Stories of Leitzel’s temperament are legend. Her volcanic personality was only rivaled by her prodigious talent. From roustabouts to the Ringling Brothers, virtually everyone associated with the circus was familiar with Leitzel’s frequent outbursts, and many had intimate experience with them.
Nonetheless, although being terrorized by Leitzel was usually a jarring experience, it often only resulted in endearing her even more to the subject of her rage. As one member of the circus family observed, when describing Leitzel’s relationship with the roustabouts, “A funny thing was, too, that the more she treated them like subjects, the more they adored her. Everyone loved her—-children, performers, workers, owners. Whatever she did, she really couldn’t do anything wrong.” (Center Ring: The People of the Circus, Robert Lewis Taylor, (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1956) p. 240.)
Leitzel’s temperament was not viewed as a flaw in her personality but as a facet of it, the consequence of the torture she endured twice every day to perform her act. Her wrist was an open wound that was never given a chance to heal. In the circus it was understood that her courage more than justified her behavior. And no one seemed more aware of this than the most frequent victims of her tantrums: her attendant and her maid. They assisted Leitzel immediately before and after she performed, when she was most volatile. It was circus lore that she fired her maid four times a day, before and after each performance.
The press was also very aware of Leitzel’s eccentricities. It was rare that reporters were not around when Leitzel was in the backyard, so they often had a front row seat for her antics. And they wrote about her behavior, but with a deft touch. They adored Leitzel; and in their accounts she became charmingly temperamental: a spitfire who exploded, but who was almost immediately contrite, a colorful artist who made extravagant demands, but not unjustified demands.
In 1917, the New York Tribune published an early account of Leitzel’s temperament. It was Leitzel’s first appearance in Madison Square Garden as a solo act. She had signed with the Barnum & Bailey circus for the Garden stand after refusing to rejoin the Ringling circus for the season. What followed was delightfully recounted in the Tribune. Notice the misspelling of her name throughout the article. A transcription of the article is below it, in case you find the image difficult to read.
GARDEN TOO SMALL FOR TEMPERAMENT OF CIRCUS’S STAR
Miss Leitzel, Tired of Resigning, Now Has Dressing Room on Roof
Madison Square Garden is big enough to house comfortably Barnum & Bailey’s Circus, but it is too small for the temperament of the big show’s brightest star, whose family name is Lietzel and whose first name, as far as careful research has discovered, is Miss.
To counterbalance the lack of name Miss Lietzel is long on trunks and temperament. Ten wardrobe trunks she owns, and, being an aerial performer, many of the other sort for professional wear. One maid and one personal property man also are on the list of belongings she carries on tour with her. None of these, however, has proved as bulky or given the management as much anxiety as her temperament.
Miss Lietzel did not arrive at the Garden until a few minutes before the circus’s opening matinee on Thursday. On being shown her dressing room she promptly resigned. Thereafter for three days she resigned as regularly as a performance was called. Saturday night, however, the odor of sawdust overcame her; she declared that much as she needed a rest she couldn’t possibly leave the show.
After the first resignation Miss received the manager’s office as a dressing room. At first things went well; then she decided that she was too near the freaks. Again, her maid did not arrive on time; she resigned. The next afternoon three spangles were missing from her costume; she resigned. Finally she resigned simply for the pleasure of resigning. Then it was she thought of a dressing room on the roof.
Persian rugs and a canopy leading to the spot from which she enters the arena are minor details of the dressing room plan. An elevator may be installed for her or rather for her temperament. At any rate, the management of the show is willing to give her anything she wants if she will only accept the salary they pay her and appear at the Garden twice a day, and she has promised never to resign again on those conditions.