Dear Constant Reader,
I recently received an advance reviewer’s copy of a new book, available in June. Since it’s about the circus, which is one of those topics sort of related to burlesque, I thought I would tell you a little about it.
Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus by Dean Jensen (2013).
Born in 1891, Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan was destined to be a circus performer. Her grandparents and father ran small traveling circuses in Eastern Europe and her mother was a star trapeze artist. She began performing on the trapeze as a child and soon rose to stardom, as “Leitzel, Queen of the Air”, performing throughout Europe and for the Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey circus in America.
She performed on the trapeze, but her claim to fame was the Roman rings. Her specialty was one-armed planges: using a single ring for support, she would rock her body back and forth until she could fling her legs over her head, making a complete revolution around her right arm. Despite dislocating her shoulder with every flip she would execute a hundred or more at every show.
Alfredo Codona was also born into a circus family, in Mexico. He was also a trapeze artist, but as a flyer. When his sister, Victoria, a tight- and slackrope walker, was noticed and hired by The Ringling Brothers in 1909, Alfredo came along as a bonus. At 16 Alfredo was stunningly handsome, but he only had eyes for the diminutive Leitzel. She only let him court her clandestinely for the season and they went their separate ways.
Possibly to win over Leitzel, Alfredo became obsessed with perfecting The Triple, 3 somersaults in a row. This move, known as the Salto Mortale, had killed many trapeze flyers, but he refused to give up. It took him ten years to finally conquer it and it brought him stardom.
In 1928 the two great aerialists married. As the book promises, theirs was a turbulent story of love and tragedy, which I will not spoil.
The book alternates between the lives of the two performers, as they were only together late in their careers, which creates a bit of a disjointed narrative. Although the author based the book on interviews with people who knew the two personally, many details are so vivid that I suspect a fair amount of fictionalization. I found the book as a whole to be a little weak. However, I’m still interested in reading the author’s previous work, The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins.
There are only four photographs in the ARC, although, according to the publishing information, there will be 27 black & white photos in the final book. I can’t complain too much about the lack of illustration as the book cost me nothing and I got to read it months before the masses.
So, where’s the burlesque? Allow me to tell you.
It involves Leitzel’s mother, who has a pretty tragic story of her own. Nellie Pelikan was an equestrienne and acrobat in her family’s circus from the time she was five years old. Her family fell on hard times and she was “apprenticed” (really, sold) to Willie Dosta, a Scottish strongman with a single-wagon circus. He employed the twelve-year-old Nellie for one season before returning her to her family heavily pregnant.
Just weeks after she gave birth to Leitzel, Dosta came back to take Nellie for another tour and he trained her to be a trapeze artist. As La Belle Nellie, the aerialist, she was a hit, bringing fame and fortune to the tiny circus. After her third tour, playing ever bigger and better venues, Dosta returned her to her family to deliver a son. Shortly thereafter, she was freed from this abuse, but I’ll let you read about that yourself.
After years of stardom under the big top, La Belle Nellie reinvented herself as “Zoe, the Aerial Venus”. She entered with a lace parasol which was then suspended from the ceiling. Hanging from the handle by her teeth, she disrobed completely (or maybe to fleshings). With this act, she played all the best circus theatres in Europe and even had an extended engagement at Coney Island. I’m hoping her picture might be among the ones missing from my copy.
I’m recommending this for aerialists and circus buffs who really should know the story of these two great aerial performers. If you’re just in this for the burlesque, don’t sweat it.