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Lillian Leitzel, The High-Flying 'Queen' Of The Circus

Originally published on June 29, 2013 7:52 pm

In the first half of the 20th century, aerial performers — not elephants or tigers — were the big draw at circuses. And nobody was a bigger star than Lillian Leitzel, a tiny woman from Eastern Europe who ruled the Ringling Brothers circus.

"She was a child of another trapeze artist — her mother, Nellie Pelikan," says Dean Jensen, who has written a new biography of Leitzel called Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus.

Jensen tells NPR's Jacki Lyden that as a young girl, Pelikan was forced to work in a small traveling circus where she was sexually abused by the troupe's owner.

"Nellie was two months short of her 13th birthday when she gave birth to Leitzel," Jensen says.

Eventually, Pelikan left the circus and became a star aerialist, touring Europe and leaving her daughter behind for years at a time.

"Leitzel wanted to be like her mother so she worked very hard at becoming an aerialist," Jensen says. "Ultimately, when she was about 14, [she] joined her mother in an aerial troupe."

Leitzel was a star from the moment she first grabbed a trapeze bar. But her signature act was the Roman rings, which are similar to the rings male gymnasts use in the Olympics today, except much, much higher. Leitzel's act took her up into the heavens of the circus tent, often 50 or 60 feet in the air, with no net or safety features below.

"She would grasp with her right hand one of these rings, and she would throw her body out into space, doing these rotations, and her arm would actually dislocate from her shoulder," Jensen says.

He says Leitzel usually performed more than 100 rotations each night, turning her body into an airplane-propeller blur.

The crowds loved her. She was a household name and subject of many newspaper and magazine articles. Then, while performing in Copenhagen in 1931, she took a fatal plunge. She was not yet 40.

Jensen says Leitzel was a real diva.

"It wasn't just her performance, it was the force of her personality," he says. "She also had this gift for making everyone in the big-top feel that she was performing just for them."

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Nik Wallenda's extreme stunt last weekend is reminiscent of the days when circuses and highfliers traveled the country on trains from town to town and when swooping trapeze artists were the stars of the show. And nobody was more of a star than Lillian Leitzel, a tiny woman from Eastern Europe who ruled the Ringling Brothers Circus.

There's a new book out about Leitzel called "Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus." Dean Jensen is the author, and he joins me now from Milwaukee. Dean Jensen, welcome to the program.

DEAN JENSEN: Thank you very much. I'm so pleased to be here.

LYDEN: Tell us about this fabulous star who was seen by more people than any other performer of her day, including anyone who would have been on Broadway then.

JENSEN: Yeah. So Leitzel was born in Breslau, Silesia, which today is a part of Poland. She was a child of another trapeze artist - her mother, Nellie Pelikan. Nellie was traveling with this small circus, and the owner of that circus frequently assaulted Nellie. Nellie was two months short of her 13th birthday when she gave birth to Leitzel.

LYDEN: Time goes by and Nellie becomes an ever more gifted performer, eventually years later moves off to London. How does Lillian become the international star?

JENSEN: Leitzel wanted to be like her mother, so she worked very hard at becoming an aerialist. And ultimately, when she was about 14, joined her mother in an aerial troupe.

LYDEN: Could you describe Lillian Leitzel's act for us? There was one thing that she really, really became known for.

JENSEN: She worked on the Roman rings. Now, the Roman rings are simply a couple of ropes dangling from the big top ceiling. And at the bottom of these ropes are silver rings. But the tent would grow dark, and then she appeared through the backdoor. And this diagonal white column of light would hit her, and the crowd just went mad for her. She would grasp with her right hand one of these rings, and she would throw her body out into space doing these rotations. And her arm would actually dislocate from her shoulder.

If the band wasn't playing, you could actually hear this little click of her arm going in and out of her shoulder. It was almost grueling to watch. And the crowd would toll off each of these rotations.

LYDEN: What was it like to watch her? How did people feel watching Leitzel perform?

JENSEN: She was just massively adored everywhere. Her name was a household expression. She was known as Leitzel. She's one of those figures like Madonna or Beyonce of today, instantly recognizable by just one name.

LYDEN: You also follow here Leitzel's future husband, Alfredo Codona. One of the things that would get him attention is that he worked for over a decade to pull off a special feat, the triple, which is a somersault done three times. Tell us about that.

JENSEN: What Alfredo would do, he would take a few swings out in the trapeze 50 feet in the air, then release his hands from the bar and throw three backwards somersaults, tuck his body into a ball, propelling himself forward at 60 miles an hour through space. And then he would dock with his brother, Lalo, who was the catcher.

The triple was this almost mystical feat in the circus. It probably took more lives than any of the other stunts in the circus. Alfredo's father tried to dissuade him from pursuing the triple, but he carried it on and spent 10 years doing it.

LYDEN: Such great risks are taken in these acts. But ultimately, tragedy does come. What happens?

JENSEN: Well, Leitzel was performing in the Valencia Hall in Copenhagen February 1931, started doing these turnovers. When she got to probably around 20 of these, Leitzel took a fatal plunge.

LYDEN: She crashes to the ground. Leitzel's not even quite 40 when she dies. And there's all these colorful stories about her haunting the Valencia Hall.

Dean Jensen, I just want to ask you: Would Lillian Leitzel still be such a sensation if she were performing today, or are aerial gymnastics a thing of the past?

JENSEN: I think she might be. It wasn't just her performance. It was the force of her personality. She also had this gift for making everyone in the big top feel that she was performing just for them. Just an extraordinary performer and a diva.

LYDEN: Dean Jensen. He's the author of the new book "Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus." Dean Jensen, it's been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

JENSEN: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.