John Ringling was the boldest and most ambitious of the Ringling Brothers. He was the youngest of the five brothers who founded the Ringling circus, and he was the brother who lived the longest. It was John Ringling who lobbied his brothers to purchase the Barnum & Bailey circus after James Bailey died in 1906. He married late in life and never had children. His driving ambition seemed to be to leave an important legacy.
While his brothers spent most of their lives immersed in the operation of the circus, John Ringling took care of his circus responsibilities (he was considered a genius at routing the show) but then he assembled a business empire. He had interests in banking, ranching, railroading, oil speculation and real estate development. In the 1920s he became the principal land developer in his adopted hometown of Sarasota, Florida.
In 1926, when his brother Charles died, he became the only surviving member of the original five brothers who founded the Ringling Bros. circus. And although he had partners, surviving relatives of his late brothers, he took complete control of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. But he was spreading himself very thin.
While the shows John Ringling assembled in the late Twenties were brilliant, considered by many the finest circuses ever produced, his world was beginning to come apart. When the bubble that was the Florida land boom burst, it was just the beginning of the setbacks that would plague the remainder of his life. In June 1929, his wife died. She was ten years younger than him, and, for a man who was described as having a thousand acquaintances but no true friends, it was devastating. It would be shortly after this personal tragedy that a disastrous business decision would set the tone for the rest of his life.
In 1929, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus lost the contract to exhibit in Madison Square Garden. John Ringling was thunderstruck. He viewed it as a personal betrayal by the management of an arena he had been instrumental in building. He could not bear to see another circus exhibit in a building he considered the exclusive domain of the Ringling Brothers. As a consequence he bought the American Circus Corporation, the company that owned the contract for the 1930 circus season in Madison Square Garden. In doing so, he gobbled up almost all his competition in one stroke, but he also gave his personal note for nearly two million dollars. It would be a debt that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Shortly after Ringling agreed to purchase the American Circus Corporation, the Stock Market crashed, and the country was mired in the Great Depression. Ringling had intended to take his new acquisition public and quickly recoup his investment, but the Stock Market crash ended that dream. In perilous economic times, Ringling was stuck with an organization that now included five additional circuses on top of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show.
Ringling struggled mightily to manage the new behemoth he had created, but declining health and a daunting economy proved his undoing. He was forced to relinquish control of the circus he had helped found and spend most of the remainder of his life fighting off debt collectors and trying futilely to regain control of his circus.
John Ringling died in 1936. He never regained control of the circus that bore his family name, but he did preserve his legacy. Ca D’Zan, the mansion he built in Sarasota, the Ringling Museum of Art, built to house his art collection and the circus are all still attracting crowds.
Leitzel and John Ringling had a complicated relationship, governed by enormous mutual respect. Away from the circus they were always friendly, but under the big top, they were antagonists. Ringling knew Leitzel was his greatest star. Not only was she a class apart as a circus artist, but she garnered far more publicity than any other cast member. Her presence elevated the circus. But Leitzel was also Ringling’s greatest headache. Her demands were never-ending. The problem was actually not Leitzel’s demands for herself; she was well worth them. It was that when Ringling gave in to her demands, he could be sure that others would soon demand the same. No one cost him more money. In the words of Fred Bradna, Leitzel “more than any other person is responsible for the great change from sordid to sumptuous living quarters for which all latter-day stars must bless her memory.” (The Big Top, Fred Bradna as told to Hartzell Spence, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952) Second Printing p. 182)
Leitzel, for her part, never trusted John Ringling. She quickly learned that his concern was with the welfare of the circus and that if he had to make promises to performers, including her, that he could not keep, he didn’t care. As a consequence, she never relied on Ringling’s word. She learned to get confirmation from others in management for anything he said. But Leitzel also quickly learned that Ringling was a superb showman who was passionate about producing great circuses, and his circuses were the perfect showcase for her talents.