SPOILER ALERT: This is a summary of the most important facts of Leitzel’s life. The details are not included. For anyone who would rather learn about Leitzel’s life in a more deliberate fashion, I recommend reading the regular posts on this site in the order I present them or reading a more thorough account of her life. I am hoping to eventually publish my own book, but that is far in the future, if ever. If you have missed some posts, you can use the What’s New page to determine the order of their presentation.
Lillian Leitzel was born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan on January 2, 1891, in Breslau, Germany. Leitzel was originally a childhood endearment derived from her middle name, Alitza. Her mother was Eleanore Pelikan, an aerial artist, who had been performing her whole life. The identity of her father is a mystery. Leitzel’s brother, Alfred George Pelikan, was also born in Breslau, in 1893. A year after Alfred’s birth, Leitzel’s mother left her two children in the care of her parents, Edward and Julie Pelikan, while she joined Edward J. Leamy’s newly formed aerial act, the Leamy Troupe. She was the sole source of support for her children.
Thanks to their mother, Leitzel and her brother received excellent educations. Leitzel attended the Charlotten Schule. She excelled as an athlete and trained in gymnastics, acrobatics and dance, but her greatest gift may have been her abilities as a musician. She was considered a prodigy and had dreams of a career as a concert pianist. Everything changed in 1905 when family finances forced Leitzel to join her mother as a member of the Leamy Troupe. Her talent was immediately apparent to everyone.
In the winter of 1907-1908, John Ringling signed the troupe to appear with Barnum & Bailey for its spring 1908 engagement at Madison Square Garden. They were one of the big features of the show, given the Garden to themselves. It was the first of three appearance over the next four years with Barnum & Bailey, two in New York and one in Chicago. After their 1911 appearance at Madison Square Garden, the troupe, now known as the Leamy Ladies, disbanded.
While her mother returned to Europe to embark on a solo career, Leitzel remained in the United States. She joined with her aunt Tina to form a vaudeville act, which they called the Leitzel Sisters. They scored big in a tryout at an upscale burlesque palace on Broadway and were booked on the Orpheum circuit. They quickly earned a reputation as one of the top acts of their type in vaudeville. Leitzel was the act. Her aunt filled in with standard trapeze work between Leitzel’s dazzling work on the rope and rings.
In the middle of her first year in vaudeville, Leitzel married a dancer, Alexis Sousloff. It was a disaster, which, by all accounts, although it took two years for Leitzel to obtain a divorce, was over within a week. Unfazed, Leitzel continued on with her career. She formed a new act with a new partner in 1913. Called Leitzel and Jeanette, the new act was similar to the old one, Leitzel dazzled while her partner filled in the time between Leitzel’s stunts.
In November 1914, Leitzel was spotted by a Ringling talent scout, while she was performing at the South Bend Orpheum. She was offered a contract on the spot but only accepted the offer after the Ringlings agreed to provide her with a stateroom on the circus train.
Leitzel made her debut as a center ring feature with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus on April 17, 1915, at the Chicago Coliseum. In substance, she did the same act that she would do for the rest of her career with the circus, the act that would make her famous. It was an act in two parts. The first part of her act was a flying rings routine. On the roman rings, she would perform a series of the most difficult gymnastic feats in any acrobat’s repertoire, throwing her body around, while suspended high above the tanbark, with a force and speed that kept the audience on the edge of their seats. But it was the second part of her act that became her trademark.
After Leitzel returned to the arena floor following her rings routine, all action in the other rings would come to a halt and the arena would go dark except for a spotlight focused on her. She would slip her wrist though a looped rope and be hoisted to a point high in the Coliseum. She would then begin her swingovers. It was a trick in which, suspended by one arm from the looped rope around her wrist, she would turn her body into a human pinwheel, using her shoulder as the pivot point. In the beginning of her career, she would do about forty of these swingovers at each performance, but later she established one hundred as a standard, with the announcer and the audience counting as she spun and the bang of the drums accentuating each revolution. On occasion she would even exceed two hundred.
In that first season with the Ringling Brothers, she quickly became an audience favorite. It was an affection that would only grow as the years went by. Leitzel would spend every summer for the rest of her career traveling with a Ringling circus, first with the Ringling Brothers’ Circus and later with the combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. During that time she would become a legend, the woman Robert Lewis Taylor, in his New Yorker profile, referred to as “the greatest star ever produced by her profession.” (New Yorker, April 21, 1956 p. 45)
During her time with the circus, Leitzel would marry twice. First, in 1920, she would marry sideshow manager Clyde Ingalls. It was a relationship that made sense to no one and ended in a divorce in 1924. Then, in 1928, she married the love of her life, Alfredo Codona. Codona was considered the greatest trapeze flyer in circus history. At the time they married, he was the only man in the world performing the triple somersault on the flying trapeze.
Leitzel and Codona first met as teenagers, when Leitzel was appearing with the Barnum & Bailey circus as a member of the Leamy Ladies. They became involved in a brief flirtation, but it never developed because the Leamy Ladies left the circus after only a month. In 1927, when Codona joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, they picked up right where they left off despite the fact that Codona was married. Codona divorced after the season, and the following year, in Chicago, between performances, Leitzel and Codona were married. It was an event celebrated by circus fans around the world as the union of the “Queen of the Air” and the “King of the Flying Trapeze.”
The marriage was tempestuous. While Leitzel and Codona’s devotion to each other was unquestioned, it could not overcome their volatile natures. In public, they supported and promoted each other at every oportunity, but in private they constantly clashed. Fred Bradna described their relationship as “ a series of climaxes alternating between idyllic romance and furious clashes of temperament.” (The Big Top, Fred Bradna as told to Alden Hatch, Simon and Schuster, p. 193)
In the winter of 1930-1931, Leitzel and Codona spent the off-season performing overseas. They both appeared on the same bills in November, December and January, first at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris and then at the Wintergarten in Berlin. Leitzel did her solo act, much as she did in the circus, and Codona worked as the star of his own act, the Flying Codonas. In February, they separated. Codona continued at the Wintergarten, while Leitzel fulfilled an engagement in Copenhagen at the Valencia Music Hall.
On Friday, February 13, tragedy struck. While performing on the flying rings, a swivel, from which one of her ring ropes was suspended, failed. Leitzel was plunged headfirst to the ground. At first the injuries did not seem so severe, but her condition quickly deteriorated and two days later she died in a Copenhagen hospital.