This revised review is drawn from additional research following the posting of my earlier review of the book. More about this at the end.
Book Review, Revised
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus
Dean Jansen, Crown Publishers
Here is a book for the ages, or so I originally thought and wrote. The subjects tackled by author Dean Jensen — Leitzel and Codona, and Ringling in all its glory — are of course immensely compelling.
In her fiery heyday thrilling spectators with high-energy gymnastics under the big top, Lillian Leitzel was arguably the greatest solo star ever to grace the rings of Ringling. So transcendent a figure had she become, that American soldiers during World War I voted her “the most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world.” And that included Hollywood. Men of note, Henry Ford among them, are said in these precarious pages to have lined up to play suitor to the charismatic performer. Did they or didn’t they? I have my doubts. Even with Alfredo, I have my doubts.
More likely, everything was carefully choreographed to build up an epic image bigger than life, bigger even than the circus itself. A mythical image now made even more mythical (and at times heartlessly cruel) by an expedient author of dubious ethics. Make no mistake: There is plenty here to enthrall and entertain readers with little interest in big top history. Plenty here that may be genuinely rich and even revelatory. But for my money, too much of it bears the mark of either incredibly careless research or slyly calculated distortion to inflate story-telling dynamics. Shame on Crown Publishers for daring to describe this a biography.
Conceived in rape, Leitzel grew up to be her own best agent, and once installed on the Ringling caravan — granted an entire car on the train, a private tent on the lot, and a maid, Mabel Cummings — she reigned 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.
A JOYFUL EXUBERANCE
How good was the act, really? If I have a problem with Leitzel’s art and this sensationalizing treatment of her life, it is this: Of the footage I have seen from the late 1920s, I want — oh how I want — to feel a thrill I can’t quite feel. In photos out there, her leg extensions can be awkward, the transitions from one trick to the next, labored. Of the rollover plange, equestrian director Fred Bradna wrote in his book,The Big Top, “It was not a beautiful sight; it was not supposed to be. It was a test of stamina.” But there is something maybe more at work. By shunning – or failing -- the polish of ballet that others such as Con Colleano incorporated, Leitzel may have intensified the passionate exuberance she projected, a rough tumbling spirit as lively as the three ring circus on the move.
ENTER HER GREAT LOVE
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, Alfredo, right, defaulted to his flying partner Vera Bruce,center, begging her over and over again to marry him. Really? According to Jensen’s end notes, he drew this stormy account from a story, “The Mad Love of Alfredo Codona,” allegedly penned by Annie Bruce for True Story Magazine in 1938, a tabloid-leaning periodical known for taking rewrite liberties with submissions, and also publishing the work of fiction writers Why did Jensen not defer to more credible accounts at hand, one by Fred Bradna in The Big Top; the other by author Robert Lewis Taylor in Center Ring? In fact, Bruce had been trying all along to steal Codona away from Leitzel.
RINGLING AS NEVER BEFORE REVEALED
Beyond Leitzel & Codona, the circus of Ringling, as narrated by the masterfully fact-altering Jensen, rides high and wide on revelations so startling as to leave me dumbfounded. How did it take so long for some of these things to surface? As long, maybe, as it took Jensen to concoct them. He mentions dozens of taped interviews, and I hope these will end up in a legit space. They could turn out to be a gold mine.
For example, there is the sighting of married man Charles Ringling --- seen here with Leitzel and his son, Robert --- spotted in a darkened movie house with his head resting on the shoulder of showgirl Anna Stais, his arm around her. The spotting of it was done in only a few nervous seconds by flyer Butch Brann, having just slipped into seats with “Dolores.” In his own words, as quoted: “Then I saw who was in the row just ahead of us. It was Charlie and Anna Stais ... Dolores and I hightailed it out of that row.” To the balcony they fled. I have a question for those into movie house intrigue: How could Butch have known for sure from the back of a figure sitting directly in front of him in a darkened theatre that it was his own boss. – one of the brothers who banned “accidental meetings” between the sexes on the show?
MISSING IN ACTION
Away from gossip and dirt in the shadows, how about something as important as who first threw the first triple? Ernest Clarke was not the first flyer to nail it. That honor goes to Russian-born Lena Jordan, and if you don’t believe me, check out Wikipedia. Still don’t? Okay, how about Guinness Book of World Records? In fact, the record was impressively explored and certified on the Circus Historical Society history message board, July 1, 1965.
What makes these blunders more inexplicable is that Jensen drew from the likes of Fred Dahlinger (“how many times did I call on him while producing this book?”), Greg Parkinson, Fred Pfening III. I have to wonder if any of these three were asked to read the manuscript or proofs.
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 examined. 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.
To me, Queen of the Air feels like contaminated goods, and I no longer have the faith in it to buy my own copy. How would I know what to believe? Perhaps the experts of what qualifies as “biography” will find me off base. So be it. I am not of the school that dismisses objectivity as out of date. Some standards of conduct should forever be worth fighting for.
TWO STARS, kindly awarded.
For more about the book, I discuss Queen for the Air with Timothy Tegge in an earlier post on the subject. In fact, had Tim not answered my second e-mail asking for his input, this revised review would likely never have been.