Saturday 22 July 2017

Houdini's assistant . . . who kept his secrets for 85 years

He was the most famous magician in the world -- still remembered for his baffling stunts. She was his last assistant, who started working for him when she was a glamorous 18-year-old.

Harry Houdini died in 1926 when he was just 52; Dorothy Young passed away this week aged 103.

In the mid-1920s, Houdini would open his act with a large mock radio on the stage. He would open all of its sides to show that there was no one inside, close them, and then turn the dials as if tuning it in. Up would go the lid, and out would pop Dorothy, who would then dance a lively Charleston.

She was Houdini's 'Radio Girl', and his last surviving assistant. He took her on in 1925 after she answered a casting call in New York for a dancer. There were more than 200 girls at the audition, and she sat shyly at the back of the auditorium until her turn came.

When it did, Houdini immediately signed her up, overcoming the disapproval of her parents by promising that he and his wife Bess would treat her like their own daughter.

The show toured the eastern seaboard of the US for a year, and also played on Broadway. Young was seen by audiences dancing a minuet with Mrs Houdini before they pulled back the curtains, and she featured in several illusions. In one, she emerged from a mirrored cabinet and in another she played the part of a slave girl.

Decades later, as a frequent contributor to documentaries about Houdini, she admitted that her costumes had perhaps been rather daring.

Her most vivid memories were of the final trick in the act, the Water Torture Cell. Spectators saw Houdini handcuffed and suspended upside down underwater, but although Young knew the secret of how he escaped, she kept her vow of secrecy to the end.

Two months after she left the tour, in October 1926, Houdini died from a ruptured appendix after being punched without warning in the stomach by an over-eager fan who had heard that he could resist any blow.

Lena Dorothy Young was born at Otisville, New York, in 1907. Her father was a fifth-generation Methodist minister, and she grew up at the tuberculosis sanatorium in the Catskill Mountains where he worked.

She was inspired to take up dancing after seeing the ballerina Anna Pavlova, and the year before joining Houdini she had been offered a place in the line-up of Carroll's Vanities, the successor to the Ziegfeld Follies, only for her parents to scotch this scheme.

Shortly after her stint with Houdini, she married Robert Perkins, an FBI agent. They had a son, and in the late 1920s she returned to the stage with the encouragement of the actor Richard Bennett, father of the film stars Joan and Constance.

She appeared in his play Jarnegan (1928), and found modelling work, such as doubling for Gloria Swanson's legs on a publicity poster.

She resumed her dancing career, partnered by Gilbert Kiamie. Where she was petite and sparky, he was tall and suave, and together they made a speciality of Latin dances, notably their own compound the "rumbalero".

They were seen in the first of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's musicals, Flying Down to Rio (1933), and attracted much interest on account of Kiamie's family fortune; this had been made from lingerie, and the papers dubbed him "the Silk Scanties King".

Following the death of Perkins, Kiamie and Dorothy were married in 1943, and she spent the war years learning mechanics and drawing up the specifications for shock absorbers used by the US military.

Kiamie subsequently became a successful property developer whose portfolio included the historic Grolier Club on East 32nd Street, New York, where for a time they lived. Dorothy turned her hand to painting, and wrote several books, of which Dancing on a Dime (1940) became the basis for a film.

After Kiamie's death in 1992, Dorothy turned to philanthropy, endowing a chapel for a hospital and giving $14m to Drew University, New Jersey, where her brother had taught. Beyond the age of 100, she remained alert and active, beginning each morning with 10 minutes of dancing. Her only vice was a weakness for the slot machines in the Atlantic City casinos.

Each week she received requests for autographs and for reminiscences of her time with Houdini. She would modestly point out that she had only known him for a year, but she wanted above all to dispel stories that he had had an overbearing character. Instead, she insisted, he had always treated her with courtesy and consideration.

Dorothy Young was born on May 3, 1907. She died on March 20, 2011, aged 103.

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