Leitzel, Lillian (1892–1931)

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Leitzel, Lillian (1892–1931)

German-born aerial gymnast. Name variations: Lillian Pelikan. Born Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan in Breslau, Germany, in 1892 (some sources cite 1891); died on February 13, 1931, in Copenhagen, Denmark; daughter of Nellie Pelikan (an aerial performer); attended school in Breslau, Germany; married Clyde Ingalls (an executive with Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Circus), in 1920 (divorced 1924); married Alfredo Codona (a trapeze artist), in July 1928; no children.

Born in Breslau, Germany, in 1892, into a bohemian circus family, Lillian Leitzel followed in the footsteps of her mother Nellie Pelikan . Nellie performed an aerial act with her two sisters, billed as the "Leamy Ladies" (derived from the name of their American manager, Edward Leamy). Lillian, who was christened Leopoldina Alitza Pelikan but nicknamed Litzl (from which she took her stage name), was doted on by her mother, who had high expectations for her daughter. In addition to early training in acrobatics, Lillian was given dancing and music lessons and was taught to speak four languages. Eventually, Lillian joined the Leamy Ladies, performing with the act in a New York engagement with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1908. When her mother returned to Europe in 1911, Lillian remained in the United States, performing for a number of years on the vaudeville circuit. In 1914, she was hired by Ringling Brothers Circus, which featured her in their center ring. She appeared with the Ringling-owned Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1917, and with Ringling again in 1918. By 1919, when the Ringling and Barnum circuses merged, Lillian Leitzel had perfected her extraordinary aerial act and was the featured attraction of "The Greatest Show on Earth."

Standing 4′9″ and weighing only 95 pounds, Leitzel appeared fairylike but possessed incredible upper-body strength. Her routine, heralded by drums and cymbals and a command for all vendors to retire from the seats, began with a performance on the roman rings suspended high above the center ring. After a brief return to the ground for a bow, Leitzel was again hoisted by a rope to the dome of the big top for her finale. As the orchestra embarked on a frenetic rendition of "Flight of the Bumblebee," Leitzel, clutching a single rope with one hand, whirled her entire body around like a propeller, while the audience, necks craned upward, breathlessly counted out each revolution to 100 (60 in later years). Although her mother was credited as the first person to perform this unusual feat, it was Leitzel who perfected it into a dazzling and seemingly effortless acrobatic ballet.

Leitzel was married in 1920 to Ringling executive Clyde Ingalls, from whom she was divorced in 1924. Four years later, she wed Alfredo Codona, who was also an outstanding trapeze artist. On Friday, February 13, 1931, Lillian Leitzel was fatally injured during a performance in Copenhagen, Denmark, when the swivel on one of her rings broke, and she fell some 29 feet to the ground. She died of her injuries two days later and was cremated. Her ashes were returned to Inglewood, California, for burial.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts