Elephants and tigers are the main attractions of circuses today. But in the first half of the 20th century, aerialist performers were the big draw. And nobody was a bigger star than Lilian Leitzel, a tiny woman from the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe, who spent her entire life in the heavens of the big-top circus tent performing for adoring audiences.
Dean Jensen has a book out about Leitzel, starting from before her birth. “She was a child of another trapeze artist, her mother, Nellie Pelikan,” Jensen tells NPR’s Jacki Lyden.
Nellie was forced to work in a small traveling circus as a girl, and suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the troupe’s owner, Willy Dosta. “Nellie was two months short of her 13th birthday when she gave birth to Leitzel,” Jensen says.
Eventually, Nellie Pelikan left Dosta’s circus and became a star aerialist, touring Europe and leaving her daughter Leitzel behind for years at a time.
“Letizel wanted to be like her mother and so she worked very hard at becoming an aerialist,” Jensen says. “Ultimately, when she was about 14, 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 — similar to the rings male gymnasts use in the Olympic Games today, except much, much higher. Letizel’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. “The crowd would toll off each of these rotations.” Leitzel usually performed over 100 rotations each night; turning her body into an airplane-propeller blur.
The crowds loved Leitzel. She was a household name and subject of many newspaper and magazine articles. She died in an accident while performing in 1931, but Leitzel is remembered as the first true circus diva.
“It wasn’t just her performance, it was the force of her personality,” Jensen says. She also had this gift for making everyone in the big-top feel that she was performing just for them.”