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A Love Triangle in a Three-Ringed Circus: Jensen Reveals the Troubled Circus Entertainers

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Saved papers, posters, and pictures found in one family’s basement became another man’s treasures.

As Dean Jensen was visiting friend Arthur Pelikan, the director of the old Milwaukee Art Institute, at Pelikan’s house, Pelikan invited him downstairs to see something. On the wall, he saw posters and artifacts relating to a project he was researching: Lillian Leitzel, a circus performer.

As Jensen stood there, Pelikan leaned over and whispered “Leitzel was my sister.”

Pelikan allowed Jensen to use any of the information he could find with these artifacts and it opened up for more connections to the circus world of the early 20th Century. The manuscript for the book stayed tucked away for nearly decades until recently when Jensen decided to bring it back out again and edit it to his satisfaction.

Jensen’s book, Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus, describes the drama of love and tragedy that was found under the big tents of the circus. Circuses were, according to Jensen, a big event back in the early 20th century, especially for those who lived in rural areas.

“It was an opportunity for people back then for a rural audience to see things that were otherwise had not been available to them,” says Jensen.

What was not seen was the love affairs between the performers. Leitzel, the circus diva, stood at 4’9” and weighed 94-pounds. She was known for flanges, where she would dangle from the Roman Rings, and dislocated many body parts while doing so.

Credit NPR
Dean Jensen's new book, Queen of the Air.

Alfredo Codona, a circus performer from Mexico, was the greatest flier of all time. He was known for “The Triple,” where he swung from the bar, did three somersaults in the air while traveling at 60 miles per hour, and then dock with the catcher. 

Leitzel and Codona left their spouses and married each other. The marriage itself was full of ups and downs; most of the troubles could be pinned on the circus management:  

“Leitzel was such an adored figure that the circus would arrange assignations between Leitzel and judges and mayors and others in the other world that the circus thought it would be helpful to the circus,” says Jensen.

Codona left Leitzel for his new act partner, Vera Bruce, and also had a rocky marriage.

All three had a tragic fate ahead of them. Leitzel fell to her death during a performance on February Friday the 13th. Codona , deeply affected by Leitzel’s death, went off the edge during a fight with Bruce that he killed her and then killed himself.

Behind many entertainers, there has been a sense of darkness. These performers were no exception.