Animals that traveled with the circus were expected to do their part. They either performed in the show, or they assisted the crew setting up and tearing down the tent city. There were two notable exceptions: a French bulldog named Jerry and a Boston terrier named Boots. Their only responsibility was to enjoy themselves. Still, they became as famous as any animals in the cast. It was for one simple reason, they were Lillian Leitzel’s beloved pets.
As Leitzel’s demands went, permission to travel with her pets was among the mildest. It’s unlikely she even asked permission. She probably just showed up one season with two puppies and dared anyone to tell her they could not come with her.
Leitzel’s fondness for animals was legendary. So the affection she lavished on her own dogs was not surprising. In her own words, they were “the two most spoiled animals in existence.” She pampered them like a doting grandparent. They wore jewel-bedecked collars and had the run of the backyard. A visit to Leitzel’s tent was incomplete without petting the pair that were famous for chewing on the laces of visitor’s shoes.
As with everything connected to Leitzel, her pets were publicity magnets. They became celebrities. They were often prominently featured in newspaper and circus advertising photos of Leitzel. Boots was even featured in a series of short stories. Most importantly, they were a stress reliever and a comfort to their mistress.
Leitzel adored children, and she made it her mission, while she was with the circus, to improve the lives of all the youngsters who traveled with the show. Not only did she want the children to enjoy their experiences with the circus, she wanted them to benefit from them. She became a teacher, a mentor, a surrogate parent, a benefactor, a promoter, a babysitter and a lady bountiful.
Most famously, for one hour every day, Leitzel turned her dressing tent into a classroom for all the children of the backyard. She supplied books, slates, chalk, paper, pencils, toys, games and a typewriter. While she tutored the youngest children in reading and arithmetic, her stated philosophy was “Whatever interests children and keeps them absorbed in their task is good for them …… My greatest pleasure is cultivating their love for nature and the beautiful.”
Whatever affection Leitzel showered on the children of the backyard was reciprocated. She was considered a member of the family by every child who traveled with the show. They all called her Auntie Leitzel. And if a child had a birthday during the circus season, Leitzel would throw a party, plenty of gifts included. She also sponsored an annual Halloween party and Fourth of July picnic. Leitzel did everything she could to assure the children had a normal life and that they would remember their experiences in the backyard fondly.
There were two children in whom Leitzel took a special interest: Glenn Graves and Dolly Jahn. Glenn was the son of boss property man Mickey Graves. Beginning when he was three years old, while Mickey’s wife stayed at home taking care of the couple’s other children, Glenn would keep his father company and travel with the show. It was Leitzel who was depended on to supply a maternal touch. Glenn’s mother relied on Leitzel to make sure his wardrobe, nutritional and educational needs were met. His mornings were often spent in Leitzel’s dressing tent, sitting in one of her deck chairs, amusing himself with a picture book. Glenn even spent a winter with Leitzel when his dad signed on as Leitzel’s property man for the off-season in vaudeville.
Dolly Jahn was the daughter of perch pole artist Hans Jahn. When Dolly turned four, she decided she wanted to be the next Leitzel, and she prevailed upon Auntie Leitzel to tutor her. Leitzel bought Dolly a set of rings, which she hung outside of her dressing tent and on which, every day, she taught the little girl the rudiments of the roman rings. Dolly became a frequent guest in Leitzel’s stateroom on the circus train, where she was given the privilege of occasionally spending the night.
While the children of the backyard were certainly blessed to have Leitzel looking over them, Leitzel was equally blessed by the presence of the children. She loved being able to mentor them. She told anyone who would listen that if she were not in the circus, she would want to be a teacher. With the children of the backyard, Leitzel had that opportunity. Anyone who knew her would tell you her time with the kids was one of the real joys of Leitzel’s life in the circus.
One of the finest collections in the world of circus related materials can be found in the Milner Library at Illinois State University. Among their possessions is the extremely rare poster pictured above. It is an advertisement for the Leamy Ladies’ appearance at the Islington World’s Fair in London during the winter of 1907-1908. This was the troupe’s final appearance in Europe before joining Barnum & Bailey for its 1908 stand at Madison Square Garden.
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.
When, in 1911, a worker blacked out while replacing light bulbs on the 150-foot tower at Luna Park, it was Leitzel’s mother who was called on to rescue the man. After leaving the Leamy Ladies, Nellie Pelikan, as Mlle. Zoe, began appearing at Luna Park. Several times a day, she was hoisted to the top of the tower while hanging from a rope by her teeth, where she would do a disrobing act.
When no one was willing to climb the tower to save the incapacitated employee, someone suggested Zoe. What followed was described in the New York Times.
Leitzel’s relationship with the press was legendary. Never has anyone so enjoyed the company of the ladies and gentlemen of the fourth estate. She relished every encounter. It was said she always made time for an interview, no matter how inconvenient. As a consequence, Leitzel rarely received an ounce of bad press.
Of course, there were tangible benefits of the relationship for both parties. Leitzel received great publicity and the reporters got great copy. But the real hallmark of the relationship was a genuine mutual affection.
Robert Garland, theater critic of the New York World-Telegram, expressed the feelings of most of his colleagues when, three years after Leitzel’s death, he wrote:
“I adored that lovely lady. It wasn’t because she managed to throw herself over her own shoulder more often than you might think possible. Not that alone, at any rate. Through an alchemy of her personal devising she became the great lady of The Greatest Show on Earth. She had talent. She had distinction. She had charm. I along with the circus miss her. Without her, the big top is never quite the same.” (New York World-Telegram, April 2, 1934, p. 14.)
The newsmen who covered Leitzel seemed to have an almost fatherly fondness for the tiny aerialist. They understood the sacrifices, both physical and emotional, that she made on a daily basis. And they also understood how much their words meant to Leitzel.
In 1929, when Leitzel, due to illness, sat inconsolable in her hotel room, as the circus made its debut in Madison Square Garden, worrying that her presence would not be missed, it was a group of New York newspapermen who took it upon themselves to visit her after the show and cheer her up. They told her everyone had been asking about her and saying the show was not the same without her. Almost instantly her mood changed, and, seeing that change, no one felt better than the newspapermen.
Leitzel was a favorite of columnists, including such notables as Walter Winchell and O. O. McIntyre, who would visit with her whenever she appeared in New York and then would include a line about the encounter in his column.
Leitzel’s relationship with newspaperwomen was marked by strong friendships and mutual admiration. For Leitzel, who was a sophisticated and urbane woman with interests ranging from art to philosophy, the women of the press were often her connection to the outside world, while she traveled with the circus. She would often spend hours entertaining her favorite newswoman in her dressing tent or in her stateroom on the circus train. Sometimes Leitzel would even invite them to travel with the circus for a few days and share her stateroom.
The woman of the press found Leitzel charming and they delighted in describing their experiences spending time with her, as Amy Leslie did in 1924.
“Into a lady’s dainty boudoir I stepped to visit the irresistible star of the whole magnificent combination, Lillian Leitzel. Her bungalow is lovely in elegance with a thrift and prettiness belonging to the gorgeous areal (sic.) artist’s own personality and complete stardom. Costly rugs and little ornate tables, chic tapestries and ever piquant evidence of a refined and rather special kind of feminine taste. Leitzel, her pretty self, is in a flimsy negligee, all rose and cloudy lace, with her tiny little feet in Cinderella slippers and her wonderful hair long bout her shoulders and eyes.
“She is a creature so exquisite and mannerly, so choice of phrase and gesture, so lovely in thought that her culture and feminine individual charm sit upon her like roses on a trellis. She is very small, is Leitzel, and her little perfect body is hard as nails, flexible as a tempered steel net and as beauteous in outline as a Hogarth fantasy.” (Amy Leslie, “Pretty Circus Star Has Her Canvas Villa,” Chicago Daily News, August 23, 1924, p. 14.)
Leitzel’s relations with the press were just one more reason she was unique among circus artists. She could generate her own publicity by simply being herself. As with seemingly everything, she was a natural. Of course, she was a natural because she was well educated, well read and well spoken. She spoke five languages and from her outpost traveling with the circus she kept remarkably abreast of cultural developments. And, as always, the greatest beneficiary of Leitzel’s public relations acumen was “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
Caricatures of the acts that were featured on the Orpheum circuit often appeared in programs and the materials used to promote local theaters. As a result, the Leitzel Sisters and Leitzel and Jeanette were the subject of those caricatures.
After 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.
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.
During the 1929 circus season, Alfredo Codona decided to venture into the production side of the circus business. Along with two partners, Louis Perez and James Evans, he assembled a show to tour Mexico during the offseason. It was to be a first class operation. Equipment, including a new 160-foot big top was purchased, and top acts were signed, including Leitzel’s uncle, the clown Bluch Landolf, who was famous for a stunt where he walked back and forth, while balancing a long plank on his head, which remained motionless each time he turned around. Of course, Leitzel and the Flying Codonas were to be the feature acts.
The show was scheduled to open in Laredo, Texas starting on November 16 before crossing into Mexico for week long stands culminating in six weeks in Mexico City. It was to be a classic one ring circus of the European style. The show would carry twenty-one acts, but only fourteen would be presented on any one program allowing the show to change bills twice a week.
Tragedy struck in August, when one of Codona’s partners, Louis Perez, died in a fall while performing in his perch pole act. Still, it was decided to go ahead with plans. Not even the stock market crash and the onset of the Great Depression could dissuade Codona from going ahead with the tour.
The production was a disaster from the outset. Rumors of the tour’s premature conclusion began almost before the show entered Mexico. By the time Codona’s denials of the rumors were printed in the trade papers, the show had closed. The circus never made it to Mexico City. Before the New Year, the circus was back in Laredo concluding its very short tour.
Codona claimed the show had broken even and blamed any problems on Mexican taxation. He claimed the taxmen followed the show and confiscated every cent of profit. According to everyone else, the show had lost a fortune, and the weather and the awful economic climate were the culprits. Leitzel never spoke publicly on the subject and seemed to view the entire escapade as a misadventure.
After spending the month of January in San Antonio, Leitzel spent February appearing in shrine circuses in Detroit and Austin, Texas, where Alfredo produced a very successful show that used most of the equipment from his own failed circus. By April, the couple were back with the Ringling show, the experiences with circus production in the rearview mirror.
Charles Ringling was the second youngest of the five brothers who founded the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. In the compartmentalized scheme under which the brothers operated the circus, he was the brother in charge of promotion and advertising. He spent a great deal of every season traveling with the show. Considered friendly and sympathetic and a man of his word, he was highly regarded by the cast and crew.
In 1919, after the death of Alf T. Ringling, of the original Ringling brothers, only Charles and John remained. For three quarters of a decade, until Charles’ death in 1926, the pair would steward the newly combined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. While Charles was alive, his relationship with his brother was a big part of the story of the circus in the Twenties.
Physically and emotionally, the two brothers provided quite a contrast. Where John had a powerful build, Charles had a slim build. Where John was bold, Charles was prudent. Where John was distant, Charles was approachable. Where John was feared, Charles was beloved. Charles had two children, while John was childless. The contrast proved effective in managing the circus, but it also put strains on the relationship.
Charles always seemed to be in the shadow of the larger than life John Ringling. It was John Ringling who was the face of the circus in the eyes of the public and the press. Although it was Charles who spent most of the season traveling with the show while John was overseeing his ever expanding list of interests, newspaper articles would often mention only John when ascribing responsibility for the production.
The cast members were very fond of the man they knew as Mr. Charlie. He accompanied the show for much of the season, often traveling with his wife and children in his private railroad car. He was accessible and displayed an interest in their lives. Still some thought he played favorites, and they preferred the dispassionate John, who was tough but never allowed personal feelings to influence his decisions.
Charles Ringling died in December of 1926 at age 62. At the time, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was a thriving enterprise. It would have been difficult to anticipate the hardships that would confront the show in just a few years. Decisions made by John Ringling, unencumbered by Charles’ moderating influence, left the show vulnerable at the onset of the Great Depression. In 1932, John Ringling lost control of the circus. For the first time since the Ringling Brothers had formed their circus, more than a half century earlier, a Ringling brother was not in charge of the show.
Leitzel and Charles Ringling were very friendly. It was Charles Ringling who first saw Leitzel’s potential after she joined the Ringing show in 1915. As the brother in charge of promotion and advertising, he immediately put his publicity department to work. He indulged her artistic temperament, allowed her to fashion her own act as she saw fit and put her face on posters.
Unlike his brother John, who sought to reign in Leitzel at every opportunity, Charles allowed Leitzel virtual free reign while he was overseeing the show. He understood the publicity her behavior garnered far outweighed the disruptions she often created in the show’s schedule. A local Leitzel swoon would often result in a national headline: “Lillian Leitzel Collapses in Arena.” (New York Clipper, June 8, 1924, p. 11)
It was a symbiotic relationship. In Charles Ringling, Leitzel found an ally in ownership whose promotional efforts were an integral part of the remarkable journey that so dramatically landed Leitzel in the upper echelons of American entertainment.