Before pop stars and influencers, the world had Lillian Leitzel, the most famous woman at the turn of the 20th century. The tiny acrobat was the biggest star—and diva—of the biggest circus. But the higher the Queen of the Air rose, the harder she fell. Literally and figuratively. Leitzel’s life, including her tragic love story and dark end, seemed written in the stars.
On January 2, 1892, in Germany, Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan came into the world—with showbiz running through her veins. Performers filled every branch of her family tree, including a trapeze star mom and theater performer father. But Nellie and Edward handed Leitzel off to her grandparents, who provided an incredible education. Everyone expected—and wanted—her to become a concert pianist. Leitzel had other plans.
Like a siren, the circus called to Leitzel. The 11-year-old joined the Leamy Ladies, her mother Nellie’s aerobatic circus troupe. Leitzel and Nellie were both optimistic. You see, they were more like strangers than mother and daughter. They had high hopes that the common ground (or air) would bring them closer. It only tore them apart.
Leitzel wasn’t supposed “to do anything up there but sit pretty”. Nellie was supposed to be the star. Keyword: supposed to. But they were in for a surprise. Leitzel astonished the crew—and angered Nellie—the moment her prepubescent hands grasped the bars.
Terrified onlookers watched as Leitzel rose until she was five stories in the air. They shrieked when Leitzel slipped and plummeted towards the ground.
Leitzel was falling backward, but somehow caught the bar as it swung back to her, hung upside down, and got back onto her perch. While onlookers panicked, she remained cool as a cucumber. Leitzel amazed everyone but her mom. Nellie berated her “Peacock!...I’ll be the star a while longer if you don’t mind”. Turns out, Leitzel did mind: she wanted to be a star. No one—not even her mom—could stop her.
Before Leitzel’s debut, Nellie ordered her daughter not to take any attention away from her. Leitzel agreed, and Nellie basked in the audience’s adoration. But then Leitzel interrupted her moment to perform a gravity- and death-defying stunt. The now-silent audience watched in awe and terror as she absolutely nailed it.
They gave Leitzel a standing ovation that was longer and louder than anything Nellie ever received. The cherry on top was Leitzel casually pulling out a huge piece of gum and chewing it. The audience ate it up. Nellie? Not so much.
After this show, Nellie hunted Leitzel down—only to find her surrounded by fawning circus executives. They told Nellie that she’d birthed the greatest child star. In public, she put on a brave face. But in private, Nellie fell apart. She told friends her daughter was: “Always the show-off. The big star. Always trying to take over the audience as though it were there for her alone… She makes me feel so bad. She wants to take away everything that is mine. My own daughter, and I put her in the act”.
Clearly, this budding family feud was not going to end well.
Lillian Leitzel and her mother lived and worked together, but couldn’t have been more distant. The pair remained strangers thanks to Nellie’s jealousy and Leitzel’s ambition. When the circus traveled to the United States, the American dream turned out to be an American disappointment. Then, when everyone else returned to Europe, Leitzel stayed behind, intent on turning this dream into reality.
Lillian Leitzel was many things, but satisfied wasn’t never one. She hustled until she became a renowned acrobat at only 18. But it wasn’t enough. Certain she was destined for more, Leitzel continued perfecting her craft and chasing her dreams. Specifically, Leitzel was set on the Ringling Circus, the biggest circus and the greatest show on Earth. But first, destiny had other plans.
Enter, Alfredo Condona. He was a 16-year-old Mexican trapeze artist hailing from a family of performers. Alfredo was also a newcomer and a nobody. This didn’t stop him from falling madly in love with the 18-year-old Leitzel, the most unattainable girl in the circus. Leitzel didn’t spare Alfredo a second glance…until she noticed something about him.
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Leitzel realized all the girls wanted Alfredo—not that he had eyes for anyone but her. But while Alfredo wanted forever, Leitzel wanted a secret fling. After all, she had countless suitors and they would have to go their separate ways in just over a month. Leitzel told Alfredo that perhaps they’d cross paths one day—yet it didn’t help his uncontrollable sobbing.
Alfredo was heartbroken but determined. He vowed to become a legend worthy of Leitzel.
While Alfredo fell apart, Leitzel’s career fell into place. When a Ringling Brothers agent offered her a contract, she played it cool, and informed him “You’re late”. But Leitzel couldn’t keep up the act after they offered everything she’d dreamed of: $250 a week, star billing, the promise of national fame, the biggest audiences, and even more. This was unheard of for a new performer, but boy did Leitzel earn it.
Sure, Lillian Leitzel had skill—but her act also had plenty of thrilling danger. She performed on rings and ropes suspended from the ceiling without safety nets. Her signature move was the plange, where she held the rope with one arm while rotating her entire body like a propellor. The astonished audience wondered how could the human body do it? Turns out, it couldn’t.
While Leitzel was an incredible athlete who made it look effortless, the human body just wasn’t made for this. With every turn, she dislocated her shoulder, then snapped it back into place. Ouch. It gets even worse: the rope sliced her wrists with every movement and left infected wounds that could’ve led to amputation. The cherry on top? Leitzel did this twice a day. Every day. Was it worth the price?
Maybe. After all, the most famous woman in the world wasn’t a queen, it was the Queen of the Air. She performed live in front of tens of millions of people—more than anyone at the time. Thousands of men fighting in WWI even voted her as “The most beautiful and attractive woman in all the world,” above Mary Pickford, Mae West, and Theda Bara. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of this got to her head.
Lillian Leitzel wasn’t even five feet tall, but she was a huge diva. When Charles Ringling had the nerve to put her in the shared train car, her reaction was outrageous. Leitzel refused to work. And just like that, she became the first performer to have her own train car—with a grand piano, of course. Her bulldogs Boots and Jerry ate filet mignon, cooked medium rare. But she’d crossed the line into bully territory.
In the circus ring, Leitzel was legendary for her acrobatics. But behind the scenes, she was legendary for her temper. She regularly cursed out or even slapped circus workers who didn’t meet her standards. And her staff got the worst of it, including Mabel, her personal maid—who was also her personal punching bag.
Leitzel fired and rehired Mabel multiple times every day. But this prima donna had a secret side.
To the children in the circus, Leitzel wasn’t a renowned acrobat or a temperamental diva. She was just “Auntie Leitzel,” the adoring woman who gave them gifts and birthday parties. She even set up a free school in her private train car and personally taught them five days a week. Perhaps this hidden soft side explained why so many suitors—many rich, powerful, and famous—wanted her.
It seemed like every man who was somebody wanted to meet Leitzel, but no one could predict her response. When magnate Henry Ford showed up with flowers, she made him wait before finally opening the door. Leitzel wasn’t supposed to have men stay the night, but she never cared about what she was supposed to do and wasn’t about to start now.
Colonel H Maxwell Howard was 25 years older, and married—but he was also a multimillionaire. Whether Leitzel felt love, lust, or dollar signs at first sight is anyone’s guess. Howard visited her often, and rumors of a secret affair spread like wildfire. It didn’t help that he lavished her with expensive gifts including a Central Park apartment, stocks, jewelry, and furs. Nothing could stop Leitzel from seeing Howard. Not even her own marriage vows.
Leitzel’s first marriage remains a mystery—but her second marriage was a public trainwreck. In 1920, she married Clyde Ingalls, a minor circus employee who was six feet tall, 16 years older, and already married when they first hooked up. To make matters worse, Clyde was jealous, insecure, and always asked for money. But Leitzel was far from perfect herself.
How you get them is how you lose them. When it came to his marriage to Lillian Leitzel, Clyde Ingalls quickly made a disturbing realization. She expected him to accept her seeing other men, including Howard. She even described her dream man: “He must be ever there, waiting for my commands…my wishes must be his law…and make allowances for my fits of temper and unreasonableness”. People said the newlyweds wouldn’t last. They were right.
For Leitzel’s marriage to Clyde, the straw that broke the camel’s back was a random party. An athlete threw Leitzel a fête featuring a gold statue of her—but it gets worse. The sports star gave everyone $50, but Leitzel got a diamond tiara. Just like that, Leitzel and Clyde’s three-year “marriage” was over. Both of them didn’t waste any time before moving on.
Poor little Alfredo came back—only he wasn’t so poor or little anymore. 12 years later, he was almost Leitzel’s equal in fame, wealth, and talent. After perfecting the dangerous and infamous triple somersault, Alfredo earned the title “King of the Trapeze”. The Queen finally met her King—except she had no idea. But boy, did Alfredo know.
Leitzel and Alfredo’s reunion occurred at Madison Square Garden, the same place they first met. The former lovers noticed each other at the same time. “Just look at you,” Leitzel told Alfredo, amazed by his glow-up. Leitzel probably didn’t lose any sleep over him, but Alfredo had dreamed of that moment—but there was something he hadn’t counted on.
A woman named Clara interrupted their reunion. And just who was she? Unfortunately for her, she was Alfredo’s wife.
They say you never get over your first love, and Alfredo really proved this. He wasn’t shy about his feelings for Leitzel—even if it hurt Clara. After reuniting with his first love, he tossed her aside like a chewed-up piece of gum. He’d even publicly and obsessively inspected Leitzel’s safety equipment.
Alfredo believed he couldn’t survive losing Leitzel again—but it gets even worse. Poor Clara.
On November 2, 1927, Clara came home to find Alfredo in bed with another woman. Clara admitted this wasn’t the first time—but this would be the last time. She didn’t identify who the other woman was, but it was probably Leitzel. When Clara confronted him, Alfredo hit her. They finally divorced, and she dodged a bullet. Like a literal bullet.
Other circus workers couldn’t help but notice Leitzel and Alfredo sneaking off together. A nosy person finally barged in, and humiliated Alfredo. But it’s probably not what you’re thinking. It turns out that Leitzel was teaching Alfredo, who’d never attended school. It was during these secret meetings where her lust turned into love. But of course, nothing with Leitzel was ever that simple.
The “what ifs”? kept Leitzel up at night. As a child, she’d been so certain of the circus life. As an aging adult? Not so much. Leitzel left Alfredo in the dust whenever her other paramour, the older and wealthier Howard, stopped by. If Howard proposed, Leitzel would’ve quit the circus and lived a life of leisure. Except he didn’t. Alfredo did.
There’s being fashionably late, then there’s…whatever this was. While Alfredo dreamed of marrying Leitzel for years and years, the reality was closer to a nightmare. On their wedding day, Leitzel was nowhere to be found. Alfredo waited and waited. He and their guests wondered if she got cold feet and was going to leave him at the altar. Three hours later, Leitzel finally showed up…with Howard.
At the lavish dinner, everyone had fun—except for Alfredo. You see, Howard was footing the bill for the whole thing. And it gets worse. Alfredo couldn’t find his wife and spent hours miserably searching. Leitzel finally showed up, cheerful and clueless. Alfredo lost it and started such a massive fight that no one knew if they even spent a single night together in their first week of marriage.
Basically, Leitzel and Alfredo were in trouble the moment they said “I do”.
On paper, Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo seemed like the perfect match. They had so much in common, but this also included an ego and a temper. As they brought their careers to new heights, they brought their marriage to new lows. Screaming matches, break-ups, and make-ups were par for the course. Alfredo learned the hard way that marriage vows were nothing more than pretty words to Leitzel.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of love. Alfredo remained just as obsessed as the first day, and he went to heartbreaking lengths to show how much he cared. He still checked her safety gear, and even stood below her in case she fell. Similarly, Leitzel still loved and even worshiped Alfredo.
But she struggled with loyalty. Her mommy and daddy issues left a void in Leitzel that only much older men could fill.
Then, the tables turned. You see, Clara still worked with Alfredo. While the exes had zero interest in each other, Leitzel still demanded that Alfredo fire her. She went even further and picked the replacement—in more ways than one. Enter, Vera. The Australian showgirl was young and beautiful. Both Leitzel and Alfredo would go on to regret the day they met her.
For the first time in her life, Lillian Leitzel not only felt like she wasn’t the star of the show—she felt like the third wheel. As the circus traveled through Europe, Alfredo either turned down Leitzel’s invitations to go sightseeing or brought Vera along too. She saw the way he looked at the younger woman. One day, Leitzel couldn’t take it. She ran away to her mother Nellie, and sobbed as she spilled the beans.
Was this too good to be true? Alfredo sent Leitzel a letter where he apologized, begged for forgiveness, and swore that Vera meant nothing. The Australian was just someone he flirted with to make her jealous, and he’d never do it again. Basically, Alfredo told her everything she wanted to hear. Leitzel believed he meant every word. After all, the King and Queen of the circus were destined to be together.
After the circus slightly reduced her wages, Leitzel didn’t just get mad. She got even. Leitzel and Alfredo left and started their own circus. But everything that could’ve gone wrong, did go wrong. Their timing was terrible, as it coincided with the Great Depression. Eventually, they had to ask their old bosses for their jobs back. This was the beginning of the end.
A crisis hit Leitzel like an oncoming train. She’d made a career of defying the Grim Reaper time and time again…but the almost 40-year-old couldn’t help but wonder: how long could she keep this up? Leitzel wrecked her body—and boy was she paying the price. It didn’t help that two fellow circus performers had recently plunged to their own deaths. These dark thoughts led to a chilling premonition.
Her dream started as a normal work day, as a rope hoisted Leitzel to the top of the ring. Then it took a dark turn. The rope unraveled, and she couldn’t do anything but watch. Leitzel screamed for help, but no one—not even her husband—heard. As the rope split apart, she jolted awake. This nightmare haunted Leitzel, and she’d realize why in just a few days.
The superstitious Leitzel already had a bad feeling. She and Alfredo were performing separately in different countries. It was Friday, February 13, 1931. She was the 13th act. And unfortunately, she was right. When the safety ring broke, Leitzel desperately tried to grab onto something, anything. But her hands grasped nothing but air, as she plummeted 20 feet to the ground.
Lillian Leitzel took the saying “the show must go on” a little too seriously. Even though she’d suffered excruciating injuries, she told everyone: “I’m all right, I can go on”. Luckily, Leitzel’s crew insisted on rushing her to the hospital. That’s when they realized while the damage didn’t look good, it was actually so much worse.
Alfredo (who was set to perform), and Nellie (who’d just reconciled with Leitzel in the last month) raced to the hospital, where grim-faced doctors waited. The fall gave Leitzel yellow and blue flesh, a torn scalp, a swollen and bruised face, an inability to speak—but then it got worse.
After waking up delirious and shrieking from the pain, she fell into a coma. No one knew what to do other than pray and wait.
After Leitzel appeared to improve, Alfredo left Copenhagen, as he had to perform. Two days later, on February 15, 1931, Leitzel succumbed to her injuries. It was a painful and lonely death without her husband by her side. She was only 39. In the aftermath, Alfredo shared shocking revelations about the cause of her fall and demise.
Leitzel was literally too good for her own good. Her demise might've been avoidable if she’d known how to fall safely. She didn’t know how to because the Queen of the Air never fell. Even worse, Alfredo blamed himself: “Why hadn’t I been with her when she fell?...she could have fallen into my arms. I would have caught her…Leitzel never knew how to fall. I never taught her”.
The guilt haunted him—while her ghost haunted the circus.
For years after Leitzel’s death, her fellow performers shared chilling tales about her. They were convinced that they saw her ghost and were even willing to swear on Bibles. Sightings persisted for years. Witnesses claimed they saw her in mirrors, wearing the same mint green tutu, and always smiling. While this may have been an exaggeration, her memory certainly haunted Alfredo.
Alfredo fell into a deep depression and isolation, until he asked Vera to marry him. And by “ask,” I mean he pestered her for months. A year and a half after Leitzel’s passing, and a half year after Alfredo laid her to rest, Vera agreed. It was one of the least romantic engagements and weddings ever. Vera even confessed that she didn’t love him. Alfredo didn’t care: “You’ll learn to love me. I’ll make you love me”
Yet again, Alfredo’s marriage got off to a rocky start. It got even worse after Vera realized how disturbing his obsession with Leitzel was. He even had a shrine in their bedroom. It included the urn and many photographers. Vera even heard Alfredo speaking with and singing to Leitzel’s remains. Vera was understandably excited for them to get back into the circus ring—only for it to end disastrously as well.
During a normal performance, Alfredo only had to perform his signature move, the one he’d done countless times. But for the first time, Alfredo missed the connection and raised his hands up, like he was trying to reach for someone’s hands. He plummeted to the ground. Alfredo swore: “I saw Leitzel’s hands reaching for me, I tried grasping them”. Everyone saw that his career was over.
Turns out the third time was not the charm: the end of Alfredo’s career led to the end of his marriage. Alfredo’s temper and jealousy got the better of him after Vera joined the circus for another season. He got physical with her, which was the final straw. Vera left, and filed for divorce. Alfredo didn’t contest it, and the only thing left to do was divide their assets—but he had the most sinister plans.
As Alfredo’s stability collapsed, Vera and her mother Annie Bruce feared for her safety. They traveled hundreds of miles to a motel to hide from him. After strange noises woke her up, Vera pulled back the curtains and saw Alfredo’s crazed grinning face and a gun. The mother and daughter hid in the bathroom until he left and officers were called.
Alfredo’s behavior was more fitting of a horror movie villain than a legendary trapeze artist. It was about to get a lot worse.
Alfredo’s friends believed he was happier and ready to move on—until July 30, 1937. A week after the motel incident, Alfredo traveled to Vera’s attorney's office to divide their assets. His cheerfulness and cooperativeness took everyone off guard. After Alfredo signed the paperwork, he asked for a private moment with Vera (and Annie).
Alfredo informed Vera: “You’ve left nothing more for me to do,” and pulled out the same revolver from his coat. He fired four times at Vera while Annie screamed. Alfredo aimed at his head and pulled the trigger. They found a note in his pocket reading “I have no wife to love me, I am going back to Leitzel, the only woman who ever really loved me”. Leitzel and Alfredo are buried together.
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