Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

'Queen of the Air' Was Tough

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

'Queen of the Air' Was Tough

Article excerpt

Circus aerialist Lillian Leitzel's biography on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey website gives short shrift to the circumstances of her birth in Breslau in 1892, saying only that her parents "separated when she was very young" and that she was raised by her grandparents.

The reality, as it unfolds in Dean Jensen's riveting "Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus," is that Leitzel was the product of rape. Her mother, essentially sold into traveling circus servitude by her father near the end of the 19th century, was assaulted by a Scotsman whose small circus roamed Eastern Europe. Leitzel was born when her mother was just 12 years old.

Raised by her grandparents while her mother returned to the life of an itinerant circus acrobat -- giving birth to a second child a couple of years later -- it wasn't long before Leitzel showed the same acrobatic prowess. She eventually became known for an aerial routine in which, hanging by one wrist, she'd flip her body over and over in circles. (You can imagine how that worked out over a couple of decades of daily and sometimes twice-daily performances.)

At the peak of her career in the 1920s, she was commanding $1,200 a week from circus impresario John Ringling, and, in Jensen's estimation, was responsible for a portion of the fabulous wealth that led to Ringling's art purchases that today are The Ringling museum.

The "love and tragedy" of Leitzel's tale takes up the bulk of this fascinating look into the lives of circus performers. Early in her career, Leitzel fell in love with a trapeze flyer named Alfredo Codona, who mastered the death-defying triple somersault, and although they were separated by their careers for many years (and marriages to other people), they both wound up with the Ringling circus and married. Ironically, although Jensen's telling of their relationship focuses on how deeply in love they were, Leitzel was serially unfaithful and the longed-for marriage was not a happy one. …

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