When the United States entered the First World War in 1917, circus artists of German extraction found themselves instantly unpopular. Not only did they feel the wrath of circus fans, they were also routinely harassed by authorities concerned about their loyalties. There was one major exception, Lillian Leitzel. Although her birthplace was Breslau, Germany, in the United States, in 1917, she was as popular as ever.
It may have been that newspaper articles reported her heritage variously as French, Belgian, Alsatian and Czech as well as German. It may have been that everyone considered her Bohemian because of her family’s background. It may have been that she spoke perfect English, with no trace of an accent. It may have been that when it was reported she was born in Germany, it was also reported that she had signed documents renouncing any allegiance to that country, which was true. Leitzel had filed her Declaration of Intention, at the time a necessary first step on the path to citizenship, which included a statement renouncing all loyalties to an applicant’s homeland. But it was probably the simple fact that Leitzel was adored and no one even noticed her heritage.
Leitzel had left Germany in 1904, and she had been in the United States since 1911. She had found a home, and she was anxious to prove her loyalty. She set up a recruiting station for circus personnel in the dressing rooms at Madison Square Garden, and her name was always prominently listed among the celebrities that had donated to the war effort. But it was her fundraising efforts that received the most attention.
In 1918, while working in the Ziegfeld Frolic, she made a spectacular appeal when she kicked off the third Liberty Loan Drive in the center of Times Square. At five minutes to midnight, on Friday, April 5, while a crowd of several thousand watched, Leitzel rolled up a rope suspended from the subway construction tower. Seventy feet in the air, she struck several poses and then appealed to the terrific crowd that had assembled to all buy bonds. The stunt received nationwide attention.
In May, while the circus was in Chicago, Leitzel repeated her performance in the Loop, at the corner of Clark and Madison, in front of what was described as “the biggest audience in her career.” (Variety, May 10, 1918, p. 22.) In interviews and in person, throughout the duration of the conflict, Leitzel continued her efforts to aid the nation’s war effort.