Demanding yet demure; hot tempered, but also sweet and
thoughtful; flamboyant and yet sometimes shy and even self-conscious.
Lillian Leitzel was a circus diva of the highest regard. She ruled the
rings as well as the back lot during the golden age of The Greatest Show On Earth®.
Lillian Leitzel was born in Breslau, Germany on January 2,
1892. Leitzel's parents separated when Leitzel was very young and she
was raised by her grandparents. Christened Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan,
Lillian Leitzel took her better-known name from the Americanization of
"Alitze," her Germanic nickname meaning "Little Alice." She received a
quality education including advanced training in music, dance and
language skills. She was fluent in 5 languages. She studied the arts at
conservatories in both Breslau and Berlin and excelled at the piano. Her
instructors encouraged her and it was thought that she may one day
pursue a career as a concert pianist. Leitzel, however, had very
different ideas. In her private time, she constructed a trapeze bar for
herself and taught herself the tricks she had seen her mother and aunts
Leitzel's mother and two aunts performed in an aerial act
known as the Leamy Ladies. The Leamy Ladies trapeze act was famous
throughout Europe. Leitzel begged her mother to let her perform and her
visits with her mother eventually lead to her participation in the act.
Leitzel first came to the United States in 1908 as a member
of the Leamy Ladies, appearing with the Barnum & Bailey show during
the New York engagement that year. They returned in 1911 as a featured
act with Barnum & Bailey. At the end of the 1911 season, the Leamy
Ladies returned to Europe without Leitzel who remained in the United
States working the vaudeville circuit. It was during this time that
Leitzel honed and developed her solo Roman rings act which by then
included the one-arm planges for which she is most famous. During the
planges, Leitzel would separate her shoulder and throw her entire body
over her shoulder again and again. It was not uncommon for Leitzel to do
100 revolutions during a performance. All the while, audiences would
count out loud as Leitzel would flip over and over,
"....96....97...98...99...100!" Leitzel's record was an amazing 249
revolutions! Audiences loved her.
In November, 1914, while performing in South Bend, Indiana,
a booking agent with Ringling Bros. Circus saw her act and offered her a
contract on the spot. The 4 foot 9 inch, 95 pound Leitzel made her solo
Big Top debut on April 17, 1915 at the Coliseum in Chicago. Leitzel was
a Ring 2 headline performer from the outset where she remained
throughout the rest of her life.
Leitzel was a featured performer with Ringling Bros. in
1915, 1916 and 1918, moving to the headline spot with Barnum &
Bailey for the 1917 season. After the shows combined in 1919, Leitzel
was considered the premier personality through 1930. Her astounding
feats of strength and grueling endurance wowed Circus audiences
Out of the spotlight, Leitzel was the first performer in
history to command her own private Pullman car completely furnished with
her own baby grand piano. Her quick temper was legendary. It was not
uncommon to witness Leitzel cursing or slapping a roustabout who did not
adjust her rigging exactly to her liking. Further, Leitzel was known to
fly off the handle and fire and rehire her personal maid, Mabel
Cummings several times a day. In sharp contrast, it was the same hot
tempered prima donna who was known to the children on the show as
"Auntie Leitzel" and who would hold birthday parties for her fellow
performers in her private dressing tent.
She was courted by many men who showered her with expensive
gifts. In 1920, Leitzel briefly married a Ringling executive by the
name of Clyde Ingalls. They divorced just four years later. Shortly
after the breakup, Leitzel found her one true love in another hot
tempered circus performer, legendary trapeze flyer, Alfredo Codona.
Codona had made a name for himself in his family's small Mexican circus
before becoming a top star with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®.
Codona and Leitzel carried on a tumultuous romance plagued with
jealousy, screaming matches and many, many breakups and reconciliations.
Friends on the back lot said they were made for one another. The two
were married on July 20, 1928 in Chicago -- that is, once Leitzel
finally showed up at the church. Leitzel kept Codona standing at the
altar for a solid three hours awaiting her arrival. She made it clear
who was in charge in her marriage.
Leitzel and Codona were tireless performers, even
scheduling engagements during the Circus' winter break. During one of
these breaks, on February 13, 1931 Leitzel was performing at Valencia
Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Codona at Winter Garden in Berlin.
Shortly after midnight, Leitzel finished up her Roman rings presentation
and ascended into the air to begin her infamous one-arm planges. On
that night, the brass swivel on the rope crystallized and broke. She
fell over 20 feet to a hard, concrete floor. She suffered a concussion
and spinal injuries in the fall, but doctors were confident she'd
recover. Codona rushed to her side. She insisted she was fine and urged
Codona to return to Berlin to finish his engagement. She boarded a train
with him and the pair headed back to Berlin when she died 2 days later
at 2:09am, Sunday, February 15th.
Alfredo Codona was devastated by her death. He went on to
remarry another aerialist named Vera Bruce, but their marriage was a
miserable one. Distraught and unsettled, Codona became increasingly
reckless in his act and finally suffered a bad fall as a result. Doctors
informed Codona that the torn ligaments in his shoulder would prevent
him from ever performing again and "grounded" him in 1937. The stress of
Leitzel's passing and the end of his circus career drove Codona to
desperate measures. While discussing divorce proceedings in Vera Bruces
attorney's office, Codona asked if he could speak to his estranged wife
in private. The attorney obliged and as the door closed behind the
attorney, Codona pulled a pistol from his coat pocket and shot Vera
Bruce before turning the gun on himself.
Leitzel is probably the first -- and certainly one of the
most enduring -- circus luminaries of all time. Her celebrated life,
tragic death and enduring legend haunts the circus world even today. She
commanded top billing longer than any other circus performer in history
and truly earned her position as Queen Of The Air.