Ethics Hero Emeritus: Dorothy Young, Houdini’s Assistant

Dorothy Young knew how to keep a secret.

Dorothy Young, who died March 24 at the age of 103, was the last in a series of scantily clad magician’s assistants for Harry Houdini, the greatest escape artist who ever lived and America’s iconic magician. She remained active in show business for many years after Houdini’s death in 1926. Young appeared several times on Broadway, including the  “New Faces of 1936.” Later, she was half the team of “Dorothy and Gilbert,”a touring nightclub dance act that specialized in a dramatic combination of rumba and bolero—the “rumbolero.”

Young married Gilbert, who was Gilbert Kiamie, heir to a silk underwear fortune. She wrote a novel about her career, “Dancing on a Dime,” that inspired a 1940 Hollywood musical of the same name. Young eventually became a successful painter, and in 2003 gave New Jersey’s Drew University $13 million to endow an arts center.

Why is she an Ethics Hero? When she signed her one-year contract with Houdini,Dorothy Young was only 16. The contract included a secrecy provision, since she would learn how many of his most famous illusions, including his Chinese Water Torture Cabinet, were performed. She had many opportunities to divulge Houdini’s secrets in the 85 years since his death, some for compensation.  She could have argued that she wasn’t still bound by the contract, if she ever was, since she was underage when she signed it. But Dorothy Young had sworn that she would keep Houdini’s secrets forever, and she took them to her grave.

In an era when trusted confidantes and aides wait mere days after leaving their posts before seeking tell-all book contracts, Dorothy Young left us with a reminder that there was a time when loyalty, integrity and trust trumped greed, and gives us an example to strive for. She was the last living person who could spoil the wonderful quality of mystery surrounding the great Harry Houdini, and now his secrets, and his mystique, are safe forever.

Actually, those secrets were always safe, because he wisely chose an Ethics Hero, a comely teenage dancer named Dorothy Young, with whom to entrust them.

3 thoughts on “Ethics Hero Emeritus: Dorothy Young, Houdini’s Assistant

  1. I am so upset that Houdini would illegally hire such a young teenage girl for his shows that I don’t really care if she kept his secrets. My fear is that she probably had a lot of non-magic secrets she took to her grave as well.

    Frankly, with all the real ethics heroes out there, I don’t get writing about this ooe..

    • Unfair, Liz. HH was a consummate gentleman, and very in love with his wife. And 16 year olds on their own in those days was very common. She was safer with Harry than dancing in Burlesque houses.

  2. He HAD a contract with the 16-year-old he hired- think anyone at the burly-q got such a thing? And there’s no evidence he was ever anything but gentlemanly in his business and other dealings with her. Seems to me she was an excellent choice, and a shrewd 16-yo gal, and like Jack says, and Ethics Heroine Extraordinaire.

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