Circus performers were, in some ways, the punk rockers of their day, and nobody was more punk than Lillian Leitzel. Feisty, fearless, tiny and yet unbelievably talented as an aerialist, Lillian performed amazing stunts like the One-Armed Plange that no one else could do, and she did them without a net–to her ultimate demise. Her marriage to equally talented trapeze artist Alfredo Codona was the stuff of legend. Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham unveil the dark twist on their fairy tale life, which bound them even in death.
By Burt Kearns and Jeff Abraham
When it comes to female pop stars, the most confident, magnetic, demanding, and mercurial divas tend to be pocket-sized. Pink and Britney and Charo and Liza and Madonna are of the taller variety, claiming to reach five foot four; Cardi B’s but five-three; Nicki Minaj and Shakira, five foot two; Gaga, Bette and Stevie, an inch over five feet; Kylie and Paula and Ariana Grande just scrape five even. The one who tops all, though, the biggest star of her time, the one who ruled the stage and the sky? She was four foot nine on her tippy toes.
At a time when vaudeville and the circus were two of the most popular forms of entertainment, Lillian Leitzel was the biggest star in the world. To fans, she was Queen of The Air. To people who worked with her, she was one Queen Bitch. Lillian Leitzel had the worst temper and temperament of any circus performer in history, worse than Gargantua, even. But people loved her. Men loved her. One man loved her a little too much.
Lillian was born in 1892 to circus folk in Breslau, Germany. She arrived in America in 1910 as part of her mother’s aerobatic circus troupe, The Leamy Ladies. The ladies performed with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, but didn’t go over very well, so they broke up the act and returned to Europe. Lillian, though, stayed behind, and took her solo act onto the vaudeville circuit. “Lillian Leitzel, the World’s Foremost and Most Daring Aerial Star” was performing in South Bend, Indiana, when she was noticed by an agent from Ringling Brothers and offered a contract. Soon, The Aerial Wonder was the circus headliner, and when the Ringlings merged with Barnum and Bailey in 1919, the petite redhead with the sturdy shoulders and arms was the star attraction and would remain so for a dozen years.
Lillian was not a trapeze artist. She was an aerialist. She performed spectacular routines high above the ground. Her specialty was on the Roman rings — two wooden rings hanging from ropes, not unlike the rings male gymnasts flip around on in the Olympics today, only Lillian’s rings were suspended fifty feet in the air, and there was no net below. The rings routine was a wonder, but not so special compared to the highlight of her act. For the “one-arm giant plange,” Lillian would slip her right wrist into a padded rope loop attached to a swivel and ring. A drumroll would commence. Lillian would hold onto the rope with her right hand, then throw her body over her head and swing around vertically like a propeller. With each turn, the drummer would hit the cymbal and the crowd would count the turns in unison — “One! Two! Three!” – Lillian usually did at least one hundred revolutions. Her record was two hundred and forty-nine.
Lillian said her mother developed the stunt, her grandmother perfected it and that she, Lillian, was the only one who could do it more than fifty times in a row.
The One-Armed Plange was amazing! It was humanly impossible! But it wasn’t. The secret? On each turn, Lillian’s shoulder would dislocate and then pop back into place. Lillian said her mother developed the stunt, her grandmother perfected it and that she, Lillian, was the only one who could do it more than fifty times in a row. When asked if she was afraid of falling, she shrugged and said it wasn’t her worry. It was up to the men who tested the trapezes and ropes to make sure she was safe.
That may have been a reason she was often seen chewing out and cursing out the riggers and roustabouts when they got something wrong. Shouting and temper tantrums were all part of the package, and that was allowed because Lillian was the special one. She was the only circus performer who did her act alone. When she came out to perform, the circus rings were cleared, the tent went dark and a single spotlight would shine on her. Over time, she became the only performer in the circus who had her own Pullman railroad car, her own kitchen on the train, her own private dressing rooms, and her own servants and maids. She was known to scream and curse at her servants and maids.
Lillian and Alfredo
Lillian married three times. Her first husband was a prop man. In 1920, she tied the knot with a sideshow barker named Clyde Ingalls. He was six feet tall, sixteen years older and married when they began fooling around. Everyone said it wouldn’t last. It didn’t. They were divorced four years later. In 1928, at age thirty-six, she got hitched to a man she’d known for many years, and who was one of the few circus stars with abilities and fame to rival her own. At thirty-four, Alfredo Codona was the most famous trapeze performer of his generation. He was the original “Daring Young Man on The Flying Trapeze,” part of a legendary Mexican trapeze dynasty “The Flying Codonas,” and the only trapeze artist in the world to perform a triple somersault.
Alfredo shared Lillian’s giant ego and hair-trigger temper. Their shouting matches were legendary. Alfredo was a jealous man, but he was also totally smitten and dedicated to his tiny love. When Lillian performed without a net or any other safety device, her Alfredo always double-checked her rigging. He often stood beneath while she performed on the rings, ready to catch her if she fell.
Lillian and Alfredo were both in great demand during the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus off-season, and would often go their separate ways, performing with other circuses in Europe, Mexico and South America.
On Friday night, February 13, 1931, Alfredo Codona was flying through the air with the greatest of ease at the Wintergarden Theatre in Berlin, while Lillian Leitzel was starring at the Valencia Music Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark.
The hall filled with applause when the little beauty went into her act just after midnight on Saturday. She spun her way up the ropes, posed, did a pirouette and blew kisses. Then, forty-five feet above the floor, she slipped her hand into the rope loop and went into her giant flanges. What a sight. Up close, with her overdeveloped shoulders, she may have looked a bit like a troll, but from afar, from a seat in the audience, Lillian could be a fairy – or an angel — in the spotlight. The audience cheered and counted with each propeller turn. Lillian was almost through when the brass swivel on the rope broke.
Lillian plunged headlong to the floor. Her Alfredo was not there to try to catch her. She landed on her back, shoulders and head on a rubber mat. She landed hard. Women screamed. Men ran toward her. Lillian suffered a concussion and brain and spinal injuries, but as would-be rescuers surrounded her, she insisted she was all right.
“I can go on,” she said.
Lillian was taken to the hospital, where her condition seemed to stabilize later in the day. When Alfredo Codona got word of the accident, he got on a plane from Berlin to be by his wife’s side. Lillian was conscious and awake. She assured Alfredo she wasn’t seriously hurt and that she’d be all right. She insisted he return to Berlin to finish his engagement. Reluctantly, Alfredo kissed her one last time and left to return to his company.
A few hours later, around 2 AM Sunday, in the throes of delirium, Lillian Leitzel died. She was thirty-nine.
Alfredo Codona was crushed by her death. He built a seventeen-foot-tall memorial to her at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, with this epitaph:
In everlasting memory of my beloved Leitzel Codona –
Erected by her devoted husband Alfredo Codona.
The statue appears to be that of a tall angel embracing Lillian (who, incidentally, never went by the name “Leitzel Codona”) and carrying her to Heaven. A closer inspection reveals the angel to be Alfredo Codona, with wings.
The Last Thing
Alfredo Codona carried on as a performer. In 1932, he married Vera Bruce, a member of his trapeze act who was eleven years younger. He was featured in the 1932 film, Swing High, and was stunt double for Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan the Ape Man (the movie that made Weissmuller an international star) and its sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, but in 1933 he injured his shoulder while performing a triple somersault at Madison Square Garden in New York City. He spent months working toward a comeback, but the shoulder was never the same. He was forced to retire. He and Vera moved to Long Beach, California. He got a job in a garage.
The end of his career, bitterness over his new station in life and the fact that he never got over Lillian, began to destroy Alfredo’s marriage to Vera Bruce (and one might add guilt to the mix; it’s said that because of his jealousy over the attention Lillian received from other men, Alfredo began a dalliance with Vera while Lillian was still alive). The last straw came in the spring of 1937, when Vera signed on for another season of the circus. Vera said that Alfredo’s jealousy boiled over, and that he slapped her around. She left him and moved in with her mother.
Lillian suffered a concussion and brain and spinal injuries, but as would-be rescuers surrounded her, she insisted she was all right.
Charging cruelty, Vera sued for divorce on June 28, 1937. Alfredo did not contest it and she got the divorce on July 2. Vera asked for half the $34,000 community property and two hundred dollars a month alimony. On July 30, she and her mother, Annie Bruce, were set to meet her estranged husband in the law office of her attorney, James E. Patton. They were going to discuss the division of their property.
Alfredo’s friends said he was his usual cheerful self, if a bit nervous, when he headed off to the meeting. When he arrived, it was the four of them in the office. They talked for a while about splitting things. Then, Alfredo asked if he and his ex-wife could be alone for a moment, to discuss something privately. He didn’t say it in any angry or threatening manner, so the attorney rose to leave the room. Vera’s mother refused. She thought it better to stay with her daughter. Alfredo shrugged. Whatever. The attorney closed the door and left the three of them in his office.
Vera reached into her bag and took out a cigarette. As she raised it toward her lips, Alfredo lit a match and held it for her. “Vera,” he said, “that is the last thing I’ll be able to do for you.” Vera’s mother detected some sarcasm, as if he was insinuating his daughter had been ungrateful. But before anyone could respond, Alfredo’s hand went into his pocket and came out with a revolver. He fired a shot into Vera’s head.
Then, as she fell, he pumped three more shots into Vera’s body.
Annie Bruce screamed. The attorney banged on the door, trying to get in. Alfredo Codona fired a fifth shot – into his brain.
Meanwhile, private eye J.B. Worley was waiting downstairs in the lobby. He’d been hired by Alfredo to follow Vera when she left the office, to find out where she was living.
Vera died the next day in Seaside Hospital. She was thirty-two.
Alfredo Codona was dead in the attorney’s office. He was forty-three. At his request, he was buried next to Lillian Leitzel.
(BURT KEARNS & JEFF ABRAHAM’s book, The Show Won’t Go On, tells the stories of performers who died onstage. Available at Amazon.com, wherever books are sold and at TheShowWontGoOn.com)