Title: Queen of the Air: A True Story of Love and Tragedy at the Circus
Author: Dean Jensen
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Briefly, From Blogger’s Recommend: Lillian Leitzel climbed her way out of poverty to become the biggest star in the most famous circus of the 1920s. But Leitzel’s success in the ring was a stark contrast to the frustrations in her personal life. Her one true love was Alfredo Codona, the greatest trapeze flyer of his time, but their reign as king and queen of the circus could lead only to their downfall.
Review: During the 1920s and 1930s, Lillian Leitzel was the biggest star of the most famous circus in the world. Born to a single mother (also a successful circus performer), Leitzel, as she would eventually be known, was an aerialist sensation almost from the moment she was born. Her pixie-like physique, unarguable beauty, and take-no-prisoner’s attitude helped elevate her to a mega-celebrity. But for all her success in the ring, her personal life remained in shambles, including her dramatic and fairy-tale romance with another circus celebrity, trapeze flyer Alfredo Codona.
In Queen of the Air, Dean Jensen tells Leitzel’s story as well as a brief history of the traveling circus, from it’s origins in the 1880s through the heyday of the ‘20s and ‘30s when Leitzel was a star. Queen of the Air is gritty and romantic and dramatic and sad — a great piece of historical nonfiction.
There’s always been something fascinating to me about the world of the circus, especially early circuses where the requirements for safety were much lower, making the dangers of the tricks much higher. Since I didn’t know anything about Lietzel or Alfredo going into the book, it felt as if any moment one of them would go flying through the air to their death, especially given the subtitle, “A true story of love and tragedy at the circus.”
Queen of the Air is billed as a real-life Water for Elephants which is, honestly, not that far off when it comes to the setting and historical context. The biggest difference is probably something that Katie at Doing Dewey pointed out in her review of Queen of the Air: unlike Jacob and Marlena, Leitzel and Alfredo were incredibly selfish people in both their professional and personal lives.
Leitzel demanded an extravagant salary and traveling arrangements, in stark contrast to the conditions of nearly everyone else in the circus. She was generous to some degree, giving big tips to other performers and hosting educational time for circus children in her tent, but overall looked out for herself first. Romantically, both she and Alfredo were impetuous and easily distracted from their partners, both leaving a trail of broken hearts behind them. While I can see how this would be a problem for some readers, it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this story; in truth, there’s something compellingly voyeuristic in reading the story of two people who were such forces of nature (for good and for bad).
I thought Queen of the Air was a great read. For all their flaws, Leitzel and Alfredo are compelling characters who provide a wonderful centerpiece to a broader look at the history and impact of the circus around the world. I highly recommend this one.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!