Glamour and Scandal under the Big Top
Without a doubt Lillian Leitzel was the most spectacular and renowned artist ever to appear with any circus anywhere. Her fame far exceeds anything any other circus performer achieved even during the circus’ so-called Golden Era. As such the details of her life both in the air above the hippodrome track of the big top and in her private life which are generally known make one eager to learn more about this extraordinary personality. No wonder it was an unfulfilled ambition of author Dean Jensen that took almost thirty years to achieve. He had written the first draft of her story and its intersection with that of Alfredo Codona in 1980, but was dissatisfied with the effort and put it aside until 2009.
By that time he could have consulted Tiny Kline’s memoir edited by Janet M. Davis, which was published in 2008. Although Jensen’s work, Queen of the Air was published in 2013, either he choose to ignore Kline’s work or was unaware of its existence. Too bad. Tiny Kline was a personal witness to much of Leitzel’s and Codona’s story and was on relatively intimate terms with each, and even more so with her maid Mabel Clemings, who provided, by way of Kline’s memoir, even more insight into the major characters of this drama.
As we might have guessed from reading any circus history neither of the book’s central characters is particularly admirable beyond their exploits in what the author likes to refer to as “the canvas cathedral.” Both are pathologically self-centered individuals who could also be at time extravagantly generous, at least in terms of worldly possessions, rather than professional courtesies. Both were also exceptionally needy when it came to sex and emotional relationships, setting them on paths destined for tragic ends.
Whereas Kline’s memoir is straightforward in its narration, avoiding the melodramatic, Jensen’s prose does get rather florid if not downright purple at times. The details of certain aspects of the lives of both Leitzel and Codona certainly invite such exaggeration. It more or less comes with the territory, especially given the nature of the protagonist (There are despite the title, actually two protagonists, Leitzel and Alfredo Codona.) At times the prose sounds like press-agentry, which sometimes makes it difficult to know for sure how truthful it is. We are often told of Five minute ovations, which is somewhat difficult to believe. Try clapping your hands together for five minutes. Your mitts will be raw meat.
Overall Jensen’s style vacillates between academic biography and the prose style employed in pulp fiction reaching, whenever opportunity presents itself, as it often does, for the lurid detail as in “Alfredo fired four slugs.” This is lingo straight out of cheap detective fiction.
One of the most troubling aspects of the text is that it describes a portion of Leitzel’s act, performed on a trapeze bar in the early portion of her act, which no other eye witness account makes note of. So where did this come from?
For details of Leitzel’s early life and familial relationships, Jensen relies a great deal on the recollections of Alfred Pelikan, Leitzel’s younger brother. The problem with this is that he was often absent from both his mother’s and his sister’s lives for long periods of time and had only the most tenuous relationship with either, rendering his contributions as more conjecture than fixed memories.
At times Jensen must also delve into conjecture himself, dabbling in innuendo: Referring to the man who raped Leitzel’s mother he writes, “There may have been another reason for the growing closeness Nellie began to feel for Willy.”
There are other problems with the text that make taking it seriously somewhat difficult. The footnoting system is hopelessly unhelpful, so unique as to be nothing short of idiosyncratic. He puts his Acknowledgements at the end of the book instead of its normal position in the beginning.