Edward J. Leamy was a native of Syracuse, New York. Born December 20, 1847, he was from a family well-known in the community. His brother was a contractor who had built some of the city’s most important structures. Leamy himself was the proprietor of a wagon shop before he left Syracuse in the early 1870s to embark on a theatrical career. He first gained prominence in 1876, when he assumed management of the Vaidis Sisters’ act after the girls’ father had been killed in an accident.
Although he managed a wide variety of acts, it was with female aerial acts that he would continue to have his greatest successes, culminating in his development of the Leamy Troupe, the act of which Leitzel’s mother was an original member and in which Leitzel would make her professional debut.
Leamy was highly regarded and well respected among his peers. The New York Times called him “one of the best known showmen in the business.” (New York Times August 2, 1914) He was known as “the Silver King” for his white hair and moustache. Among his many friends in the business, he was known as honest and generous. However, the women who were members of the acts he managed had another opinion of the man they knew as Professor Leamy. To them, he was overbearing, controlling and manipulative. He could make their lives miserable. Not surprisingly, Leamy’s professional relations with these women often ended bitterly. And the bitterest breakup of all was the final one.
Toward the end of the Leamy Ladies’ 1911 engagement with the Barnum and Bailey Circus at Madison Square Garden, Leitzel’s mother, Nellie Pelikan, quit the act. For more than a decade and a half, she had tolerated life as a member of the act Leamy considered his own. But the ascension of Leitzel to star of the act and the suffocating control that Leamy exercised over Nellie’s life made her circumstances unbearable. After a year working at Luna Park, doing an aerial act on the tower, she decided to return to Europe and embark on a solo career.
While Leitzel’s mother was a victim of Leamy’s autocratic management style, Leitzel always retained a fondness for Leamy. For a time he provided the stable male figure of authority that Leitzel’s life had always lacked. She even told some of her friends that he was her father.
Nellie Pelikan’s departure from the act stung Leamy hard and he decided to retire. He returned to his native Syracuse to live with his family. He still maintained his friendships in the industry and made frequent trips to New York City to keep up with life on Broadway.
It was in late July 1914, during one of those visits to Broadway that tragedy struck. After an evening on the town with friends in the theater, Leamy never made it back to his hotel. Days later his friends found him, in bad shape, in Bellevue Hospital. According to the police reports, Leamy had fallen down the stairs of a subway station, but Leamy and his friends insisted he was attacked, beaten and robbed. His most prized possession, a diamond stickpin, which he always wore, which had been a gift from his show business friends and was worth several thousand dollars, was missing. The story was reported in The New York Times and many of the trade papers, including Billboard. After spending six weeks in the hospital, Leamy returned to Syracuse, but he never fully recovered. He died little more than a year later in October 1915.
* Image above is from a small portion of the painting Popularity by Walter Lambert, which hangs in the Museum of London. Image was provided to me by Mathew Lloyd from his website, which covers the history of Music Halls and Theatres of the UK. For anyone interested in learning more about the venues in the UK in which Leitzel and the Leamy Ladies appeared, it is a wonderful resource. The website contains an image of the entire painting Popularity.