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Houdini Legend Persists at Aging Estate but Facts Are Elusive

<i> Szymanski is a West Hollywood-based free-lance writer</i>

Even on hot sunny California days, it is cool and dark among the tree-shaded ruins. Crumbling staircases lead to dead ends choked with ivy. Devilish markings are scrawled on the walls of spider-infested caverns, and the faint scent of incense is in the air.

Remnants of this house in the hills above Hollywood seem like the perfect haunting grounds for the world’s most famous magician, Houdini.

Even 63 years after his death, psychics hold seances at the ruins known as the Houdini Estate--at midnight on Halloween, the day Houdini died--because he vowed to perform his greatest escape and return from the dead if he could.

Local legends persist of people seeing a dark-haired man in a black suit walk the grounds and disappear. Others claim to see a woman dressed in green--a ghost called “The Green Virgin"--walking through the archways of the gardens. Treasure hunters have scoured the terraces with metal detectors and pickaxes in search of a box of jewels rumored to be buried there.

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But there is some doubt that Harry Houdini ever lived in the house on the northeast corner of Laurel Canyon Boulevard and Lookout Mountain Avenue, and the question has been resurrected now that the property is for sale.

The ruins’ reclusive owner, Fania Pearson, 70, has shunned publicity about the house since she bought it in 1958 to build a girls school. The ornate Italian-style villa burned to the ground a year later, and after futile efforts to save it, she had parts of the house razed.

“People said Houdini lived here, but it never mattered to me,” Pearson said. “Visitors kept coming, and it got to be a real bother.”

Pearson said she herself spread the word that Houdini never lived there. She pointed curiosity seekers to a vacant lot up the hill and hired security guards to keep people from poking around her land.

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“Neighbors always said he lived there,” Pearson said, but neighbors who would have known Houdini 70 years ago have long since died.

Although there is little evidence that Houdini lived in the house, legends and believers abound.

Tenants in the servants’ quarters in the back told Pearson how Houdini’s ghost wanders the grounds quietly.

Sightings of the lady in green lingerie stopped years ago, but some say they still see the tall dark man with suit and bow tie.

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Another legend about the grounds involves the son of a large department store magnate accused of throwing his lover off the balcony of the house in an argument. The spirit of the victim is said to frequent the grounds.

“When I was a kid, I climbed around this place and heard it was haunted by Houdini--it was just something everyone knew,” said Rod Snyder, 42, who is now the real estate listing agent for the 3 1/2 acres for sale at $2.5 million.

On a recent stroll through the labyrinth of stone bridges and pagodas, workers were cleaning up the three flights of stairs and empty waterfalls. In one cave, pentagrams and triangles were drawn on pillars in orange crayon. Deeper into the gardens, mounds of candles were melted over a broken stone bench. High up on the hill was a large wooden cross with half-burned candles and strands of beads.

“It looks like seances go on pretty regularly around here,” Snyder said.

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The maze of walkways often lead to nowhere, or to cold stone meditation areas draped with poison oak. High brick walls and thick grottoes make it easy to get lost.

Half a dozen tour guide books of Hollywood mention 2398 Laurel Canyon Blvd. as Houdini’s house. The oldest of the books, “This Is Hollywood,” was written by Kenneth Schessler, who lives in LaVerne.

“I heard about the controversy, but I proved it by finding it in a directory of some sort,” Schessler said. “I just can’t remember where.”

Schessler insists that Houdini lived at the house in the early 1920s and refuses to change any reprintings of his Hollywood guide. Another Hollywood writer, Maurice Zolotow, in 1979 researched Houdini’s life for a Los Angeles Magazine article.

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“Houdini resided in Hollywood for about two years, yet I’ve never been able to discover where he lived,” Zolotow said.

A Halloween television special two years ago in which William Shatner played host was filmed at the Houdini ruins. This year, “In Search of Haunted Hollywood,” scrapped filming at the ruins because producer Neal Hitchens couldn’t confirm that the magician lived there.

“We found no sound evidence he ever lived there, so I’m skeptical,” said Hitchens, who added that ghosts hampered his film crew at other Hollywood locations.

The mystery for Merrill Lynch real estate agent Linda Snyder is why her “For Sale” sign keeps getting destroyed.

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“It’s like someone doesn’t want us to sell the property,” she said.

The hillside land can be divided into three large lots for homes, said Snyder, Rod’s sister.

A release by Merrill Lynch Realty calls it “the Harry Houdini Estate” and urges prospective buyers to “build your dream house on this magnificent estate and own a part of Hollywood’s history.” But they have just added a disclaimer.

“We don’t say it definitely was Houdini’s, we say it is “ ‘known as,’ ” said Harry Polim, Merrill Lynch vice president in West Los Angeles.

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The real estate company is extra cautious after threats of a lawsuit by Houdini historian and collector Manny Weltman of Van Nuys.

“Houdini never set foot on those grounds, and anyone who says so is lying,” said Weltman, who is also a magician. “If anyone comes up with proof I’ll eat my magic hat.”

Weltman said he spent 45 years studying Houdini’s life and found nothing mentioning the Laurel Canyon house. Merrill Lynch hired two title search companies and found no records of the property before 1922. The owner and her lawyers have searched owner and tenant records decades ago without success.

This Halloween, Magic Castle’s resident medium Leo Kostka will attempt a Houdini seance at 1:30 p.m., the time at which the magician died of a ruptured appendix in Detroit on Oct. 31, 1926. Kosta’s seance at the Magic Castle will be attended by magicians and historians, who will bring some of Houdini’s personal items.

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This year’s seance in Los Angeles is organized by Tom Boldt, who helped create a Houdini exhibit in his hometown of Appleton, Wis., where Houdini may have been born. Even though Appleton has a school, a statue, a plaza and a museum for Houdini, historians cannot be sure he was born there.

“Everything about him is a mystery, from his birth until his death. So it doesn’t surprise me that they don’t know if he lived in that house,” said Boldt, who has toured the ruins. “But I tell you, as much as I know about him, I think he would have liked a spooky place like that.”

But all the ghost stories, seances, and such mean little to Pearson. “All these people say they’ve seen ghosts, and I’ve seen nothing,” she said. “I just want to sell the property and be done with it.”


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