Winters Overseas
and the
Death of Lillian Leitzel

cirque d'hiver adAfter Leitzel settled in the United States following the breakup of the Leamy Ladies in 1911, she rarely left her adopted country. There were several reasons for this. The political situation in Europe, which would erupt into a World War, was a major consideration. Leitzel’s lack of U. S. citizenship in uncertain times also discouraged international travel until she married Clyde Ingalls, who was a U. S. citizen. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ocean voyages did not agree with Lillian Leitzel. The woman who could turn her body into a human pinwheel fifty feet in the air with no ill effect, was terribly susceptible to motion sickness on earth and sea. New York subways, ocean liners and even amusement park fun houses could leave Leitzel in misery. Nonetheless, after marrying Clyde Ingalls in 1920, Leitzel did travel overseas to perform on four occasions.

Following the 1920 circus season, Leitzel accepted an offer to be featured in the Pubillones circus in Havana, Cuba for the months of November and December. Ingalls came along as her property man. The couple viewed the engagement as an opportunity for a delayed honeymoon. It turned into something else. Ingalls was unable to live up to Leitzel’s expectations as a property man. Unable or unwilling to hide her disappointment, she daily lit into Ingalls for his shortcomings, until he finally threatened to leave her. Since she was traveling on Ingalls’ passport, Leitzel learned to accept her husband’s inadequacies as an assistant. As always, despite the backstage turmoil, Leitzel was sensational in front of the Cuban audiences.

One year later, Leitzel took a six-week engagement to headline the Bertram W. Mill’s Circus at Olympia in London. Ingalls was hired as the show’s ring announcer. After enduring terrible mal de mer on the voyage to London, Leitzel, in the words of Variety, once again, “created a sensation.” (Variety, December 23, 1921, p. 2) It was the first time Leitzel had returned to Europe since the breakup of the Leamy Ladies in 1911, and, at the conclusion of her appearance with the Mill’s circus, she spent two weeks catching up with her family before returning to America.

It wasn’t until November 1928 that Leitzel would return to Europe. After marrying Alfredo Codona, she agreed to accompany her husband in a tour of Europe. The Flying Codonas and Leitzel would begin the tour appearing on the same bill in November and December at the Cirque D’Hiver in Paris. Leitzel would then spend a month at the London Palladium, while the Codonas would headline the Wintergarten in Berlin. The plan was to reunite in February at the Wintergarten, but, depending on which account you believe, injury or illness sidelined Leitzel for the rest of the winter. The Codonas would complete their European tour, but it would not be until the end of April, when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey visited Boston that Leitzel would again appear in front of an audience. And it had taken a Herculean effort for Leitzel to regain the condition she had lost during her enforced layoff to make that return to the circus.

Leitzel made her final trip overseas following the conclusion of the 1930 circus season. It was a trip from which she would never return. Her marriage in disarray, her husband involved with his aerial partner: the third member of his act, Vera Bruce, Leitzel was just hoping to save her marriage when she along with the Flying Codonas sailed for Europe at the end of October 1930. The depression that was engulfing the United States was also paralyzing Europe. American acts such as Leitzel and the Codonas were expected to improve the fortunes of the European venues in which they were booked.

In November and December, Leitzel and the Codonas scored big hits at The Cirque d’Hiver in Paris. Then in January they repeated their successes at the Wintergarten in Berlin. Their appearance attracted crowds that had not been seen in many months. There was extensive coverage in the press and both acts received wonderful reviews. In February, the Codonas were held over at the Wintergarten, but Leitzel was under contract to the Valencia Music Hall in Copenhagen. Feeling a reconciliation was underway, Leitzel wanted to remain with her husband in Berlin, but the Valencia refused to release her from her contact. In perilous economic times the theater could not afford to lose its greatest star and biggest drawing card of the season.

The Valencia Music Hall on the Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen
The Valencia Music Hall on the Vesterbrogade in Copenhagen

It was on Friday, February 13 that tragedy occurred. While performing the first part of her act, her roman rings’ routine, a swivel from which one of her rings was suspended failed. It sent her crashing to the floor. Because of the layout of the room, Leitzel was working very low and she did not have time to roll her body over while she fell, instead she landed on her head and shoulders. Although Leitzel protested that she was not seriously hurt, it was apparent that her injuries were serious, and her assistants as well as theater management insisted she go to the hospital.

Upon learning of Leitzel’s fall, Alfredo immediately canceled his appearance at the Wintergarten and flew to Copenhagen to be at his wife’s side, and Leitzel’s mother took the next available train from Berlin to be with her daughter. Mabel Clemings, Leitzel’s faithful maid and companion, had accompanied Leitzel to Copenhagen and was also with Leitzel at the hospital.

It was apparent that Leitzel’s injuries were serious, but by Saturday her condition seemed to be improving. The New York Times reported that Leitzel would recover (New York Times, February 14, 1931, p. 15) and on Saturday night, doctors told Codona he might as well return to Berlin as Leitzel would be unconscious for some time. At 2:00 AM on the morning of February 15, the phone rang in the hotel room that Mabel Clemings and Leitzel’s mother were sharing. Leitzel had passed away.

The Valencia Today: Home of the Association of Danish Law Firms
The Valencia Today: Home of the Association of Danish Law Firms