BOOK REVIEW: 'Queen of the Air': Biography of Two of the Most Famous Aerialists in Circus History Proves Once Again That Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

Dean Jensen's "Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus" (Crown Publishing, 336 pages, illustrations, notes, index, $26.00) was published last summer, so I'm late with this review, but I have an excuse: I didn't learn about the book until I Googled myself!

Try it sometime: You may be surprised at what turns up. 

BOOK REVIEW: 'Queen of the Air': Biography of Two of the Most Famous Aerialists in Circus History Proves Once Again That Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

 

I was checking for a story I wrote during my tenure at the Los Angeles Times and I came across my name in the acknowledgements section of Jensen's wonderfully readable account  of the strange beyond belief tale of Lillian Leitzel -- the "Queen of the Air" --  and her husband Alfredo Codona, of the famous Flying Codonas aerialist troupe.

Dean Jensen acknowledged my help in securing newspaper accounts of Codona's last tragic years in Southern California, after his wife, Lillian Leitzel,  died in a performance accident in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1931.

 Dean was a colleague of mine at The Milwaukee Sentinel -- now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and a good friend. He stayed with us in the 1980s, gathering information on Codona, who lived in Long Beach, CA.

 I won't reveal the fate of Codona, retired after suffering a series of crippling accidents, and his then wife, Australian-born aerialist Vera Bruce, but it was a tragic end to both their careers.

 Lillian was born out of wedlock  in 1891 in Breslau, Germany, now Wroclaw, Poland, to a circus performer mother, Nellie Pelikan. Nellie was only 12 when she gave birth to Lillian, under circumstances that also constitute a spoiler. 

Lillian's fame as an aerialist with the Leamy Ladies and later with the "Greatest Show on Earth" -- the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus -- led to her becoming the greatest aerialist in history, known throughout the world simply as "Leitzel."

There was nothing simple about Leitzel, the most famous woman in the world, any more than there is about today's today's single-named celebrities Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher.  Separated from her mother most of her life, she quickly became more famous, which, as Jensen recounts, resulted in an estrangement that ended only a few weeks before Leitzel's death at age 40.

Tiny, beautiful Leitzel -- she was only 4-foot-ten-inches tall and weighed less than 100 pounds -- was the highest paid circus performer in the world, drawing a salary of  $1,200 a week -- when the annual income for working class families was $750 -- a year!

Like other prima donnas down to the present day, Leitzel was a difficult, complicated person, subject to mood swings as grandiose as her aerial performances. There's a lot of "A Star Is Born" about the always stormy relationship between Leitzel and Codona in Jensen's book. For one thing, Codona was extremely well paid, but never as highly paid as his wife.  "Queen of the Air" is also an excellent account of the world of circuses, including their traveling arrangements and how they criss-crossed the nation in trains with 100 or more cars.

 In her life, Leitzel had many suitors -- and three husbands -- but the movie-star handsome Codona came closest to capturing her heart.  Not surprisingly, movies were part of his life, too: After Leitzel's death, Alfredo and Vera Bruce performed the stunts for Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in the 1932 movie "Tarzan the Ape Man" filmed in Lake Sherwood, Ventura County, CA, which was one of the filming sites of the 1938 movie "The Adventures of Robin Hood." Before the Tarzan movie, Alfredo appeared in F. W. Murnau's circus film '4 Devils."

Codona was the perfect choice for these stunts because he and his brother Lalo night after night performed death-defying stunts. Alfredo was the greatest trapeze flyer that had ever lived, the only one in his time who, on a regular basis, executed the deadliest of all big-top feats, The Triple: three somersaults in midair while traveling at 60 m.p.h. The Triple -- the salto mortale, as the Italians called it --  took the lives of more aerialists than any other circus stunt.

The story of Leitzel and Alfredo and their families in "Queen of the Air" reads like a novel from a master, but it's a true story written by an author who understands circus people and what attracts them to spend their working lives in  a closed entertainment community that moves from city to city.

Dean Jensen
Dean Jensen
Photo by Tom Bamberger

About the Author

Dean Jensen is the author of three earlier books focusing on subjects from the worlds of the circus, carnivals, and the vaudeville stage. Jensen was an art critic and arts writer for The Milwaukee Sentinel (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and has received numerous awards for his writing. He now operates an eponymously named contemporary art gallery in Milwaukee.

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