Dean Jensen on Queen of the Air

Queen of the Air: The Result of a Long-ago Afternoon
By Dean Jensen

As art critic for the Milwaukee Sentinel late in the 1970s, I had regular contact with Alfred Pelikan, the retired director of the Milwaukee Art Institute. Alfred invited me to his home one day, and following a lunch peppered with discussion about contemporary art, he led me to his study.

Everywhere on the walls were photographs and posters of a woman who was immediately recognizable to me, Lillian Leitzel, the “Queen of the Air,” as she was known everywhere in her time.

Leitzel had been an aerialist with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for two decades. She was the highest-paid and most luminescent, beloved, and coddled artist the big top ever produced. She was also the most star-crossed.

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Alfred Pelikan turned to me and then revealed something I had never known about him. “Leitzel,” he said in a voice barely above a whisper, “was my sister.” In his next breath he said that if I was ever interested in writing her story, he would be there to help. At the time, I had just published my first book, a history of the American circus whose title might have been better suited to a work on a sex decathlon, The Biggest, the Smallest, the Longest, the Shortest.

Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus is the issue of that long-ago afternoon with Alfred Pelikan. It is a love story and a biography; a double-biography, really, since it also relates the story of the fiery Alfredo Codona, the Nijinsky of the flying trapeze, and the third and last of Leitzel’s husbands.

Leitzel was born into Dickensian circumstances, and became a princess and then a queen. She was not much bigger than a good size fairy, just four-foot-ten and less than 100 pounds. In the first part of the 20th century, she presided over a sawdust fiefdom of never-ending magic. But it could be said that this book is also a modern tragedy, one Sophocles might have staged if Leitzel and Alfredo had been of his time. The lovers were bedeviled by the big top’s fates.

I’m thrilled at how Queen of the Air turned out and that Leitzel and Alfredo’s story will finally be given its proper due. But I feel a sadness, too. Nearly all of the people who helped in the book’s realization are gone now, among them my friend Alfred Pelikan. I would have loved to learn whether they thought I got things right.

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DEAN JENSEN is the author of three earlier books focusing on subjects from the worlds of the circus, carnivals, and the vaudeville stage. Jensen was an art critic and arts writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and has received numerous awards for his writing. He now operates an eponymously named contemporary art gallery in Milwaukee. Learn more at DeanJensenGallery.com.

About Dean Jensen, Author of Queen of the Air

DEAN JENSEN is the author of three earlier books focusing on subjects from the worlds of the circus, carnivals, and the vaudeville stage. Jensen was an art critic and arts writer for the Milwaukee Sentinel (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and has received numerous awards for his writing. He now operates an eponymously named contemporary art gallery in Milwaukee. Learn more at DeanJensenGallery.com.

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