Larger than Life: Harry Houdini & Mickey Cohen (news video archive & Seance recording)

I love the concept of taking two seemingly opposite figures in history, putting them up next to one another and then seeing what types of comparisons we can draw and what ironies might present themselves. I’m not fully trying to do that here, but I can’t keep myself from doing it entirely.

This is a research and community-building web site. If I come across something fun I think my audience would find interesting or enlightening, I want to share it right away. That’s how this piece started, but then I kept thinking about what amazing characters these two individuals are… Mickey Cohen, LA’s Mafia boss after Bugsy Siegel and Harry Houdini, someone who may well have been the most famous person in the world at his height.

Also, in the ongoing quest for information, I wanted to pose a question to the community about each historical figure. However, in the ensuing days between concept and me sitting down to write this, I was able to find an answer to a question I had been seeking for a decade.

First, allow me to share some unique pieces of media. The first, a retrospective of Mickey Cohen’s local LA press coverage over the years:

And now, an edited down recording for the famed “Final Houdini Seance,” which took place on the roof of Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel:

Both individuals were fascinating due to their mysteries.  How did Houdini escape the mirror cuffs (a set of unique handcuffs created to challenge Houdini, associated with the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper)?  How many people were Mickey Cohen responsible for killing, whether directly or by ordering the hit?

They were both also escape artists of sorts.  Houdini in the literal sense, Cohen by virtue of surviving multiple assassination attempts including a barrage of bullets on Sunset Boulevard in July 1949 (pictured right, the aftermath, the day after the shooting, parked cars showing some of the damage inflicted the night before) and a bombing attack on his home.

Like so many others, they are also transplants who are indelibly associated with Los Angeles.  Houdini was born in Hungary in 1874, lived in Wisconsin as a child and primarily lived in New York during his adult life.  However, he did live in Los Angeles for a short time while making a few silent films in the late 1910s/early ‘20s.  The original ruins of the Laurel Canyon “Houdini Mansion” were recently re-discovered by Wild About Harry writer John Cox and fellow Houdini explorer Pat Culliton in 2019 (link below).  There’s more legend and misinformation than fact when it comes to the Houdini estate, but Cox wrote a thorough article about the truth of the location in a link below as well.

More LA connections: Houdini famously escaped a straightjacket while suspended upside-down from downtown LA’s Herald Examiner building, he accidentally captured a paranormal photograph at LA’s 1st Spiritualist Church while attempting to debunk a ‘spirit photo’ and, as posted above, Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel was the site of Bess Houdini’s final attempt to reach her deceased husband.

The question I initially wanted to ask the public was why did they end up picking the rooftop of the Knickerbocker as the venue for the seance?  Did Harry have a connection to the place in life?  Why the roof?  While I still don’t know why they choose the roof, I do have to imagine that it was for the spectacle of it all.  Bess Houdini appreciated a good photo op just as well as her husband and a hotel ballroom isn’t as exciting in print or in photo as being on top of Hollywood.

But the reason for the Knickerbocker isn’t as exciting as I had hoped.  A trail of newspaper articles mentioned that Mrs. Houdini would be “stopping by” the Knickerbocker while one claimed she would participate in a seance from her suite here.  Finally it was the Pasadena Post that wrote, “She wanted to try the seance on a Hollywood Mountain top, but her manager has decided her Hollywood Knickerbocker apartment presents more ideal conditions.”

For those interested in more detail about the Houdini seance, which was executed simultaneously in other cities across the country, if not the world, we’ll have another article on this in October.

Mickey Cohen, meanwhile, was born in New York 1913, bounced around the Midwest for a bit before landing in and settling down long term in Los Angeles by 1939.  Cohen is most associated with the Sunset Strip, where he entertained, did business and hobnobbed with movie stars, and Brentwood, where he lived, to the chagrin of his neighbors.  Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood was considered unincorporated LA at the time, so law enforcement was spotty since the area didn’t have their own police force and had to rely on state and county police.

One location that is in some dispute, whether or not it has ties to Mickey Cohen is Hollywood’s Roosevelt Hotel.  This hotel is one of my favorite sites in Los Angeles and is certainly the town’s most haunted building, which I’ve written about in some depth here.  One legend has it that when word reached him that his boss, Bugsy Siegel was assassinated in Beverly Hills, Cohen allegedly went to the Roosevelt Hotel & shot up the lobby, demanding the killers come down to face him.  He then waited outside for 10 minutes, eventually fleeing once police showed up.

There are a lot of holes to poke in this story.  A big one being that when Bugsy was killed, there was a high likelihood that Cohen was aware of the plan in advance.  While he wouldn’t have been the one to order the hit, he did certainly have a lot to gain by inheriting the role of head of the LA crime family.  Also, this story sometimes gets associated with Cohen’s reaction to hearing that his longtime friend and fellow gangster Johnny Stompanato was killed.  Still, the legend continues to pop up, so the question remains:

Did Mickey Cohen shoot up the Roosevelt Hotel?

If so, over Bugsy’s or Stompanato’s death?
A youthful Cohen in his New York boxing days, sporting a Star of David on his trunks.

Something somewhat unexpected that connects Houdini to Cohen is their Jewish faith, their openness to Christianity and their care for oppressed Jews in Europe.  Cohen held fundraisers to be able to ship funds and weapons to Israel’s fight for independence in the late ‘40s.  And if Cohen is holding a fundraiser, it’s probably good for business for those in attendance to give til it hurt.  Before then, it was Houdini who was a proud Jew who was sympathetic to those suffering under the anti-Semitic Czar Nicholas II of Russia.  In 1903 Houdini toured Russia and as was his practice to publicize his shows, he went to a famous Russian prison and was asked to be locked within so that we could escape.  His request was denied, but instead, he was placed in an unescapable transport buggy that was used to shuttle prisoners to Siberia.  Even the escape-proof carriage, which needed different keys for locking and unlocking was no match for Houdini, who safely found his way out.  Though this was something he did commonly around the world, the idea that this might serve as an inspirational act of a Jew escaping Russian authority, may have instilled a deeper feeling of pride for Houdini.

Within their personal lives, however, they were both accepting of Christian beliefs and traditions.  Harry Houdini married Bess, a Christian, and enjoyed celebrating Christmas.  Later in life, Cohen became unlikely friends with Billy Graham and attended his old school tent show revivals in cities around the country.  That friendship came to an apparent end when Cohen was offered $25,000 to publicly convert to Christianity.  Even for Cohen, who always seemed in need of a big payday (he did accept payment for appearing at these revival shows), that was a step too far.

Both men were absolute darlings of the press, who absolutely valued the power of publicity.  A younger Houdini would send in reviews of his own performances to local papers under a false name in order to help him book future engagements.  He never missed an opportunity to do a stunt that would get people talking, create a photo op or otherwise promote himself and his show (it’s no coincidence that his LA suspended straight jacket escape was done from a newspaper building, pictured right, April 4, 1923).

Unlike most gangsters through time, Cohen didn’t shy away from news cameras. The photo to the right is event from a full Life Magazine photo shoot he sat for. In fact, he loved these photos so much, he later used one as the cover of his autobiography.  He frequently utilized the power of the press to tell his side of the story and make himself seem relatable, especially as he was hunted by tax agents in the ‘50s & ‘60s.  If someone was gonna set the narrative about who Cohen is, it’s gonna be Cohen himself.  He was just an average guy trying to make a buck, just like anyone, right?  Hard to have it both ways as he also loved to repeat his own quote during interviews that, “I didn’t kill anybody who didn’t deserve it.”

He also tried in vain for years to sell the book and film rights to his own life story.  While he couldn’t ever get the project off the ground, he did sell off portions to investors over the years, effectively selling off way more than 100% of the rights to numerous individuals, essentially correctly pulling off the scam attempted in Mel Brooks’s “The Producers.”

Ironically, it was the entertainer who died at a younger age and violently as he was punched in the stomach, which lead to other internal problems for Houdini, passing away at 52 years old.  Cohen, however, died after a battle with cancer at age 62 – the rare prominent Mafia figure to die of natural causes.

It is unfortunate that these two souls never crossed paths in life as Houdini passed away in 1926, when Cohen was just 13 years old and already a NY street tough.  We know Cohen rubbed elbows with every type of celebrity.  While Houdini didn’t have any dark associations that I’m aware of, he did allegedly interview criminals when writing his book “The Right Way to do Wrong: An Exposé of Successful criminals.”  You don’t have to dive too deep to see the similarities between magicians and criminals.  Their success depends on sleight of hand and they’re both more successful if they can find their way out of handcuffs.

While Houdini never met Cohen, I do have to wonder…

Did Harry Houdini ever cross paths with Bugsy Siegel?

or do we ever find any quote where Cohen or Siegel mention Houdini or vice versa?

If any face-to-face interaction between Houdini happened, beit a chance encounter at a restaurant or Bugsy attending a Houdini performance, I would love to hear about it!  It’s easy to be amazed that for at least a little while, the relatively small, city of Los Angeles (population of only a half million in 1920) contained both of these larger than life personalities.

I’m sure there will be some fans of Houdini who don’t love my creating a connection between he and Cohen, but there is no doubt that these are two of the most unique and memorable people alive in their respective eras. Oh, what it would be like to envision these two larger than life characters having a conversation!

Further reading:

Lewis, Bradley. Hollywood’s Celebrity GANGSTER: The Incredible Life and Times of Mickey Cohen. Enigma Books, 2009. 

Posnanski, Joe. The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini. Center Point, 2020. 

Tereba, Tere. Mickey Cohen: The Life and Crimes of an L.A.’s NOTORIOUS MOBSTER. ECW, 2012.

Wild About Harry – Halloween 1936: The Final Houdini Seance – https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2014/10/halloween-1936-final-houdini-seance.html

Wild About Harry – Houdini vs. the Siberian Transport Cell Part I: The escape https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2016/07/houdini-v-siberian-transport-cell-part_13.html 

Wild About Harry – Pat Culliton and I found Bess Houdini’s house…like heroes – https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2019/07/pat-culliton-and-i-found-bess-houdinis.html  

Wild About Harry – The true story of the Laurel Canyon Houdini Estate – https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2012/03/inside-houdini-estate.html

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