Carolyn S. Stroebe, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist (#PSY11564) in Berkeley & author of Muriel Rukeyser, Strength and Weakness.
Elisabeth Däumer, Professor of English and Women’s & Gender Studies and Administrator of Muriel Rukeyser: A Living Archive at at Eastern Michigan University.
Important Note: Passages taken from Dr. Stroebe’s book, Muriel Rukeyser, Strength and Weakness and from unpublished interviews or other material are in quotes and italicized. The primary interview featured here was with Muriel Rukeyser (and Professor Frank Barron) at a private home on Union Street in San Francisco, California, on the afternoon of 30 July 1979.
CS: Professor Däumer, Elisabeth – Congratulations on producing Houdini! And soon!
And thank you!
ED: Yes, it’s happening! Thanks to a generous grant from Michigan Humanities–an affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities–as well as EMU’s Center for Jewish Studies (which means my colleague Marty Shichtman) and the English Department. (https://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/locks-keys-freedom-muriel-rukeysers-houdini-and-the-public-role-of-poetry/)
CS: I found the New York Times article announcing the first and only earlier production in 1973 starring a 30 year old Christopher Walken. So this production of yours – a celebration as we near its 50th anniversary? Half a century.
ED: Yes…we’re doing four staged readings of the play, or rather musical. And a virtual conversation, via zoom webinar, on Rukeyser and Houdini with two terrific speakers: Jan Freeman, who edited and published the play in 2002, and Stefania Heim who is the first to analyze the composition of the play. They are going to be joined by Houdini expert Matthew Solomon, who has written on Houdini and the new magic of silent movies.
CS: That’s great! Let me calendar all of those immediately!
ED: This webinar will take place at 11am on March 20 and should be of special interest to Rukeyser aficionados, since Houdini has garnered too little attention—so far! So we’re very excited and hope lots of people will attend the staged reading (we’re planning to live stream the first on March 20, 2pm) and the zoom webinar.
CS: If it weren’t for my extreme Covid cautiousness I would fly out for the opening performance. I have lots of questions for you about the play and what it suggests about Muriel. I am so grateful that we are an interdisciplinary team. You are the Literature and Women’s & Gender Studies Professor and I, a Clinical/Personality Psychologist, albeit one blessed to have interviewed Muriel shortly before her death. And what we do we have in common? We are both in love with Muriel!
ED: Carolyn, since you are in such a unique position and of interdisciplinary status – could you introduce yourself a bit more – for example, how did you come to interview Muriel Rukeyser?
CS: Muriel participated in a study of creative writers in 1958 at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Frank Barron, my mentor and dissertation chair in graduate school, in 1979, at UC Santa Cruz, was in charge of the files of these writers. Each student in Frank’s 1979 Graduate Personality Assessment Seminar chose a writer upon whom to focus. Hearing Muriel’s name, I recalled a favorite poem written by her, so guess who I chose?
ED: Muriel, of course!
I’d love to know more about Barron and the Institute of Personality Assessment and Research in Berkeley. Another time!
CS: Deal! I dedicated my 2021 book to the memory of Muriel and Frank – stars of creativity in both the 20th and 21st centuries. Anyway, Muriel just happened to be visiting San Francisco in the summer of 1979 and Frank arranged for the two of us to interview her; that interview, the 1958 case files, and other material formed the basis of my Master of Science Thesis on route to the Ph.D. Then, as you know, Muriel died in early 1980. I had been considering other topics for my doctoral dissertation, but it seemed timely to continue studying Muriel by interviewing people who knew her well, while they were still alive. And so I did, mostly in New York City. I recently published the 1982 dissertation – forty years later as an e-book and paperback – hard cover on the way! I was then a Personality Research Psychologist. I didn’t become a clinician until retraining years later. Currently I am a Licensed Psychologist with three decades of experience – and I now come to the case of Muriel, much more prepared to understand this complicated woman; although as we’ve discussed, Muriel is a mystery to some degree, to everyone who encounters her.
ED: Yes, she certainly is! By the way, I tend to think of and refer to her as Muriel Rukeyser; I’ve noticed you refer to her as Muriel, relatively informally.
CS: Hmm.…a thought-provoking observation! I hadn’t even realized that, but it’s true. Thank you because I pride myself on having good professional boundaries and being polite, respectful and appropriate. Let me think….
First, I may be wrong but it might be that Psychologists tend to be comparatively less formal, and certainly we were in Santa Cruz. I addressed Professor Barron as Frank and he called me Carolyn. By 1979, Muriel and Frank had known one another for over 20 years, so they were on a first-name basis. There was no suggestion on anyone’s part to do otherwise. In fact, at the end of the afternoon, Muriel and Frank, and Muriel and I exchanged a hug and a kiss. After Muriel died and I began doing interviews with family and close friends on very personal, psychological topics, this informal style continued. Actually, I ‘m now referring to Houdini as Harry; maybe informality in a Muriel context is as contagious as Omicron.
ED: Thanks for this explanation. So, what do you see as the clearest connection between Houdini and Muriel and what’s your take on why she chose to write this play?
CS: Well, I think the most dominant theme you and I have discussed is Muriel’s and Houdini’s shared fascination: becoming captive with the challenge of escaping, combined with an eventual successful escape. I know the topic came up when I asked Muriel about her “jail time” during my 1979 interview. What do you think, Elisabeth?
ED: I think the idea of IMPRISONMENT is an important context – one that Houdini and Muriel had in common. Muriel felt imprisoned in her home, family, even country.
CS: Wow. Even country…
ED: Here’s a line from “This House, This Country” written in 1935: “I have left forever / house and maternal river / given up sitting in that private tomb / quitted that land that house that velvet room.”
CS: Tell me more about her feeling imprisoned in her country.
ED: Well, “land” could mean a number of things in this poem, but if we take it as referring to the United States of America, a country that Rukeyser also had fervently idealistic feelings toward, I think of her experiences as a left-leaning, rebellious, young, queer, and Jewish woman, eager to spread her wings, to challenge political and aesthetic orthodoxies, to find her vocation, her voice—and that’s what she did when she went to Spain in 1936.
CS: So Interesting. And what of Muriel’s fascination with Houdini, the man? In psychological terms I believe she identified with him. It might easily have been the other way around but Harry was born first and died when Muriel was only 12!
CS & ED: (Laughter!!!!).
CS: Yes, Harry died in 1926 – but there was so much Houdini activity in the New York City in which Muriel grew up. And what a legend he created – that lasted through her lifetime.
So, identification – in personality and poetry – what else about Muriel’s interest in Harry?
ED: She could have mentioned him in “Waterlily Fire,” with Gyp the Blood, perhaps—but she doesn’t! The first written evidence of Muriel’s interest in Houdini came in in 1939, in a poem entitled “Speech for the Assistant, from Houdini.” None of the lines from that poem show up in the play, but I think it points us to an important historical and emotional context for Rukeyser’s Houdini fixation–the rise of fascism, the persecution of European Jews and other people declared ‘subhuman’ for reasons of race, sexuality, religion. So, in my mind, Rukeyser turned to Houdini as a Jew who overcame his impoverished immigrant background and became a celebrity, a superhero challenging institutional authority and fighting the forces of fascism.
CS: I love that superhero image – subhuman to superhero.
ED: You make me curious about the 70s context of Rukeyser’s interest in Houdini as well.
CS: Well… I’m looking at Louise Kertesz’s pathbreaking The Poetic Vision of Muriel Rukeyser, specifically at her chronology – and I see what surrounds the 1973 production of Houdini: Muriel had gone to jail for protesting in Washington DC in 1972 and published her book of poetry, Breaking Open, in 1973. Two years later she traveled to protest imprisonment of Kim Chi-Ha in Korea. And, then, of course there was Scottsboro back in 1933 – so throughout her life, this theme. Elisabeth– Do we know when Muriel actually wrote Houdini?
ED: Archival evidence suggests that she worked on the play, on and off, for three decades.
CS: I guess the legend DID last a lifetime!
ED: The version that got published by Paris Press in 2002 is based on revisions she made after the Lenox production in 1973. Allen Hughes, reviewing the performance on opening night for the New York Times found the musical “pointed and forceful in the first act, aimless and weak in the second.”
CS: Did she make many revisions and what kinds of revisions did she make?
ED: That I don’t know yet—but I am eager to find out. The archive will tell us! Fortunately, we’ll have Stefania Heim and Jan Freeman as webinar speakers on March 20. They’ll enlighten us!
CS: Wonderful! So . . . Related to the themes of imprisonment and breaking free in Muriel’s life and work and in the play . . . Shall I read some from my 1979 interview that involves these?
ED: Please do.
CS: Ok. I had asked Muriel to tell me about the experience of prison in Washington D.C. in 1972. Here is her reply:
[Muriel] “…Well in the beginning it was a refusal to do anything else; the judge wanted me to pay instead of going to prison. And I said that there wasn’t anything that money could do. It wouldn’t say what I wanted to say, and that it would be better if I went to prison. And I was handcuffed then, and taken across the street to the jail and put in with . . . a lot of women . . . Mostly a black jail, with black guards . . . And I came in under very favorable conditions, because I hadn’t been taken into jail the day that I appeared. They weren’t ready for me. And they hadn’t prepared the papers. So, they said to come back the next day. And I went to the motel, and I stayed there. I didn’t phone people, or anything. Because I was supposed to be in jail. And they had run a story on the front page of the STAR about me pulling some lines from the Scottsboro poem. And it was that that saved me because that reached the jail before I got there. And when I got there they asked me “Was (that?) you the poet?” . . . mostly negro women. It was a jail for prowlers and for whoring. Those were the main crimes. And there were a few white women, two white women, mostly in jail for absconding with funds . . . and they tried to break me into the con game. They said I’d be good.”
CS: The three of us had a good laugh about this – and then she continued…
[Muriel]“…and I was flattered that they were willing to break me in.”
CS: And when asked if she had been in jail before Muriel responded:
[Muriel} “That’s one of the questions that I can’t answer “yes” or “no” to, because I was arrested when I was nineteen at Scottsboro. And there wasn’t any room in the jail because it was full of Scottsboro boys. I wasn’t in jail but I should have been.”
CS: So, Muriel seems to feel she deserved to go to jail and also to really have wanted to go to jail – and she seems to have welcomed the handcuffs as an honor . . . just as Houdini – in the play – according to Beatrice, in Act One/Scene Two, Harry … “LIKES BEING LOADED DOWN AND CONFINED. HE LIKES EVEN MORE TO BREAK OUT.”
And as with Muriel and those who wanted to break her into the con game, Whitsun in the play wants to teach Beatrice to become a pick pocket. He says “TO BE AT THE TENT FLAP WHILE THE CROWD IS COMING IN. SOMETIMES THERE’S QUITE A BIT OF CASH…”. And Epictetus suggests “WELL,THEY’VE GOT POCKETS–? LOVELY AND DEEP.”
ED: That’s marvelous! I love these passages from your interview! But the reference to Scottsboro is also perplexing. I thought she contracted typhus while in jail! So, what are we to believe?
CS: Excellent question! Remember I am a scientist. Psychological data is always tricky but exponentially so with our Muriel! As one of my interviewees said “you could have chosen much easier characters to study . . . there are so many inconsistencies and contradictions in the things I am saying to you because that was the way she was . . . some things about her were impossible to explain.”
Can you say more about Houdini and your changing view of his complexity that you have mentioned?
ED: The more I read about Houdini, the more complex he becomes—not just his relationships to his mother and Bess, and in Rukeyser’s play to his assistant (who I assume is pure invention on Muriel’s part) but also his vendetta against spiritualism and his simultaneous promise to Bess that if he found a way through from death, he’d let her know (so she held annual séances for ten years after this death). I wonder if Muriel’s own complexity expresses itself through all the characters. She is both Houdini and Bess, perhaps? And Volonty? Perhaps Volonty is who she’d like to be? A high wire artist not constrained by gravity–a sort of female Houdini? Her name, in French–volonté–means “will,” “will power” or “persistence, and also “wish” or “desire.”
CS: Thank you for hearing Muriel as at least three voices in the play. In my 1979 interview with Muriel I brought up one of my favorite poems “Effort at Speech Between Two People.” I asked if it was intended to be a monologue or a dialogue. She answered ““Well I think they’re two real voices… but of course they’re both my voice.” So here is Muriel making actual voices – three or more – in the writing of this play.
ED: Yes. So, how do you see Muriel’s identification with Houdini?
CS: First, I use the term identification very loosely as a largely unconscious process when one associates oneself closely with another’s characteristics, profession, points-of-view and/or behaviors. Beyond what we’ve already discussed – that both Muriel and Harry were European Jews, and escape artists, entertainers and illusionists, here are a few more commonalities. Both were leaders–organizers–presidents! Harry for the Society of American Magicians and Muriel for American P.E.N. Curiously both were interested in aviation–in the early 20th century! Hmm . . . I think of your earlier words about the high wire artist . . .
ED: Yes–Volonty –“not constrained by gravity.”
CS: That’s it!
ED: It’s interesting to think of Rukeyser as an “escape artist” and an “illusionist.” Perhaps artists, by nature of their craft and passion, become experts at escape? In my mind Rukeyser wasn’t interested in escapes from reality—on the contrary, her art compels us to experience what’s real in a heightened, visceral, and imaginative way. Houdini’s escapes strike me as very down to earth—how to get out of handcuffs, a prison cell, a locked box, a milk can, a straight jacket. These are confines that the people who watched him recognized and perhaps identified with. I know he was also an illusionist, but in her play Muriel seems more interested in his passion for first locking and then freeing himself. And this makes me wonder—Rukeyser was often intrigued by the sorts of conventions that can lock us in, as women, above all marriage and motherhood. She got out of her one marriage after only a few months, and she refused to be limited, in her creative life, by motherhood. That’s quite a feat!
CS: Indeed, Muriel was a superhero! Both Muriel and Harry strike me as strong, high energy people. Neither fit society’s physical ideal as Muriel was heavy and Houdini was short for a man – but they certainly made up for these superficial qualities by being STRONG. Harry was very fit and strong physically, as well as in character. And, of course, I see strength in multiple ways as central to Muriel: I titled the book Muriel Rukeyser, Strength and Weakness for a reason!
They were both STRONG: courageous, daring and rarely if ever outwardly fearful, as well as persistent, persevering and determined — even stubborn. And, Both were energetic: physically – active, engaged , alert– and energetic emotionally – as enthusiastic and deeply passionate people. Both were independent – fierce individuals, very intelligent and highly competent.
ED: What about weakness? I know you discuss weakness in Muriel – but how about Houdini?
CS: A critical question, Elisabeth, for despite all these strengths, their weakness-in-common was their failing to realize they were not 100% superhero – but HUMAN. Both neglected their health and this played a role in both of their deaths—which were early deaths — Muriel at age 66 and Harry at 52. According to some of my dissertation interviewees, Muriel had many health concerns which she ignored. She refused to do what her doctors advised and actually fired some who wanted her to do what she did not wish to do. For example, she failed to take proper care of her diabetes including refusing to take insulin. She would attend events and travel when it was ill advised. One such occasion was “A day in honor of Muriel Rukeyser” at Sarah Lawrence: she attended when she should have been resting and collapsed at the end of the day and had to be hospitalized.
ED: I’ve heard about that and there was a similar situation for Houdini who could not complete his last performance. I know he died of an appendicitis or its complications.
CS: Exactly. Peritonitis or an inflamed abdomen, secondary to a ruptured appendix. Harry had developed excruciating pain but insisted on going “on with the show” and refused to see a doctor. When he finally did, he was diagnosed with an acute appendicitis and advised to have surgery immediately. Ignoring this, he went on, struggling, with a fever of 104 degrees. By the time the surgery was finally done, his appendix had ruptured and complications which killed him had arisen.
ED: Since for both of them the body played such a crucial role, it’s puzzling that they did not ‘listen’ to it more . . .
CS: Sadly so . . .
Returning to the lives of these strong – and weak characters, Elisabeth – could you say more about complexity? Earlier you said you see Houdini as more complex, the more you learn.
ED: Perhaps a better word than complexity is contradictions. By all accounts, Houdini was an incredible showman with a gigantic ego and given to hyperbole. He did not just re-invent himself when he morphed from Ehrich Weiss, a poor Hungarian Jewish immigrant, to Harry Houdini. He also invented stories about himself and his exploits—there’s a photo of him as a young man, which shows him with a whole barrage of athletic awards. Only one of these awards was actually his own. You might say he was a liar.
CS: Hmmm . . . a complex relationship to the truth . . .
ED: At the same time, he was intent on exposing mediums and séances as fraud—regardless of the fact that he himself had worked as a medium, which is, of course, how he knew they were fraudulent. The full extent of these contradictions may not have been known when Rukeyser began working on Houdini—or they did not interest her. The contradiction in Houdini’s character that does interest her, very much, is his skill at getting himself out of tight places and his utter inability to break the hold on him of his father and, especially, his mother Cecilia.
CS: I didn’t know his father had a hold on him as well. Maybe we can take this up in a Part II of this blog?
Now I would like to discuss our complicated Muriel.
CS: On our Zooms, you and I look at one another and smile when we think of our woman of mystery, Muriel, and her complex and contrasting selves. Muriel could be a performer – even somewhat exhibitionistic– but she could also be very shy and as if hiding. Muriel and Harry – both illusionists – making an audience believe in magic when there was none really. Making what was but natural look supernatural. The disappearing Elephant was an illusion created with mirrors. Apparently, the locks on trunks had removeable hinges.
ED: This is a fascinating topic! Houdini insisted he did not have supernatural powers; and he sometimes revealed how he did some of his ‘illusions.’ He insisted that it was all a matter of knowing something about human perception. I do think there’s something magical about art (and both MR and Houdini were artists), especially its ability to make the imaginary seem as, or even more, real than anything else.
Well both of them certainly knew how to draw attention to themselves. Let me read from my book: “Muriel’s habit of and ability to shock and surprise people is the most unusual and mysterious feature in her behavioral repertoire. . . .” During the 1958 study, a psychologist who administered some psychological tests, suggested that Muriel “seeks to surprise people and throw them off balance.”
According to my interviewees who knew Muriel well, she would “set up shocking situations so she could sit back and watch the reactions” and “she enjoyed shocking . . . there was a kind of gleam in her eye when she did some of these things. . . .”
ED: Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. She was a modernist, after all! Modernist art sought to shock viewers out of their complacencies, whether ethical or aesthetic—or political!
CS: Oh . . . I see.
I have a few stories, circa early-mid 1970’s, about Muriel disappearing into a bathroom or back room in the middle of small dinner parties with another person – apparently for sex. To add some historical perspective, I used the word “person” in my 1982 work, instead of woman, not wanting to “out” Muriel or her still living, more conservative partner as QUEER: back then, when QUEER was still considered literally queer. However, two women disappearing for sex in the middle of a straight dinner party would have, unquestionably, been a shock – now nearly a half century ago.
ED: And you are going to write more, are you not? Forty years later, now a clinical psychologist, about Muriel’s being queer?
CS: I hope to, yes.
Oh, I wanted to add that Muriel’s surprises were also positive, and were used to make people feel special. During the interview, Frank and I believed she was telling us secrets; these were not widely known but were not complete secrets either –or something she had not revealed to anyone else. Apparently because we were psychologists, Muriel said to us “You’ve had the truth all along. You’ve wanted the truth.” She spoke of us to her partner who was there that day, as not ordinary, not from a magazine: we were different! Indeed, Frank and I felt very special when we left that afternoon!
ED: I am so intrigued by that. It seems she offered her stories like jewels–special, even intimate, gifts designed to make the recipient feel special and well disposed toward her.
Before we wrap up, I wanted to share a part in the play which I absolutely love. In Act Two, Scene One, Beatrice asks “What would happen If one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
And Harry, a true feminist, at least in Muriel’s play, suggests “It has. Now I’m going after it –all pieces.”
This is a man – although created by a woman – who gets it. And, I love the reappearance of what has become a well-known quote of Muriel’s. Did you know Hillary Clinton uses it in her post 2016 election book, What Happened? (on Page 146).
ED: I had no idea, but I am not surprised. I think all of us can identify with it. There is still so much we don’t say about our lives—perhaps don’t know how or don’t dare to say! It’s curious though, isn’t it, that this important comment comes from Bess, whose role in the play pales besides Harry’s—until that one moment, at the very end of Act One, where she let’s loose and gives him a piece of her mind—“What are you trying to do—God Jesus! Killing everything—And the goddamn fucking sun, what about the sunlight? And me and me?” I look forward to delving into the play’s feminist and queer subtext a bit more in future conversations with you, and with Jan and Stefania—and the audience!
CS: I can’t wait! And, a perfect note upon which to end. Thanks so much, Elisabeth, for making this conversation – and this play – possible!
Please cite this conversation and the quoted material as: Stroebe, Carolyn, and Elisabeth Däumer, “A Conversation about Muriel Rukeyser and Harry Houdini,” https://murielrukeyser.emuenglish.org/2022/02/20/a-conversation-about-muriel-rukeyser-and-harry-houdini-between/.