Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Girl Who Amazed Einstein

Following on from the post about Al Koran not baffling Einstein it seems a good time to mention the Girl Who Amazed Einstein. It’s a story I first came across while browsing past copies of The Linking Ring (April 1932 issue). Lewis A Miller wrote:

Gene Dennis,"the girl who amazed Einstein," showed her mental wares at the RKO Orpheum in Oakland, San Francisco. Her act, presented somewhat differently from many acts of this kind, seemed to please the people “who lay it down at the box office."

Gene Dennis might well serve as a template for many famous psychics. She claimed to have discovered her gifts at a young age, had a magician as a manager that saw advantage in the situation, toured the theatres, played radio, courted publicity and went to the grave with her secrets intact.

It was in 1921, when Gene (then Eugenie) was only 16 that she first hit the headlines. She had used her powers to help someone to find lost money and that someone promptly told The Kansas City Star. The story was picked up by other local papers and before the year was out Gene was giving psychic demonstrations in local theatres and clubs.

The following year magician David P. Abbott invited her to his home so that her psychic powers could be tested. Abbott had built a reputation on debunking psychics. Behind the Scenes with the Mediums (1907) was his magnum opus on the fakery of Spiritualist mediums. But, weirdly, instead of debunking Gene Dennis he became her manager. He wouldn’t be the last magician to swap sides either to share a psychic’s limelight, affections or profits.

Abbott explained his actions by telling the story of how Gene Dennis passed a stringent test of her powers in his booklet The Wonder Girl, a name claimed to have been bestowed on her by Arthur Conan Doyle. But Abbott’s manuscript didn’t see the light of day until Walter Graham published it in 1992. Todd Karr casts more light on the arrangement the magician and psychic came to in his book (written with Teller) House of Mystery (2005) which is I think the most complete account of Gene Dennis’ career and contains many wonderful photos and ephemera.

Gene Dennis’ repertoire consisted of a Question and Answer act. However, instead of trying to secretly access questions written down by members of the audience she simply had members of the audience ask them openly. Newspaper reports of the day give us some idea of the kind of questions that were asked and the answers she gave:

Q: Will the coal business be good this year and will the retail dealers make any money?
A: Sure, the retail men will make money.

Q: How much longer will my husband be working at Carey’s Salt Co or be in Hutchinson?
A: He will still there until fall and then make a change.

Q: Where will I go to on my next vacation and will I stay there?
A: You will go West. Yes and marry there.

Given that people had paid to hear answers to their questions and not everyone else’s, you can imagine that question and answer sessions weren’t always orderly. One advert suggested that 'to avoid the confusion of last week' people write their names on slips of paper and present them at the box office. The names were called out and Gene answered their questions for an hour.

Perhaps to ensure that performances didn’t consist solely of finding other people’s lost objects or telling girls they would marry, Gene offered predictions on all kinds of matters. In June 1921 she was asked to predict the outcome of the Jack Dempsey, Georges Carpentier boxing match, a title fight that was one of the most popular topics of the day. She replied with all the wise ambiguity of a professional Nostradamus, “The shortest fellow.”

Solving murders and other crimes guaranteed the act was sensational. Whenever something nasty happened in a town, Gene would be asked for her psychic advice. Dramatically she’d raise an arm and point from the stage to a part of town and tell the audience that the culprit was sure to be found there. Her publicity listed all the problems she’d helped the police solve: recovered 15 stolen bicycles, a long-lost bond, a parole breaker and 23 missing diamonds. It seemed that nothing was beyond her psychic grasp.

She got caught out in New York in 1924 when she said she could solve the deaths of Carl Hostetter and Natalie Wills of Staten Island. Asked about the crime she described the motive, jealously, took issue with the questioner over some of the details and then went on to describe the murderer. But, as the newspaper reported, that particular crime existed only “in the mind of the person who asked her to describe it.” Gene Dennis had solved a crime that never happened.

In 1932 Gene Dennis was vacationing in Palm Springs. So too was Einstein. The two met and, according to the Chicago Herald Examiner (Jan 13th, 1932), Einstein was impressed by the young psychic.

“She told me things no one could possibly know, things on which I have been working, and she demonstrated she has the power to do things I cannot explain. I must tell some of my associates about this. It was miraculous indeed.”

That quote followed Gene Dennis around wherever she went. “The Girl Who Amazed Einstein” became a feature of her advertising. It wasn’t long before she was one of the highest paid stars on the circuit. And, unlike Al Koran who missed the opportunity of a photograph of the Einstein, Gene Dennis didn’t. You can check the original photo on the Corbis website.

But back to the boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier. It was called the Battle of the Century and it lived up to its name being the most watched and broadcast event of the time. 9000 people saw it in the arena. They made a $1,000,000 in ticket sales. And 300,000 are said to have heard it on radio. Gene Dennis had a 50/50 chance of picking the winner and settled for the short guy. Jack Dempsey was the winner and, as it happens, the taller too.

NOTES: Thanks to Richard Wiseman for directing me to the following article. It appears that the meeting between Einstein and Gene Dennis caused some controversy. Upton Sinclair, author of Mental Radio (1930), waded in on Einstein's behalf. You can read it here.

EVEN MORE NOTES: Christopher Woodward kindly sent along a number of items that will be added to various posts on this blog. Christopher is an expert when it comes to the history of the London Palladium and has sent along two items relating to Gene Dennis. The first is a poster from the Palladium billing Dennis as The Girl Who Amazed Einstein.

The poster dates from April 1934. Chris also sent along an excerpt from the programme that goes into more detail about what Gene Dennis actually did in terms of answering any questions the audience might have. There's a long list of questions that Gene Dennis cannot answer, 'she's not a mind reader.' You could not ask Gene Dennis to tell you your name, address or telephone number for example. Basically, anything that could be verified. Despite this, she was hugely successful as a psychic. Here's the excerpt from the programme:

Items from the Nadine and Chris Woodward Collection