The most renowned female performer of the American circus, Lillian Leitzel was born Lillian Alize Elianore in Breslau, Germany, in about 1891. Her mother, a well-known circus aerialist who was often on tour, left Lillian to be raised by her grandparents. They saw that she received a solid education that included instruction in five languages and rigorous training in music and dance. Although Lillian was being groomed for a career as a concert musician, she became more interested in learning her mother’s acrobatic tricks.
When she was about nine, Lillian joined her mother and two aunts in a circus act called “Leamy’s Ladies” after their manager. The act made its way to the United States in about 1910. Lillian’s relatives soon returned to Europe, but she decided to stay and seek her fortune as a solo performer in vaudeville. Under the stage name Lillian Leitzel, she toured with various shows before being discovered by an agent of Ringling Brothers, one of the best American circuses. She became famous soon after her debut in 1915. By 1919, when Ringling Brothers merged with its rival, Barnum and Bailey, Leitzel was the undisputed queen of the circus. Her act generally had two parts. In the first, she performed acrobatic moves on gymnasts’ rings suspended 50 feet in the air. In the second, she twirled her body around rope hanging from the center of the circus big top. She usually made as many as 100 revolutions, which the audience helped the announcer count out loud. By circus standards, the routine was not particularly difficult or dangerous. What made it a crowd-pleaser was Leitzel’s sense of the dramatic.
She demanded that she always appear in the center ring and was often escorted on stage by a large man to emphasize her own tiny 4’9” frame. And as Leitzel descended the rope at her act’s end, she frequently fell into a feigned swoon, often into the arms of a male circus performer. Her offstage antics were flamboyant as well. Ever the prima donna, she insisted on being the only performer with a private tent for a dressing room and with a private car on the circus train. They were often filled with flowers and expensive gifts from the many suitors who vied for her attention. Leitzel had three marriages, the last in 1928 to a fellow star, trapeze artist Alfredo Codona. While Leitzel was performing in Copenhagen, the rope holding one of her gymnast rings snapped, plunging her 29 feet to the ground. Two days later, on February 15, 1931, she died of her injuries. Remembered both as a graceful athlete and a larger-than-life personality, she was among the greatest performers to appear in the “Greatest Show on Earth.”
Albrecht, Ernest. “Leitzel, Lillian.” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 13, pp. 459–460. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Taylor, Robert Louis. Center Ring: The People of the Circus. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956.