The Secret Life of Mrs. London
by Rebecca Rosenberg
Publication Date: January 30, 2018
Lake Union Publishing
eBook & Paperback; 348 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.
As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.
Praise for The Secret Life of Mrs. London
“An impressively original and exceptionally well-crafted novel by an author who is a master of character- and narrative-driven storytelling, Rebecca Rosenberg’s The Secret Life of Mrs. London is an inherently riveting and thoroughly reader-engaging story from beginning to end and feature[es] many an unexpected plot twist and turn.” —Midwest Book Review
“Interesting, and based on the actual lives of the participants…Learning more about Jack London was enjoyable, as well as seeing early feminist examples.” —Historical Novel Society
“…Rosenberg paints an immensely intriguing portrait of a marriage and tells it in an accomplished lyrical prose that captures each moment with poetic intensity.” —Prairies Book Review
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a riveting behind-the-scenes look at the marriage of Jack and Charmian London, both fascinating and complicated characters with rich inner lives that Rosenberg conveys in crisp yet poetic prose. This contemporary historical fiction raises questions that are still relevant today about what makes a good marriage, and whether creativity and stability are incompatible. A rich, resonant, deeply satisfying novel sure to delight and leave readers thinking long after they put it down.” —Malena Watrous, author of If You Follow Me and Sparked!, and director of the Stanford Continuing Studies Program in Novel Writing
“The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a heart-wrenching portrait of a marriage between two people who utterly depend on one another, but ultimately aren’t enough for each other. With skillful precision of language, Rosenberg weaves a narrative that defines the complexities of love, passion, and art. This is a perceptive, deeply moving novel by a great new talent about a couple who has gone unnoticed in historical fiction until now. Anyone who has ever loved another person will want to read this book.” —Victoria Kelly, author of Mrs. Houdini: A Novel
“One of Houdini’s best kept secrets was his affair with Charmian London in 1918. Now Rebecca Rosenberg tells the story using an elegant blend of fact and fiction, creating a Houdini book like no other. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is a true peek behind the curtain and a page-turner.” —John Cox, Wild about Harry
~ EXCERPT ~
Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California November 1915
Love cannot in its very nature be peaceful or content. It is a restlessness, an unsatisfaction. I can grant a lasting love just as I can grant a lasting satisfaction; but the lasting love cannot be coupled with possession, for love is pain and desire, and possession is easement and fulfilment.
—Jack London, The Kempton-Wace Letters
I know how magic works—all smoke and mirrors, suffocating doves, and defecating rabbits. Of course, Jack knows these things, too. He rails against the cruelty of using trained animals in vaudeville. But his adoring Crowd from Carmel (that whole arty, hashish-smoking Bohemian clan) insists Jack join them for the Great Houdini show. Front-row seats, they say. The most famous magician in the world, they say.
“We need a little magic in our lives,” Jack says, and I can’t argue with that.
The Orpheum is morbidly gaudy with flocked velvet walls, tooled woodwork, and gilt, lots of gilt. Jack sports his rumpled khakis du jour, while he asked me to dress like a heroine from Martin Eden: chartreuse taffeta suit shimmering with purple undertones in the theater lights.
But this confounded waistline cuts into my expanding middle like a butcher pinching off sausage casing. I don’t know why I haven’t told Jack my good news when I’ve known for a while. That’s a lie. I hold back because he’ll count the months and wonder, like I do.
The Crowd blow kisses to each other in a cloud of pheromones and cigar smoke. They pass the silver flask of gin under my nose, and the odor stretches my brain like the taffy puller in the lobby.
George Sterling slides his lanky frame into the seat next to mine, reeking of patchouli and cannabis. “Looks like this is just what Jack needed to forget about Wolf House burning down.”
“Nothing will make him forget that night.” My head reels around to see Jack deep in conversation with Anna Strunsky. They only talk deep. That young actress Blanche hangs on his arm, pretending she understands. She doesn’t.
“Wolf says Lawrence burned it down and ran off.”
“You’re such a liar,” I say, but maybe it’s true. I haven’t seen or heard from Lawrence since I left him by Wolf House.
“You and Wolf should pick your friends more wisely.” Sterling grins like Satan.
“Funny, I was thinking the very same thing. But unfortunately, Jack likes you.” I make a face.
Thankfully, the sixteen-piece orchestra fires up below us in the pit, and Sterling slinks back to his seat. Brass trumpets glint in the crossing spotlights and raise my spirits with their triumphant sound.
Jack sits next to me, puffing his Imperial. I can’t break his mood no matter how many times I tell him nothing happened with Lawrence.
Nothing I care to share, that is.
The Great Houdini appears in a spotlight and high-steps onto the stage, keeping time with the music, striking in his immaculate tuxedo and gleaming black hair. When the song ends, he marches right in front of the footlights and welcomes the audience, impossibly white teeth flashing, announcing his opening trick.
Women’s mouths drop open. Men scoot to the edges of their seats. His voice, harmonic and commanding, vibrates through the charged air and holds them awestruck. Houdini’s powerful arm points at Jack. Heavens.
“Mr. Jack London, ladies and gentlemen.” Spotlights flood our faces.
How does he recognize Jack?
“Won’t you join us on the stage, Mr. London?” Houdini calls, and the Crowd starts chanting: “Wolf, Wolf, Wolf . . .” Jack holds up his palms in protest.
The magician persists. “If not you, how about your lovely wife? I promise to take great care of her.”
The Crowd jeers for me to go up, already too much gin passed between them.
Jack leans over and whispers, “My feet are killing me. Take this one, will you?”
I see my redemption in his pleading eyes. But I feel like a bratwurst. I can’t go up there.
“Buck up your courage, Mate.” Jack pushes me to a stand. “The Crowd will get a kick out of it.”
My heart sinks as I make my way to the stairs. He wants to entertain his worshipping Crowd at my expense. Blanche swoops into my vacant seat, snuggling his arm. I yank the pearl buttons choking my neck and one pops off, rolling into the orchestra pit. Lifting my stiff taffeta skirt and crinoline petticoat, I step up, but my foot slips off.
Two strong hands circle my waist and sweep me onto the stage with the grace of a waltz. Black eyelashes rim his eyes with mystery, but kindness crinkles at the edges.
“Trust me,” Houdini whispers, smelling of wood-spice cologne. Then his voice booms out to the audience, “Let’s give the brave Mrs. London a round of applause, shall we?”
A child enters from backstage dressed in tights and velvet knickers, a fluffy beret mushrooming over his jet-black pageboy.
Houdini smiles and holds out his arm. “And another hand for my beautiful wife and assistant, Bess Houdini.”
My stomach hitches, and I look again. The elf bows with a flourish and lifts her face with a wide grin, dimples circled with rouge, throwing kisses to the audience. The miniature woman steals the show with her boyish figure in sequined tights, round eyes that flash and roll and wink and hold us spellbound no matter what Houdini is doing. I would have bought the ticket to watch her.
The magician steps into the spotlight, and the audience hushes. “And now, on this very stage, we will perform our most renowned illusion, the one and original, Metamorphosis! Pay close attention to catch any sleight of hand or cheat, for you will see none. With your very own eyes, you will witness myself, bound, handcuffed, and locked in a trunk, only to be magically transformed into my beautiful assistant, Bess.”
The audience buzzes with excitement while Bess Houdini rolls a steamer trunk to center stage. “Mrs. London, tell the people in the crematorium, have we ever met before?” she asks in falsetto.
“Auditorium?” Confused and tongue-tied looking out from the stage to three hundred San Francisco elite . . . “No, we haven’t met.”
“And have you ever laid your eyes on this trunk before?” Jack would say something witty, but my mind draws a blank. “No.” The burning footlights blind me mercifully from seeing his disappointment in the front row.
“Will you examine the trunk for any tomfoolery?” She waves her birdlike limbs theatrically, reeking of gardenias.
I unbuckle the leather straps and peer inside the trunk. Feeling along the edges, banging the sides. “No trick doors, if that’s what you mean.”
“I understand you’re an excellent sailor, Mrs. London.” Houdini cocks an eyebrow. “And quite an expert with knots.”
“How would you know that?” I shade my eyes to see Jack and damn if Blanche isn’t canoodling his ear. “I won first place at the yacht club for my knots.”
“Impressive, but can you tie a knot from which the Great Houdini cannot escape?”
“Absolutely.” Jack says it’s over with Blanche yet dangles my dalliance over my head like a noose.
Houdini takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves, crossing his muscular wrists together.
Mrs. Houdini hands me the rope and whispers, “Tie a slipknot.” She winks a blue eyelid. So that’s their game.
Mutiny tingles in my fingers. Like hell, slipknot. I tie an anchor hitch that would secure a yacht in a typhoon.
Pulling the sack up over him, Mrs. Houdini leans to kiss him. My God, their mouths open and move like the French. His sensuous lips suck hers like she’s a juicy plum. My belly clenches. How long has it been since Jack kissed me like that?
Mrs. Houdini pulls the feed sack over her husband’s head and winks at me again. But I tie my strongest knot on the bag, a double bowline, tight and secure.
Bess Houdini’s chirp pierces my eardrums. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll place the Great Houdini in the steamer trunk for all intensive purposes and lock it up.”
We padlock the trunk and wrap it profusely with rope. Feeling smug now, I tie yet another sailing knot: double square knot this time. No way can this trickster get out.
Mrs. Houdini closes heavy velvet curtains in front of the trunk. She smiles at the audience, and her theatrical makeup cracks around her eyes; she’s no child herself. “Mrs. London, do you feel very certain the Great Houdini cannot excape your knots?”
Jack punches his fist in the air and calls out, “Her knots have secured sailing ships from here to Borneo!”
A pang riddles my gut. What if I truly bring down the Great Houdini? The kettle drum rumbles and spectators choose sides, placing bets, laughing nervously.
Mrs. Houdini lifts her arms over her head and claps her hands together three times, accentuated by a clash of cymbals that echoes through the cavernous theater. Spotlights crisscross the frescoed ceiling. The timpani stops abruptly and pandemonium ceases. The audience leans forward.
Spotlights swing to center stage, revealing the Great Houdini stepping through the velvet curtain, fists held high in triumph. The orchestra blares.
My every nerve ending is burning, screaming. No, no, no, no. It’s impossible.
The magic man takes my hand and holds it high, a current charging from his grasp down my arm. The audience explodes with enthusiasm. He smiles intimately at me as his confidant. But I feel betrayed. He’d said, “Trust me,” yet I haven’t an inkling what just happened.
“You’re a natural.” Houdini bows and bows to the relentless applause. When it finally dies down, he looks around the stage.
“Mrs. London, where is my dear wife?”
I turn to where Mrs. Houdini was standing, but she’s gone. “She was right here.”
He taps his index finger on his cheek. “Oh, Mrs. Houdini? Are you back here?” He draws open the velvet curtain, which reveals only the steamer trunk with all my knots intact. How is that possible when Houdini stands beside me?
“Mrs. London, can you untie your knots?”
My chest crackles with curiosity as my fingers struggle with the rope, every knot as secure as I tied it. The oboe plays a sinister tune, which twists my insides.
When all the knots are finally undone, Houdini opens the trunk. Inside, the burlap sack bumps and moves.
“What have we here?” Houdini cuts the bag open with a shining saber, which appears from nowhere.
Bess Houdini pops out, all five feet of her, hands tied behind her back. She cackles like a maniac, then curtsies to the stunned audience.
The orchestra strikes up a rousing number, and the audience cheers and whistles.
The Houdinis take my trembling hands, and we bow together. They step aside, presenting me. My cheeks grow hopelessly hot as I force myself to raise my eyes to the frenzied theater and let the applause wash over me.
The Crowd chants my name from the front row. But Jack scribbles in his ever-present notebook, oblivious to their revelry.
Oblivious to my moment in the spotlight.
Yet I’m gratified. I’ve given him a fresh topic to write about.
THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON has won a Gold Medal IPPY, world’s largest book competition in the world, American Fiction Awards FINALIST, and Goethe awards FINALIST.
THE SECRET LIFE OF MRS. LONDON, the love triangle between Houdini, Jack and Charmian London. https://www.amazon.com/dp/B072KRP7MN Free on kindle unlimited!
About the Author
A California native, Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where Jack London wrote from his Beauty Ranch. Rebecca is a long-time student of Jack London’s works and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian London. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her debut novel.
Rebecca and her husband, Gary, own the largest lavender product company in America, selling to 4000 resorts, spas and gift stores. The Rosenbergs believe in giving back to the Sonoma Community, supporting many causes through financial donations and board positions, including Worth Our Weight, an educational culinary program for at-risk children, YWCA shelter for abused women, Luther Burbank Performing Arts Center to provide performances for children, Sonoma Food Bank, Sonoma Boys and Girls Club, and the Valley of the Moon Children’s Home.
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