All posts by lillianleitzel

Quotes of Leitzel

“If I didn’t have the sense of humor, I really don’t know how I’d get along. I laid off four weeks in Chicago and my muscles are so sore now that every move I make is torture. When I get up into the air, I think of all kinds of funny things, then I can laugh and forget all about my pains, and my act goes better. See what a wonderful thing a sense of humor is?” (1)

“Fear? When I am up so high? I am afraid, sometimes. But I tell myself I am not afraid. And then I swing. And I swing my fear away.” (2)

“I like the cheers and applause and simply live for it. When we are at the hotel I long to get back to the trapeze and commence all over again. You know it is practice makes perfect in my profession more than any other, and I hate to waste time at other things.” (3)

“I’d rather be a race horse and last a minute than be a plow horse and last forever.” (4)

When asked why people attended the circus, Leitzel answered, “They think they come to see us. But people really congregate to see each other.” (5)

“I like best to sit off in some quiet corner and watch the crowds go by. I love to study them as they pass and pick out characters and weave stories in my imagination about who they are and where they came from and what they do for a living. One of the jokes of life, I think, is that nearly all large gatherings are made up of people who simply come to see other people.
“You don’t have to go any farther than Broadway or Fifth Avenue to see them strolling aimlessly up and down. Poof! And just think – people call that life and flatter themselves that they are getting the most out of it.” (6)

When asked what she would like to do more than anything else, Leitzel answered, “Teach Piano, I often say I’m going to quit the circus and take up music.” (7)

“When I’m through performing, I forget about the circus. I love to dance and I think there’s hardly a cabaret or ballroom in town upon which my feet haven’t tripped. I studied ballet work in Petrograd, and I use it in my work on the rope. At home and on my traveling train I have radio, to which I dance.
“A performer who amuses others usually has a hard time to amuse herself. But I manage. I’m breeding dogs. I spend hours at my piano and I tear all over the surrounding country in my car. Also I nurse movie ambitions. All in all I manage to have a wonderful time while I keep in trim.” (8)

“Beauty to my mind is personality. We have all met the woman who, with false teeth and just enough of the crowning glory to keep her scalp warm, charms all with whom she comes in contact. We have met, too, the woman with that schoolgirl complexion who has perfect features and a smile that proves she is not one of the ‘four out of five’ featured in dental ads but who is altogether lacking in charm.” (9)

“I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a pair of rings or a trapeze in my room. I must have been only three years old when they first began to teach me. My father was a performer and my mother was the greatest woman aerialist I have ever seen. She was wonderful. We worked together for years.” (10)

“A woman can do anything she puts her mind to. Men get discouraged. Or mad. Or tired. Women hang on. Good gracious – how they do hang on!
“Once a woman makes up her mind to what she wants, and gets her hands on it, it doesn’t have a chance to escape – not a chance.
“Women are made to endure. They can endure much more than men can. Pain, weariness, exhaustion, discouragement – a woman snaps her fingers at them when they’re part of getting what she is after. I’ll say Kipling was right about the female of the species.” (11)


(1) Newspaper clipping in Gilbertson Orpheum Theater Scrapbook, Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries (Collection Number PA89)

(2) “Talented Lillian Leitzel ‘Miniature Marvel of Air’,” Philadelphia Evening Ledger May 8, 1919, p. 13.

(3) “Aerial Stunts Less Dangerous than Marriage. Little Polly of Madison Square Garden Says,” Rose C. Tillotson, New York World, March 31, 1908

(4) “Profiles: Star II,” Robert Lewis Taylor, New Yorker, April 28, 1956, p. 55.

(5) “Salvation for scenics,” Beth Brown, Movie Makers: The Magazine of the Amateur Cinema League, Inc., Volume 9, Number 1, January 1934, p. 30.

(6) “The Circus Girl,” L. B. Yates, The Saturday Evening Post, July 17, 1920, p. 34.

(7) “Circus Folks Are Jolly But Some Bear Burdens Under Gilded Trappings,” The Idaho Statesman, August 17, 1917, p. 2.

(8) “Mlle. Leitzel Prefers Dancing,” The New York Sun, April 16, 1924, p. 12.

(9) “A Verbal Closeup of Lillian Leitzel, Queen of Aerial Gymnasts,” Elita Miller Lenz, Billboard, April 4, 1925, pp 43, 46.

(10) “Modern Girl, Says Lillian Leitzel, Will Not Work As Her Elders Did,” Henry W. Clune, Rochester Democrat And Chronicle, November 17, 1927

(11) “Mid-Air Marvel Admits Her Own Sex Is Superior One,” Zoe Beckley, New York Telegram and Evening Mail, April 8, 1924, p. 4.

Alfredo Codona

Alfredo Codona around the age he first met Leitzel
Alfredo Codona around the age he first met Leitzel

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.

Alfredo and Victoria Codona - The Carpa Cubana Collection and the Sabino Gomez Photograph Collection. See below for details **
Alfredo and Victoria Codona – The Carpa Cubana Collection and the Sabino Gomez Photograph Collection. See below for details **

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.; : University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting The Witte Museum, San Antonio, Texas.

Hippodrome Program Page
Featuring Leitzel

Program page with the bill for the week of November 23, 1925 at the New York Hippodrome. Leitzel is featured in the spot before intermission. (Click on image to enlarge)
Program page with the bill for the week of November 23, 1925 at the New York Hippodrome. Leitzel is featured in the spot before intermission. (Click on image to enlarge)
Enlargement of the portion of the program describing Leitzel's act
Enlargement of the portion of the program describing Leitzel’s act
Program cover for the week of November 23, 1925
Program cover for the week of November 23, 1925
New York Hippodrome
New York Hippodrome


With a seating capacity of 5300 and a stage that could accommodate 1000 performers, the New York Hippodrome was a unique entertainment venue. Promoted as the largest playhouse in the world, it hosted circuses, sporting events, musical extravaganzas, operas, motion pictures and in the mid Nineteen-twenties, under the auspices of the Keith-Albee organization, vaudeville productions. It was on the Hippodrome stage where Harry Houdini once made an elephant disappear.

The building’s size made it popular with circus acts. Management at the Hippodrome were more indulgent of the spectacular physical feats that were the stock and trade of circus artists. In 1924, 1925 and 1926, Leitzel made multiple appearances at the Hippodrome. For one week’s appearance there she even played the piano onstage as a prelude to her aerial acrobatics.


1931 Leitzel Chronology

Date Venue Citiy
Month Of January 1931 Wintergarten Berlin
February 1, 1931 to
February 13, 1931
Valencia Music Hall Copenhagen

1930 Leitzel Chronology

Week of Venue City
February 3, 1930 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 10, 1930 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 17, 1930 Ben Hur Temple
Shrine Circus
Austin, Tx.
March 27, 1930 to
October 10, 1930
Appearing with
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
November 4, 1930
to December 25, 1930
Appearing at the Cirque D’Hiver in Paris


Robert Garland – Theater Critic – New York World-Telegram, Member of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle

“So I made out I had never been in love with Lillian Leitzel.

“I had though. Year after year, in Baltimore and elsewhere. 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.”(1)


Anonymous Roustabout

“It was a funny thing about Leitzel. She reversed the circus idea by always being realer than she seemed.”(2)


Hester Ringling – Daughter of Charles Ringling, friend and contemporary of Leitzel and Author of Pearls and Sawdust a one act play about Leitzel.

Leitzel “was not friends with life”(3)


Courtney Ryley Cooper – Author, Screenwriter and Circus Publicist

“This is because the circus is family, it is tradition. It is a cluster of little pieces of home life. There are few quarrels, because there is strict discipline. Until 15 years ago, it was a life of limited viewpoint and limited mentality. Then a change came about through the arrival of Leltzel, “the queen of the circus.” Through the children she taught the parents and lifted the circus to a higher level, changing its viewpoint and psychology.”(4)


Robert Lewis Taylor – Author and Columnist who wrote 1956 profile of Leitzel in the New Yorker

“Lillian Leitzel was ….. a beautiful little rag doll twirling far over our heads, charming her faithful, her smile filled with promise. Though then very young, I remember her well, for I had planned to marry her right after the matinee, but forgot it during the Wild West show.”(5)


James Michener – Author

“I am a gone nut about circuses. I’ve attended them in at least twenty different countries and have never ceased to marvel at the richness of talent on display. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey produces the classic Circus, and to see their three rings in action is something to remember. And I speak as a guy who fell in love with Lillian Leitzel when she was doing her fifty arm turns!”(6)


Edmund Wilson – Writer and Critic

Leitzel “is the freest, least self-conscious of performers, and the performer most distinguished by style.”(7)


Marsden Hartley – Artist and Essayist

“It is safe to say the acrobatic world will never see the like of Lillian Leitzel again, for there was but one Bernhardt, one Duse, one Rejane, and this little woman reserved to herself the right to be classed with such celebrities in spite of the vast difference in expression, for she will always stand out in the great starry center of the acrobatic and circus world as the central sense of the purest, clearest, widest refraction: one of the most fascinating lyric stars of the most satisfying firmaments in the field of human endeavor.”(8)


Alexander Calder – Artist

”There was a performer, Lillian Leitzel; she would come out with the light all on her and then she did a hundred flops hanging by her wrist from a wire, There was a tall man who stood by her and held her red cape. What I loved was the spotlight on her and the rest in obscurity.

“I remember going down once when she took off the leather wrist band from which she flopped and flopped, her wrist had abscesses on it. Later on when I saw her in Paris she could only do sixty flops. and finally she was killed.” He looked sad.”(9)


 Elizabeth Bishop – Poet

“I am pleased to see the articles about Lillian Leitzel – she was my ideal for years, and was really marvellous.”(10)



(1) “Great Circus at Peak of Power this Year,” Robert Garland, New York World-Telegram April 2, 1934, p. 14.

(2) “Profiles: Star II,” Robert Lewis Taylor, New Yorker, April 28, 1956, p. 47.

(3) “Play Author and Actor in Palm Tree Offerings,” Sarasota Herald-Tribune, March 27, 1955, p. 18.

(4) “Glamorous Appeal of Circus Is Revealed at Century Clubhouse,” Evening Recorder, Amsterdam, N. Y. December 13, 1935, p. 7.

(5) “Two Books that Celebrate the Greatest Show on Earth,” Ellen Hart Smith, New York Herald-Tribune, November 25, 1956, p. E4.

(6) Variety, September 24, 1975, p. 2.

(7) “The American Earthquake: A Documentary of The Twenties And Thirties,” Edmund Wilson, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979) p. 42.

(8) “A great acrobat is taken from us – In Memoriam: Lillian Leitzel,” Marsden Hartley, Marsden Hartley Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

(9) “Calder’s Circus,” Cleve Gray, Art in America, Number Five 1964, p. 25.

(10) Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose and Letters, Edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (Library of America, 2008) p. 813.

















1929 Leitzel Chronology

Month of January 1929 Appearing at the London Palladium
May 1, 1929 to
October 21, 1929
Appearing with
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
November 16, 1929
to December 31, 1929
Touring Mexico with Gran Circo Codona

1928 Leitzel Chronology

Week of Venue City
January 9, 1928 B. F. Keith’s Washington D. C.
January 16, 1928
January 23, 1928
January 30, 1928
February 6, 1928 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 13, 1928 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 20, 1928
February 27, 1928
March 5, 1928
March 12, 1928 Audubon Theater New York
April 5, 1928 to
October 27, 1928
Appearing with
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
October 29, 1928 Ritz Theater Elizabeth, N. J.
November 5, 1928
November 12, 1928
November 19, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris
November 26, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris
December 3, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris
December 10, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris
December 17, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris
December 24, 1928 Cirque D’Hiver Paris

John Ringling

johnringlingcroppedJohn 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.

1927 Leitzel Chronology

Week of Venue City
February 7, 1927 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 14, 1927 Moslem Temple
Shrine Circus
February 21, 1927
February 28, 1927
March 7, 1927
March 14, 1927 B. F. Keith’s Washington D. C.
April 12, 1927 to
November 3, 1927
Appearing with
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus
November 14, 1927 Damascus Temple
Shrine Circus
Rochester, N. Y.
November 21, 1927 Shrine Circus Philadelphia
November 28, 1927 Tigris Temple
Shrine Circus