Born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan Eleanore in Breslau Germany in 1892, Lillian Leitzel's maternal family was steeped in circus history. Her grandmother was a trapeze artist, performing into her 80's, as were her mother and two of her aunts. Her uncle, Adolph Pelikan was also a well known clown. It came as no surprise then that by the time she was 14 she too had joined her family's trade, touring Europe and then the U.S. in 1910 with Barnum and Bailey. When her family returned to Europe, however, Lillian elected to stay in the United States in hopes of making a name for herself.
Her first solo appearances were not under the big top, but in vaudeville, and not long after her first performance she was, indeed catapaulted to stardom, but not in the manner she'd expected. Early in her vaudeville career, Leitzel suffered a fall that injured both of her legs. What would have detered another performer instead galvanized Leitzel and she insisted on returning to work, walking around on crutches and being carried to the web where she ascended to the roman rings. This dedication soon garnered her the admiration of vaudeville audiences, earning her the title "the world's most daring aerial star."
Eventually her vaudeville success drew the attention of the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1915. There she would go on to become one of Ringling's star performers during it's golden age after its merger with Barnum and Bailey's and she frequently made sure others knew just how big a star she was. Famous for her hot temper, she was well known for berating and even slapping roustabouts who did not adjust her rigging to her liking. She traveled in a private pullman car, the only circus star of the age who could make such a demand (as well as the only one who performed her act alone) and had a personal maid whom she reported fired and rehired often multiple times a day. Yet despite her reputation, she was also well known for her kindness towards children on the show and to many of her fellow performers, earning her the nickname "Auntie Leitzel" among the youngest members of the cast.
Leitzel's signature act in the circus was the one armed plange, a near vertical rotation from a swiveling loop attached to a rope which required her with each rotation to partially dislocate her shoulder and pop it back into place before doing it again on the upswing, the audience counting her rotations as she went. Her reported record was 249. Leitzel's performance was so popular, she often extended her act in spite of the other performers waiting to go on if she had an especially receptive audience.
Leitzel married three times in her brief life, first to an unknown stage hand and then to side show manager and ring announcer Clyde Ingalls. Both marriages ended in divorce, her second spectacularly so, the final straw for Ingalls, long jealous of the attention Leitzel received from other men coming when a prominent Chicago man threw a party for her that featured a mermaid swimming in champagne, a gold plated statue of Leitzel, and a gift of a diamond tiara.
Leitzel finally met her match in more ways than one in her third husband, fellow aerialist and trapeze artist Alfredo Codona. Though plagued with arguments, screaming matches, breakups and reconciliations, their marriage lasted until Leitzel's death in 1931. In February of that year, the couple were touring Europe, Leitzel in Denmark and Codona in Germany when the swivel ring on Leitzel's planges equipment snapped due to fatigue. Leitzel fell 20 feet, suffering a concussion and spinal damage. Codona rushed to her side from Germany but Leitzel managed to convince him that she would pull through and insisted that he return to Berlin to finish his tour. Two days later, she died from complications from the fall.
Codona, heartbroken had a massive 17 foot tall memorial entitled "Reunion" depicting the two aerialists, a winged Codona catching his wife, erected in Inglewood, California where he interred her ashes. Codona would go on to remarry, to Vera Bruce, another aerialist. When Bruce sued for divorce in 1937, Codona shot first her, and then himself in her lawyer's office, leaving behind a suicide note stating that he was "going back to Leitzel, the only woman who ever loved me." He was later buried next to Leitzel's ashes in Inglewood.
Fortunately, footage of Lillian Leitzel's act is still available to us. Today, aerial arts has enjoyed a thriving resurgence, especially with the modern prevalence of animal free shows like Cirque Du Soleil that often put greater focus on their human performers and many cities play host to aerial schools. Here in southern Michigan the Detroit Fly House and Ann Arbor Aviary (where I'm currently taking an introduction to static trapeze course) offer a number of aerial and circus arts classes for the taking. Purposely dislocating your shoulder as part of an act, however, his generally discouraged.