Charmian London and Harry Houdini?
In new novel by Kenwoodian, all will be revealed…
Kenwood resident Rebecca Rosenberg’s new novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, opens with a rousing boxing match featuring famed 20th century author, social activist, and rabble rouser Jack London. But his adversary is not one you might expect – one of his drinking buddies, perhaps. In Rosenberg’s fictional take on London’s storied life, it’s his “mate-woman” Charmian London who’s throwing and pulling the punches, perhaps a metaphor for the way it was to live with and love a man as exciting and self-destructive as Jack London.
“I like to write about glorious women from the past, women that did things that led to the freedoms today we take for granted,” said Rosenberg. “This book is about Charmian’s struggle to do so.”
A historical biographical novel – that is, taking facts from history and spinning them with a little fictional fancy – The Secret Life of Mrs. London centers on the love triangle between Charmian, Jack London, and Harry Houdini, the famous illusionist and stunt performer noted for his sensational escape acts.
Rosenberg, who ran Sonoma Lavender Farm in Kenwood for over a decade with her husband Gary, said she had always been fascinated with the life and lore of London, having lived with Jack London State Park and Beauty Ranch essentially in her backyard for more than 30 years. “I was always curious forever about [the Londons],” she said. “As I did more research and kept studying them, the more fascinated I became.” Rosenberg travelled often to the Huntington Library in Pasadena, which houses the world’s largest collection of London’s papers, and took much of her material from Charmian’s own autobiography, The Book of Jack London, a woman she found to be complex and compelling. Charmian was a model for the “new woman” when feminism was just finding its footing in the late 19th century.
Charmian was an educated and strong woman who rode horses astride and was an accomplished athlete and artist, but Rosenberg said she believes Charmian nonetheless struggled in her own relationship with London. “She was held back because she was managing Jack for so long,” said Rosenberg. Jack was an alcoholic, prone to depression, a pathological socializer, and yet the most prolific author of his time, writing more than 20 books in his short lifetime. Charmian, who learned to type working as a secretary when she was younger, would type up his stories as he narrated them – his famous 1,000 words a day – and later edit and proof them.
“But she was also a writer in her own right,” said Rosenberg. Charmian wrote daily, just like Jack – letters, in her journal, and her own creative projects. “This book is about her transition of coming into her own.”
Rosenberg said she believes the affair in 1918 was part of that process. Three years earlier, the Londons had met Harry and Bess Houdini when they attended the Great Houdini Magic Show at the Orpheum Theatre in Oakland, where Houdini performed his Chinese Water Torture Chamber Act. The couples dined afterwards and became fast friends, spending Thanksgiving together, and keeping up a lively friendship, which lasted until Houdini’s death in 1926.
While Charmian’s journals never explicitly describe the affair, Charmian does allude to it and the multiple across-the-country train journeys she took to see Houdini perform at the Hippodrome Theater, where he famously made a five-ton elephant disappear on stage. Charmian wrote that after they saw each other a few times, Houdini made a “declaration” that “rather shakes me up.”
They became intimate a short time later. She wrote that Houdini’s visits “stirred me to the deep,” and that he felt the same, declaring, “I’m mad about you,” and “I give all of myself to you.” Throughout, she refers to him alternately as “Magic,” her “Magic Man,” or “Magic Lover.”
London and Houdini were probably two of the most famous men of their time – both living hard and dying young. London died at his Beauty Ranch in Glen Ellen in 1916, most likely from uremia.
Although it only took Rosenberg two years to write the novel, “I could never have done that without living here and knowing the story of the Londons for 30 years,” she said. Rosenberg said she’d go to Beauty Ranch and write this book, feeding off the inspiration of the beautiful landscape and smelling the grass.
The public is invited to two launch parties, on March 8 at Copperfields in Santa Rosa, and on March 15 at Readers Books in Sonoma. Both begin at 6:30 p.m. when Master Magician Frank Balzerak will start the party, while guests sample nibbles and libations taken right out of Jack London’s recipe books. Rosenberg will unveil a fast-paced slideshow of these remarkable people, and the twist of fate that changed their lives. There will also be trivia and prizes. Free tickets required, available on brownpapertickets.com as there is limited attendance. All events are free.
While this is Rosenberg’s debut novel, her first non-fiction book, Lavender Fields of America, was published in 2012. Rosenberg is working on a second novel of biographical fiction centered around the five “Champagne widows” responsible for bringing the popular beverage to the world.
Rosenberg and her husband sold their business, Sonoma Lavender, last year, but are keeping the Kenwood farm and plan to continue to grow lavender. After losing their home in the October fires, they are rebuilding and plan to break ground in May.
For more information, go to www.rebecca-rosenberg.com.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.