“Nellie was a month and a half short of her thirteenth birthday on the day she gave birth to Leitzel. What she did not know, what no one in the Pelikan household knew, was that a genuine princess had been born to her, one who someday would move through thin air with the ease of angels, one who would be adored around the world.”
I remember going to a circus when I was a child. This was Singapore in the 1980s and it was a time when men were encouraged to keep their hair short (can you imagine? In the 1970s, long-haired musicians were pretty much not allowed into Singapore, like Led Zeppelin! I mean, it was Led Zeppelin! Of course they weren’t going to cut their hair just to play in Singapore!!)
Erm what was my point again?
Ok perhaps there wasn’t really much of a point there, except that Singapore was rather prudish. (It still kind of is.) Perhaps that’s why I only remembered ever going to a circus once when I was a kid. I’m not sure if there were other circuses in Singapore, or just that my parents didn’t want to bring me to any others? Maybe they just didn’t like circuses? I should ask.
Still, the one image that stands out about this circus some 20-plus years ago, is of this huge contraption that seemed to reach up all the way to the top of the big top, it spun around and around, and a guy walked on its edge. I’m not quite sure how to describe this thing, but I remember craning my head, trying to follow the performer way up in the air, as he walked rather nonchalantly, so far from the ground. It was awesome. It wowed my little head off.
Then of course Cirque du Soleil came along (starting with Saltimbanco in 1999-2000) and changed my idea of what a circus was like. There was singing, and dancing, and mystique and glamour.
But it turns out that the circuses of old were glamorous and fabulous too.
Dean Jensen’s Queen of the Air tells the story of Lillian Leitzel, known to the world as Leitzel (although she was born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan), an aerialist, a star, a queen of the circus. Born in 1891 to Nellie, a well-known circus performer herself, Leitzel becomes the headliner of the Ringling Brothers’ big top, in 1928, making $1,200 a week, at a time when a brand new Ford roadster was selling for $385. She was known for her loops, high up in the air, spinning head over heels, hanging on by a single white rope, effectively dislocating and relocating her shoulder with each loop.
“In an instant she was turning so fast that she was a blur of white. She was a human pinwheel in a brisk wind.”
Just 4 feet 9 inches tall, Leitzel was a feisty one. She demanded her own tent, and it was adorned with satin drapes and Oriental rugs. Originally assigned to the train car for the single women, she demands her own quarters, which required the shifting of a top exec.
“From its beginnings a century and a half ago as a multiple-ring, railroad-traveling enterprise with Notre Dame Cathedral-size big tops, the modern American circus has had its kings. Before the Ringling brothers, there was Phineas Taylor Barnum and James A. Bailey, and before them, a few monarchs whose reigns did not last long enough for their names to get permanently written on the public imagination. Never in its history, though, did the circus empire have a genuine queen.
Although born illegitimately and without a pedigree of royal lineage, Leitzel decided at an early stage that she alone was destined to fill that vacancy.”
Her regular callers included politicians and celebrities like Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers. She was invited to the White House. And she was among the performers at Zigfield’s Midnight Frolic. It wasn’t an easy life though, at her peak she was performing twice a day everyday and during the circus’ off-seasons, she worked the Europe circuits. And she had to inject caffeine in her shoulder to ease the pain.
She eventually married Alfredo Codona, who began his circus life by flying the trapeze in a pouch around his father’s waist when a baby, then performing on the single and double trapeze around the age of ten. He was later known as the ‘Adonis of the Altitudes’, some years later flying through the trees as the stunt double for Johnny Weissmuller in the 1934 film Tarzan and His Mate. All the girls went crazy for Alfredo with his dreamy eyes, wavy hair and whose “muscles appeared to have muscles”. He became one of the first few people to master the triple somersault, and was a star in his own right. Their relationship was stormy and passionate. It took them three marriages between them before they finally wed each other, more than a decade after they first laid eyes on each other (Alfredo was more enamoured with her, than she him, when they first got together). And then she keeps him waiting for three hours at the altar – and shows up with an old beau in tow. They definitely had a flair for the dramatic.
She was one of the most famous women of her time. So why is it that I never heard of her? I guess circuses were replaced when broadcast media began to make their appearance. And stars like Leitzel and Alfredo have since long been forgotten. Circuses are not really my thing but I was curious about this book when I first heard of it, plus the cover appealed to me. Who was this ‘Queen of the air’ pictured on the cover?
And it turned out to be a very readable book. Jensen uses newspaper articles and interviews with those who worked with the two, and especially with Leitzel’s brother. He brought this fabulous world of the circus to life, and he showed us Leitzel the celebrity who dazzled from above and lived a flashy life, as well as Leitzel the person, the one who gave free lessons to the children of the circus, who was generous with her money with her colleagues, who was passionate and vulnerable.
I received a copy of this book for review from Crown Publishing
DEAN JENSEN is the author of three earlier books focusing on subjects from the worlds of the circus, carnivals, and the vaudeville stage. Jensen was an art critic and arts writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and has received numerous awards for his writing. He now operates an eponymously named contemporary art gallery in Milwaukee. Learn more at DeanJensenGallery.com.