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By Dean Jensen. Crown. 336 pages. $26
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
There is no entertainment as mesmerizing as the circus.
Author Dean Jensen calls the circus “a church of gaiety.” His “Queen of the Air” is a portrait of Lillian Leitzel, the star celebrant in that church’s cathedral, The Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
“Queen of the Air” exceeds expectations of a biography; it functions more as a work of fiction. Certainly, the subject would be an apt one for a novel, and the author’s occasional omniscience helps create the idea that this story is more imaginary than real.
Jensen weaves together the stories of Leitzel and her third husband, trapeze artist Alfredo Codona, with the history of the circus cultures of the Americas and Europe providing a rich tapestry befitting the subject and the venue where she gained her fame.
Leitzel was the daughter of a woman whose career began with the Willy Dosta Circus, a small country group that traveled the Carpathian Mountains. Like most circuses in the 19th century, there were just a few acts who traveled by horse-drawn wagon (the horse was one of the performers). Leitzel and her younger brother were both sired by the circus owner.
Leitzel’s mother eventually joined her two sisters in an act that became a strong attraction for European circuses. Leitzel herself joined her mother and her aunts and became an aerial acrobat. Then Leitzel was recruited to perform in America.
Ringling Brothers acquired Barnum & Bailey while Leitzel was performing with “the greatest show on Earth.” She became a star whose special treatment was without precedent.
Leitzel’s spectacular performances brought her an income uncommon for the circus (and much higher than the average family income in the U.S.), her own private train car and a private tent. It also brought her the admiration of hundreds of thousands of fans — including Alfredo Codona, a young trapeze artist who, with his family, had joined Ringling Brothers.
“Queen of the Air” is the story of how these two performers, who both worked high in the big top, rose to positions of prominence in the circus world, and became the first couple of American entertainment in the early decades of the 20th century.
Jensen unveils the love story as a classic tragedy, which “might have been presented on the stage by Sophocles … complete with mischievous fates and vengeful gods.”
Jensen’s prose occasionally reveals aspects of the circus that are not glamorous. In describing Leitzel’s maid (another perquisite no other circus performer enjoyed), he says her “expression was unchanging in its dolefulness, and she had teeth that leaned every which way like gravestones in an unattended cemetery.”
The book is a wonderful portrait of the circus world at the height of its popularity and influence in America. Not only were these performers circus stars, they also helped make major motion pictures.
Alfredo Codona helped with the production of F.W. Murnau’s film “4 Devils,” about trapeze artist Fritz Checci. Codona and one of his partners, Vera Bruce (whom he married after Leitzel’s death), were vine-swinging student doubles for Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in “Tarzan The Ape Man.” Codona’s other partner, his brother Lalo, doubled for Cheeta the chimpanzee.
At the request of the Ringling brothers (especially Mr. John), Leitzel entertained prominent business magnates as the circus traveled throughout the country. She and Codona counted among their friends wealthy actor/director Harold Lloyd and his actress wife, Mildred Davis.
Wherever they traveled, Codona and Leitzel were treated as royalty. And wherever they traveled, they fought with each other. In that aspect, their lives were like the circus itself. After the show, nothing is as it seems in the big top.
I enjoyed reading “Queen of the Air” as much as I enjoy watching the circus, even though the book strips away the makeup and costumes and the other elements that make the circus magical.
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