The High Flying Lillian Leitzel

Better known as Queen of the Air, Lillian Leitzel stunned audiences with her impressive aerial tricks. During her career, Leitzel was the headline act longer than any other circus performer in history. Today, let’s take a look at the life of the Queen of Air.

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Photo: NPR

Lillian Leitzel was born on January 2nd, 1892 in Breslau, Germany. At a very young age, Leitzel’s parents separated. Leitzel’s father, Edward J. Eleanore, worked as a theatrical empresario after he finished serving in the Hungarian army. Edward was a very cold and demanding father, often treating his children as if they were troops. Leitzel and Edward never quite got along, over the years the two grew apart and Leitzel stopped speaking about him as she got older. Elinor Nellie Pelikan, Leitzel’s mother, worked as a trapeze artist until she was 84 years old.

Born into the performance world, Letizel taught herself trapeze tricks. At the age of nine, she began traveling with her family while they performed with the Leamy Ladies. Craving the stage, Leitzel was finally able to convince her mother to let her perform. She soon joined the act and began upstaging nearly every one of her family members.

In 1911, the Leamy Ladies tour moved to the United States. Unfortunately, this act never quite caught the attention of American audiences. While the rest of her family returned home, Leitzel decided to stay and pursue her career. She began her career by working in a New Jersey nightclub. With the hopes of catching the eye a New York producer, her second night of work went horribly wrong. After falling and landing on both knees, Leitzel was completely bruised and her legs were even sprained. However, the determined Leitzel didn’t let her injury get the best of her. The next night she was back on the stage in order to complete her act.┬áIt wasn’t long until a New York producer offered her a job and she became known as “Lillian Leitzel, the World’s Foremost and Most Daring Aerial Star.”

In 1914, Lillian Leitzel caught her big break. After being spotted by a Ringling Brother agent, Leitzel was offered a job. Ringling Brothers offered her a hefty $250 dollars per week to perform in addition to a plethora of perks. Her debut for the Ringling Brothers was on April 17th, 1915 in Chicago. As soon as the Ringling Brothers merged with Barnam and Bailey, Leitzel became their headline performer.

Leitzel’s act was unlike any other at the time. There were no safety nets while she performed, adding a sense of danger to her routine. Leitzel is famous for perfecting the “plange.” A “plange” is an aerial move that would require Leitzel to swing her body around and create a verical propeller motion. Usually, Leitzel would aim for 150 turns, however, the highest she ever got to was 249 turns.

Leitzel was married three times throughout her life. Her first marriage remains a mystery because it didn’t last very long. However, her second marriage was to a man named Clyde Ingalls. Ingalls worked as a an announcer and side show manger. The two were married in 1920. Ingalls struggled to keep his head above water while he was married to Leitzel. Financially, he could support her. Socially, he couldn’t handle the attention that Leitzel received from her fans, particularly men. In 1942, Ingalls filed for a divorce.

It was in 1928 that Leitzel married her third husband. Alfredo Codona, also known as the “King of the Trapeze,” was the love of Leitzel’s life. Despite how much they loved each other, the couple was constantly fighting.

While the Ringling Brothers took a break, Leitzel and her husband would often spend their time performing in vaudeville shows. On February 13th, 1931, Leitzel and Codona were scheduled to perfrom at the Valencia Music Hall in Denmark. That night, Leitzel performed her ring act perfectly. Unfortunately, once she began her plange routine, one of the rings broke during her act. She fell over 20 feet to the ground. Leitzel’s fall caused her to land on her shoulders and back, causing a number of injuries. Suffering from spinal injuries and a concussion, Leitzel was miraculously still conscious. She was immediately rushed to the hospital and on February 15th 1931, Leitzel passed away.

Lillian Leitzel lived her life in the sky. Her act impressed audiences around the world. Lillian Leitzel will always be remembered as the Queen of the Air.