When Alfred Pelikan invited Dean Jensen to his home for lunch, he was simply the retired director of the Milwaukee Art Institute. In the late ‘70’s, Dean Jensen was a feature writer and art critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel. He had just published a chronicle of circus history – The Biggest, the Smallest, the Longest, the Shortest, written largely on his lunch breaks at the Sentinel. Alfred Pelikan was a frequent source, and Jensen didn’t hesitate to accept the lunch invitation.
The two men had “a spirited talk about art” over a kitchen table, after which Pelikan told Jensen that he wanted to show him something. He led the writer to a private room. The walls of this room were laden with photographs and posters of a figure Jensen recognized: Lillian Leitzel, Queen of the Air, the most famed circus performer in history, an aerialist who fatally fell from her rings on Friday the 13th, 1931. On a table sat stacks of Leitzel’s personal scrapbooks and letters. Pelikan quietly revealed himself to be the tragic icon’s brother. “It was just breathtaking to experience that,” Jensen says of the experience. “It still give me goosebumps to think about.”
When Pelikan offered his trove to the writer, it seemed fate had ordained Jensen as the man who would tell Leitzel’s story.
“As a kid I never cared all that much for circuses,” Jensen admits. The Old Milwaukee Days—a massive annual circus celebration, drawing attendees upwards of 800,000—changed that. “I went crazy about it all,” he muses. “There’s an expression in the circus: ‘cutting jackpots,’ that refers to when circus people reminisce about earlier days…I would just drift off in time with them, and became simply enamored.”
But writing Lillian Leitzel’s story—which Jensen is publishing this week in his new book Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus—was not simply cutting jackpots. Jensen interviewed over 100 circus performers—contemporaries of Leitzel and her third husband, the famous trapeze flyer Alfredo Codona, who features largely in the story—and family members. By the mid-‘80’s, he had a draft.
The drama of Leitzel’s tale rivals those of the Greeks. Born under tragic circumstances to a 12-year-old circus performer mother (the also famed Nellie Pelikan), she took to the air as a toddler, and never touched down again. As the highest paid, most worshipped circus celebrity of her time, Jensen’s heroine was never sated by the love of men or her adoring public. Her rise and ultimate fall are truly of operatic proportions, but when Jensen finished his first draft, he knew that “the Leitzel and Codona story was the greatest story the circus had to tell, and this wasn’t it.” He put the manuscript in a drawer, and there it sat for 25 years.
In those intervening years, Jensen became a successful art gallerist (he still heads the eponymous gallery in Milwaukee), and wrote another book about the circus: The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins, published in 2006. But Leitzel never stopped calling to him.
In 2009, he heeded that call, for the second time, and the result of that effort is the novelistic Queen of the Air. “This time,” Jensen humbly understates, “I guess it came out a little better.”
Like the most compelling of literary characters, Leitzel is complex and contains multitudes. Alternately vulnerable, brilliant, demanding, desperate, generous, furious and mesmerizing, Jensen depicts her in prismatic dimensionality. When asked if he saw her, and all his characters, as heroes, Jensen responds emphatically: “Oh, absolutely, the most heroic figures in the circus, ever. That doesn’t mean all their qualities were heroic.”
Most scholars and lovers of art acknowledge this tension, not to mention the fact that all great artists must sacrifice some degree of happiness and safety to reach such heights. As Jensen explains, “It always astounded me that great art figures—Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matisse—thought circus artists the greatest artists.” Pausing thoughtfully, he adds, “These are people who consecrate their very beings to their calling in a way that’s different from people in any other walk of life…I see them almost as god-like. They are just superior beings somehow.”
Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir Whip Smart. She lives in Brooklyn.