Nellie Pelikan, Leitzel’s mother, was born on February 28, 1868, in Morchenstern, Czechoslovakia (now Smržovka, Czech Republic). According to her siblings, she was the oldest of the nine children born to Eduard and Julie Pelikan (né Julie Knöbel). As such, she shouldered considerable responsibility at a very young age. As soon as she could learn a few tricks, she began performing with the family’s one wagon circus.
There are two divergent accounts of her childhood. In one, which is recounted by Coutney Ryley Cooper in his brief biographical article about Leitzel, at the age of eleven, Nellie was apprenticed out to a thuggish, uncaring, uncivilized mountebank to be trained and employed as an acrobat. It was an unforgiving tutelage, during which she was subjected to daily beatings. The abusive treatment became so bad that the police intervened and returned Nellie to her family. It turned out to be only a brief respite for the young girl. Her family, struggling to survive, sent her back to the mountebank the next year.
In the other account, she was apprenticed out to Zelia Zampa, a great aerial star with the Circus Lenka. While it might not have been as brutal as an apprenticeship with a mountebank, it still would have been an unforgiving ordeal. Apprenticeship as an acrobat may not have been slavery, but there were very few freedoms granted to an apprentice.
Whether either account is accurate is hard to discern. What is undisputed is that Nellie Pelikan developed into a great acrobat. Leitzel always claimed her mother was the greatest acrobat she had ever known. At some point, Nellie came to the attention of Edward J. Leamy, who recruited her for the act he was assembling. By that point, Nellie had given birth to two children, Leitzel in 1891, when she was 22 years old and Alfred, when she was 25 in 1893.
Courtney Ryley Cooper claimed Nellie had married, and on some documents, from years later, Nellie’s marital status was listed as widow. There are very few clues to the identity of Leitzel’s father. It is not even clear that Leitzel ever knew her father. A magazine article in 1923 gave Leitzel’s father as John D’Osta, a European gymnast. Robert Lewis Taylor, in his New Yorker profile, gave Leitzel’s mother’s name as Nellie Elianore Doste, but he was certainly wrong in his account of Leitzel’s father as a Hungarian Army officer. In “Queen of the Air,” Dean Jensen asserts that Leitzel and her brother were both conceived through rape. In Jensen’s account, Willy Dosta, the proprietor of one wagon circus to whom Nellie had been apprenticed, repeatedly and brutally took advantage of Nellie while she was under his guardianship. According to Jensen, Nellie was only twelve when Leitzel was conceived. And still her parents returned Nellie to Dosta’s care after she gave birth to Leitzel. Nellie was certainly not twelve when Leitzel was conceived, whether there was a rape involved or Willy Dosta was her father is difficult to ascertain. There are no accounts of Leitzel talking about her father, other than to tell inquisitive reporters that he had been an athlete or a performer. On official documents, Leitzel would often list her father as unknown. Regardless of whom Leitzel’s father was, by all accounts, it was Nellie who was the sole source of support for her two children.
Nellie Pelikan joined Leamy’s act and eventually became its star. She became famous for her great leap to the net, the finale of the act. After pedaling the bicycle atop the revolving trapeze, she would ascend to a perch high up in whatever venue the act was appearing and conclude the act with a dive into a net often five or more stories below. It was the same stunt the Vaidis Twins used to end their act.
For over a decade and a half, Nellie was a member of the Leamy act, eventually being joined by her daughter on a permanent basis in 1905. In 1911, after a falling out with Leamy, following a third appearance with the Barnum & Bailey circus in Madison Square Garden, Nellie quit the act to embark on a solo career as Mlle. Zoe.
Zoe debuted at Luna Park in Coney Island. She did a disrobing act. She stripped down to formfitting flesh colored undergarments near the top of the 150-foot tower while hanging by her teeth from a short rope. It was quite a sensation. She stayed in the United States until she tired of a schedule that had her performing several times a day, and then she returned to the music halls of Europe, where only a single performance daily was required.
Nellie continued to perform well into her fifties, although she took several extended vacations in America to visit her daughter after Leitzel became a star. On each occasion Leitzel tried unsuccessfully to convince her mother to retire and join her permanently in the United States.
Later in her life, after World War II, Nellie came to live with her son in Milwaukee, where he had a prominent position as the director of art education for Milwaukee schools and a director of the city’s art museum. She died in that city in 1953 at the age of 85.