Lillian Leitzel (1892-1931), known as Queen of the Air, was an aerial performer with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1915 to 1931. Leitzel astounded audiences around the world with her act, which involved a series of planges in which she rotated around like a propeller while holding onto a rope with one hand. Leitzel headlined the circus longer than any performer in history. She died after falling while performing her act.
Leitzel was born Leopoldina Altitza Pelikan in Breslau, Germany, on January 2, 1892. Her nickname, Leitzel, was a variation of her middle name and became her stage name. Leitzel's parents separated when she was young. Her father, Edward J. Eleanore, was a former Hungarian army officer who became a theatrical empresario. He raised his children as he had managed his troops, demanding obedience and physical conditioning. The willful Leitzel clashed with him frequently when she was growing up and rarely spoke of him as an adult.
Leitzel's mother, Elinor (Nellie) Pelikan, was a trapeze artist who came from a family of circus performers. Nellie's mother performed on the trapeze until age 84. An uncle, Adolph Pelikan, originated the stunt in which a clown walks with a plank balanced on his head, turns, and walks in the opposite direction with the plank in place. Nellie and two of her sisters performed around the world as the Leamy Ladies, named for their manager, Edward Leamy.
Leitzel had a brother, Arthur G. Pelikan, who became director of the Milwaukee Art Institute. Leitzel's mother was often on tour, so Leitzel and her brother lived with their maternal grandmother and attended school in Breslau. Leitzel learned to speak five languages and studied music, literature, art, and ballet. Her family and teachers considered that she may become a concert pianist, but by the age of nine, she knew she wanted to become an aerialist.
At nine, Leitzel traveled to England with her grandparents during an extended performance of the Leamy Ladies. Leitzel, who had taught herself trapeze tricks, brought a miniature trapeze to the theater one day and convinced her mother to allow her to join the act. Soon, she was upstaging her mother and aunts.
In 1911, the Leamy Ladies traveled to the United States to perform, but their act did not catch on in America. Leitzel's mother and aunts returned to Europe to perform in circuses there. Leitzel remained in the United States where she hoped to continue her career. She took a job at a New Jersey nightclub on the promise that New York producers were scouting the act. On the second of her three-night gig, Leitzel fell and landed on both knees. Her legs were sprained and bruised, but she returned the third night and completed her act to thunderous applause. The New York producers offered her jobs in vaudeville acts. She was known as "Lillian Leitzel, the World's Foremost and Most Daring Aerial Star."
In 1914, while performing in South Bend, Indiana, she was spotted by an agent for the Ringling Brothers Circus. She was offered a contract unlike any other for a new performer—$250 per week, star billing, and many other perks. She debuted with Ringling Brothers on April 17, 1915, in Chicago. When Ringling Brothers merged with the Barnam and Bailey in 1919, Leitzel was a headline performer.
Played to the Crowd
Leitzel was an aerialist, not a trapeze artist. She performer her act on movable ringing, suspended from the tent ceiling. She did not use a safety net. Theatrics was a large part of Leitzel's act and she played to the crowds who reacted wildly to her showmanship. As her act began, the lights dimmed and a lone spotlight found Leitzel in the tent's entrance. She entered the ring carried by a giant dressed as a hotel doorman. The contrast between the two accentuated Leitzel's diminutive size. She stood 4 feet, 9 inches tall and weighed 95 pounds. In the air, she looked like a fairy, but close up, her overdeveloped upper-body muscles gave her a gnome-like appearance. Leitzel's personal maid, Mabel Clemings, accompanied her into the ring and took Leitzel's robe, revealing her sequined halter, bare midriff, and trunks covered by a sheer skirt.
After playing to the crowd for a while, she kicked off her gold mules before ascending the rope web as the band played Crimson Cradle March. Unlike most performers who simply climbed the webbing to the apparatus, Leitzel ascended the web in a series of rollups, in which she rolled her body up and over itself while holding onto the rope. At the top of the tent, she performed a series of graceful twirls and swings on the Roman rings to the tune of William Tell Overture. She then glided back to the ground.
The second part of her act was Leitzel's trademark and is what made her famous. When she ascended the web again, all other circus activities stopped. Leitzel was the first person in history to gain such attention. After returning to the top of the tent, she slipped her wrist into a padded rope loop attached to a swivel and ring. She then performed a series of one-arm planges accompanied by a drumroll. A plange is a move in which Leitzel threw her body over her head, swinging around vertically like a propeller. With each turn, the cymbals clashed and the crowd counted, "33, 34, 35 … 89, 90 91," up to 100 or 150 turns. Her record was 249. Late in her career she performed up to 60.
Leitzel's theatrics continued to the end of her act. She often extended her act beyond its allotted time, angering the performers that followed her. Leitzel piled her long, thick blond hair atop her head and secured it in such a way that it tumbled out in sections as she spun. Center Ring reported that it was an unsettling sight, giving people "the idea that the act was so brutal she was flying apart at the seams, like an airplane under strain." When she returned to the floor after her act, she staggered out of the ring, swooning as if she were about to faint. The crowd ate it up.
Leitzel's mother is said to have first performed the plange, but Leitzel perfected the act. Despite Leitzel's incredible upper body strength and the ease with which she appeared to perform the act, the plange was a difficult move that took its toll on Leitzel's body. Every turn partially dislocated her shoulder, which then snapped back into place. Despite attempts to protect her wrist, the rope lacerated it with every turn and she returned to the ground bloodied. She always covered her raw, cracked wrist in public by wearing bracelets, long sleeves or a silk scarf. Center Ring states that when a doctor once suggested that she alternate arms when performing her act, she replied vainly, "My right arm is already ruined, but my left arm is pretty, and I'm a woman."
Adored by Fans
Outside the ring, Leitzel enjoyed the attention of her fans and the press. Her popularity rivaled that of movie stars. But her temper and her ego gave her a reputation as moody and demanding. She was the first circus performer to have her own dressing tent and a private car on the circus train. It was even equipped with a baby grand piano. During her frequent tirades, she cursed or slapped circus workers. At the same time, she adored children and tutored many of the circus employees' offspring. She bought them gifts and toys and gave them birthday parties.
Despite her volatile temper, men adored Leitzel and showered her with gifts. Railroad magnates, senators, and entertainers often visited her dressing room to meet her. Her response to them was unpredictable. When the circus played in Detroit, Henry Ford appeared at her door with a bouquet of flowers. She left him waiting before finally seeing him.
Leitzel married three times. The name of her first husband is unknown and the marriage lasted only a short time. In 1920, Leitzel married Clyde Ingalls, a side-show manager and ring announcer. Ingalls stood 6 feet tall and could not keep up with his famous wife socially or financially. He often had to ask her for money. He was jealous of the attention Leitzel continued to receive from other men. The last straw occurred when a Chicago sportsman threw Leitzel a party at the Hotel Stevens. The party featured a mermaid swimming in vintage champagne and a gold-plated statue of Leitzel. The host gave each guest a $50 bill and presented Leitzel with a diamond tiara. Ingalls filed for divorce shortly after, in 1924.
In 1928, Leitzel married the love of her life, Alfredo Codona, the "King of the Trapeze." Like Leitzel, Codona came from a family of circus performers, had begun his career as a child, and had lifted his art to a new level. Many people felt the match was predestined, but the relationship was stormy. There were frequent screaming matches, breakups, and reconciliations.
Accident Led to Death
During the Ringling Brothers off-season, Leitzel and Codona performed together and singly in vaudeville shows and circuses around the world. On Friday, February 13, 1931, Leitzel performed her act at the Valencia Music Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark. She was haunted by a nightmare that had awakened her several days earlier. In the dream, she was being hoisted to the top of the ring on a rope. Leitzel watched as the rope unraveled. Below her, her husband could not hear her cries for help. Just as the rope broke, she jolted awake.
After completing the rings portion of her act on that Friday the 13th, Leitzel began her planges. Early in the performance, the swivel ring broke as a result of repeatedly being heated from the friction of use. Leitzel fell 20 feet to the ground and landed on her shoulders and back. Although she suffered a concussion and spinal injuries, she remained conscious and attempted to continue her performance, but instead was taken to the hospital. Codona, who was performing in Berlin, rushed to her side. Leitzel convinced him that she was okay and insisted that he return to Berlin, which he did. Two days later, on February 15, 1931, Leitzel died of complications from the fall.
People were shocked at Leitzel's fall. Her husband explained that Leitzel's injuries were strangely the result of inexperience—she didn't know how to fall. The only time she'd ever fallen was long ago in the New Jersey nightclub. Leitzel was cremated and her ashes were interred in Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California. Codona built a memorial to his wife in the cemetery. Titled "The Spirit of Flight," it stands 12 feet high and depicts Codona, with angels' wings, and Leitzel embracing. Roman rings appear at the base of the statue.
Codona went into seclusion after Leitzel's death. He later returned to the circus and married Vera Bruce, an equestrienne member of his troupe. He became increasingly reckless in his performances and his career ended in 1933 when he injured his shoulder in a fall. He tended Bruce's horses for a while, then worked at a gas station. In 1937, Bruce filed for divorce. When Codona met her at her lawyer's office to work out a settlement, he pulled out a gun and shot and killed Bruce and himself. Codona was buried beside Leitzel's ashes at the base of the memorial statue.
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"Lillian Leitzel," Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, www.ringlingbros.com (March 11, 2003).