate Park, went home to freshen up, and walked about four miles to his job at St. Francis. As he got older, he competed in track-and-field events: specifically, 100-yard dashes.
In a 1968 event, believing or claiming he was 101 years old when he was possibly 97, he ran 101 yards—one yard for each of his years—in 17.8 seconds. In June 1969, he beat his own time by 0.5 seconds, running 102 yards in 17.3 seconds at UC Berkeley’s Edwards Field. Apparently that time was an unrecorded record in his age group. “[H]is unofficial mark still stands as the one to beat,” writes Leonard T. Olson, author of Masters Track and Field: A History. “Although his name isn’t in the records book, he is an inspiration for everyone.” Larry, himself, said running that dash was “child’s play.” He was a bit slower the following month when he ran in San Diego at the U.S. National Masters Championships, running the dash in 19.4 seconds. The same day he reportedly presented a straitjacket escape, but I found no record of it.
Larry’s track-and-field accomplishments yielded him more publicity than any of his exploits as a performer. Between 1952 and his death, he was featured in several syndicated newspaper articles, and he even appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, according to his IMDb page. Other sources claim he also was on Truth or Consequences, I’ve Got a Secret, You Asked for It, The Steve Allen Show, and The Don Rickles Show. And more than one newspaper article reported that Paramount Pictures made a movie about him in the late 1950s titled The Long Life of Happy Larry. Despite my best efforts, I found absolutely no record of that film anywhere, online or in print, other than newspaper accounts.
Larry must have been devastated after Bessie died in January 1972 less than three months before her 76th birthday. “Since Bessie (Mrs. Lewis) died about six months ago, he has been working 3 shifts a day at the hotel—up to 17 hours, trying to get hold of himself after the great loss,” according to an article in the June–July 1972 issue of the Northern California Running Review. By October 1973, Larry had retired from St. Francis and worked as a “goodwill ambassador” for Western Girl staffing service (now known as Westaff). In December, he was admitted to Hahnemann Hospital in San Francisco, where he died of liver cancer on February 1, 1974, a few months before his 103rd or 107th birthday.
Larry, who looked like Jimmy Durante and sounded like baseball player Casey Stengel, according to one reporter, received national newspaper coverage after his death. Some headlines confidently proclaimed he was Houdini’s assistant while perpetuating the myth within the articles themselves: “Larry Lewis Dies At 106; Former Aide to Houdini.” But most identified him as a “running waiter” or “jogging waiter,” and some called him “Superman” and “A city institution.”
Over the years, there have been some online discussions among Houdini scholars about Larry. One such person is Patrick Culliton, who says Walter B. Gibson, creator of The Shadow and friend of Houdini, mistook Larry for one of Houdini’s real assistants: George Brooks, whose real name was Lewis Goldstein. Gibson told Patrick and at least a few other Houdini experts that Larry and Goldstein was the same person, and that claim spread over the years until Gibson’s error was caught. “I can’t find Larry Lewis anywhere in Houdini’s life or career,” wrote Patrick. “as opposed to Lewis Goldstein, who was with Houdini for 14 years.”
Three other men widely known to be Houdini’s assistants were Franz Kukol, Jim Collins, and James Vickery. But Larry Lewis? Not quite. Even so, I’d be remiss not to admit that both men had some things in common, including a love of magic, escapology, self-promotion, myth creation, and healthy living (both men exercised and never touched alcohol or cigarettes). Yes, it’s fair to say Larry is a peripheral character in Houdini’s grand story, but if the two had actually met, I think they would have hit it off immediately. On what would have been Larry’s 148th—or 152nd—birthday, I wish you good health, happiness, and the ability to live to whatever Larry’s real age was.
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