Alfredo Codona was the love of Lillian Leitzel’s life. He was also the only member of the circus cast whose fame and artistry could rival hers. He was the king of the flying trapeze and she was the queen of the air.
Codona was a native of Mexico. Like so many members of the circus cast, he had been born into a circus family. He was in his family’s act before he was out of diapers. As an infant, his father would bring Alfredo into the ring in a carpetbag. He would open the bag, lift his baby son out and balance him on one hand as he paraded around the ring.
It was Alfredo’s sister, Victoria, who first caught the attention of the Ringling Brothers. A beautiful slack wire artist, they hired her as a feature for their 1909 edition of the Barnum & Bailey circus. Alfredo and his brother joined their sister in the cast that year, performing a double trapeze act.
It was during the 1909 Barnum & Bailey season that Leitzel and Codona, then both teenagers, first became involved. Leitzel, as a member of the Leamy Ladies, was also in the cast of the Barnum & Bailey circus that year. It was a brief flirtation, because the Leamy Ladies were only with the show during its season opening appearance in Chicago.
Years later, Leitzel and Codona would recall with fondness the clandestine schemes to which they had to resort in order to escape the overbearing presence of Professor Leamy, the man who managed the Leamy Ladies. It was their amorous adventures that spring that would always leave them feeling that they had been childhood sweethearts.
While the years following the breakup of the Leamy Ladies in 1911 saw Leitzel quickly ascend to the pinnacle of her profession, Codona’s path to the top was more measured, but when he achieved the triple somersault in 1920, it was assured.
No circus trick had the mythology of the triple somersault on the flying trapeze. Its attempt was considered akin to suicide by many. Only Ernie Clarke and Lena Jordan had successfully performed the trick in front of an audience when Codona threw his first triple with the Sells-Floto circus in 1920.
Not only did Codona perform the triple, he mastered it. His success rate was more than 90%. He would on occasion miss the trick deliberately to build the suspense. After failing on his first try, he would invariably return to his perch and throw a perfect triple on his second attempt. Considered the handsomest man in the circus, known as the “Adonis of the Altitudes,” his style was more balletic than athletic. His extraordinary grace was remarked on by everyone who saw him perform. In the words of Arthur Concello, a flyer who would himself perform the triple, “He couldn’t have looked bad. If Alfredo had been run over by a truck, he’d have done it so gracefully your first instinct might have been to applaud.” (Center Ring: The People of the Circus, Robert Lewis Taylor (Doubleday& Company, Inc., Garden City, N.Y., 1956) p. 244)
In 1927, Codona joined the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey cast, reuniting with Leitzel. Although Codona was married at the time, it did not deter him from reviving his relationship with Leitzel. His marriage could not withstand his passion for Leitzel. He was divorced later that year.
In the summer of 1928, in Chicago, between performances of the circus, Leitzel and Codona were married. Professionally they were extraordinarily supportive of each other. Codona would hold Leitzel’s rope while she worked in the center ring, and Leitzel would proclaim her husband’s brilliance to anyone who would listen, but their marriage was stormy. Codona could not stand the attention Leitzel continued to attract from other men even after the couple was married. And Leitzel was unwilling to give up the attention she loved so much.
Things came to a head in 1930 when Codona became involved with Vera Bruce, the third member of the Flying Codonas along with Alfredo and his brother. Leitzel had actually insisted that Codona replace his ex-wife in the act with Vera. In the words of Fred Bradna, “Things were in this seething state when, after the 1930 season, Leitzel went abroad for a winter of bookings in Europe.” (The Big Top: My 40 Years with the Greatest Show on Earth, Fred Bradna as told to Hartzell Spence (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952) p. 193) Accompanying Leitzel to Europe were the Flying Codonas.
For the first two engagements of the winter, Leitzel and the Codonas shared the same bill. They spent part of November and December at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris and all of January at the Wintergarten in Berlin. In February, the Codonas remained at the Wintergarten, but Leitzel went to Copenhagen for a booking at the Valencia Music Hall. It was in Copenhagen, on Friday, February 13, 1931, that Leitzel fell. Two days later she died.
Despite his dalliance with Vera Bruce, Codona was grief-stricken. He had been in love with Leitzel since he had been a teenager. His relationship with Bruce was a reaction to Leitzel’s behavior. Now Leitzel was gone.
Codona’s emotional state was evident in his performances when he returned to the circus. According to those who watched him in 1931, he was never more brilliant, but it was a brilliance born of recklessness. He would miss his triple deliberately and in such a way that when he fell into the net he would be catapulted to the tanbark. Of course, he would always quickly recover from what appeared to be horrific falls, feign injury and return to the trapeze to invariably throw a perfect triple, bringing down the house. He called it his best trick but said Leitzel had forbidden him from doing it while she was alive.
Codona married Bruce in 1932, but in 1933 his luck on the trapeze ran out. He damaged his shoulder so severely doing the triple that his career as a flyer was over. All attempts at rehabilitating his shoulder failed. He worked in management through 1936, but he was never comfortable on the ground, watching others do what he could do better.
During this period, Codona, who had always been moody, became even more so. His marriage to Bruce deteriorated. And when he finally left the circus to work in his family’s garage, Bruce returned to the show and pursued a divorce. With a divorce agreed to, Codona and Bruce met in her lawyers office to consummate a settlement. At the end of the meeting, Codona asked to speak with Vera. Codona pulled out a pistol, fired five shots into her body and one into his own brain. Codona died instantly. Vera died the next day.
** Portrait of Victoria and Alfredo Codona, Photograph, n.d.; http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth201174 : University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, http://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting The Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.