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Review: Queen of the Air by Dean Jensen


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Queen of the Air
by Dean Jensen


Known only to her adoring public by the name Leitzel, this diminutive trapeze artist was one of the great celebrities of her day. Lillian Leitzel was the daughter of a circus performer, but her desire to push her art to new limits led her to surpass her mother while still a teen. Only a short time after arriving in America with her mother’s troupe, the Leamy Ladies, Leitzel was a star solo artist performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. As the Queen of the Air, Leitzel soared, but her private life would today be called a hot mess. The flirtatious performer married three times, but never remained monogamous for long. Her greatest romance was with her final husband, Alfredo Codona, one of the few circus performers who could be considered her equal in talent and fame. When a tragic accident snuffed out her life at age 39, Leitzel was still one of the greatest stars of the circus, and few – if any – circus performers have come close to matching her popular acclaim.

The story starts with a chapter about Leitzel’s mother as a young teen, and the man who raped her – Leitzel’s absent father. It follows Leitzel through her life as she travels around the world, performing flips that would dislocate her shoulders with every rotation. Her story ends with rumors of her haunting the theater in which she died. This is really a two person biography; although Leitzel is always the main focus a good chunk of the book focuses on the life of Alfredo Codona.

I think this is partly because the author has to set up how appealing and talented the man was in order to prove that he’s a worthy partner in the epic romance with Leitzel. Boy, does Dean Jensen build up that romance. I’m sure Alfredo and Leitzel loved each other, but comparisons to star-crossed lovers like Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Romeo and Juliet, or Lancelot and Guinevere seem a bit much, especially given that neither circus star was completely faithful to the other during their years together. Although he’s often nearly gushing with his rapturous descriptions of circus performances, Jensen veers dangerously near to fiction territory when he describes the way Alfredo wishes he could join Leitzel during a performance and imagines that she makes eye contact with him and him alone. This novelistic approach helps create a sense of time and place, especially in the narrow focus on the book. (World events outside the circus are largely ignored – not many mentions of WWI or the Great Depression can be found here.) But I found that it didn’t help in bringing the characters to life. Leitzel always remains at a distance. The author seemed a bit more comfortable writing in Alfredo’s skin, but the net result was that the artists tended to come across as spoiled and selfish.

Still, this is an interesting exploration of the circus in the early 20th century. I also think it’s a fascinating look at celebrity, and how quickly the most notorious and beloved performers can be forgotten or demoted to footnotes in history.


3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Queen of the Air, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.



Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
2011: Fashionista Piranha will be on hiatus for a while…
2010: Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner
2009: Our Lady of the Potatoes by Duncan Sprott

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