UPDATE, 4/17, 1:32 PST: Re: the book's troubling assertions, I am in communication with a well-placed source on the subject of Leizel and Codona which may result in significant revisions to parts of this review, or a separate post. Disregard the headline above.
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus
Here is a book for the ages, and why did it take me so long to get to it?
Conceived in rape, Leitzel grew up to be her own best agent, and once installed on the Ringling lot, she reigned supreme, like a self-appointed queen. Nobody dared question the coming and goings of their blazing headliner, whose first two ill-fated marriages come off looking more comical than sincere.
Perhaps more sincerely, Leitzel doted on giving circus children morning lessons in her tent, and over the center ring later in the day, throwing kisses to the crowds as she whirled furiously above them, teasing her way up to the big trick — her famous one arm rollovers numbering sometimes over a hundred. Those spinning revolutions composed, so it was written, a “white blur.” Once back on the ground and back to theatrics, Leitzel cursed out her maid and fired her. Then rehired her. Happened every day. Which sounds a bit scripted to me. And why not? Every day on the circus, she had a whole new audience to play to.
A Joyful Exuberance
How good was the act, really? If I have a problem with Leitzel’s art and this extraordinary book, it is this: Of the scarce film footage of it from the late 1920s that have studied, I want to feel a thrill I can’t quite feel. That “white blur” does not come through. Notwithstanding the photo, her leg extensions can be awkward, the transitions from one trick to the next, labored. But there is something maybe more at work here. By shunning – or failing -- the polish of ballet that others such as Con Coleano incorporated, Leitzel may have intensified the passionate exuberance she projected, a rough tumbling spirit as lively as the three ring circus.
Enter Her Great Love
Trapeze god Alfredo Codona (not, by the way, Mexican, but of Scottish and French blood) comes through as a bit more humble, though in the end he turns stark raving mad. He and Leitzel in love – or playing to each other’s need for constant attention and rumorizing — tangled ruthlessly in romance, tormenting the hell out of each other by flaunting side affairs. But Leitzel gets the prize for Greatest Act of Cruelty on Wedding Day. She kept Alfredo and guests waiting for over three hours. Yes, three hours. The groom might have walked away. The groom was being taught how to be a more pitiful person.
Two Unforgettable Endings
When Leitzel’s rigging fails in Copenhagen, sending her to her death in 1931, I wept. So did I weep being pulled though the last punishing days of Codona’s tragic end, trapeze god felled by a fall, down to failed ringmaster, and then onto car garage mechanic in Long Beach, CA. With Leitzel gone, he defaulted to his flying partner Vera Bruce, begging her over and over again to marry him. She did not love the man, but finally she gave in, and likely did not give out. The doomed marriage ended the lives of both in the office of a divorce lawyer, where Codona, armed for the occasion, first took down Vera, and then himself.
Ringling Revealed As Never Before
Beyond Leitzel & Codona, the circus of Ringling, as magnificently narrated by the masterful Jensen, rides high and wide on fresh revelations, some quite startling, all of which makes for an enormously enthralling read. Some nuggets among many:
John Ringling, in the painting above, admired by his nephew, John Ringling North, comes through perhaps more vividly here than in any other book I have read.
And then there is the lowdown on Charles Ringling and wife Edith (Edie) the latter described as “extraordinarily indulgent.” Perhaps this trait drove Charlie into the charms of other women. He tried but failed to snare touchy-feely time in the private tent of his highest paid performer. He did better in darkened bijous with at least one show girl. And her name was not Edith Ringling, Her name was Anna Stais. As observed by another figure in the movie house essentially up to the same thing, Charlie “had his arm around her and his head was resting on her shoulder.” Astonishing, considering how the brothers explicitly banned all “accidental meetings”between the sexes in various public places.
The Wallendas Enter the Tent
Nowhere have I read a better account of the Wallendas first night at Madison Square Garden to a prolonged standing ovation, declared by The Billboard “easily the best act the circus ever had, and the most daring.” I can believe this, oh can I. For, many years later when the troupe performed their legendary 7-high pyramid at the Santa Rosa fairgrounds pavilion, to the eyes of an 11-year-old, it felt as if circus gods from on high had briefly descended to give him a revelation of true wonder. That day sealed my fate.
Nothing is perfect, and small errors are to be expected. Bigger ones? Red flags must be raised here. First and foremost, hard to understand why Jensen did not go deeper to learn, easy to learn at the time he was nearing publication, that British born Ernest Clarke was not the first flyer to nail the triple. That honor goes to Russian-born Lena Jordan, and if you still don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia. Still don’t? Okay, how about Guinness Book of World Records? In fact, the record was talked about on the Circus Historical Society history message board, July 1, 1965.
Nor was Jensen without expert guidance in his research, drawing from from the likes of Fred Dahlinger, Greg Parkinson, Fred Pfening III. I have to wonder if any of these three were asked to read the manuscript or proofs. Why oh why such an inexplicable blunder?
Leitzel did not always get the entire performance area to herself, as Jensen fanfares. I’ve seen her listed in old Ringling programs as appearing in seven-act displays. Once, solo. Here if the 1925 program:
A Legacy Barely a Blur
Curiously, the legacy of Lillian Leitzel does not hold up well in lists out there of all time circus greats. Although these lists are so wildly different as to make each seem meaningless..Her name is totally missing in several I have looked at. On others, she is never at the top. The History Channel places her at the bottom of a list of 8, below May Wirth. She fails a list of 15, the most phenomenal female performers.
Sadly, we may never be able to see the Lilian Leitzel that others saw in her best years. What I miss the most is the white blur. What I enjoy the most is the spectacle of her crossing the lot, with her tall maid trailing her, on her way to the tent where the crowds are waiting to be thrilled. I love the warm waving looks she gives to bystanders on the way. Her true love.
The childless Leitzel with Dolly Jahn, 1926, celebrating the girl's birthday.
This book must rank as one of the greatest big top tomes of all time. Need I say any more, America?