Leitzel, also known as Lillian Leitzel, was the world's biggest circus celebrity back in the 1910s and '20s, when circus performers still were celebrities. (Apologies to fans of Siegfried and Roy.) Her claim to fame was her rope act: she would dangle from a loop attached to a rope high above the audience, and then she would flip her entire body over her head. She did this by dislocating her shoulder; if there wasn't music playing, you could hear a click as it slipped in and out of its socket. At every performance—and the circus had two shows every day—she would do more than 100 flips at one time.
Leitzel was tiny—four feet nine inches tall, 95 pounds—and beautiful. Her romantic life was active, to put it diplomatically (she had a predilection for older gentlemen who were generous with gifts), but her great love was her third husband, Alfredo Codona, a dashing trapeze artist. They first met as teenagers in 1909 in Chicago when both were performing with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, she as part of the headlining act with her mother and aunts, he as an extra, but they didn't marry for nearly two more decades, after he became of the few people to master the triple somersault and was nearly as famous and well paid as she was. (The ceremony was in 1928, also in Chicago, and Leitzel kept Alfredo waiting at the altar for three hours.)
The marriage was, of course, passionate and tempestuous, and it ended tragically in 1931 when the ring on Leitzel's rope gave way during a performance in Copenhagen and she fell 20 feet onto a concrete floor; she died two days later. Codona remarried, unhappily, suffered several falls of his own, and ended up shooting his wife in the lawyer's office the day the divorce became final and then turning the gun on himself.
Great stuff, right? Jensen had impeccable sources, too. One of them, Alfred Pelikan, Jensen had known for years as the director of the Milwaukee Art Institute. It wasn't until after Jensen had quit his job as an arts reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and Pelikan invited him to his house for lunch that Jensen learned that Pelikan was also Leitzel's brother, and had a roomful of photos and press clippings about her.
"I could almost hear the blood splashing in my veins," Jensen recalls. "He said, 'If you want to do the story of my sister, this is all yours to work with."
Thus Jensen learned the story of Leitzel's early life, how she'd been born into a circus family in 1891 in Breslau, Silesia (now Wrocław, Poland). Her mother, Nellie Pelikan, had been sold—or "apprenticed"—at the age of 12 to a traveling circus run by a Scotsman named Willie Dosta. Dosta taught her tumbling, trick riding, and trapeze. He also raped her repeatedly; Leitzel (given name Leopoldina Alitza) was born a month before Nellie's 13th birthday. Astonishingly, Nellie's parents sent her back on the road with Dosta for several more seasons; Alfred arrived two years after Leitzel.
Nellie eventually moved on to better circuses and earned enough to move the entire family to London and give Alfred the sort of education that would result in his becoming the director of the Milwaukee Art Institute. Leitzel, however, joined her mother in the circus as soon as she was old enough. Nellie was more of a rival than a mentor, and Leitzel went solo when the family act broke up in 1911. Sometime around then (no one is quite sure), she mastered her rope trick. Within ten years she was the highest-paid circus performer in the world.
Jensen also interviewed Alfredo Codona's sister, Victoria, who told him about Codona's early years performing in the family circus in Mexico and his ten-year struggle to master the triple. He traveled to Florida where circus performers, like everyone else, go to retire and talked to people who had known Leitzel and Codona at Ringling Bros. Then he sat down to write.
"I worked too fast," Jensen says. "I wasn't ready to tell it. At the end, I hated the damned thing. It was so dull and academic. The story of Leitzel and Codona is the best story the big top had to tell, and I blew it."
He put it away and thought he'd try again in a few months or a year. Instead 30 years passed. He opened an art gallery. He wrote a book about the conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. It did well. He thought he'd take another crack at the Leitzel book.
"I still hated it," he says. But amazingly, he hadn't thrown any of his research materials away. He still had the clippings and the hours of taped interviews, so he sat down to write again. This time he tried a more narrative style, with scenes and interior monologues none of his interview subjects could possibly have been privy to, but which might have happened. (These, unfortunately, are some of the book's most melodramatic moments: "The train started moving out of the station. Leitzel's anxiousness may have risen. For a long time, she had felt a need to fall into the arms of someone whom she had not seen in years . . . ") This time he was satisfied with the result.
In Queen of the Air, Jensen attempts to re-create the magic of Leitzel and Codona's acts, and what it cost them. Leitzel's wrist was a constant infested sore where the rope rubbed against it, and she had to inject caffeine into her shoulder to ease the pain of the constant dislocation. Codona sometimes felt he was accompanied by an evil spirit when he performed. He once tried to describe it to a reporter from the Saturday Evening Post:
The mind seems to let go, to refuse any longer to hold to the terrific burden of concentration placed on it. It's like a sharp knife stuck suddenly against a set of tightly drawn strings. The parting comes in a dozen different directions. The performer sprawls hopelessly, all thought of his truck departed. And, of course, he fails. Why it happens, or how it happens, a performer rarely knows.
Queen of the Air is at its best at moments like this, when Jensen goes deepest into the circus world. He admits he was lucky that he'd met Alfred Pelikan and that Pelikan and Leitzel's contemporaries were still alive and willing to be interviewed. Pelikan died in 1987.
"It would be impossible for anyone to stitch together the story today," he says. "I have an abiding sadness that [Pelikan] never got to see the book. I would like to know if I got that world right."
Dean Jensen will be discussing Queen of the Air on Tue 6/18 at 7 PM at Revolution Brewing (2323 N. Milwaukee) and on Wed 6/19 at 6:30 PM at the Book Stall at Chestnut Court (811 Elm, Winnetka).