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Our Ringling Family Story 



August Rungeling (Ringling) m. Marie Salome Juliar 




Albert (Al) 





Born in Ostheim.near 
Colmar, Alsace-^Lorraine 






Ottc Alfred (Alfl) Charles 

1857-1911 1863-1919 1864'1926 

married married 
Delia Andrews Edith Conwa; 


Aubrey Black 


James A, Haley 

— Robert 


Virginia Sullivan 

I — ^ — n 

^ames Charles p 

Hester — 


Louis lanaster 


Stuart Charles 


Irene Bauernfein 

Charles E, Sanford 


Nicholas 3uUar married Helena Etling 








\able Burton 


mily Haag 

1 1 

Henry Ida 

1868-1918 1874-1950 

Hem-y W North 


ohn RtngUng North Henry Ringling North-. 


5ane Donelly 

sermaine Au55ey 


Ada Thornburgh 

^ohnRitigling; North II 

Elizabeth Palmer Barnum 


Salome — 


Roy Stratton 








Our Ringling Family Story 


Drawings by Allene Gaty Hatch 






To John, who filled a father's place and 
smoothed my way with gaiety and affection. 

Digitized by the Internet Archive 

in 2011 with funding from 

LYRASIS IVIembers and Sloan Foundation 


There could hardly be a more interesting and delightful occupa- 
tion than collaborating with so many of the North family in writing 
the story of the circus. We include all of them in this tribute. 
Brother John Ringling North suppHed many of the most amusing 
and valuable stories. Mary Salome Wadsworth and her husband, 
Randolph L. Wadsworth, added great sections to the manuscript 
at "Mother's crumbling mansion" on Bird Key, as we ransacked 
huge piles of memorabilia to authenticate this work. And Charles 
Ringhng's daughter, Mrs. Hester Ringling Sanford, was Hkewise 

Many other people contributed to the story from their crowded 
memories. Among them: Arthur M. Concello, once the world's 
greatest living aerialist and now executive director of the circus; 
Pat Valdo, personnel director, who has served the circus for almost 
sixty years; Mrs. Alice Ringling Coerper. 

Because of these efforts, we believe that this is the most authen- 
tic account possible of the rise, the glory, the tribulations, and the 
renaissance of the beloved American institution which is known, 
not without justification, as The Greatest Show on Earth. 

February iq6o 


Acknowledgments 7 


I Circus-Bom 13 

II Sawdust in my Shoes 29 


III The First Parade 47 

IV Ringltng Bros. Classic and Comic Concert Co. 59 
V The Wagon Show 75 

VI "The Sunday-School Circus" 92 

VII Bills, Banners, and Bloody Heads 105 

VIII Heyday 118 


IX The Apotheosis of John RingHng 129 

X The Broken Wheel 142 

XI The Norths 152 

XII "The Big One" 162 

XIII In the Back Yard 178 
XVI The House of John 194 

XV Bust and Boom 206 

XIV The Man from "Dreamland" 216 
XVII The Last Parade 227 


XVIII We Norths Again 241 

XIX The First Fight for the Circus 247 




The New Circus 



"The Most Terrifying Creature the World 

Has Ever Seen" 



Labor Pains 



Lady Godiva Goes to the World's Fair 



Bird Key 



Hell on Wheels 



The Hartford Fire 



How John Won the Circus 



"Geared for Glory and for Gold" 



The Dechne and Fall of the Big Top 



The New and Future Circus 





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CD.r:\ €3 rjrj ( 1 
6R e ATE ST I 



The circus is a jealous wench. Indeed, that is an understate- 
ment. She is a ravening hag who sucks your vitahty as a 
vampire di-inks blood— who kills the brightest stars in her 
crown and who will allow no private life to those who serve 
her; wrecking their homes, ruining their bodies, and desti'oy- 


ing the happiness of their loved ones by her insatiable de- 
mands. She is all of these things, and yet, I love her as I love 
nothing else on earth. 

The circus can be generous, too, especially to children. 
Sometimes I think that my brother John, my sister Salom6, 
and I had the most wonderful childhood ever. Imagine grow- 
ing up adored and spoiled by six uncles who owned not one 
circus but a whole flock of circuses, including the two out- 
standing ones of history: Ringling Brothers and Bamum & 
Bailey's "The Greatest Show on Earth." That slogan, which 
we adopted in 1919 when we combined the two circuses, was 
a stroke of sheer genius on the part of the master showman, 
Phineas T. Barnum. It was also true; for I firmly beheve that 
Ringling Brothers-Bamum & Bailey is still The Greatest Show 
on Earth. 

My love affair with the circus began at the age of three, 
when my mother, who was the Ringling brothers' only sister, 
took rne to see the show in the Coliseum in Chicago. For so 
small a boy it was mainly a gloriously exciting, spectacularly 
bespangled scene of utter confusion. But out of that riotous 
afternoon my memory holds one picture as clear as though 
it were immortalized in Technicolor. 

It was, I imagine, the climax of the show, the grand finale. 
While elephants, horses, giraffes, zebras, camels, and clowns 
circled the auditorium and aeriahsts flew gracefully through 
the air overhead, a magnificently caparisoned white horse was 
led onto a platform in the center ring. The fifty-piece band 
burst into frenzied circus music as the platform with the horse 
and his brilliantly uniformed attendant began to rise slowly 
upward. Higher and higher it went, past the rigging for the 
aerial acts, past the highest wire, on up to the shadowy dome. 
Glittering in the glare of a white spotlight, the horse was 
dwarfed to pony size by the immense height. He remained 
suspended at the zenith for a breathless moment. Then tlie 

cracus-BORN 15 

spot went out and the platform erupted in fountains of golden 
fire and jets of bursting stars from a tremendous display of 

Looking back, I strongly suspect that mv uncle Al Ringling, 
who was equestrian director of the Ringhng show that year, 
had dreamed up this fantasy and also engineered it. Even 
tlien I thought it was a strange thing to do to a horse. 

From the moment of my indoctrination I lived and breathed 
circus. At that time, in 1912, we lived in Baraboo, Wisconsin, 
where my mother and uncles had grown up and where the 
original Ringling Brothers Circus started on its long road in 
nine wagons, on one of which was a cage containing a moth- 
eaten hyena, the precursor of all those thousands of "Savage, 
Man-Devouring Denizens of the Jungle" which have traveled 
with our show. By the time I was born we had gone a long way 
from that unhappy hyena. The Ringling show now traveled 
in an eighty- or ninety-car train commanded by one of the 
uncles, while Bamum & Bailey toured the country in an even 
longer one, also directed by a Ringhng uncle, since they had 
bought that circus from James A. Bailey's widow in 1907. 

My uncles, the seven Ringling brothers, had also gone a 
long way from poverty-stricken country boys who had 
dreamed of owning a great circus and made their dream come 
true doubled in spades. Uncle Gus died in 1907, two years 
before I was born, so I never knew him, but the others were 
living in considerable splendor, each according to his taste. 
Besides then* fine houses in Baraboo, some of them owned 
large estates in what they considered more civilized parts of 
the country. In addition. Uncle Charlie and Uncle John had 
pleasant wmter houses in Sarasota, Florida, where I spent 
part of my childhood. 

The only one who did not live part of the time in Baraboo 
was Uncle John, who became the most famous of them all. 




Having achieved one ambition by masterminding Ringling 
Brothers' purchase of Bamum & Bailey, he was just starting to 
build the great financial empire which made him, for a time, 
one of the richest men in the world. But even he always re- 
turned to Baraboo for Christmas, and for the brotherly con- 
claves in which the affairs of the circus and of everything else 
pertaining to the family were decided in roaring, shouting, 
acrimonious arguments, which, once settled, were never re- 
opened, as all the brothers confronted the rest of the world 
with complete unanimity. 

These big, lusty, gusty uncles of mine dominated the life 
of the little midwestem city they had Hterally put on the map, 
and they also dominated the lives of their vdves and children; 
and my mother and my father— Henry Whitestone North— 
and John, Salome, and me. But they were very kind to us. 

After my uncle Al died in 1916, when I was seven years 
old, the conclave of uncles decreed that we Norths should 
live in his great, turreted, Renaissance-style mansion, half 
castle and half chateau, built of Lake Superior sandstone. I 
have fond recollections of that house. The interior was as 
magnificent as its imposing, if doubt-inspiring, fa9ade. The 
parlor and music room had silk damask walls. The dining- 
room ceiling was covered with real gold leaf. The library was 
paneled in dark lustrous wood- There was a big ballroom in 
the basement and, of course, an amply stocked wine cellar. 
Behind the house were extensive stables, where Uncle Al, who 
was a fine horseman, kept the beautiful riding and carriage 
horses he loved so much. 

When I was growing up, Baraboo was a true circus city. 
The Bamum show wintered at Bridgeport, where it always 
had, but Ringling Brothers still had its winter quarters in 
Baraboo. They were an elaborate establishment tliat ran along 
both sides of the street beside the Baraboo River. There were 
many long brick animal barns and stables, a wardrobe build- 


ing, electrical department, machine shop, wagon shop, and 
blacksmith's shop, where the broad iron tires for the wagon 
wheels were forged and the horses shod. At this time our press 
agents claimed that the show had 1002 horses. I cannot be 
sure, for I did not count them. 

In addition, there were always about twenty-five or thirty 
wild animals in the menagerie— seven or eight lions, half a 
dozen tigers, a white leopard, two or three giraffes, a rhino, 
a couple of hippos, llamas, zebras, monkeys, and baboons— 
and a great many camels, which were used very effectively 
in the spectacles and parades. Now there is hardly a camel 
in any circus in America because of the Department of 
Agriculture's restrictions on importing them from disease- 
ridden countries. There were also thirty to fifty elephants. 

As a small boy I had the run of Winter Quarters, and most 
of the personnel of the circus from Jim Pepper, who drove 
the lowly gilly wagon, to whatever lovely aerialist or 
equestrienne was queen of the back yard were my friends. I 
was especially fond of Cliko, a tiny African Bushman less than 
four feet tall. His real name was Franz Tyboch, and he had 
been captured by the British during the Boer War. He joined 
our circus in 1913 and remained with it until he died at an 
estimated age of over a hundred. Malvina Hoffman made a 
bust of him in her ethnological series for the Field Museum, 
as representing a Kalahari Bushman. Cliko was completely 
iUiterate but a wonderful mimic who could imitate everyone 
in the circus. In civiHan life he liked to wear a raccoon coat 
and a derby hat, with a cigar almost as big as he was sticking 
out of liis mouth. For tlie circus side show he wore a leopard 
skin over one shoulder, a pair of socks rolled down to the 
ankles, and ordinary walking shoes. In this extraordinary 
costume, he'd come roaring out of his tent as the people were 
leaving the Big Top, uttering fearful yells and native war 


whoops in the loudest voice I ever heard and performing his 
conception of an African war dance. 

This frightening creature was, in fact, a sweet and gentle 
man who loved all small things. The midgets were his close 
pals and when I was a small boy he was very fond of me. 
He'd let me pull his kinky hair, which would stretch out a 
foot or more and, when I let go, snap back like a rubber 
band. He called my brother "Johimy" and me "Bonny" to 
save the bother of adding an entire new word to his limited 

Frank Cook, the circus lawyer, legal adjuster, or "fixer," 
adopted him, and by what political machinations I'll never 
know— since Cliko could not read— got him made an American 
citizen. I'll never forget Cliko's joy when he heard the news. 
He came bounding up to me on the lot and shouted, "Bonny, 
me American citizen now, no more nigger son of a bitch." 

The animals were my friends as well, and I often went to 
call on them in the big brick barns where they were housed 
through the rigorous Wisconsin winter. Katy the girafFe I 
loved dearly; in fact, I have always been particularly fond of 
giraffes. Then I would run through the cat house, where all 
the jungle animals were kept, greeting my friends in their 
cages, but circus-wise enough never to get within paw reach, 
for you never trust the cats. Indeed, any old circus hand knows 
that even the friendliest animal will have a bad day and take 
it out on unwary humans, so you never stand where a giraffe 
can kick you, or an ape clutch you, or an elephant trample. 
Every now and then someone forgets these cardinal rules and 
loses an arm or gets booted twenty feet through the air into a 
hospital bed. Seeing it happen, as I often did, was a strong 
object lesson. I loved my animal friends, but treated them 
with great respect. 

Most of all I loved the elephant bam filled with the huge 
friendly creatures. I even loved its overpowering musky- 

cmcus-BORN - 19 

aromatic smell. When I was a little boy, there was tremendous 
excitement at the birth of a baby elephant. All the elephants 
we had were born wild in the jungle, since it is almost im- 
possible to rear one in captivity. They will breed all right; 
but the mother elephant will kill her baby— as sentimentalists 
think, to spare it a life of captivity. 

On this occasion Uncle CharHe and our family physician, 
Dr. Kelly, were deteiTnined to save the elephant child. They 
were close by at the time of delivery, and as soon as the little 
thing was on its feet they tried to get it away from its mother. 
Unfortunately for my uncle's plans, the five-ton principal of 
this maternity case became violently agitated, trumpetmg 
loudly and thrashing about. Uncle Charhe told me that at 
this point he saw her leg chain begin to part. He dove through 
a small hatch in the door of her stall with Dr. Kelly close be- 
hind him. They landed on their faces in a great pile of elephant 
manure. The motlier elephant bashed her baby to death. 

Undoubtedly the greatest thrill a boy could have was to 
ride the circus train. When Mother was a girl she often 
traveled with her brothers in their private car. In those days 
the\' did not have a car all to themselves; part of an ordinary 
Pullman was used for living quarters and the rest of it was a 
dining car for the management and star perfomiers. But by 
the time I came along, the uncles were more luxurious. Uncle 
Charles had a splendid car called the Caledonia, furnished 
in magnificent red plush and gold, with real lace curtains. It 
was a perfect example of "Early Pullman." In 1917 Uncle 
John outdid him. The Jomar, built especially for him by the 
Pullman Company, was the longest private car in the world. 
It, too, was a lush example of railroad interior decoration: fine 
mahogany woodwork fretted into intricate de^lsigns, brass 
chandeliers with Tiffany glass shades, a double brass bed in 
Uncle John's stateroom and a smaller one in Aunt Mable's. 


The food aboard was magnificent. As I shall tell, Uncle John 
ate only two meals a day, but they were gargantuan. 

Both uncles usually invited us children to ride for a week 
or two on their trains. That was my time of sheer delight. 
Days and nights were equally exciting. Going to bed at mid- 
night after the show in the railroad yards, decorated by the 
ruby and emerald signal lights and full of puflBng monsters 
and clanging bells and the fine wet smell of steam. Waking 
in the night to feel the rumbling wheels, or perhaps alongside 
the section with the menagerie aboard, lions roaring, seals 
barking, and camels gurgling angrily. Then morning, getting 
up as soon as possible and skipping across the tracks to where 
the wagons were unloading from the flats, and hooking a ride 
to the show grounds perched on the box of a lion's cage. By 
the time I got there the Big Top, which traveled in the second 
section, was going up in a scene of splendidly co-ordinated 
confusion. An even thousand men were working like de- 
mented ants around the huge rolls of canvas, some lacing the 
sections together while others guyed out the center poles, 
which weighed several tons each, and then erected the 
thirty-six blue and fifty-four red quarter poles and one hun- 
dred twenty-four yeUow side poles needed to support the 
six-pole top. Working elephants pushed and pulled with 
intelligent strength— before the days of tractors we could 
not have gotten the Big Top up at all without them. The 
canvas alone weighed seventy-two tons— or so our publicity 
department always claimed, but it was really only sixty- 
three tons, wet, about thirty tons, dry. 

After superintending the work of the boss canvasman, I 
would dash aroimd to call on my side-show friends, or into 
the huge cookhouse for a fine big lunch. By that time the 
elephants would have hauled the bail rings up to the peak of 
the poles, the side walls would be raised, and the Big Top 


ready for the aerialists' rigging and the folding-seat benches, 
or "bibles." The parade was about to start. 

When I was about eleven, John, who was seventeen, was 
already working with the circus during his summer vacation, 
and I had the tremendous thiill of seeing my splendid big 
brother ride by in the parade dressed up as a Napoleonic 

I attended every matinee and evening show and never got 
tired of it; for I had aheady identified myself with the circus. 
I was part of it then and always. But I was deprived of one 
inahenable right of every American boy. Never could I work 
my way into the circus by distributing handbills or carrying 
water for the elephants. Nor could I enjoy the delicious risk 
of sneaking in under the walls of the Big Top. Naturally this 
was impossible with our own show; but sometimes when an 
opposition circus played a town near Baraboo, I would ride 
my pony ten or fifteen miles to try my luck. It did not work. 
Even in the tents of mine enemies I was invariably appre- 
hended and escorted to a front-row seat in a box opposite the 
center ring. 

At midnight, very tired after the evening performance, I 
went back to find the Caledonia on her siding in the yards 
and crawl into my bunk. Mother was a tremendously good 
sport about the real risks an active boy might run on such a 
disjointed journey. She had been indoctrinated so successfully 
herself that she wanted her sons to have a part in the great 
national institution which the Ringlings were proud to have 
given America. The only thing she worried about was the 
tricky business of running around the raihoad yards at night. 
"Be very careful of those tracks, Buddy," she said to me the 
first time I went off with Uncle Charlie. And almost the last 
time I saw her, as I was taking tlie train out in 1950, she said, 
"Buddy, please be careful in tlie raihoad yards. Watch tliose 
trains, tliey're dangerousi" 


The uncles gave us ponies almost before we could walk. 
The first one I remember was a tiny Shetland called Minnie. 
John induced that pony to climb up to our attic playroom on 
the third floor of the house. It is quite easy to get a horse to 
walk upstairs but another thing to get him down. My father 
almost had to carry the poor thing. Our next pony was Maud, 
and Uncle Charles Ringling gave us a beautiful httle cutter, 
exactly like a real one but pony size. What fun we had driving 
over the snowy Wisconsin roads with our silver sleigh bells 
jinglingl Most fun of all was the tiny clown police patrol 
wagon that the midgets drove in the circus. I'd go over to 
Winter Quarters to borrow it, hitch my pony to it, and drive 
all over town with the gong clanging furiously. 

My favorite pony was Dandy, whom I got when I was five 
years old. Dandy was a beautiful black-and-white pony, who 
lived to a great age for a horse. When I was twenty-one and 
a senior at Yale, I made a special trip to Baraboo to call on 
him just before he died. 

Salome was afraid of the ponies, though she had to have 
one anyway, but I always loved to ride. I used to go for won- 
derful rides with my cousin Henry, who had a pony named 
Robin L. One of the great tragedies of our childliood was 
the day we went to the pasture to get Robin L. and found 
him lying stiff-legged under a tree. He had been struck by 
lightning. But Henry got another pony and we continued 
om- excursions. 

It seems strange for a child, but one of my favorite rides 
was to the cemetery in Baraboo. It was, and still is, a beautiful 
place, situated on a hill with a fine view of woods, the lake, 
and rolling farm land. Even as a httle boy I had many friends 
there— old Civil War veterans with whom I'd marched in the 
parades. My grandparents were buried there and later my 
uncles. So I would go and call on my friends, riding Dandy 
up the hill to that burying ground which had no terror for 


me, but only a sense of beauty and companionship with 
people I had loved. 

At an early age I naturally wanted to be a performer in 
the circus— an equestrian, of course. I can remember riding 
bareback when I was so small that I had to stand on a pail 
or a pile of rocks to scramble aboard my Shetland pony. Of 
course, I had some fabulously expert coaching from the 
famous equestrians in the show, and I got tolerably good. I 
could lean out of the saddle and pick up a handkerchief 
from the ground. I could ride standing up— and fall off 
standing up, too, but it was a fine trick when it worked. 

Brother John, the businessman, used to put on a children's 
circus every spring with half the kids in Baraboo as per- 
formers. It was a real professional job. In those days the circus 
owned its own concessions. Sid Rubeen, who was in charge of 
them, was a soft touch for us, and he would supply us with 
whips, and birds on sticks to whii'l around, paper toys from 
Japan, funny hats, canes, and balloons to sell outside our 
circus. Incidentally, having an ample supply of circus whips 
around the house was a mixed blessing. Mother used to spank 
us with them when we were naughty. We borrowed our 
costumes from the wardrobe department— one year we were 
all Roman gladiators. Of com^se, we charged a stiff admission, 
and looking back on it I believe it was worth the money, for 
surely no other children in the country had so much experi- 
ence and assistance. 

Playing as we did in the circus back yard, we naturally 
picked up some rather startling language. John was espe- 
cially proficient m the profane— and still is. When he was 
about eight years old Mother became worried about his lan- 
guage and asked the Episcopal minister, the Reverend Clark 
A. Wilson, to speak to him. The good rector approached John 
on the street one day and said, "Jolm, I feel I must talk to 
you about sometliing I've heard tliat isn't very nice." 


Very respectfully John said, "Yes, Mr. Wilson?" 

"I hear you've been using very naughty language." 

"Who told you that?" John demanded. 

Full of tact, Mr. Wilson said, "A little birdie told me." 

Whereupon John indignantly observed, "111 bet it's one of 
those God-damned Httle sparrows!" 

In fact, the sparrow^s were a curse in Baraboo. With so many 
animals aroimd they throve and multiplied exceedingly, and 
here again John showed his financial aciunen. The livery- 
stableman, Mr. Holsapple, injudiciously offered the boys with 
BB guns a penny apiece for every dead sparrow. As a result 
they were thinned out considerably. When the hunting got 
poor, John took his gun over to Winter Quarters, where due 
to the enormous manure piles there was probably the greatest 
concentration of sparrows in the United States. He knocked 
off a hundred or so, put them in a basket, and carried them 
back to the livery stable, where he surreptitiously spread 
them around and then ostentatiously picked them up. It was 
very good business while it lasted. 

A httle later John had a change of heart. He became for a 
time very devout. His musical talent made him a great ad- 
dition to the choir of the Episcopal church, and he was made 
crucifer. I can still see him leading the choir into church in 
his red robes, with dark curly hair, and shining eyes fixed 
on the tall golden cross he carried. 

John could not wait to begin working for the circus. He 
started at the age of twelve, hawking those same whirly birds, 
pennants, and whips which we had sold at the children's 
circus. But it was the real thing now, and he rode the train. 

While we were growing up in Baraboo the circus made 
another great leap forward. In 1919 the uncles decided to 
merge Ringling Brothers and Bamum & Bailey into one 

cmcus-BORN 25 

tremendous combined circus which would in truth justify the 
name of The Greatest Show on Earth. 

It was the great show of the twenties in which both 
Brother John and I got our baptism of lire. A freshman from 
Yale, John joined the train in Baltimore. His advent was less 
than impressive. To test his mettle Uncle Charlie had put 
him on the advertising car as a billposter, a job which re- 
quired him to get up at 5 a.m. Looking back with amused 
irony at the brash young man, John describes himself as re- 
porting aboard wearing a camel's-hair jacket and a flashy 
vest. He carried a Malacca cane and a saxophone. As he 
walked down the fusty, paper-littered car between berths 
occupied by weary, unshaven men catching cat naps in dirty 
undershirts, one of them said, "Here comes a guy who thinks 
Manual Labor is a Spaniard." 

The first morning, John crawled out of bed in the murky 
dawn of the railroad yards. Empty and disconsolate, he 
teamed up with a Dutchman and pasted bills on barns, 
boards, and telephone poles all morning. By noon his mettle 
had been tested— to the breaking point. He said to himself, 
"This is ridiculous," and took a taxi to the Belvedere Hotel, 
where he sent a telegram to his college friend, Theodore Buhl 
of Detroit: 

"If you still want me to visit you wire me one hundred 
dollars here." 

To pass the time of waiting he went to see Charlie Chaplin 
in Dynamite. By the time the picture was finished, the hun- 
dred-dollar reply was at the Belvedere. 

Thus John disappeared from the circus train and from the 
family ken. When he did not show up in a day or so, all the 
Ringling resources were marshaled to find him. Mother was 
reasonably calm, but Uncle Charlie was in a swivet and Uncle 
John in a lather. Meanwhile Johnny was cruising Long Island 
Sound with Theodore Bulil and liis mother in her yacht. 


Now, this anecdote is not intended to imply any lack of 
enthusiasm or perseverance on the part of my brother. No 
one was— or is— more dedicated to the circus than he and no 
one is wilhng to work harder. But Uncle John would have 
understood, as Uncle Charlie did not, that giving a person 
of Johnny's temperament a dull job, and making him get up 
at five in the morning to boot, was pushmg him too far. 

John rejoined the train with what he considered a proper 
job— selling tickets— and worked hard at it. Indeed, he rode 
the train every summer for six or seven years and learned 
more about the techniques of handling a modem railroad 
circus— the day-by-day, hour-by-hom* minutiae of ten thou- 
sand tilings that must be done at every stop— than ever Uncle 
John knew. Even when John was married and made $28,000 
in a single winter selling real estate in the Florida boom, he 
still went back to his fifty-dollar-a-week job on the circus 
train each summer. 

It was only natural that some of the managerial employees 
should regard the advent of young Johnny North in the role 
of heir apparent with eyes turned a bilious yellow by jealousy 
and fear for cherished perquisites. But it was typical of the 
underlying violence of circus life that they expressed their 
disfavor by trying to frame him. That year Johnny was in 
charge of checking the receipts at the front door and tlie reg- 
isters of the concession department, which naturally put 
a considerable crimp in any funny business that might be go- 
ing on. This, too, may have suppHed a motive. 

It happened after I, too, had joined the show, and it was 
my first apprehension of perils other than physical ones in my 
chosen career. The plot was hatched, while Uncle John was 
in Europe, between one of the staff managers and the man 
who was one of the detectives. It was particularly cruel, since 
if it had succeeded it would have left an ineradicable stain on 
my brother's reputation. 

cmcus-BORN 27 

The detective, whom for the purpose of this narrative we 
shall call Turnip Bunson, announced one day that six hun- 
dred dollars in one-hundred-dollar bills was missing from a 
wallet he had left in the staff car. Then he just happened to 
remember seeing young Johnny North coming out of the 
staff car, which he did not live in. Of course, Johnny might 
have been looking for his kid brother, said Turnip. . . . 

Rumors ran through the company like poisonous snakes. 
Most people did not believe them, but there was an element 
of doubt evident in sidelong looks of embarrassed eves. 

Meanwhile the manager worked subtly to spread the poi- 
son. He dropped into Lillian Leitzel's private dressing top, 
where she reigned as queen of the back yard and received 
callers in the afternoon between shows. Bringing the subject 
around to Bunson's loss, he smoothly suggested that wliile he 
himself was giving Johnny the benefit of the doubt, tliere was 
a doubt. . . . 

Dear little Leitzel, with whom we had been friends since 
childhood, leaped at him shrieking curses that made razor- 
backs stare in envy, and Alfredo Codona, who was lazily ly- 
ing on a sofa, sprang like a white panther. The manager saw 
murder in his eye and took off. Codona chased him right 
through the Big Top. 

Not all our people knew us so well. Distrust hung like a 
tangible cloud between us and our friends and fellow 

Johimy was angry and hurt, but too experienced a circus 
hand by now to go off hijs rocker. I was outraged. I was work- 
ing during my summer vacation from Manlius, a military 
school where the code of honor was as strict as at West Point. 
It was almost incredible to my unscarred mind that anyone 
could be so base as dehberately to try to blacken another's 
character. Even more incredible was tlie idea that people 
could beheve so mean a tiling of John. All my love and loyalty 


to him set my brain boiling like lava in Vesuvius before she 
blows her top. Which I came close to doing. 

Johnny tried to calm me by saying, "Now don't get excited. 
Six hundred dollars is a pretty important loss to Bunson. Per- 
haps he really believes I took it. Perhaps a lot of people do." 

"They can't, really," I said incredulously. 

Johnny grinned. "Maybe not really yet," he said, "but they 
will soon." 

"What can we do?" 

John never lacked decision. "I'm going to have W. J. Bums 
send an operative down here to find out the truth." 

In the circus you cannot even think of doing something 
without everyone knovmig it by a marvelous sort of mental 
telepathy. The moment Johnny thought of hiring that detec- 
tive a small miracle happened. Those six one-himdred-dollar 
bills reappeared in Bunson's wallet just hke a magic bunny. 
He explained that they must have been shoved under a loose 
lining in it! 

This was only the first of the many crises and betray- 
als which John faced and overcame in his climb to the pin- 
nacle of the circus world. Otliers far more dangerous and 
bitter confronted him. It was partly due to his hard schooling 
in the bare-fisted, knife-wielding, groin-kicking back yard of 
the circus world that he triumphed over them. But schooling 
would have meant nothing without his quaHties of imagina- 
tion, courage, bullheaded persistence, outrageous optimism, 
and dedication to our great family enterprise. It was these 
coupled with that hard, youthful experience which enabled 
him to win our circus back from the hands of avaricious 
creditors, build it to a peak of opulence, lose it, regain it, and 
rebuild it again and yet again, as I shall tell, until by these 
achievements he gained, in my opinion at least, the right to 
be called the greatest showman now on earth. 



My own advent in the cii-cus was both less frustrating and 
less dramatic than Jolm's. It happened in 1926, when I was 
seventeen, during my summer vacation from Manlius Military 
Academy. I went with my mother to stay with Uncle John at 
his' big house in Alpine, New Jersey. The first evening, he ex- 


pressed the opinion that it was time I went to work for the 
circus. I agreed with him completely. 

Uncle John drove me in his Rolls-Royce to Bridgeport to 
join the train. All the way over he kept talking about my 
duties. "You don't mind getting up a little early in the morn- 
ing, do you?" he asked. I gulped— no Ringling, however 
youthful, likes to get up early— and said, "Not particularly." 

"You'd better get used to it," he answered, "because I'm go- 
ing to send you out with the flying squadron." 

At that point I nearly died. The flying squadron was the 
first section of the fom'-section train. It caiTied the cook- 
house, menagerie, and layout department. It meant getting 
up every morning at 3 a.m. 

But Uncle John was only teasing me. I was assigned to the 
fourth section— the last one to reach town. My job was on 
the front door. I counted tickets and worked on the trunk. 
This was a big affair, hke a theatrical trunk, with compart- 
ments and cubbyholes for filing the tickets as they were 
taken up at the door. The system had not changed since the 
earhest days of the show. As the collectors took the tickets 
they passed them on to the counters, who stacked them in 
bundles of fifty and a hundred. The children's tickets were 
green, adults' were purple. I got to be a fast counter, 
but never as quick as my associate, Willy Downing, who was 
known as Straight-Ahead Willy because he was deaf and 
never looked around. He could take a bundle of tickets and 
feel them, discard one or two, and then there would be exactly 
fifty tickets in that bundle. 

I was famous as the fastest man on the front door, but not 
as a ticket counter. The doors opened for the matinee at one 
o'clock. I would go tlirough the door at five minutes of one, 
through the menagerie top, into the Big Top, through the Big 
Top and into the back yard, into the band top— where my uni- 


form was kept— change, and be back at the front door on the 
stroke of one. 

We had to wear uniforms with no pockets, for the excellent 
reason that it kept the collectors honest— there was no place 
to hide the tickets and resell them. The uniforms had a tunic 
with a tight collar. Sometimes I almost died of the heat, for I 
had no time to take my civihan suit off and so I just put the 
uniform on over it. As I said, we Ringlings like to sleep late. 

When I was not busy on the door I tried to learn all I could 
about the circus. The easiest way seemed to be to ask Carl 
Hathaway, a wonderful circus character who was manager, 
or George Smith, boss of the front door. When I asked them 
such questions as how many poles there were and the order 
of loading, they gave me a foolish answer. I soon found out 
that this was because they felt that if I really wanted to learn 
I should go and find out for myself as they had. So I got a 
httle notebook and went all over the lot jotting down statistics. 
I counted everytliing in the circus that first season. Uncle 
John used to laugh benignly at me because, as he said, he did 
not have the slightest idea about these tilings. He said, "I have 
good men who are supposed to know all about that." But I 
did know, and it stood me in good stead in later years. 

That fii-st year, I lived in the staflF car because Uncle John 
wanted to protect me a little. Some of the great characters of 
the circus lived in that car. There was the treasurer, Charles 
Hutchinson— Mr. Hutch, to all of us— who had been with 
Barnum & Bailey's in the old days and was a nephew-in-law 
of Mr. Bailey. He had a stateroom in the back of the car, 
where Mrs. Hutchinson lived with him. It was their home. 

The rest of us slept in bimks. Mr. Hutch's assistant, Fred- 
die Wolfe, and Johnny Brice, the chief detective, who had 
been chief of police in Ironton, Ohio. Cap Carol, who was 
assistant to the assistant treasurer, was a mai'velous charac- 
ter who had been with circuses all liis hfe, including the 


Sells Brothers Circus in Australia. Frank Cook, the fixer, 
bunked with us, and Doc Shields. Doc was an excellent doc- 
tor who had graduated from Dartmouth and Columbia and 
could have had a lucrative practice anywhere, but he got 
sawdust in his shoes and decided to join the circus. And 
Chick Bell, the superintendent of tickets. 

All these men had been with the circus thirty or forty years 
and here was I, seventeen years old, with eggshell on my nose. 
The way they treated me was the kindest, most tactful thing 
possible. They did not make any fuss, but acted as though I, 
too, had been around forever. 

Every night there was a poker game in the car. I played 
once a week— on payday. It took them only an hour or two to 
get my money, but we had wonderful times. Johnny Brice 
hked to drink a bit too much perhaps, but he did his job. In 
those Prohibition days he laid in a supply of Virginia com 
Hquor in gallon jugs at the start of the season. He told me it 
was kerosene, and I believed him until I saw him drink it. 
On some Sundays tliere was no performance and we made a 
long run. It was a great day. We'd have a big breakfast in 
the afternoon cooked by Cap Carol and Johnny Brice, who 
were superb chefs. They laid in their supphes the day be- 
fore. Then Cap Carol would play his mouth organ and 
guitar simultaneously while Johnny did a buck and wing; 
and Mr. Hutch sat drinking his own special brand of bour- 
bon, which he never offered to anybody. He was a generous 
man but not with his bourbon. 

Drink was, in real fact, the bane of circus people, and it 
still is. Most of the wonderful men in that car had the same 
failing, and at seventeen, I developed a taste for it, too. I 
had acquired a case of sparkling burgundy in Canada and 
one Sunday I drank too much of it. As the train pulled into 
Devils Lake, North Dakota, about one o'clock that after- 


noon, I came out on the platform ready to rush ofiF to the 
hotel for a hot bath with all the others— on tlie train we 
washed in tin basins. Brother John was outside liis car, also 
ready to sprint into town. As the train slowed down I 
stepped gaily off the platform without noticing that the 
steps were not down. I did a double flip that would have 
won applause in Clown Alley, landing on my back. John 
yelled at me like a mother walrus fearful that I was hurt. I 
was afraid he would spoil my fun, so I picked myself up and 
took oflF up an alley. 

Suddenly I felt terribly dizzy and I sat down in the middle 
of the street and was sick. Again and again. It seemed 
as though I never would stop. Each time my new straw hat 
fell oflF. Between paroxysms I put it on again, which was a 
tenible error. Finally I managed to get to the best hotel in 
town and discovered that John was registered there. He was 
having a nice quiet Simday-afternoon poker game in his 
room with some of his circus friends when his httle brother 
staggered through the door with his clothes in a lamentable 
condition. I can still see the look of anguished embarrassment 
with which John greeted me. He frog-marched me to the 
bathi-oom, turned on the water, and threw me into the tub, 
clothes and all. 

So, despite Uncle John's effort at protection, I saw the 
seamy back side of the carefully smiling face that the circus 
turned to her public. There is a harsh underworld character 
to life behind the canvas partitions. It is a world of sudden 
death and slow disintegration; of rackets and outright crook- 
edness; of tawdry passions and bright knives gleaming in flash 
fights; of hidden brutality toward dumb animals and callous 
treatment of human beings. A man may go to sleep under 
one of the great wagons on the lot, and when tear-down 
time comes, the driver will hitch up, and never seeing him, 
start off and the great iron-shod wheels will crush liiin like a 


broken beetle. If he is still alive he will be given the best at- 
tention by the cii'cus, but if he is dead they will leave him in 
a ditch, for an inquest might delay the whole show for days 
and the circus must keep her appointments with her public. 

She has great attributes as well: deeds of enormous gener- 
osity and loyalties beyond the call of duty or even love. There 
is great beauty: superb aeriaHsts like Alfredo Codona or 
Arthur Concello swooping through the air with the grace of 
bam swallows; equestrian acts like the Christianis, perform- 
ing their incredible feats with a skill that cannot be taught 
in a single generation, but is handed down and refined from 
father to son, mother to daughter, through generations of cir- 
cus people dedicated to perfecting their art. And couragel 
They all are brave, from Clyde Beatty, Alfred Court, and 
Mabel Stark— the scarred veterans of the animals acts, facing 
their savage actors twice every day including most Sundays 
—to the high-wire performers working without a net to thrill 
the pubHc. Even the people who are not taking obvious risks 
live in danger, for the chance of accident in the enormously 
complicated operation of the circus, which is hterally an army 
of men and women and hundreds of animals constantly on 
the move, is very great. 

I was fascinated by the intricate logistics of this operation. 
Every day fifteen hundred people and a thousand animals- 
many of them savage— from elephants and rhinoceroses, Hons, 
and tigers down to trained fleas, together with the tremendous 
amount of equipment they required, which included no less 
than fifty tents besides the Big Top, were moved from town to 
town. This whole city of canvas was set up, two performances 
were given, and the whole business was packed up and 
moved to repeat the operation in the next town the next day. 
It required more careful advance planning and more efficient 
timing than the movement of an army corps. Indeed, when 
Bamum & Bailey was touring Europe in 1899, Kaiser Wilhelm 


II of Germany ordered the Imperial General StaflF to study the 
logistics of the circus and apply them to the movement of the 
German Army. Unfortunately they did it only too well. 

Though I saw it done uncounted times, I never got 
over the wonder of the simple, basic setup and teardown 
of the circus. In those days the six-pole Big Top seated over 
twelve thousand people, and you could put a few thousand 
more on the straw laid down around the arena. We did not 
like to have the tent this full, for it was uncomfortable and 
added to the ever hanging danger of iBre. But in those little 
cities in the plains, where farm folks might drive for a hun- 
dred miles to see the show, it was almost impossible to tell 
them they were too late to get in. The expressions on the faces 
of their kids undid you. 

We moved, as I have said, in four trains. The first section 
was the flying squadron, consisting of the layout department, 
side shows, menagerie, and cookhouse. The latter was a tent 
that could seat a thousand people and serve five thousand 
meals a day. Because the men had to be fed as soon as they 
arrived, it was the first thing to be put up. 

On the second section we carried the Big Top and its rig- 
ging and the working personnel of the train and canvas de- 
partments. The third section brought the grandstand and 
the light and wardrobe departments, with attendant person- 
nel. Trucks and baggage stock were on the second section. 
Ring stock and elephants were part of the fourth section, 
along with the staff and performers. 

The last car of the last section was either the Jomar or the 
Caledonia, according to whether Uncle John or Uncle Charlie 
was in command. But it mainly consisted of sleeping cars for 
the performers and management. I use the word "sleeping 
cars" advisedly, for they were not Pullmans, but vehicles 
specially designed to crowd as many people as possible into 


double (and some triple) decker berths, with some state- 
rooms for stars and staffs. 

The circus owned all its own cars— the only things the rail- 
road supplied were the engine and the caboose. By having 
them built overlength we were able to bring the number we 
needed down from one hundred to eighty. They were all 
specially tailored for particular uses. For example, the flats 
on which the giraffes rode were underslung to give more 
clearance for their long necks, which were bent down in their 
thickly padded wagons. Other cars had other special features. 

To me the greatest wonder of all was raising the Big Top. 
Great crowds used to come to the lot to see us do it; and in 
some ways it was a more impressive show than the circus it- 

First the great center poles, as tall as the masts of a clipper 
ship and weighing about a ton each, were brought to the lot 
by the pole wagon, drawn by an eight-horse hitch, and rolled 
off in approximately the right position. While these were be- 
ing raised by gangs of men and obedient elephants, the long 
blue quarter poles and smaller red ones were arranged in 
position, with the short side poles outlining the perimeter of 
the tent. Meanwhile the gilly wagon drove around dropping 
stakes for guy ropes, followed by gangs of men driving them 
in with heavy sledge hammers in cadenced strokes. Special 
stakes were driven to hold the main guys, which braced 
the center poles from outside. These took the greatest stress, 
for they supported not only the enormous weight of the 
tent but the rigging for the aerial acts as well. Tlie main 
guys were steel cables, as were the safeties on the bail rings. 

Now the wagons arrived with rolls of canvas as liigh as a 
man's head, which were dropped off and spread on the 
ground. Men swarmed over them lacing the sections together. 
There was a half-round top at each end. They had a total di- 
ameter of 210 feet. In between were five center pieces each 


60 feet wide. When they were all laced together you had a 
tent 510 feet long and 210 feet wide. 

In those days boss canvasman Happy Jack Snellen had 
close to a thousand men under him. As you looked across the 
lot they were swarming all over the place with much less ap- 
parent order than an army of ants and far more precision. 
When the canvas sections had been laced together and the 
iron-ringed holes tied to the bail rings on the center poles, 
you could begin to raise it a Httle. The elephants strained 
against their padded harnesses, the one-and-one-half-inch 
manila ropes stretched taut from the blocks, and the center 
sections Hfted slowly oflF the gi-ound. It was a Uttle like hoist- 
ing sail on a great old windjammer. For a fact, much of the 
circus was rigged like a ship and the words we used came 
down from the days of sail— "guys" and "falls" and "bail 

As the canvas slowly lifted, men got under it to set the big 
quarter poles. It took about eight men to a pole, for each 
was thirty-seven and one half feet long with a steel horn at 
the end which had to be maneuvered into the leather- and 
steel-bound eyelets in the canvas so that they were partly 
supported by it. With the elephants pulling the peaks up 
slowly, the poles shd along the ground until tliey were in po- 
sition. These were all related operations, with the tremen- 
dous weight of canvas carefully figured out so that center 
poles, quarter poles, and side poles would never take too 
much stress and would not snap in two. Finally the peaks 
reached the top of the poles, all taut and smooth hke a well- 
cut sail, vidth the flags and pennants flying over them. 

As soon as the tent was up, in came the seat wagons. A 
knockdown grandstand to seat twelve thousand people had 
an infinite number of component parts. You'd start off with 
the small A-sliaped jacks and then move to progressively 
larger ones. On top of tlie jacks went the forty-foot-long 


stringers, like jagged saw teeth. The stringers supported the 
hinged planks for the grandstand, which, strangely enough, 
were called bibles in circus Hngo, because they folded to- 
gether as a Bible folds. On top of these went the chairs— in the 
reserved-seat stand. Then you had to level oflF all these things 
by wedging hundreds of little blocks of wood under them at 
the right places. 

The whole operation was dependent on manual labor done 
with speed and precision— each piece thrown oS the wagons 
in exactly the right place and immediately raised into posi- 
tion. The Big Top men were mostly Negroes, magnificent, 
stalwart fellows glistening with sweat, their muscles bulging 
as they worked in perfect rhythm heaving the heavy beams 
of wood o£F the slowly rolling wagons while other gangs lifted 
them smoothly into position. It was a marvelous sight, and a 
shame that it is lost forever. 

The teardown was nearly as exciting. The loading order 
had to be as exactly figured as setting up, so that everything 
would be in place next day. At five-tliirty in the afternoon 
the last person was served in the cookhouse. It was im- 
mediately torn down, hauled to the raihoad yards, and 
loaded onto flatcars. As soon as the people were in the Big 
Top for the evening performance, the menagerie top and 
side shows were struck and loaded, as was the back yard. So 
by the time the performance was over, there was nothing left 
but the Big Top and the paraphernalia required by the dif- 
ferent acts. 

As the people were leaving at one end of the Big Top, 
workmen began tearing down the seats at the other, follow- 
ing right on their heels, so that almost as the last person went 
out, the tent was bare and ready to be struck. The perform- 
ance usually ended at ten forty-five. Very often, if we had a 
good crew, the last wagon would be moving off the lot at one 
o'clock and the last train might be loaded and ready to go by 


From all this you may see that the logistics of the circus, 
until 1938, when my brother John mechanized it, depended 
entirely on men, horses, and elephants. Though I put them 
last, these wonderful animals were not least, for they alone 
were both workers and performers. 

One elephant whom I loved well was Modoc. She was 
a wonderfully intelligent, sly old thing who was most helpful 
in the teardown, lowering the quarter poles, pushing wagons 
around, and doing whatever else she was told to do. Then 
maybe her attendant would doze in an idle moment and 
Modoc would drift silently oJBF. Her keeper would suddenly 
come to, and Modoc would be twenty yards away looking 
over the littered ground for something to eat. She would pick 
up discarded Crackerjack and popcorn boxes with her trunk 
and shake them over her mouth to savor the last crumbs of 
some child's feast. 

In the show this same Modoc used to dance all the way 
down the hippodrome track and stand on her head at the end. 
She is still with us. 

I learned a great deal about elephants dm"ing my years on 
the train. Because of working beside them you became more 
intimately associated with tliem than any other animals. One 
thing I learned was that, though they are used like domestic 
animals, they are still wild— bred in the jungle— so you can 
never quite trust them. This is especially true of the males. 
Unlike most other animals, it is not the female elephant who 
has a mating season, but the males. Their period is signaled 
by a small gland beside each eye which exudes a secretion. 
When a bull is in "must," as this period of mating urge is 
called, you can't trust him for a second. It does not help to 
allow them to mate; in fact, it makes them wilder. For from 
three to six weeks they are insane. This is why we have very 
few males in the herd. 

Another cause of elephant treachery is cruel treatment by 
some handlers. They use the elephant hook, or ankus, with 


sadistic pleasure on the tender places behind an elephant's 
ears. I have frequently taken the hooks away from cruel 
keepers and fired them. A bull thus treated is extremely 
dangerous, for though he may appear docile and obedient, 
there is a very good chance that he is slyly waiting for his 
moment of revenge. He may bide his time for years, remem- 
bering each outrage, and when his moment comes, exact 
dreadful retribution. 

Sometimes even the gentlest of female elephants will have 
a mental storm. Such a one was Dolly. She was a lovely old 
lady who had been v^th the show for many years, right up to 
the time John and I took over its management. One day in 
Winter Quarters in Sarasota, a little girl five years old ducked 
under the rope around the elephant corral. For some inexpli- 
cable reason Dolly grabbed the child -with her trunk, and 
holding her thus, knelt on her, killing her instantly. 

Of course, we had to destroy Dolly. The newspapers 
wanted to make a spectacle of her execution, but however 
much we love publicity, my brother and I did not feel that 
we should make a reporters' holiday out of Dolly. So we told 
them it would be the next morning; and planned it for tliat 

Dolly knew something was viTong. You could tell bv her 
nervous little tricks that she was worried. In the middle of the 
night the circus vet. Doc Henderson, and John and I led her 
out to a desolate field together with her best friend. Elephants 
usually have an elephant friend next to whom tliey are 
stabled throughout their whole lives with the circus. 

When we reached this place of scrub palmettos and long 
coarse grass, Doc Henderson took a hypodermic syringe tlie 
size of a grease gun and, introducing it as gently as possible 
into a vein in Dolly's ear, gave her a massive dose of 
strychnine. She stood calm and gigantic in the starhght for a 
few moments. Then crashed down like a falling building. 


Loving animals as I do, I got to know all the others as well, 
too. From the time I was a boy to my last year with the cir- 
cus, I was always calling on my friends and feeding them. 
The shy giraffes are surprisingly affectionate. They breed 
splendidly in captivity, and a baby giraffe is a great attraction 
to children, and adults, too— a long-legged, soft-eyed little fel- 
low wobbling around with his ridiculous neck all out of 

The cats are always tricky, though charming and affection- 
ate when young. Because they are smaller, young leopards 
make better pets than hons and tigers— if you like that sort 
of pet. Doc Henderson and his wife Martha brought up a fe- 
male leopard on the bottle. Her name was Sweetheart, and 
even when she grew up she was just like a kitten— when the 
Hendersons were with her. 

The hippopotomuses have always been friends of mine. A 
hippo's bulk is tremendous— they weigh between two and 
three tons— but they are practically never vicious. You could 
stick your hand in their mouths if you felt a Httle daring. At 
least I never lost mine. 

I remember one whom we had with the circus all my life 
and longer. He came to us in 1902. He was named August 
after my uncle Gus Ringling. In winter, August lived in liis 
big pool in Sarasota. Almost every day I would go over to have 
a talk with him. I would call "Augustl" in a commanding 
voice, and he would come over looking for the big forage bis- 
cuits I always fed him. 

Another, which we got with the Al G. Barnes show, was a 
wonderful old lady named Lotus. She was so tame that in 
many a spectacle we had her led around the arena on a leash. 

Baby orangutans and gorillas make wonderful pets. Up to 
the age of two they develop with about the same intelligence 
as a human child and are as responsive and fun to play with. 
After that— look outl 


I admit I played favorites with the animals. Zebras failed 
to chaiTTi me. I disliked the snapping, barking seals. And 
snakes left me cold, although they actually like to snuggle up 
to people because of the warmth from human bodies. One 
snake charmer whom I knew, Josephine, had a great affec- 
tion for snakes, which they seemed to return. She would 
wrap a twelve-foot constrictor or python around her body 
for a wliile. Then she would unwrap him and put liim back 
in his box covered up with blankets all nice and warm. 

The great snakes v^oll not willingly eat anything but hve 
food. You have to put a hving chicken, rabbit, or small pig 
in their den. Their ingestion is not a pretty sight, although 
I have forced myself to watch it. 

Now, many people think that circus animals live a misera- 
ble life: carted from place to place, always on exhibition, or 
put through silly tricks for the delectation of the crowds, who 
sometimes seem less intelligent and sensitive than they. My 
friend Doc Henderson agrees with me tliat this is not so. In 
general, the animals soon get used to circus routine and ac- 
cept it as a normal way of living. In fact, I suspect that many 
of them, especially the performers, would miss the excitement 
and applause. The proof of their acceptance of their lot is 
that they are usually in remarkably good health. Further- 
more, they would not be so friendly and affectionate if they 
were unhappy. At least I like to think so. 

So much for the animal friends I made during the years I 
rode the train. The wonderfully brilliant, lovable artists, who 
made the show great; those extraordinary people who were 
kind or cruel, steadfast or psychotic; passionate yet rigorously 
disciplined; demanding but bountifully generous; and which- 
ever they were, or sometimes all of these things at once, 
sharing the great uncommon denominator of superlative 
showmanship— these marvelous friends wiU walk with us 
throughout this book. 


At the end of my first season, with my inquiring mind and 
the multitude of notes I had taken, I thought I knew all about 
the circus. Of course, I did not. For the next thirty-four 
years— with a few minor interruptions caused by family feuds 
and a world war— I continued to learn about it. But one thing 
I knew for sure even then— I had sawdust in my shoes. 

Now I am ready to write about my love; write the whole 
story. Not only the fair face she turns to her admiring pubhc, 
though I shall try to do justice to her beauty and her splendid 
vitality, but also the dark and wicked side of her that I know 
so well. I will tell tlie story of our circus from the beginning. 
It is a story of splendid achievement and of the passionate 
dedication that my family felt toward the beloved institution 
which they fathered. But I do not propose to spare even my 
own people in this narrative. Their faults were often as great 
as their achievements and these, too, will be faithfully 

There are many strange, great, lovable, or hateful charac- 
ters in my story, but basically it hinges on the two men who 
played the leading role in the history of Ringling Brothers— 
Barnum & Bailey Circus— my uncle John Ringling and my 
brother Jolin Ringling North. They have many things in 
common. They both loved the circus and they were both ex- 
tremely controversial figures. There was a third likeness: 
Uncle John and his nephew were both nocturnal creatures. 
Neither liked to get up until afternoon; and they worked or 
played all night. 

As to the controversies, the sharp battles between men and 
women of the same blood and the murderous conflicts with 
outsiders, these were made inevitable by their characters and 
necessities. For certainly Uncle John was, and Brotlier John is, 
egotistical, domineering, and eccentric; and dedicated to the 
circus. Without them our circus would be a very different sort 
of thing. In fact, it is doubtful if it would exist at all. 

Part II 



The circus as we know it has always been a family business. 
I do not speak of its fearful ancestor, the blood baths in the 
Roman Colosseimi, but of the ghttering, laughing, exciting 
spectacle for children-who-never-grow-up which had its be- 
ginnings in the small European road shows of the seventeenth 
and eighteenth centuries. These traveling troupes were almost 


always composed of members of a single family, with their 
wives and collateral relations, who had developed some 
special skills either as equestrians, tightrope performers, 
acrobats, or tmnblers— the aeriahsts came later. 

Even in the present era of big business many individual 
acts are still performed by big families like the Wallendas, 
who build a human pyramid on the high vvire, or the 
Christianis, equestrians extraordinary. My brother and I like 
to think that despite its heterogeneous collection of hundreds 
of performers. The Greatest Show on Earth is also still a 
family aflFair. 

Certainly it was in the beginning. Indeed, for a while the 
five Ringling brothers were all there was to it. However, there 
was one striking difference between the Ringlings and other 
circus people. Most of those famiUes have show business in 
their blood; but there was never a showman in our family 
until the spring day in 1870 when my five uncles were, by 
their accounts of it, ring-struck, dazed and dedicated by the 
sight of a showboat circus. Indeed, tlieir heredity could 
hardly have been less promising for the parts they were to 

They stemmed originally from a French Huguenot family 
named Richelin, who fled from France after Saint Bar- 
tholomew's dreadful fete day and settled in the Hanoverian 
towTi of Dankelshausen. There they changed their name to 
Riingeling and became extremely staid and sober burghers 
making an honest hving and marrying their neighbors' stolid 
daughters. Perhaps the Riingehngs married too locally. Again 
and again through the generations the name Bauermann 
appears as that of the bride. My sister Salome maintains 
that this penchant for marrying their first cousins is the 
cause of our family's notable eccentricities. I have another 
theory. . . . 

My grandfather August Riingeling learned the trade of 


harness maker and carriage trimmer in Germany and, when 
he was twenty-one years old, departed for America to escape 
the alarms and confusions of the revolutionary year of 1848. 
He settled first in Milwaukee and there his father, Frederic 
Riingeling, and his mother, Rosina Bauermann Riingeling, 
joined him a year or two later. Unhappily Great-grandfather 
Riingeling did not long enjoy the freedom of the New World. 
He died in the cholera epidemic in Milwaukee in 1850. 

Early in 1852 Grandfather Riingeling met and married 
Marie Salom^ JuHar of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose par- 
ents had left France in 1845. In my opinion it is the JuHar 
blood which is boiling in our veins when we orbit out of the 
norm. Certainly my great-grandfather Nicholas Juliar, who 
was bom in 1797 in the Alsatian town of Ostheim on the 
Rhine, was a formidable character all his days. He stood six 
feet four, and the turbulence of his nature was as homeric as 
his physical proportions. Since he was seventeen in the last 
years of the Napoleonic era, he may have served the Em- 
peror—toward the end of his life he believed he had. 

In the 1840S he sold his vineyards on the simny slopes be- 
hind the Rhine, and packing the gold louis in little kegs, set 
off with his wife, three daughters, and an infant son, my great- 
uncle Nicholas Juhar, Jr., for America. He put his family 
aboard a sailing packet at Le Havre and informed his wife 
that he had certain affairs to attend to in the town. The busi- 
ness was apparently transacted in the wineshops of the port, 
and when Grandfather Juliar recovered consciousness, he 
found that the American packet had sailed. 

One may imagine the anxiety with which my tiny great- 
grandmother, surrounded by her sobbing offspring, watched 
the masts and spires of Le Havre fading in the early mists as 
the ship bowed and creaked to the Channel seas. One may 
also share her relief as she saw a swift cutter pursuing the 


packet and recognized a gigantic figure standing on her bow- 
sprit bellowing orders for the packet to heave to. But Great- 
grandfather Juliar was not permitted to share her happiness. 
He heard of that episode all the rest of his life. 

All his long life Great-grandfather indulged in these drink- 
ing bouts. My uncle John Ringling remembered him when he 
was in his eighties, a magnificent man still, as straight and 
tall as one of Napoleon's grenadiers, roaring drunk in the 
main street of Rice Lake, calhng dov^ni curses on all Ger- 
mans, shooting off his ancient flintlock musket, and shouting 
"Vive V empereur!" 

My grandparents had a happy though peripatetic mar- 
riage. They anglicized tlieir name to Ringling and settled in 
Chicago, where Albert, the first of their seven sons was born 
in December 1852. They then moved to Milwaukee, where 
August was born in 1854. Grandfather Ringling wanted 
a business of his ovvni. In 1855 he moved to the village of 
Baraboo, Wisconsin, which became the cradle of our great 
enterprise. My uncle Otto was bom in Baraboo in 1858. 

Grandfather announced his new business in a racy, al- 
most circus-style advertisement in the Baraboo Republic of 
June 23, 1855. 


He went on to describe his stock of "a saddle or two, a 
couple of bridles, trunks, valises, whip lashers . . . also fly 
nets. . . . 

"Now if any are desirous to know where these cheap things 
sta\ thev will crowd their way to the shop of the undersigned 
neaiiv opposite the Summer House. A. Ring]ing." 

It appears that business was good at first, for the followiag 
year he triumphantly announced: 


The ONE HORSE establishment will now, good 
friends, pass as a DOUBLE HORSE Concern. 

However, it seems unlikely that the Ringling boys in- 
herited their business ability from their father. Despite his 
skill and the rapidly growing lumber industry which created 
an excellent demand for harness, the following advertisement 
appeared in the Baraboo Republic in 1858: 

A Ringling Announces that in consequence of the Hard 
Times . . . he is selling out his entire stock of Double 
and Single Harness, Saddles, etc. At Cost. 

In i860 the Ringlings moved to McGregor, Iowa. There the 
rest of the famous Ringling team were born: Alfred T., 1862; 
Charles, 1864; John, 1866; and Henry, 1869. 

McGregor was a boom town on the Mississippi probably 
larger in those days than it is now. For like so many embryo 
metropohses on the river, it starved and shrank as the steam- 
boat traffic, which was its reason for being, was superseded 
by the railroads. Grandfather appears to have had liis own 
shop there for a time, and then joined forces with several 
partners. He also became a founder member of the new 
Lutheran church. 

My grandmother bought a pleasant frame house in 
McGregor, and there tlie Ringling boys grew up in an en- 
vironment almost identical to that of the most famous of all 
American boys, who hved in a similar river town, called 
Hamiibal, Missouri. Incidentally, Grandfather Ringlings 
sister was married to Samuel Clemens' first cousin and my 
mother often visited the Clemens family in Hannibal. The 
slow barefoot days of siunmer alternated with the long icy 
winters. The httle schoolhouse might have been the one where 
Tom and Huck and golden-ringleted Becky scratched with 
squeaky pencils on their slates and felt the sting of the 
teacher's hickory stick on their backsides. 


However, theirs was not the circumscribed environment of 
the inland prairie towns. The multifarious life of the great 
river, which was the main artery of midwestern commerce, 
poured by on its roiHng, muddy current, often pausing at the 
levee to load cargo or discharge passengers. Even when they 
did not stop, those splendid white-and-gold steamers with 
their tall twin stacks trailing tumbling coils of black smoke 
led the children's thoughts to places beyond the horizon. 

Other types of steamers plied the river in those days- 
showboats and circus boats. And thereby hangs the tale of 
The Greatest Show On Earth. 

Fortunately for Ringling liistorians, my uncle Alf T. v^ote 
an eyewitness account of the spring day that changed the 
Ringlings' lives. The event was heralded weeks ahead by big 
gaudy billboards proclaiming the advent of: 




Dan Rice, who deserved his billing of The King of Ameri- 
can Clowns, was one of the first great circus men— he had 
started his circus in 1848. He was beloved by the crowds and 
was a friend of the great, among whom were men of such 
diverse political views as Horace Greeley, Jefferson Davis, 
Robert E. Lee, and Abraham Lincoln. His showboat circus 
was no shoddy affair. Though there was only one ring, it was 
an excellent show. Indeed, it is thought to be the one Tom 
Sawyer saw. 

My uncle Alf T. recorded that he and his brothers got up 
very early on the appointed morning. It must have been 
about 4 A.M., for there was no sign of dawn in the sky as the 
boys— Henry was too young— walked nervously along pitch- 
black streets made strange by their utter emptiness. 

Down by the boat landing a few oil lanterns glimmered in 


the thick, dank-smelling mist off the water. Other early-rising 
boys and men were moving about talking in low tones or 
skipping stones across the water. In retm-n for permission to 
make this predawn excursion, the Ringling boys had prom- 
ised their parents not to mingle with any crowds, so they 
formed a solid little group by themselves, which was symbolic 
of the united front they always showed the world. John, aged 
four, clung to Albert's reassuring hand. He was too young to 
be there at all, but he was a willful child. 

The boys stood listening for the sound of the circus boat's 
whistle. They could identify every boat on the river by the 
note of her whistle, but circus boats were easy. Their owners 
added a set of chromatic whistles to the regular one and an- 
nounced themselves by sending a steam-fed tune shoreward. 
This was the origin of the music machine wliich became 
symbolic of the circus, the steam calhope. 

When the mist had whitened a little and the bellies of the 
clouds turned gray, the Ringlings saw lights coming around 
the bend. All the men and boys began to shout and yell, and 
were suddenly silent again, listening. Let Uncle Alf describe 

"Far reaching but soft came the melody of a popular 
air. . . . There were no screeching tones— none of the ear- 
splitting screams that the calliope of today sends out to rattle 
against the windows and walls of a city street. The old river 
calliope made music that was sweet. All its sharpness and its 
terror were mellowed as it passed over the water, and by the 
time it reached the shore it was as soft and soothing as a 
cradle song. . . ." 

Grandly the steamer came on, pine torches flaring along 
her decks. She nosed into the bank with clanging bells and 
hissing steam. You could read her name on the pilothouse: 
WILL s. HAYS. Alongside her was a barge loaded with splendid 


chariots of red and gold, and the tent wagons piled with long 
poles and great rolls of canvas. These were dragged off first 
by a windlass; then hitched to six-horse teams and started for 
the show grounds. The carved and gilded chariots were eased 
carefully off, as their teams were simultaneously brought oflF 
the main boat and hitched up with the precision of a well- 
drilled battery of horse artillery. Then came the animals— a 
nose-ringed bear or two, a grumpy camel, the white broad- 
backed horses of the equestrians, and finally the elephant, 
testing the gangplank with probing trunk and one great fore- 
foot. Iron-gray, the color of sky and water, he was mon- 
strously magnified by the mist. Though later the Ringlings 
owned many larger animals, they all declared that they never 
saw another elephant that looked so big. 

Alf T. Ringling states that as he and his brothers walked 
home for breakfast, they talked together for the first time of 
having a circus of their own. 

The rest of the day was as splendid as its beginning. First 
the parade, then the performance itself, which was more than 
anticipation demanded. To the unsophisticated, entertain- 
ment-starved cliildren of those small midwestern towns, the 
color and splendor, the music and lights, the feats of skill, and 
the uproarious antics of the clowns were beyond any imagin- 
ing of delight. Even the sleazy, gaudy costumes were trans- 
figured by their innocent eyes and, for that reason in that 
time, were truly things of beauty. 

The younger boys were completely swept up and out of 
themselves by the show, lost to time and all reahty. But Al 
watched it with a speculative eye, studying the techniques of 
the acrobats and jugglers. At eighteen he was strong and agile, 
and he believed he could duplicate some of their feats. 

As is the way of circuses, Dan Rice's show vanished in the 
night, leaving no trace of its glories but a terrible mess of torn 


paper, garbage, and old tin cans on the show grounds. How- 
ever, instead of the emptiness that usually marks the day 
after such an orgy of delight, the Ringlings were full of 
enthusiasm. They had decided to put on their own show. 

Their first circus was held in a "mammoth pavihon" made 
of scraps of canvas, old carpets, and moth-eaten army blan- 
kets. The company consisted of the Ringlings and a few 
friends. The admission price was one cent. But such was the 
eagerness of McGregor's youth to see a show— any show— tliat 
a series of performances netted $8.37 ( Alf T.'s figures ) . This 
was promptly plowed back into the business by the purchase 
of enough mushn sheeting for a fairly sizable tent. 

The Ringlings considered their performance of 1870 kid 
stuff. In the summer of 1871 they put on a real show. (That 
year a gentleman named Phineas T. Barnum also went into 
the circus business.) Apparently the Ringlings must have 
worked on their circus the best part of the winter and 
spring and spent most of their earnings on props and ring 
stock, for it represented quite a respectable entertainment 
even without the accidental effects that were funnier than the 
best efforts of Emmett Kelly. Their historian, Alf T. Ringling, 
left a blow-by-blow description of it. 

McGregor was notified of the event by the concatenation 
of a fife, jew's-harp, bugle, and harmonica, and the booming 
of an enthusiastic drum. Rushing to porches and store fronts, 
they saw the parade, headed by a "Democrat wagon" painted 
in gaudy reds and yellows drawn by a desiccated black 
mustang pony, with superb harness by A. Ringling and a red, 
white, and blue sheep's-wool plume nodding from his head. 
Driving the wagon was Al Ringling, who also played the 
bugle, while four of his brothers, all wearing plumes like the 
horse, made up the band. It was followed by a small boy 
carrying a sign that read: 



Next in line came Otto Ringling leading a battle-scarred 
goat known locally as Billy Rainbow, which he had trained to 
perform certain tricks and reclassified as a "hippo-capra," This 
in turn was followed by the whole juvenile population of 
McGregor. Indeed, most of the adults joined the fun, follow- 
ing the Ringlings to the vacant lot where their circular tent 
was pitched. From its center pole, a young pine tree cut from 
the nearby woods, floated an American flag, while the sapling 
quarter poles flew homemade pennants. Over the entrance 
was a sign: 


Admission 5 cents 

Over a hundred men, women, and children handed their 
five cents to Otto at the door and crowded around the little 
sawdust ring in the middle of the tent. The entertainment 
started with the grand entry, known professionally as the 
Spec. Alf T., representing the King of the Sandwich Islands 
in a Union ofiicer's old dress uniform, a cape made from a 
crazy quilt, and a gilt-paper crown, led it riding the pony. He 
was followed by the band and the performers, now dressed 
in tights made of long winter underwear dyed gaudy colors 
and meagerly bespangled and decorated with fancy ribbons. 
Last came Billy Rainbow, led by John Ringling dressed as a 
clown— he was five years old. 

Right at the peak of the spectacle occurred the first of those 
unpremeditated incidents wliich convinced the spectators 
that they were getting their money's worth. As the King of the 
Sandwich Islands dismounted and bowed to his applauding 
subjects, Billy Rainbow broke loose from John's feeble hold 
and with instinctive showmanship butted the seat of the royal 
pants. The King wept with pain and everyone else in the tent 
wept with laughter. 


From there on the RingHngs had their audience sewed up. 
Al juggled hats and plates, and the more plates he broke the 
louder was the applause. Otto Ringhng was announced with 
his performing goat. Under the eye of his real master, Billy 
Rainbow worked like a veteran. 

Display No. 4 was a tumbling act by the entire company. 
Little Johnny Ringling then sang a clown song, "Root Hog or 
Die," with the whole company joining in the chorus, and fol- 
lowed it up with some jokes from Dan Rice's show the year 
before. The next display was an exhibition on trapeze and 
rings. Then came the crowning performance. While Al acted 
the ringmaster in a real high silk hat, Charhe Ringling ap- 
peared in an equestrian display on the mustang. It was not 
precisely bareback riding, for the poor beast's razor-sharp 
spine would have defeated Lucio Christiani himself. Charhe 
had contrived a riding pad out of half a cellar door and some 
blankets. It had worked well in practice, but in the hurry of 
getting it strapped on his steed he had been careless. Every 
time he leaped onto it, it tilted and spilled him off. Thus, in 
spite of themselves, the Ringlings followed that old theatrical 
precept: "Always leave them laughing." 

In telling the story of Dan Rice's arrival in McGregor and 
the first Ringling circus, I have adhered strictly to the facts 
as set down by my uncle Alf and related to me by my other 
uncles. But I am not so naive as to suppose that no exaggera- 
tions crept in. Nor should it be otherwise, for without hyper- 
bole circus public relations would be like a Bloody Mary 
without vodka. 

For example, though they always claimed it happened that 
way, it seems improbable that all my uncles were converted 
by Dan Rice's lightning like six Sauls on the road to Damas- 
cus. This appears especially doubtful in the case of fom--year- 
old Johnny. Yet one cannot be sure, for John Ringling at the 


last was the most dedicated of all; and he was a precocious 
child. Like most legends, this one is probably contrary to fact 
but contains the essence of truth. For that May day did, ia 
fact, determine their lives. 

I think that it was Albert Ringling who got the full charge 
and bellwethered his brothers into a life of showmanship. But 
they were willing followers, and in the end the disciples out- 
ran their master. By the time they held their fii"st circus their 
course was fully charted. 

The townspeople of McGregor may have regarded the show 
as a joke, but to the Ringlings it was a deadly serious business 
in which they took enormous pride. How proud they were is 
indicated by the fact that in all the years ahead my shrewdly 
sentimental uncles numbered their seasons from that first five- 
cent circus. 

chaptj:r IV 


The "hard times" came again for August Ringling in 1872— 
a year ahead of the rest of the country. 

That autumn the Ringlings moved across the river to Prairie 
du Chien in Wisconsin, where my grandfather got a job as a 
carriage trimmer in Traner's Carriage Works. He was able to 


rent a comfortable house in the village. But bad luck seems 
to follow poor businessmen, like a dog after a v^histle. The 
next fall Traner's factory burned to the groimd just as the 
great depression of '73 hit the country. It v^as never rebuilt, 
and Grandfather was out of work. 

Now the Ringlings reached their lowest ebb. They moved 
to a ramshackle house in a coulee, or dry gulch, outside of 
town. Naturally it had no plumbing, but a lead pipe mounted 
on wooden blocks brought water to the kitchen from a spring 
further up in the hills. A narrow strip of land along the road 
came with the house, and there those of the boys who were 
still at home raised what food they could, with the aid of the 
former King of the Sandwdch Islands' old mustang pony. In 
that house my mother, Ida Lorena Wilhelmina Ringling, was 
born on February 2, 1874. She was twenty-one years younger 
than her eldest brother, the last child and only girl in the 
family. Two other boys and a girl, who all died in infancy, 
had been born in between my uncles, but in those unsterile 
times, to have eight children survive was an excellent per- 

After Ida was bom, the older boys began to fly the family 
coop. Gus was already working as a carriage trimmer in vari- 
ous small lowan towns. Then Al went off to follow his pre- 
carious chosen profession. He had never ceased to practice 
his jugghng and acrobatics. Now he managed to get jobs in 
some "haU shows," as the small troupes of traveling enter- 
tainers were called. He appears to have made his head- 
quarters at Brodhead, Wisconsin, where he worked as a 
carriage trimmer while professionally at hberty. In the sum- 
mer he came to Praiiie du Chien, and while working that thin 
piece of land, perfected his most original trick— balancing a 
plow on the point of his chin. 

Albert Ringling had considerable ability, and what is more, 
he had the drive, which in any field is an excellent substitute 


for talent. According to an article by J. J. Schicher in the 
Wisconsin Magazine of History, he was so successful that by 
1880 he was managing a show. Two ancient Brodheadians 
remember him living in a large hotel room surrounded by 
his paraphernalia and practicing his stunts. History does not 
state how his fellow boarders felt about it. However, one of 
Uncle Al's specialties was ropewalking, which he practiced 
out of doors on a rope stretched between two large trees in 
the town square. 

Meanwhile August Ringling was once more on the move, 
first to Stillwater, Minnesota, and finally back to Baraboo. 

Grandfather was surely a glutton for punishment. He had 
his own shop in Baraboo again in 1876, which was burned up 
in a fire that leveled an entire block of wooden shops on Oak 
Street in 1878. Even this did not daunt him. He opened up 
again at the corner of Third Street and Broadway in the lower 
floor of a frame house, while the family lived above. In 1880 
he won three first prizes at the county fair with a "splendid 
display of harness," including a "gold- and rubber-mounted 
double carriage harness . . . the finest ever manufactured in 
this part of the state." 

Sometime during those years Otto went off to find work as 
a harness maker, while Alf T. and Charles came into their 
father's shop. But their hearts were definitely not in it. Ratlier, 
they liked to practice their musical instruments— Charles 
played the violin and trombone; Alf blew a loud and melodi- 
ous cornet. 

Meanwhile yoimg Johnny was boiling with that tremendous 
energy which later made him the most far-ranging of the 
brothers, both in business and intellectual activities. This 
does not refer to formal education— he never even finished 
high school. In fact, my mother used to say that the only 
way they could keep John in school was to tie him to his 
desk. Uncle John was never amused by this remark. 


When he was twelve years old John Ringling struck out for 
himself. He ran away from home and set himself up in busi- 
ness in Milwaukee. Long afterward he described to me his 
first business venture. It was selling a "wonderful" cleaner 
for pots and pans which he manufactured himself by com- 
bining an abrasive powder wdth a httle bluing to give it a 
distinctive appearance. This he put up in neat little packages. 
When the police, whom Grandfather had alerted, caught up 
with John, they found him living in an empty warehouse in 
Milwaukee, industriously mixing up a batch of Ringling 
Cleanser. His only furniture consisted of packing crates in- 
geniously adapted to the roles of table, chairs, and a bed. But 
business was booming. He was very annoyed at being sent 

In the next two years John ran away three more times. 
Somehow he never cared for Baraboo. In fact, as soon as he 
got enough money he moved away permanently and there- 
after referred to residents of his home tov^Ti as "Baraboobians." 

John's final bid for freedom from education came when a 
small hall show played Baraboo. Uncle John caught up wdth 
the show about ten miles from Baraboo at the tiny towTi of 
Delton, which has since disappeared without leaving a trace. 
He asked for a job, giving his age as sixteen, which he looked 
to be. They promptly hired him as a general handyman. He 
swept the halls, packed up the paraphernalia, and took tickets 
at the door. His pay was supposed to be three dollars a week. 

Uncle John enjoyed the gypsy life immensely, as he ever 
after did; but he got very tired indeed of never being paid. 
Occasionally, the manager would throw him a half dollar, 
but this did little more than add insult to his strong sense of 
personal injury. Since there seemed no chance of collecting 
his back wages legally, he decided to do something about 
it. One night, when the audience was in, he carefully counted 
the take and found that it came to just about what he figured 


the show owed him. So he put it in his pocket and left town 
while the performers were still bringing down the house. 

That was in Minnesota. Correctly deciding that he had 
better get lost, he headed for the great big city of St. Paul, 
where he bought himself a gold watch and confidently began 
looking for work. Fortunately, his father found him before 
his former employer did, and back he went to Baraboo. 

The Ringlings' real career was heralded by the merest 
whisper of publicity. An obscure item in the Sauk County 
Democrat for June lo, 1882, stated, "Albert Ringling is at 
home for several days' vacation with his parents." 

It was no vacation. Uncle Al came to organize a dream- 
that of having his own show. If August Ringling shook his 
head it was in silence. Charles and Alf T. were enthusiastic 
—harness making was never a thing for them. In addition, 
young Ringling recruited three talented local boys for his 
little company. Among them was E. M. Kimball, who later 
made his mark in theatrical history by proxy as the father 
of tlie brilliant star of the silent screen, Clara Kimball Young. 

With reckless disregard for fact and splendid alliteration, 
the show was billed as: 

Fourth Season, 1882 



A refined and high class entertainment containing 

many of the most prominent features of the musical 

and comedy world 
New Faces New Acts New Songs 

Wonderful Dancers Great Specialists 

Noted Comedians Famous Singers 


As to that questionable "Fourth Season": The Ringlings 
were not liars; they just liked to stretch truth a little. They 
justified the statement by counting the five-cent cii'cus as theii* 


first season and Albert's three years of managing hall shows 
as the rest. 

The Ringlings spent the rest of the summer of 1882 in 
frantic preparation. A show was put together and rehearsed. 
Handbills and tickets were printed; wigs and comedy acces- 
sories bought or made at home; trunks purchased and packed. 
A. M. Young was hired as advance agent to map their route 
and travel ahead to plaster the towns with gaudy yellow 
posters. It all cost a great deal of Albert's hard-earned money. 
Before they put their first show on the road Ringling 
Brothers were almost flat broke. 

On a cold November afternoon the show started from 
Baraboo with the paraphernalia in a farm wagon and the 
performers in a three-seat surrey. They drove fourteen miles 
over the wintry hills to Sauk City, where they took a milk 
train to Mazomanie, Wisconsin. Their object in taking this 
roundabout route was to avoid being followed by friends who 
might come to jeer, not cheer. It was not altogether success- 

When they got to the hotel for breakfast, two young 
Mazomanians, whom they had once met, greeted them with 
whoops and hollers. Charles Ringling told how this ill-timed 
welcome affected them. 

"When those two young fellows dashed into our faces with 
their guileless effervescence, and their carbonic questions 
made the crowd standing around wise about our newness, 
we felt like taking the train back to Baraboo. How we could 
shake hands with the fellows when we felt that they deserved 
to be murdered, I don't know. We were crushed for all day." 

Utterly despondent, the company went through a spiritless 
rehearsal which was further dampened by their awe of the 
"grandeur of painted hangings and imitation-marble col- 
umns," which were the local theater's stock set. 


According to Charles: "At about noon we paraded the 
streets of the small village with our little band. . . . Alf and 
one of our hired associates played on cornets, the other played 
a bass horn . . . and I must have threatened the foundations 
of the shops with a long and brassy trombone while Al beat 
the bass drum. ... As we paraded that first day, each one of 
us playing for dear life, I was aware of a lump that seemed 
to come into my throat. . . . From the shopwindows our 
yellow window hangers boldly proclaimed [that we] would 
give an entertainment of Mirth and Music in the town hall, 
and I shuddered at what in my own heart I called 'our awful 

The historic first performance took place on the evening of 
Monday, November 27, 1882. It exceeded everybody's worst 
expectations. According to Charles: "From the very beginning 
the troupe in its entirety seemed to fly to pieces. Our first 
number was an introductory overture. We all played in this, 
ordinarily in a satisfactory manner. . . . [That night] it 
seemed as if every note from the cornet was a blue one, every 
tone from the violin a squeak, every blast from the clarinet 
a shriek, and as if all the different instruments were in a 
jangle. Oh, it was an awful exhibition of faltering nerve. . . . 

"We were a confused and demoralized lot when we left the 
stage. Our trembling limbs seemed unable to move . . . and 
we bumped up against one another awkwardly as with bated 
breath and red faces we shambled off beyond the wings. . . . 

"You can imagine how we felt when we had to go out and 
face the audience singlehanded and alone to perform our 
specialties. But we did it. Talk about a soldier's feeling before 
battle I It cannot be a comparison to a real healthy feeling of 
stage fright. Why, when I came off after my so-called act, 
my tongue and throat were actually parched from the fever of 
excitement that was raging within me. . . . 

"Now as I look back on tliat performance, I wonder that it 


didn't break up in a riot. . . . The funny part of it was that 
not one of the fifty-nine people who had come to see the show 
got up and walked out. They suflFered the tortures of our music 
and bore the weariness which hung upon our jokes with a 
patience and good nature which I feel grateful for to this day. 
They even applauded at times. I hope every one of them has 
prospered since, and may Hve a long and happy life. Each 
deserves it after such a sacrifice. . . ." 

When the Ringlings counted the house they found they 
had taken in thirteen dollars. Against this they had the fol- 
lowing expenditures: 

Livery from Baraboo to Sauk City 
Railroad fare from Sauk City to 

Hotel biU 
Rent of hall 

$ 8.00 






As the Ringling Brothers left for their next stand at a town 
with the hopeful name of Spring Green, their working capital 
was two dollars and fifty cents. 

In that vemally named but icy city they got their first break. 
As soon as the train arrived they hurried to the drugstore 
which Mr. Young had induced to handle the tickets. 

"What is our advance sale?" Al asked, and thought the 
druggist answered, "Six." 

"That's not much," he said despondently. 

"I think it's mighty good," the druggist said. "Fact is, sixty 
dollars is the best we've ever had here." 

It is reliably reported that Uncle Al required a restorative. 
Even when he recovered, he could not understand how the 
people of Spring Green could be insane enough to buy nearly 
every seat in the house. The mystery was cleared up by the 


janitor of the hall, who explained that a local association had 
announced a dance for that night, but when they tried to 
hire the hall, it was already taken. The farm boys and their 
girls had been driving into town all day. When they found 
the dance was off, they took the next best thing— the Ringlings. 
So from the depths of bankruptcy the Ringlings shot to the 
very peak of prosperity in twenty-four horns. By eight o'clock 
the house was packed with people; some even roosting on the 
window sills. The farm folk were out to have a good time; 
and they had it. As the RingHng orchestra came on stage the 
audience whistled and cheered, and the timbers shivered to 
the stomping of cowhide boots. What mattered now an oc- 
casional blue note or a slight squeak? The crowd was warm 
and willing, and the company responded by outdoing them- 
selves, as is always the case when that wonderful rapport 
which makes the magic of the theater is established between 
an audience and the performers. Indeed, my uncles said they 
never played better. Albert was brilliant and sure as he 
juggled whips, hats, and plates. How the fann boys yelled 
when he balanced that plow on his chini The singing and 
dancing acts were thunderously received. When Alf T. and 
Charles displayed their versatility by playing eight different 
instruments, the audience sat in spellbound wonder. Every 
threadbare joke brought a belly laugh, and tlie dramatic 
sketch which closed the show produced an ovation. It was 
an actor's paradise. 

That night set a record but not a precedent. The company 
rocked along from town to town, scraping bottom all the way. 
On December i and 2 they daringly gave shows in McGregor 
and Prairie du Chien without being egged off the stage by 
their former fellow townsmen. 

On December 18, at Sanborn, Iowa, John Ringling, aged 


fifteen, joined his brothers. He had three comic roles in the 
show; the first two were a dude and an Irishman, For his 
final turn he was billed as The Emperor of Dutch Comedians 
and did a wooden-shoe dance. With his round face and a 
false bulging stomach he was very funny. 

The band needed an alto horn, so Albert ordered John to 
learn to play it. He went so far as to lock his brother in his 
room for practice every day until John was able to produce 
an adequate if not exactly scintillating performance. 

By train or in hired wagons and sleigh, the Ringlings fol- 
lowed an erratic course across the bleak lowan plains playing 
every night but Sunday. They even gave a show on Christmas 
night in Flandreau, South Dakota. Then they crossed into 
Minnesota. Experience made them decide to avoid the larger 
towns in favor of the little rural communities, which were 
both less critical and more hungry for entertainment. Their 
Route Book chronicles the almost forgotten names— Pipestone, 
Edgerton, Fulda, Jackson, Fairmont, Alden, Austin, Browns- 
ville, Dexter. Next to Dexter is the notation "Snowed in." 

There the final curtain almost fell on the Ringling Concert 
Company. They were operating on so thin a margin that a 
lost night could mean bankruptcy. Alf T. describes how they 
dragged their trunks down to the depot through a howling 
blizzard because the liveryman refused to take his horses out. 
Their train grunted in hours late pushing a snow plow. It 
was only twenty miles to ironically named Spring Valley, but 
the train stuck fast halfway there, and they slept on the plush- 
covered seats of the chilly cars. The next day the train was 
hopelessly snowbound, but they succeeded in hiring a sleigh 
for ten dollars. They had only half that amount between them, 
but they figured they might get the rest if they ever reached 
Spring Valley. They did; for the news of their trek spreading 
through town was better advertising than handbills, and the 
house was full. 


In a mining town they ran into competition from a prize 
fight and played to six people. This time they had no money 
to pay their hotel bill, so Jim Hamilton, the proprietor, held 
their trunks. But the miners felt sorry for them and helped 
to sneak the trunks out of the hotel in the middle of the night 
and get them on a barge, in which they crossed the Missis- 
sippi River to Wisconsin, leaving Hamilton howHng impre- 
cations from the bank. 

Then they had a few good nights and sent Hamilton a 
money order for his bill. How extraordinary such honesty was 
considered is shown by the receipt he sent them. 

Received of Ringling Bro. this day and date 7 dolars 
witch I neaver thot Ide get, but witch I am sorey I 
dident trust them for because they are honest even 
the they are acters whitch you cant say of all of them. 
But I have been skined so many times by men who say 
nice words, that I have to be careful. 

If you eaver come this way agan Ide trust you but I 
was awful mad when I thot you had skip for good. 

Jim Hampton. 

About this time Otto Ringling joined them, replacing A. M. 
Young as advance man. And now the five original partner- 
brothers were all together. 

Through that frozen, desolate countryside the tour con- 
tinued. In some respects their life was more rigorous than 
that of the pioneers who had but lately preceded them. For 
the first settlers were at least properly clothed, housed in snug 
cabins, and equipped to live off the country swarming with 
game; whereas the Ringlings were nightly on the road, half 
frozen in their thin citified clothes, and dependent for their 
food on the fickle favor of the public, which was a considera- 
bly less reliable provider than a Winchester .44. 

When they had time to sleep at all, it was in flea-bag hotels 
where the top price for a room was a dollar and fifty cents and 


not worth it. In this connection, Uncle John used to tell the 
tale of arriving late at one such hostelry and hauling the 
proprietor out of bed, w^hose unsavory appearance and gamy 
smell foretold the conditions ahead. He came to the front desk 
and reached for the key with his right hand, vigorously 
scratcliing his exposed armpit with his left. "Here's number 
four for you two," he said. With his left hand he hooked a 
second key oflF a nail while scratching his left armpit. "You 
two gentlemen bunk in number five." 

Then with both hands energetically scratching his belly, 
he remarked with undue optimism, "Have a good sleep, 

The initial tour closed in Viroqua, Wisconsin, on February 
27, 1883, and they all went back to Baraboo, no richer, but 
considerably wiser. However, they started out again on 
March 12, and played throughout April. One more brief foray, 
which lasted a week in May, ended the season. 

What the Ringlings did throughout the summer is not 
recorded. They certainly did not hve on their profits. Nor did 
they work in the harness shop; for August Ringling had upped 
stakes again to locate in Rice Lake,Wisconsin. He hoped to 
find a market for his handmade harness by moving westward 
to this frontier town, which was so deep in the forest that my 
mother remembered being frightened by a great black bear 
when she was picking berries. 

Whatever occupation the brothers found, it was only a stop- 
gap. Neither storm, nor sleet, nor gloom of public apathy could 
stay them from their self-appointed course. On August 30, 
1883, they started out again wdth a more elaborate show. Otto, 
Alf T., Charles, and John headed it— Albert was traveling 
with another troupe, which had made him an offer he could 
not afford to turn dov^m. In addition, there were eight hiied 
performers, including a married couple, and a brand-new 


portable organ. One thing the Ringhngs had learned on their 
previous tours was that the word "classic" held no appeal for 
their public. What the people of those small western towns 
wanted, and needed desperately, was entertainment, so this 
season the show was billed as: 


They headed straight for the lumber towns, where tlie 
axmen and loggers had pay in their pockets and no place to 
spend it. They did very well— at first. 

On September 22 they played Rice Lake and held a family 
reunion. Their deep German sentimentality and strong family 
ties had survived transplanting to the New World as it was to 
survive the harder pressures of great wealth and diverse 
interests. Though I appeared thirty years and thirty million 
dollars later, I can still remember the tremendous family 
gatherings at Christmas in Baraboo, when all the uncles came 
home with their wives and childi'en to celebrate with an 
enormous meal and joyous expressions of theii* deep affection 
for one another. So one can easily imagine what a gemiltlich 
time they had that night in Rice Lake, with their parents, and 
their baby sister, and Henry, who gi-ew to be six feet three 
and weigh three hundred pounds. One can also envisage 
the meal that Grandmamma cooked for them of rich, heavy 
Gernian dishes, and how wonderful it tasted after the slops 
that were served on the fly-specked tables of hotel dining 

As the Carnival of Fun moved on into Minnesota the 
weather hardened, and the hired performers became a good 
deal less enthusiastic. 

The trouble came to a climax early in November. For that 
date the Route Book has the brief notation: "On November 
2'd all people were discharged, and on Nov. 3'd at Starbuck, 
Minn., made parade. Alf Ringling, Cornet; Jolm Ringling, 


Alto; Chas. Ringling, Baritone [Trombone]; Otto Ringling, 
Bass Drum. [Otto was tone deaf.]" 

Fortmiately Alf T. Ringling provided a considerably more 
detailed account of the crisis. According to him, the manage- 
ment held a conference at which one of the brothers remarked, 
"Next season let's go it by ourselves." 

It was Alf T. who said, "I'd make next season begin to- 

The next day happened to be payday. The company was 
much gratified and slightly siuprised to get their full pay that 
night after the show. Then they all went to bed in the hotel 
across from the railway station. As soon as the Ringlings were 
reasonably sure that their employees were asleep, they 
sneaked out and borrowed the baggage truck from the rail- 
way station. Then they woke the proprietor and told him that 
they were leaving and wanted their trunks. His alarmed 
protest was silenced by being paid in full for everybody 
through breakfast on the morrow. 

Only one hitch occurred. One of the trunks had been left 
in the hotel parlor. Since every room was taken, the proprietor 
had put a cot in it and rented it to a most respectable widow. 
Naturally nervous about inhabiting the same hotel as a troupe 
of actors, she had locked her door and paid no attention to 
polite rapping. At this point Uncle John showed that gift of 
improvisation which took him so far. He banged lurgently on 
the door with his cane and said in a commanding voice, 
"Quick, madam! I can still save you." 

The door opened a crack. Uncle John inserted his stick. His 
brothers rushed in to get the trunk. Over to the station on the 
luggage truck, and they were oflF bag and baggage. 

When Otto met them there in Starbuck the next day, he 
asked, "Where are all the others?" 

"Shook," said John. 


It is further recorded in the Route Book tliat with Otto out 
ahead, Alf T., Charles, and John played the show alone until 
Al joined them at Lincoln, Nebraska, on January 6, 1884. Ap- 
parently they did very well, for by that time they were able 
to see the shimmering mirage of a Big Top of their own. 
There is a picture of the five brothers parading in this final 
flowering of the Carnival of Fun. They have abandoned the 
uniformed-band idea and are fashionably dressed in Prince 
Albert coats with gleaming high silk hats. Albert and Charles 
already have grown the glossy black walrus mustaches which 
became a trade-mark of the Ringling brothers. On his travels 
Al had acquired two valuable assets. One was the friendship 
of a grand old circus man who was down on his luck; the 
other was a wife. 

Her name was Louise Morris, and she was a woman of 
many parts, among them a dauntless disposition and the 
ability to charm snakes. The senior Ringlings were somewhat 
less enthusiastic about their first daughter-in-law tlian her 
merit deserved. This is implied in a pathetically polite letter 
from her, written the following year while her husband was 
oflF with the Carnival of Fun. 

Baraboo, December 21, 1884 

Dear Mr, and Mrs. Ringling: 

I suppose I should say Father and Mother but it 
seems kind of strange to say that. But it has been long 
anuff ago to not be strange by now. 

Al wrote to me saying you want to now why I never 
wrote to you. I wrote last if I am not mistaken and I 
supposed you knew all about Al and I being married as 
I think Al wrote it to you last winter just after we was 
married. It was ages ago the 19th of this month, . . . 

Well I just think there is no better man than Al. We 
all got along spendid last summer and had a nice time 
and I am very anchuss to see him here again as I am 
very lonesome here all alone this winter. I am 


doing some dress making but don't have mutch to do 
not hke I used to have. But I am trying to help all I can 
so Al can keep even with the rest of the Boys. . . . 

Well Ida how do you do and how are you getting 
along with your music as I see by the Boys' letters 
that you have a new organ? 

I will close at this time hoping to here from you soon. 

I remain yours with respect, 


Love to you All. 

Despite her deficiencies in grammar and spelling, Louise 
Ringling was a beautiful yoimg lady. A contemporary photo- 
graph shows that she had a willowy, wasp-waisted figure, dark 
hair and eyes, and a small heart-shaped face with finely 
modeled features. In the picture she is wearing a handsome 
afternoon gown of satin and lace adorned with all the frills 
and furbelows of Victorian high fashion. The contrasting 
sash, draped over the full skirt, is a live boa constrictor. 

In her anxiety to help Al "keep even with the rest of the 
boys" she outdid even them. She and Al had a small house in 
Baraboo, where all five brothers lived when they were at 
home, eating gigantic meals which Aunt Lou cooked. When 
they got tlie wagon-show circus she made most of the cos- 
tmnes, cooked for all hands, and acted as adviser and house 
mother to the female performers, and was the star equestri- 
enne. When necessity arose she even did some snake chai-m- 

Later, when Al Ringling was equestrian director of the 
hundred-car railroad show, Aunt Lou always traveled on the 
train with him. Throughout the years he relied on her. 

As to the friendship Al had made, that also fostered great 



Al Ringling's new friend and mentor was Yankee Robinson, 
an old man on the last downward slope from the pinnacle of 
the circus world. Like most of its citizens, he had had a whip- 
sawed career. His first big success, in 1854, was a traveling 


tent show which gave a circus in the afternoon and Uncle 
Toms Cabin at night. Uncle Tom was dropped, and it be- 
came all circus for its tour of the South; but in 1859 a South 
Carolina mob took offense at Yankee's nickname, and he took 
off with whiskers streaming while they destroyed his whole 
equipage. Prudently remaining in the North, he recouped 
during the 1860s, and in 1869 his huge wagon show grossed 
more than any American circus had until then. 

Overconfident expansion brought bankruptcy in 1876; and 
when Albert Ringling met him, he was operating a small hall 
show. My uncle John once told me that all he could remember 
about Yankee Robinson was his magnificent spread of white 
whiskers and his passion for oysters. These dehcacies were 
very hard to come by in the inland states, and whenever he 
happened upon a supply, the old gentleman prepared to enjoy 
himself. He would sit down before a great pile of oysters and 
carefully place a brass spittoon beside him. Then he would 
begin to eat, and when he could cram no more oysters down 
his throat, like the old Roman he was in spirit, he would 
vomit into his spittoon; and start afresh. 

Tired of the halls and longing, as all of us do, to return to 
the tented arena, Robinson eagerly agreed to throw in with 
the Ringling gamble. He brought no capital but his experi- 
ence. However, he clothed our show with the authority of liis 
tattered fame. 

The first definite proof that the RingHng dream was assum- 
ing concrete form comes in a letter from Montello, Wisconsin, 
dated April 9, 1884: 

Dear Parents, Bro and Sis: 

It froze today. Will be in Baraboo Saturday. We 
bought a team in Waukon, Iowa. We have one wagon 
in Baraboo, another horse in Iowa. Have all our mail 
sent to Baraboo. 


Hoping this finds you in good health as it does us. 


RiNGLiNG Brothers 
The name of our show is Yankee Robinson's Great 
Show and Ringhng Brothers Carnival of Comedy. 

This letter is in the round, immature handwriting of John 
Ringling, which remained round and immature until he died 
at the age of seventy. The most interesting aspect of it is that 
Uncle John, writing to his own family, signed it "Ringling 
Brothers." That indicates how proud were the brothers of 
their partnership, and how completely they regarded them- 
selves as a single entity in which any one of them could speak 
for all. 

Not that they did not have hot arguments among them- 
selves. My mother said that sometimes when they were all at 
Grandmother's house discussing business they bellowed and 
roared and swore at each other, eyes flashing, fists clenched 
as though they would assassinate one another at any moment. 
My tiny grandmother could always control them through 
their love and respect for her. Above all, no hint of disagree- 
ment ever leaked outside their private discussions through 
all the long years, until one by one they died. 

My cousin Richard Ringling, looking backward at the great 
circus empire which they built from so small a start, once 
said to me, "Perhaps it wasn't that the uncles were so smart, 
but just that there were so God-damned many of them." He 
should have added, "All working with complete loyalty and 
a single piu"pose." 

The Carnival of Fun closed and returned to Baraboo on 
April 12, 1889, after a highly successful season. The Ringlings 
had a thousand dollars in the bank and a little over a month 
to get their circus together. With so small a stake they had 
to do almost everything themselves. They ordered tlieir Big 
Top (90 by 45 feet) and a smaller one for the side show 


from a tentmaker, but according to Alf T., they cut the poles 
for it themselves in a tamarack sw^amp near Baraboo. They 
had bought three spring wagons to convey the personnel and 
management across country. Over these they put covered- 
wagon tops of sheeting painted vermilion, with lithographed 
pictures of wild animals— of which they had none— and the 
name of the show in gold letters. Its billing had been changed 
to the more imposing title of: 



Circus and Caravan 

While this work was going forward, local carpenters were 
building knockdown benches under their direction, and 
Louise Ringling was industriously sewing costumes. 

To move the show they had, in addition to the spring 
wagons, several farm carts and a big dray for the tent poles. 
Whether they actually owned three or five horses is obscure, 
but most of the animals which hauled the wagons were hired 
from local farmers, who drove their own teams. As finally 
constituted, the caravan consisted of twenty-two horses and 
nine wagons, not counting the "Privilege Wagons," as the 
personnel vehicles were called in the Route Book. One of these 
was sent ahead as a "Flying Squadron." 

Meanwhile, throughout the last part of the carnival tour, 
they and Yankee Robinson had been negotiating for a small 
group of performers. As the time drew near for the grand 
opening, telegrams arrived from various parts of the Midwest 
requesting the Ringlings to wire railroad fare so that their 
indigent employees could get to Baraboo. These extra de- 
mands cleaned out the last of their bank account. On the 
opening day the Ringlings were, as usual, stony broke. 

The Ringling circus opened at Baraboo on Monday, May 
19, 1884. Luck smiled on them from sunny skies and a gentle 


south wind full of the promise of summer. Shortly before the 
performance, tlie five-Ringling band, beefed up by two of the 
new performers, made a parade with Yankee Robinson march- 
ing ahead. At the comer of Third Street and Broadway he 
halted the procession and addressed tlie crowd in the bull- 
fiddle tones of a barker and the lachrymose verbiage of a 
professional tear jerker. 

"Ladeees and Gentlemen," he bellowed. "I am an old man. 
For forty-years I have rested my head on a stranger's pillow. 
I have traveled every state in the Union. . . . Soon I will 
pass to the arena of life that knows no ending. And when I 
do, I want to die in harness . . . with my name associated 
with that of the Ringling brothers. For I can tell you [here 
his voice is reported to have sunk to a confidential note of 
prophecy], I can tell you that the Ringling brotliers are the 
future showmen of America. They are the coming men!" 

The dear, mendacious old gaflFer, ballyhooing a forlorn 
hope, would undoubtedly have dropped dead if he had 
suddenly foreseen how right he was. 

Amid friendly applause, for the Ringlings were popular in 
Baraboo before success somehow soured their relations with 
their fellow tovmsmen, the parade moved on to the lot where 
the two tents stood with proudly waving pennants. Robinson 
led them into the Big Top and then took his station near the 
door, urging on the customers and exchanging jokes with 
them, while Otto sold tickets from the tailboard of a privilege 

The tent could hold six hundred people around a ring made 
of red turkey cloth staked out in a circle. Six hundred 
"Baraboobians" paid their twenty-five cents admission. As 
they crowded up on the new seats, a section collapsed, dump- 
ing a jumbled mass of men, women, and children on the 
muddy ground. Yankee Robinson gave the brothers their 
money's worth right there. He shot over to the scene of 


catastrophe, cracking jokes like a string of firecrackers, help- 
ing people up, soothing children, putting everybody back in 
a genial humor. For such services and the use of his name, 
his compensation vv^as one third of the after-show concert's 

According to Alf T., the main show could not have been 
much more sophisticated than the original five-cent circus. 
The entire company, including the five Ringlings, the hired 
performers, roustabouts, teamsters, and Louise Ringhng, 
numbered twenty-one persons. There was not even one horse 
in the ring. As Alf T. observed, the animals which the show 
owTied "were fitter for a glue factory than an equestrian act." 
The displays consisted of tumbling, horizontal-bar acts, a 
contortionist, and juggling and balancing acts, interspersed 
with some of the comedy bits from the Carnival of Fun. John 
Ringhng was the only clown. 

To wring the last possible dime out of the customers, the 
brothers sold tickets to the after-show concert, and Yankee 
Robinson advised everybody to be sure to see the side show, 
the feature of which was an educated pig, whose proprietor 
paid half liis take for the privilege of traveling wdth the show. 

As soon as the customers cleared the Big Top, the weary 
showmen began loading the wagons for the trek to Sauk City. 
Because of confusion and lack of practice, it took longer than 
it took to load the hundred-car train in the days of glory. It 
was nearly midnight when the caravan started up the narrow 
dirt road across the Wisconsin hills. The Ringlings in a spring 
wagon led the way, followed by the four-horse hitch of the 
dray, stacked with the long tent poles bending almost to the 
ground beliind it, with the rolls of canvas piled on top. The 
heavily loaded farm carts followed, each with its swinging 
lantern slung between the wheels to guide the next in line. 
The horses moved at a dead walk. Their hoofs were muffled bv 
the thick white dust, and there was hardly a sound but the 


sleepy creak of harness and wooden wheels turning slowly. 

Sleepy indeed. Hardly a person was awake in that whole 
company except the brothers in the lead wagon. After such 
an exhausting and exciting day, weariness and the soft night 
air overcame them one by one no matter how hard the seats 
or cramped their position. Uncle John told me that the thing 
he remembered best about his days with the wagon show was 
his desperate craving for sleep, for it seemed that they never 
had time to lie down at all. 

It must have taken them five or six hours to make the 
fourteen miles to Sauk City, for when they passed its first 
outlying farms the sun bounced over the horizon. The tovm 
was astir to greet them, and it was time to begin putting up 
the tents. 

They gave two performances in Sauk City that day, and 
moved on to Black Earth, Wisconsin. Two performances there, 
and on again. Mount Horeb came next, and Mount Vernon; 
then, on Saturday, New Glarus. On Sunday they rested. 

That was the routine of the wagon show— when conditions 
were good. The Ringlings did not mind, for ambition and 
inner compulsion drove them, and every quarter that Otto 
collected for the cashbox enabled them to see their goal more 
clearly ahead. Yankee Robinson was a good old trouper who 
took tilings as they came, and Louise Ringling a grand young 
one, who thought Only of her Al. In fact, she later became 
their first equestrienne, in addition to snake charming, and in 
one crisis she drove a four-horse hitch, pulling two wdld- 
animal cages over the muddy roads for four days. 

However, the farmer-teamsters soon got tired and home- 
sick. A loyal canvasman reported to Otto Ringling that a 
group of them were thinking of puUing out with their teams. 
Otto countered this dire threat by spreading a Rimor that a 
troupe of giants named the Ananias Brothers were about to 


join the show. According to backstage gossip, they were eight 
feet tall and very generous with their tips. Anybody who 
deserted now would miss a good thing. 

Of course, the mythical Ananias Brothers never showed 
up, and Otto's strategem only postponed trouble. Every time 
it rained, or the wind blew, or the wagons stuck in the mud, 
two or three farmer boys headed for home with their horses. 
Then the Ringlings would have to beat the countryside for 
some character with a team of horses and a desire to see the 
world. Somehow the show continued to meet its daily engage- 

One loss they could not replace. In August, Yankee Robin- 
son must have had a premonition. His unfailing good humor 
and cracker-barrel wit had not failed, but his frail frame had. 
Learning that his son was playing in a hall show in Jefferson, 
Iowa, he took a leave of absence to see the boy. He died sud- 
denly on the tram to Jefferson. 

For the first time in forty years of showmanship, he was 
billed under his right name in the Route Book: "Fayette 
Ludovic Robinson died at Jefferson, Iowa, about August 25, 
1884." So Yankee Robinson got his wish. 

That first year the Ringling circus showed a profit, though 
a small one. The ambitious brothers had hardly closed it for 
the winter when they took to the road again with the Carnival 
of Fun. In the latter part of the season they were joined by 
talented young James Richardson, who was billed as Mon- 
sieur Dialo. They liked him so much that they engaged him 
for the circus as well. The Carnival of Fun played almost 
continuously until May 6, 1885. The Ringlings allowed them- 
selves all of twelve days to catch their breath. 

They opened tlie circus on May 18, at Baraboo. It had 
grown, as the bilhng shows: 





The trained animal was, of course, that educated pig, but 
during the winter they had acquired a discouraged hyena in 
a secondhand cage, who was billed as: 


The Mammoth, Marauding, Man-eating Monstros- 
ity, the prowling, grave-robbing Demon of all Cre- 
ated Things, who while the World Sleeps, sneaks 
stealthily under cover of Darkness to the Cemetery 
and with Ghoulish Glee robs the Tomb. 

His Hideous Laughter paralyzes with Terror the 
Bravest Hearts. He leaves behind him a trail of blood; 
and the Wails of the Dying are Music to his Ear. 

It took fifteen wagons to transport the 1885 show and they 
had a round top eighty feet in diameter. 

After it closed, the Carnival of Fun again went barnstorm- 
ing, as it did each year until 1889. Indeed, its profits swelled 
the proportions of the circus, whose growth is recorded each 
year in the Route Books: In 1886 it is "Ringling Bros. Great 
Double Shows and Congress of Wild and Trained Animals," 
with a ninety-foot round top and eighteen wagons as well as 
"2 cages, Ticket and Band Wagon." The menagerie included 
"Hyena, Bear, Monkeys, Eagle." 

A note states: "Bought the donkey and Shetland pony, 
January, and Minnie at Winnebago City, Minn., June 23. The 
first trick act with the show." The roster of professional enter- 
tainers had also grown to twenty-three, not counting rousta- 

In the course of that season the Ringlings fought what was 
probably their first successful engagement in the circus wars 
that flared up in every town where two rival shows happened 


to meet either accidentally or on purpose. In a letter to James 
Van Orden, president of the Bank of Baraboo, Otto Ringling 
described it with an early American exuberance which now 
seems to have disappeared, even from the circus scene: 

Vinton, Iowa 
August 23, 1886 
Dear Sir: 

This will notify you that we have sent our draft to 
Chicago for $1000. 

Today we have fought and won a bloody battle be- 
tween Ringling Brothers and the Renier Brothers' 
Great European Railroad Show, We got to the Court- 
house Square [first] for our billboards and a great 
number of small boards [3/2 by 8 feet] . We had every 
available place in town. Besides we Hterally covered 
the town, in fact we painted the town red and we won 

We again fight them on Wednesday at Vale. Then 
we may not get off so victoriously. They have put up a 
board 500 feet long [there]. We do not want to fight 
them since as a railroad show they have a big ad- 
vantage over us. But they laughed at us and were in- 
clined to behttle us, and thought that all they would 
have to do was to teU people they were coming and we 
would run away to the backwoods. Now they will be 
as anxious to avoid us as we are to avoid them. 

Very sincerely, 
Ringling Brothers. 

The show practically doubled again in 1887. It was now 
"Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, 
Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan and Congress 
of Trained Animals." It ov^med sixty horses and the menagerie 
consisted of "1 Elk, Bear, 2 Lions, 1 Kangaroo, Hyena [that 
good old faithful friend], Birds, Monkeys, Deer, 4 Shetland 
Ponies, 1 Camel— Bought one on the road— it died." All the 
new wagons, cages, chariots, and bank wagon were built by 


their cousins the Moeller brothers, who continued to furnish 
these gaudy but sttudy vehicles for thirty years. 

In September 1886 Henry RingHng, a strapping giant of 
sixteen years, had joined his brothers, though not as a partner. 
Unhappily, even this early in life Henry had a "weakness" 
which he may or may not have inherited from his grand- 
father Juhar. 

When the big new show of 1887 went out, it was decided 
to send Henry out ahead to map the parade routes through 
the towns they were to play. In order that he might fittingly 
represent the dignity and grandeur of the United Monster 
Shows, his brothers bought him a stylish phaeton drawn by a 
pair of beautiful trotters. 

The first day, looking very elegant in a fawn-colored double- 
breasted coat and tan derby, Henry dashed into Pardeeville, 
Wisconsin. Had the show followed the route he laid out, it 
would have been the longest parade in history. For he kept 
right on going on a glorious bender that lasted six weeks. 
When his money gave out he sold the horses and carriage. 
Then his fine clothes went. My uncles found him, drunk and 
destitute, in a small Iowa town. 

It is typical of their family solidarity that they kept Uncle 
Henry on with the show. But not as an advance man. He was 
put in charge of the front door, where he kept an eye on the 
ticket takers and the uncles kept an eye on him. 

Despite their gargantuan eating, drinking, and wenching, 
none of the Ringlings but Henry were victims of their vices, 
and in tlie end he mastered his. But before he did, tliis 
tremendous uncle of mine, the biggest of all the brotliers, 
looked over the abyss. He was more conscious than anyone of 
his failure, more contemptuous of himself. At the age of 
twenty-nine, he saw himself as a huge sodden hulk. In a fit 
of despair he tiied to destroy himself. 


His brothers found him at the moment he was about to cut 
his throat with a straight razor. What they did or said, 
whether Uncle Henry took a cure, or if the view from the 
brink was sufficient, I do not know. But this I do know— from 
that time forward Uncle Henry never took another drink. 
Eventually, when Otto died, he was made a full partner in 
our enterprise and played his proper part in the management. 

But in one sense he never recovered. Unlike his gusty, jovial 
brothers, he was morose and withdrav^m. As a boy I remember 
him very well, storming down the main street of Baraboo, a 
gigantic Atlas with a world of care on his shoulders, passing 
his own sister on the street with never a glance or nod. 

"What is a terrace without peacocks?" The Earl of Beacons- 
jfield was rhetorically inquiring a world or so away from the 
western prairies. "What is a circus without elephants?" would 
have been a more pertinent query for my uncles. In due time 
they got terraces with peacocks; in 1888 they got elephants 
for their circus. The two "Gigantic Pachyderms" were named 
Babylon and Fannie, and they cost over two thousand dollars 
apiece at a sheriff's sale of a bankrupt circus. Two camels, 
Sampson and Queen, also joined the circus, as well as a "Zebu" 
and an emu. The new Big Top was 148 by 100 feet. There 
was also a menagerie top, three horse tops, and— unparalleled 
luxury— a dressing-room tent. Ringhng Brothers had a real 
circus now, and they put the price of admission up to fifty 
cents (twenty-five cents for children). This was the standard 
charge for all full-grown circuses and remained the same for 
twenty or thirty years. 

But they were terribly overexpanded. No one would go into 
the circus business who was not a raging optimist, and the 
Ringlings were no exception to this rule. They were in hock 
to their eyebrows to Mr. Van Orden and the Bank of Baraboo 
when the show opened in its home tov^m on May 5, 1888. 


It was miserably different sort of weather from their first 
fine opening day. The dams of heaven were running over on 
the sodden earth— rains continued for nearly as long as the 
Deluge. According to the Route Book, "We did not see the 
sun for four weeks." The Ringlings were, in fact, like a family 
of Noahs with no ark. 

One can imagine them setting out on that muddy trail, a 
mile-long caravan of misery; hons coughing and wheezing in 
their leaky cages; camels stalking and balking; Babylon and 
Fannie squashing massive feet into treacherous slime with 
elephantine resignation; red-and-gold chariots black with 
mud; and a hundred or so human beings, wet, cold, and in a 
state of utter exhaustion, trying to give two gay shows a day to 
empty tents. 

In fact, we do not have to imagine it, for Otto Ringling 
described it in an understandably incoherent letter to Mr. 
Van Orden: 

Waukon, Iowa, May 15, 1888 
To the Bank of Baraboo 

We have had the worst experience in business since 
we started the past ten days. It has been raining and 
the roads have been in terrible condition. We were 
stuck in the clay hills between Ontario, Hillsboro and 
Cazenovia during the worst part of the storm, and now 
looking back cannot realize how we ever got out with- 
out being far behind our appointed schedule. During 
the past week commencing at Reedsburg we showed 
only one half of the time. Our wagons totally bogged 
down near Hillsboro and then we hired all the farmers 
we could find along the road and their teams to draw 
them on into town. Of course our expenses were much 
more than usual and besides that it has been raining 
all the time and we only showed 6 times instead of 12 
all week. 

This week so far continued rain has put the farmers 


behind in their work and it will necessarily make busi- 
ness dull for a short time. After considering everything 
carefully, we have decided that it will be better for us 
to cut down the show to 2.5/ and reduce our expenses 
to a low notch and be entirely safe. 

In order to do this we must pay ofiF all the people 
we do not want next Saturday and ship what stuff we 
do not want to carry back to Baraboo. If you could loan 
us enough to do this effectively and before we suffer 
any more losses, we will give you any security you may 
ask for, houses or notes. . . . You can rest assured that 
we will meet our obligations all right, but we do not 
feel like borrowing money of you and still continue the 
50<z? admission when we can cut our expenses right 
down and have a sure thing at 25(zf. 

If you can loan us $1,000 we will come out all right. 
Please telegraph it to Caledonia the 17th of May. If 
you will favor us in this manner we will give you a bill 
of sale of everything we have, the big elephant which 
vidll sell for $2,000 any time, a bill of sale on the house 
or anything you may choose. . . . 

Very respectfully, 
Rtngling Bros. 

Then comes the postscript in which the brothers' despair 
reaches back to us through the years. 

You cannot form any idea of the strain on us with 
everything at stake in the rain and mud all day and 
night for over a week. After Reedsburg it was almost 
unbearable, those clay hills were almost impassable. 
The wagons would sink down to the hubs and the poor 
horses could not budge them. We had to hire farmers 
at their own figure to help us with their horses and we 
had to put all our men to work with shovels to get the 
clay away from the wheels. Our repair bills besides 
were enormous. Wagons continually pulled to pieces, 
springs broken, etc. 

That letter would have melted a man of stone, which Mr. 
Van Orden was locally considered to be. It melted him— of 


course, Babylon really was worth two thousand dollars, so he 
was not risking much. 
A letter from Plain view, Minnesota, on May 26, 1888, says: 

Received money at Caledonia O.K. Thank you very 
much for the kind favor shown us and we hope it will 
be in our power to show you our appreciation. We have 
been in the rain ever since we left Baraboo. We have 
not used any of the money you sent us yet. Are trying 
our utmost not to. 

However, they were not out of the woods. On June 14, Otto 

I will give you one instance of what we have been 
through. The distance from Blooming Prairie to New 
Richland, Minn., is 30 miles. We left Blooming Prairie 
Friday night after the show and reached New Rich- 
land Saturday afternoon at 4 o'clock, after building 
two bridges which had been washed out. Nothing to 
eat all day. We opened the doors at 5 o'clock. Oiu* main 
show took in $22.00. It ended at 6:45. We opened the 
doors again at 7:30 PM to a fair night house. Every- 
body tired out. Left the next morning at 8 o'clock for 
Wells, 20 miles through swamps and lowlands. Got 18 
miles at dusk Sunday PM. Had to camp out. Got to 
Wells Monday morning 11:30 and gave two per- 
formances to fair business. 

That was 10 days ago. Have been doing good busi- 
ness since then. Fair weather now and we think we can 
come in next fall with a reasonably fair profit. During 
4 weeks of Hell you could have seen a cold, muddy 
disheartened gang of people if you had been with our 
show. ... It was our first experience in a losing busi- 
ness and coupled with the terrible work and uncer- 
tainty of being able to get the show through the mud 
was disheartening. But now the sun shines again. 

Very respectfully, 
RiNGLiNG Brothers 


The Ringlings wrote in the Route Book, "We left the rain 
and mud on June 5th." It was exactly one month from the 
day they had started from Baraboo. The financial skies cleared 
as well, and drafts began to go back to Mr. Van Orden. How- 
ever, the brothers soon had their first experience of the violent 
tragedies of circus life. On June 23 their good friend and 
star performer, "Mons. Dialo [James Richardson] was shot 
and killed at Webster City by Thomas Baskett, who was 
sentenced to 15 years at Anamosa." 

Poor M. Dialo paid the price of knight-errantry. Thomas 
Baskett, a bellicose saloonkeeper of Webster, had gotten into 
an argument with a fellow townsman. Roll Brewer, whom he 
followed into the show grounds and beat up in a brutal 
fashion. When Brewer's daughter tried to help her father, 
Baskett knocked her down and began to kick her. Several 
shov^rmen, among them Dialo, tried to interfere. In the ensu- 
ing brawl, Baskett whipped out a pistol and shot Dialo in 
the abdomen. James Richardson died twenty-four hoLirs later. 

The circus did not miss a performance. The show must go 
on or go broke. 

As they moved back into Iowa in July, the sun shone steadily 
and the crop of green dollars rivaled the taU rows of corn. 

Winterset, Iowa, July 7, 1888 

Mr. J. Van Orden 

Bank of Baraboo 
Dear Sir: 

Please find enclosed draft on Chicago for $1000. We 
resumed ^o^ admission last Saturday. . . . We have 
made $3,000 in one week and one day. A few weeks 
Like this will make up for the spring. At any rate we are 
even with you and will get back to Baraboo with 
enough to feed the elephant. How is the hay crop 


around Baraboo? Crops in this country are immense. 
The fields look almost tropical. 

RiNGLiNG Brothers. 
N.B. We didn't touch the 1,000 dollars you sent us, 
but we got down to 122 dollars cash on hand besides 
your remittance. That was the low water mark. 




Eighteen eighty-nine was the last year of the wagon show. 
Despite the terribly discouraging start of the season of 1888, 
the Ringlings had come home with far more than enough to 
feed the elephant. In their then personally frugal, business- 
wise extravagant way they poured all tlieir money back into 

"the SUNDAY-SCHOOL emeus'* 93 

expanding the circus. In order to compete with the really 
big-time shows, they advertised, in addition to the "United 
Monster Circus, Museum, Menagerie and Universal World 
Exposition," something that they called a "Roman Hippo- 

This was in direct imitation of Bamum & Bailey's chariot 
races around an arena. Furthermore, it must have been an 
even greater exaggeration of fact than usual; for two years 
later the Route Book rather naively states, "Put in a real 
Hippodrome for 1891." However, one may be reasonably sure 
that their customers got their fifty cents' worth, for they 
flocked to see the show in droves. 

The start from Baraboo was particularly auspicious. The 
weather was perfect, and my grandfather and grandmother 
came all the way from Rice Lake to see all of their seven sons 
go out with their circus. For Gus had at last joined his 
brothers. AU this time he had been quietly earning his living 
by his father's trade in Minneapolis, but now they persuaded 
him to join them and share the family bonanza. 

Gus was, perhaps, the gentlest of the brothers. He had a 
dreamy, poetic face and a way wdth animals. When Mother 
was a little girl in Rice Lake, he brought a bear cub home 
from the forest and built a little shelter for it in the back yard. 
It lived there for a long time. 

He loved the woods and had wonderful hunting dogs, 
which he trained himself. My mother's favorite was Tippy, 
which Gus had taught to go out to the wood box in the back 
yard, nose up the hd, take out a log, and carrying it back to 
the kitchen, lay it beside the big wood-burning stove. 

The brothers made Gus advertising manager of the circus. 

Another Ringling joined the circus that year, Mrs. Charles 
Ringhng. The autumn before, Uncle Charlie had married 
nineteen-year-old Edith Conway, whose father was the 


Methodist minister in Baraboo. Like Al's wife, Louise, Edith 
Ringhng turned into a good trouper, though she had been 
teaching school until Charlie married her. She always traveled 
with the show, and like Louise, worked hard at repairing cos- 
tumes and sometimes took tickets at the door. 

One of her first experiences witli the circus would have been 
enough to cure most girls of sawdust fever. She was sitting 
outside the menagerie tent one day when Fannie the elephant 
got irritated by something her keeper had done and decided 
to take it out on Edith. She lumbered up and took a swipe at 
the young bride with her trunk, knocking Edith fifteen feet 
through the air and smashing the chair to kindling. While 
the keeper hooked Fannie's ear with his ankus, one of the old 
circus hands dashed over to pick Edith up, saying, "Daughter, 
daughter! Are you hurt?" Just as he reached her he fell over 
in a dead faint. Edith scrambled to her feet v^thout assistance. 
She just took it as an occupational hazard. 

Apparently the tour of 1889 was unusually serene. Only 
one tragedy is recorded. Worn by the passing of many a 
season and surely having given the brothers far more than 
their money's worth, the "Mammoth, Man-Eating, Mon- 
strous" hyena wearily turned up its toes and died. 

Serenity means prosperity in any business, but particularly 
in the circus, wliich is so vulnerable to mischance. At the end 
of the season the RingHngs had an enormous profit. They used 
part of it to build a v^de-verandaed frame house in Baraboo, 
where their father and mother could settle dov^n at last. With 
the remainder they prepared to enter the big time in a big 

Take a look at them at this turning point in their lives, for 
they would never be quite the same again; yet, in another 
sense, they remained unchanged, but now able to expand 
their personaUties, each in his different way. 

"the SUNDAY-SCHOOL caBCus" 95 

At first glance they seem as alike as seven Siamese twins. 
For this was the era when they introduced on their letter- 
heads and advertising the famous picture of the heads of the 
five partner-brothers all with seemingly identical profiles and 
those magnificent mustaches— the irreverent called them The 
Mustache Boys. With deliberate conformity Gus and Henry 
also grew mustaches. But this was as far as conformity went. 
Though bound together by their strong family ties and their 
common interest in their circus, they had sharply different 

To begin with, their physical resemblance was nothing like 
as great as their identical facial adornment made it appear. 
They ranged in height from Charlie's neat five feet eight to 
Henry's elephantine six feet three. Their faces, unmasked, 
were equally disparate. Al's was thin and eager, at least in 
his youth. Gus had the visionary expression of a poet. Alf T. 
appeared to be determinedly businesshke, whereas Charles 
looked like the well-groomed sportsman of the Gay Nineties. 
Otto's face wore a banker's solid look. John, the only one with 
curly hair, had the round-faced, round-eyed humorous expres- 
sion which had set the farmers laughing in the prairie village 
hall, whereas Henry, though also round-faced, was beetle- 
browed and slightly sinister. 

Except for their common fondness for huge, rich meals, 
which eventually put considerable poundage on all of them 
and doubtless shortened their lives, their personal tastes and 
hobbies were as different as could be. When money gave them 
freedom of choice each went his separate way in private life, 
though they remained indissolubly bound together in the 

Even in the business they specialized, though they all had 
such an intimate knowledge of circus management that in a 
pinch any brother could substitute for any other. Albert 
Ringling, who was known to the whole back yard as Uncle 


Al, was the equestrian director, which is circus talk for the 
producer and director of the whole show. I suppose the title 
comes from the fact that the early European circuses were 
often built around the equestrian act and therefore the 
equestrian director was the head man in the tent. Uncle Al 
not only staged the show and dreamed up the great spectacles 
of later years; he also paced the performance from the ring- 
side, keeping it fast and furious with sharp blasts of his 
whistle, which signaled the start and finish of each display. 

Since he loved horses, his title was pecuharly appropriate, 
and during his lifetime equestrian displays were sure to be a 
main attraction, culminating in 1899 with his famous sixty- 
one-horse finale, in which sixty-one Hberty horses were 
actually in the arena at one time. In order to accommodate 
so many, they were raised on stages making a pyramid of 
horseflesh, at the top of which was a single magnificent white 

Uncle Charles (Mr. Charles) was the physical man in 
charge of the tremendous logistics of moving the army of 
people and animals over thousands of miles through six 
months of one-night stands. He commanded the train and 
was, in effect, the general manager. Though other people 
usually held that title, he was the head man. He kept what 
the brothers called his Book of Wonders. This was a notebook 
in which he was constantly jotting things down throughout 
the tour. At the end of the season he would present the Book 
of Wonders to tlie partners and managers. It contained a com- 
plete summary of all the things that would have to be done 
during the winter, including purchases, repairs, additional 
work horses, ring stock, and animals as well as new ideas for 
improving the physical aspect of the show. 

Otto Ringling was nicknamed The King, because he held 
the life-and-death power of the purse. His management of the 
finances was both sound and imaginative. To give an idea of 


his foresight, in 1903 he proposed to the brothers that since 
in metropohtan areas vacant land suitable for accommodating 
fifty-odd tents was getting scarce, they should buy fifteen- 
acre plots close to every large city in America. His brothers 
by that time were more interested in spending their money 
on pink marble palaces or pseudo-Norman castles of their 
own, so they vetoed the proposal. Imagine what their hold- 
ings would have been worth now had they followed his ad- 
vice 1 

Alf T. Ringling was in charge of public relations. This, of 
course, included all the means and media which stimulated 
an overwhelming desire to see the circus in everybody wdthin 
one hundred miles or so of any town where the show was 
playing. He was so successful that railroads used to run spe- 
cial trains from all parts of a county on circus day, and in a 
town like Concordia, Kansas, of 7500 inhabitants, the circus 
would play to a total of 16,000 people in one performance. An- 
other function of cii-cus pubHc relations was running down the 
opposition shows. How my uncle Alf T. did this will be told in 
the account of the great circus wars of the 1890s. 

As soon as they put the show on rails, John Ringling was 
given charge of routing. This was a very intricate job, essen- 
tial to the success of a season. When the great four-train 
hundred-car show was on the road, it meant planning the 
exact time of each section every day in co-operation with 
dozens of raihoads and hundreds of branch lines. Uncle 
John's prodigious memory became practically a railroad 
guide to the United States. For example, if you wondered in 
his presence how best you could get from Altoona, Pennsyl- 
vania, to North Yakima, Washington, he would mstantly 
come up with train times, junction points, and connections. 
One of his favorite tricks was to let you name a railroad and 
timetable, and then stick a nail file into the Consolidated Rail- 


way Guide, as thick as the New York telephone book, and 
come within a page or two. 

In later years Uncle John also did most of the discovering 
and negotiating of new Em"opean acts for the show. 

Thus the five brothers worked when they were all alive. 
Gus out ahead with the advance car and Hemy at the front 
door completed the Ringling team. 

The Ringling brothers' first raihoad show opened in 
Baraboo on Saturday, May 2, 1890. The train consisted of 
two advertising cars— one of which was sent ahead— one per- 
formers' sleeper, one elephant car, five stockcars, and eight 
flatcars— eighteen cars in all. These transported two tableau 
wagons, two band wagons, fifteen cages (four open dens 
included ) and one hundred and seven horses, three elephants, 
three camels, four lions, two cub Hons, a hippopotamus, and 
assorted other wild creatures, besides fifty-four performers. 
However magnificent it was compared with the httle wagon 
show that had started hopefully out from Baraboo six years 
before, it was still only a one-ring show, peanut-sized com- 
pared with the great railroad shows it was about to challenge. 

For by this time the circus in America had reached a high 
state of development. Phineas T. Barnum, the greatest show- 
man of them all, had hurled himself into the circus business 
with a tremendous splash in 1871, when my uncles were hold- 
ing their five-cent circus. By 1873, eleven years before the 
Ringling wagon show started, Bamum's Advance Courier 
could describe his circus— more or less truthfully— as a 
"Colossal World's Fair by Railroad— 20 Great Shows consoh- 
dated; 100,000 curiosities, 5 Railroad Trains 4 miles long, 4 
bands, 12 golden chariots; 100 vans in a procession 3 miles 

The lead article, vmtten by Bamum himself in the finest 
flowering of circus style, begins, "Although the fire of Decern- 


ber 24, 1872, totally destroyed my museum building [in New 
York] and magnificent collection of rare animals ... I have 
emerged again from the cinders and smoke with an unim- 
paired constitution, unabated energies and a more earnest 
determination than ever to gratify the demands of the 
amusement-seeking public. 

"Hence, before the sparks ceased rising from my burning 
museum, I subsidized the powers of electricity to such an 
extent as to enable me to start again by April, 1873, with a 
Museum Menagerie, Caravan, Ornithological Cabinet, . . . 
Polytechnic Institute [whatever that was] Coliseum of 
Classic and Equestrian Equitation, Aquarium for Marine 
Monsters . . . combined with Dan Costello's Mammoth 
Double Hippodrome, Monsieur d'Ataher's Equestrian and 
Arenic Exposition, making, in fact, the largest and most ela1:)0- 
rate and exhaustive combination of traveling exhibitions ever 
seen on earth. The Greatest Show on Eaiih." 

Nor will I argue with Phineas T.— it was just that. 

By 1890, when our raihoad show first went out, Bamum 
had added a tremendous spectacle play— "Imre Kiralfy's 
Grand, Romantic, Historical Spectacle— Nero and the De- 
struction of Rome, including thrilling Roman Chariot Races in 
the Circus Maximus." 

All for fifty cents! 

This was pretty tough competition. In addition, otlier great 
shows of the time, all older and larger than Ringling Brothers, 
included Sell Brothers' fifty-cage, four-ring circus with a 
forty-five-car train; the Great Wallace Railroad Shows; Jolm 
Robinson's Ten Big Shows, and the Buffalo Bill Wild West 
Show, which though not a true circus was very real compe- 

By means of John Ringling's skillful routing to small 
neglected towns, our circus managed to avoid direct clashes 
with the others that first year, except in five or six towns. 


They came triumphantly back to Baraboo with a load of 

Again they greatly enlarged their show. In 1891 it became 
"Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Railroad Shows, Real Roman 
Hippodrome, 3 Ring Circus and Elevated Stages, Millionaire 
Menagerie, Museum and Aquarium and Spectacular Tourna- 
ment Production of Caesar's Triumphal Entry into Rome." 

It sounds as though they were breathing down Mr. 
Barnum's neck; but enthusiasm must have prevailed over 
truth, since the whole show moved on a twenty-two-car train. 

And again the luck was with them; such wonderful luck 
that it seemed as though the gods of the arena were repenting 
the dreadful trials they had put the brothers through in 1888. 
The Route Book for 1891 records, "The canvas was only loaded 
wet 3 times during the entire season." 

There was, however, a curious footnote which demonstrates 
that circus people had to be good fighters as well as good 
performers. The unsavory reputation of the circuses of that 
era sometimes exploded in fierce riots between town and 
show, even when that hostihty was undeserved. This hap- 
pened. "At Bolivia, Mo., on Sept. 26th, a very fierce battle 
was fought between the show and the people of the town and 
vicinity. Many of the local bad men were badly injured. The 
show got out after a very exciting experience without suffer- 
ing any injury." 

The affray at Bohvia points up a problem that my uncles 
faced as their first brightly painted train steamed out of 
Baraboo into the big time. That was the question of circus 
ethics. Most of the shows operated on the principle of taking 
the suckers for all they were worth. This was based on Bar- 
num's theory that the suckers enjoyed it. In his case there may 
have been some justification for the thought. 

William Lyon Phelps, an ardent circus fan who was my 
beloved mentor at Yale, described how this worked in our 


circus program for 1939. In his article Professor Phelps rem- 
inisced about the circus of his childhood. He had seen The 
Greatest Show on Earth when Bamum was aHve. 

"During the performance, P. T. Bamum dressed in formal 
black clothes and looking like a clergyman was introduced to 
the audience as one of the benefactors of mankind, which I 
do not think was an exaggeration. He was broad and fat and 
unctuous, and in the language of Dickens, he seemed to be 
one vast substantial smile. 

"Bamum was the Shakespeare of advertisers and has never 
been surpassed. His knowledge of what the public wanted 
was infallible. He knew they loved to be swindled so long as 
the swindle was understood to be a glorious joke on both 
sides. At one of his circuses he had a big sign inside the main 


"Himdreds of people followed that sign thinking they were 
on the way to some African monstrosity, but soon found they 
were outdoors and had to pay fifty cents to get back. Instead 
of being wild with rage they were dehghted and when the 
word was explained to them, they said, 'Isn't that just like 
Bamum I' 

"On another occasion in New Haven one of the side shows, 
which I beheve had an admission charge of twenty-five cents, 


"Now people supposed that a cherry colored cat was unique. 
They trooped in there by hundreds and all they saw was a 
perfectly ordinary black cat. When they looked at this and 
demanded an explanation the attendant said, 'Well you know 
some cherries are black.' 

"Instead of being angry the crowd looked at each other 
with foohsh grins and exclaimed, 'Sold again I' They even 
went back to the main tent and told every stranger, 'Have 


you seen the cherry colored cat? It's the most marvelous 
exhibition ever given.' So that each person who had been 
deceived got five other persons to swell the coffers of the 

Barnum's flimflamming was fun. But the philosophy be- 
hind it set a low moral tone which corrupted the whole circus 
scene. Anything was all right to part the suckers from their 

For example, ticket sellers were paid no salary; indeed, they 
often paid the management for tlie job. They made their 
living by shortchanging the pubUc, at which they were better 
magicians than any "professor" in the show itself. I used to 
watch for crooked ticket sellers myself when I was a boy 
around the circus. One of their favorite tricks was obviously 
to overpay a customer who had changed a big bill, counting 
out as much as five or ten dollars too much. In his cupidity 
the customer would grab his change and rush off not noticing 
that the seller had counted one bill two or three times. When 
we'd grab a crooked ticket seller he would protest that he was 
not really doing wrong, because the customer was trying to 
cheat him. 

In addition to this racket, all sorts of shady businesses 
swelled the coffers of some of the shows. Crooked gamblers, 
shell-game operators, and confidence men rented concessions 
from the management just Uke legitimate vendors. Some cir- 
cuses even hired professional pickpockets, who circulated in 
the carefree crowds and split their take with the management. 
A clever assist was often provided by the management by hav- 
ing a side-show talker (barker) dramatically announce to a 
well-thronged midway that local police had informed the cir- 
cus authorities of the presence of well-known pickpockets in 
the city who had come to prey upon tlie circus crowds. When 
the grateful yokels so warned patted their hip pockets or 
caressed their breast pockets or fondly fingered their stickpins 


and gold watch fobs, the very dips they had been warned 
against would be observing their actions in preparation for 
later lifting their blocks ( watches ) , pokes ( purses ) , etc. 

As a result, a vast organization of sinister rackets grew up 
in tlie shadow of the tents. A rabble of petty criminals 
attached themselves to circuses, with or without the owners' 
knowledge. Cheating and trickery flowered into organized 
crime. Even armed robbery and murder were not unknown. 

Very early in their careers the Ringlings decided to have 
an honest show. This decision was partly due to tlieir financial 
integrity. For despite the amoral attitude of most of them to- 
ward the minor vices, they all had an almost puritanical 
financial integrity— as witness Jim Hamilton. Their other rea- 
son was that they believed honesty was really better business; 
that if they acquired a reputation for giving entertainment 
at a fair price and protecting their patrons, they would pros- 
per accordingly. Other managers and even their own employ- 
ees laughed at them and said you could not run a circus 
that way. But they did it, and they certainly prospered. 

Of course, it was a never ending battle. As long as there 
are ticket sellers and a gullible public there will always be a 
rLsk. In fact, as late as 1955, my brotlier Jolin and I had to 
take drastic measures to clear out gambling and other rackets 
wliich had attached themselves like barnacles to our circus. 
As in 1890, we were told it could not be done. But we did it! 

One thing which enabled my uncles to clean up their show 
was that there were "so damn many of them." Thev were all 
over the lot constantly on the alert, and with Hemy watching 
over the front door like an angry grizzly bear, tlie ticket sellers 
were pretty careful. 

However, as the show got bigger, the task of keeping it clean 
was too much for the brothers, and they retained the great 
William J. Bums detective agency to guard their patrons. A 
little later they went even further. Realizing that shady 


practices in any circus redounded to the discredit of all, in- 
cluding their own, they secretly sent Burns detectives to cer- 
tain otlier shows to seek out and arrest crooks operating with 
them. A great many were brought to book. The owners were 
not a bit grateful. They irately assailed the Ringlings as med- 
dlers and ironically christened their show The Sunday-School 
Circus. But George Ade, who was also a circus fan, gave the 
Ringlings his accolade: "They found the business in the 
hands of vagabonds and put it into the hands of gentlemen." 





No mortals may long enjoy the favor of the gods, they say. 
This goes double in circus business. After three tremendously 
fortunate seasons, the Ringlings' luck broke in 1892. 

The two things we dread most are fii"e and train wrecks. 
The Ringling show had three train wrecks that year. The first 
and worst came two weeks out of Baraboo in tlie rain 


near Washington, Kansas, on May 17. In the tremendous 
crash four of the slatted wooden stockcars were reduced to 
matchwood, and twenty-six screaming horses were killed or 
had to be destroyed. The human toll included two men killed 
and four seriously injured. But there was no time to stand 
and mourn. The Route Book laconically states, "Show missed 
one stand [Washington, May 17th] and showed Concordia, 
May 18th, with side wall only. Short of stock— bought 18 
[horses] at Concordia, and received carload of 20 at Wichita, 
May 21st, from Chicago." 

The other two wrecks occurred at places named Centralia. 
On September 18, at Centraha, Missouri— "six cages demol- 
ished and lost the day. No further damage except marring the 
sleeping cars." On the way back to Baraboo, at Centraha, lUi- 
nois— "Rear end collision. No damage beyond a few broken 
irons on the cars." 

However, railroad inefficiency was not all that dogged 
them. They dared the big cities of Milwaukee, Omaha, Kan- 
sas City, and Topeka, where they ran head on into the great 
Bamum & Bailey show. In other towns they noted, "Smaller 
opposition— several stands, Wallace Show; three stands, John 
Robinson Show." 

In addition, the weather turned on them. "This is the worst 
spring we have ever seen— 30 days rain. [Had they for- 
gotten 1888 so soon?] Season on the whole, however, was very 

So began the Ringlings' bitter battles for a place in the cir- 
cus sun. If, as I describe them, I seem to dwell more on oiu: 
wins than losses, remember that most of the stories were told 
to me by my uncles and that old soldiers only remember their 
victories. In common fairness, however, it must be added that 
the Ringlings ended by owning virtually all of their op- 

Our most bitter opposition in the early days came from the 


four Sells brothers. Their territory, like ours at the time, was 
primarily west of the Alleghenies. During the season of 1894, 
when we invaded Texas for the first time, they deliberately 
tried to day-and-date us all over a state they thought they 
owned. At one town, where they couldn't arrange their sched- 
ule to conflict with ours, they subsidized a free balloon 
ascension as a counterattraction. On that occasion Uncle John 
went out to see how many people had been drawn away from 
the Ringling show. There were so few that he sent Lew Sells 
the following telegram: 

An old man, a young boy, a hound dog and I 
watched your balloon ascension. It didn't go up. 

John Ringling 

Uncle John thought it was very funny; but his older 
brothers gave him a sharp dressing down. They did not con- 
sider it a nice or dignified thing to do. 

In fact, these circus wars were commercial rivalries which 
seldom embittered the relations of the principals. As lawyers 
storm at each other in court and then have lunch together, so 
the circus owners called each other liars, fakes, and cheaters 
in their publicity and greeted each other as old friends when 
they met. 

For example, one time when we were having opposi- 
tion from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show somebody arrived 
in Baraboo with a message from Colonel Cody: "Tell John 
Ringling he'd better stay out of my way or he'll bitterly regret 

Uncle John said, "Give Colonel Cody my compliments and 
tell him I'm not very worried. In fact, the next time I see him 
I'm going to throw him down and scalp him." 

When they actually did meet in a bar in Philadelphia, the 
only argument was who should blow whom to drinks. 

My uncles regarded Lew Sells as a fine old gentleman, 
which he was. In his own circus he was referred to as Uncle 


Lew, just as Albeit Ringling was called Uncle Al. When I was 
a boy working with the circus during my summer vacations, 
we employed a side-show announcer named Pete Stanton, 
who had formerly worked for Sells Brothers. He told many 
amusing stories about Lew. For instance, at that time, even 
as now and probably as long as circuses continue, mothers 
would He to get their small fry into the show without paying 
adult prices. ( Children under twelve were half price, babes 
in arms free. ) Lew Sells would place himself by the main en- 
trance to his tent, and as the mothers staggered up tot- 
ing husky boys four or five years old, he would shout out, "Let 
them menfolks walkl" 

When the tent was not well filled. Sells would sit himself 
next to someone in the blue seats ( general admission ) . After 
a bit he'd say, "We can't see a dam thing from here. Let's go 
buy reserved seats." He would lead his new friend to an in- 
side-ticket seller and then shp away to work his wiles on an- 
other customer. 

Another good story concerns the time Sells paid a high 
price for a superb black panther, of which he was very proud. 
One morning when they were setting up for the matinee the 
panther got loose just as Lew Sells walked into the menagerie 
tent. He saw the crowd of trainers and roustabouts trying to 
force the dangerous animal back into its cage wdth crowbars, 
pitchforks, and poles. Lew was terribly worried that an acci- 
dent might happen— to his panther. "Be very careful not to 
injure that beast," he shouted. "It's a very valuable animal 
and I want you to be very careful dov^oi there. Get him back 
in his cage, but on no account injure him." 

At that moment a black streak soared in a beautiful thirty- 
foot spring over the heads of the encompassing crowd and 
started up the tent with sinuous bounds. Going even faster. 
Sells headed for the exit yelling over his shoulder, "Shoot the 
son of a bitch." 


Despite the amenities exchanged by the owners, the circus 
wars were bitterly fought. They were, indeed, matters of 
financial life and death. The principal weapons were show 
bills. The advance men would hterally plaster a town with 
circus posters and banners, trying to hire every available bill- 
board, bam side, and store window before the opposition got 
to town. Then they would have to guard their bills from being 
torn down or covered over. Our victories were not always 
bloodless. Uncle CharHe told me of one occasion when he was 
on the advance car. He and one of his billposters put up a 
very important display. Then they lay in ambush behind the 
billboard waiting for the opposition to try to pull it down. 
Sure enough, one of SeUs' men came along, pointed like a bird 
dog as he saw the Ringling display, and started for it with a 
scraper. Uncle Charlie hopped out from behind the board 
and laid him out with a tack hammer. 

On another occasion one of nature's own creatures took the 
part of the opposition. This time Uncle John was out in ad- 
vance, riding an ordinary day coach on a very hot night. He 
was terribly tired and trying to sleep. He put a newspaper 
over his head to shut out the hght. It almost suffocated him. 
Just as he took it off, the train stopped in an open cutting, 
where a skunk basked on the lingering heat of sun-warmed 
earth. Irritated at being disturbed, the creature took careful 
aim through the open window of the train and let poor Uncle 
John have it right in the face. 

My uncle told me that it was the most horrible experience 
of his hfe. As he staggered to his feet, dripping with that as- 
phyxiating effluvia, and started blindly for the washroom, 
there was a riot in the car. All the passengers were screaming 
hysterically at him to keep off and diving under their seats 
to get away from him. He finally succeeded in getting his 
spare suit out of his bag and changing in the wasln-oom. He 
threw his old suit out of the train window and cleaned up as 



best he could. Even then he wsis popular neither witli his fel- 
low^ passengers nor himself. 

Another weapon of these hot and cold w^ars w^as the inven- 
tory bill, or "rat sheet." This w^as a poster put up by one show 
to expose the claims of another. They were not only libelous 
but dov^oiright defamatory, though nobody that I know of 
ever sued for libel. A typical inventory bill directed against 
us would read something like this: 


The Ringlings are cheap crooks who try to inflate 
their Pitiful Third-Rate Show by extravagant FALSE 
claims, as shown below: 

The Ringlings call themselves 
the "World's Greatest Show." 

They claim that Zip is the 
largest elephant in captivity. 

They advertise a Roman Hip- 
podrome and Caesar's trium- 
phal entry into Rome. 

Millionaire Menagerie 

They have a 22- car train. We 
travel in 45 cars. 

Zip is really a runt. We have 
ten elephants that are bigger. 

Their hippodrome consists of 
two battered two-horse chari- 
ots drawTi by spavined nags 
that can't get out of a walk. 
Caesar would have blushed 
with shame if he could have 
seen their cheap depiction of 
his triumph. 

It is a collection of two sick 
lions, three small elephants, 
and a few other miserable 
creatures which would not 
bring $500 on the auction 
block, where they soon will 


Museum and Aquarium The Museum contains some 

Indian Arrowheads. The 
Aquarium is the size of a gold- 
fish bowl and about as inter- 

This is a fair sample of the Deceit practiced on the 
public by these Notorious Swindlers. The public are 
not Fooled. Instead they come in DROVES TO 

The most vicious and peculiar inventory bill that ever at- 
tacked our show was put up by the crooks and gamblers whom 
my uncles had thrown out. It read: 

When Thieves Fall Out, Honest Men Get Their Due. 


Neighbors, unchain your dogs! Get out your shotguns! 
Keep your children at home! Lock all doors and win- 


You uAll know them by their Greasy Appearance! 
They are Thieves, Liars and Scoundrels. 
They have no Show worthy of the name. . . . 
We give you this warning because we are aho 
thieves, hut we have fallen out with the greasy 
pack and now tell THE TRUTH. 

As can be seen, these inventory bills lied recklessly; they 
diminished the truth as greatly as the posters exaggerated it. 
Oddly enough this form of negative advertising persisted 
among smaller circuses right up to modern times. I have at 
hand an inventory bill of 1937, in which Clyde Beatty berates 
poor little Cole Brothers Circus and warns the residents of 
Rochester, New York, not to waste their money on it. 

Sells Brothers gave the Ringlings a very tough time in 1894. 
They fought us not only in Texas but in Iowa and Minnesota 


as well. There they even reduced their price of admission to 
a losing twenty-five cents and tlie RingHngs were forced to 
meet that price. In the South both circuses maintained the 
regular fifty-cent admission. 

The Ringlings survived this attempt to put them out of busi- 
ness and came home to Baraboo with sufficient profit to en- 
large their show to forty-four cars in 1895. 

Having tested their mettle and emerged victorious, those 
optimistic uncles of mine decided on two tremendous gambles. 
Fii^st they would raid the very heart of enemy territory; chal- 
lenging not only Sells Brothers but the great Barnum & 
Bailey show itself. And take on Buffalo Bill as weU. 

As if this were not enough, they took, perhaps, an even 
longer chance by opening their show in Chicago indoors. 
Over sixty years later, when my brother John decided to 
abandon the Big Top and show only in coliseums, tlie tradi- 
tionahsts howled that the circus would never be the same. It 
is interesting to note that back in 1895 Ringling Brothers 
faced the same die-hard caterwaulings. An article in the 
Circus Annual begins: 

"There are a great many people who believe that a circus 
cannot be a real circus unless it be seen under canvas, with 
dirt rings and the sawdust smells that go with it, in imaginary 
descriptions at least. Doubtless there is some truth in this be- 
lief, if it means to compare the modern up-to-date show with 
the small travefing concerns of the past that would be com- 
pletely lost in an amphitheatre." Pretty pompous, considering 
that only eleven years had passed since the Ringlings had 
proudly set out with the very smallest "traveling concern" on 
the road. 

TattersaU's, which the Ringlings had chosen for their great 
experiment, had the general contoms and all the charm of a 
carbarn. It was an enormously long drab building with a 
curved glass roof supported by ugly steel girders. The rectan- 


gular arena was surrounded by rows of backless wooden 
benches where cattle and horse buyers customarily sat 
through public auctions. My uncles spent a fortune to change 
all that. Here is their description, overblown perhaps, of the 
metamorphosis they accomplished. 

"The grim old walls, . . . steel roof girders, homely wood- 
work . . . had been transformed into a veritable fairyland by 
the magic touch of money. . . . Everything was spick and 
span. The grimy rafters were hterally buried beneath masses 
of flags of every nation, banners and bunting of every color 
of the rainbow. The aisles and corridors had been transformed 
into floral gardens [with] potted plants and blooming flow- 
ers. . . . The seats were gone, too, and in their place modem, 
comfortable folding open chairs, and in front of them a com- 
plete circle of private boxes . . . richly draped and furnished 
with artistic chairs of unique design. 

"Overhead, amidst the sea of bunting, depended a myriad 
of ropes, trapezes, and other aerial paraphernalia, each indi- 
vidual piece of which was as white as pipe clay and strong 
arms could make it. The dirt rings were not there, either, but 
iastead rings of wood with earth floors, perfect and complete. 
Neatly uniformed ushers seated [the audience] and all the 
hurry, jostle, push and annoyance of their old-fashioned, 
ideal boyhood circus had vanished. . . ." 

The traditionalists must have been fiu-ther disturbed by the 
fact that they could actually see the show at night perform- 
ances. For bright, though crude, electric hghting had re- 
placed the smoky reflector oil lanterns and glaring acetylene 
lamps which had made the interior of tlie tent a bewildering, 
though picturesque, chiaroscuro of shifting shadows. 

Into this briUiant amphitheater the Ringlings threw a show 
that really deserved the magniloquent adjectives of their 
perfervid publicity writers. Three days before the opening, 
the show moved in a three-mile-long torch hght parade 


proudly led by Al RingHng on horseback, through the 
narrow pack-jammed streets of Chicago— the first such in its 
history. There were a fifty-five-piece band; several hundred 
horses ridden by performers or drawing the red-and-gold 
chariots; and the cages containing lions and tigers, panthers 
and pumas, a hippopotamus, a rhinoceros, and an infinite va- 
riety of other wildlife. Open glass-walled dens displayed 
snake charmers working boa constrictors or animal trainers 
cozily caged with their charges. Of course, there was a whole 
herd of elephants, dozens of clowns, and bringing up the rear, 
a perfectly deafening calliope. 

The show itself consisted of over twenty displays exhibiting 
every familiar feature of the circus we love, from the band 
concert led by the famous cornetist Signor A. Liberatti ( one 
seems to hear the echo of a familiar modern musical name) 
tlirough the great equestrians, aerialists, performing ele- 
phants, and on and on to the finale of four-horse-chariot races 
driven by girls in flowing classic draperies. Special attractions 
were Phillion's Aerial Globe display, in which tliat talented 
fellow perfoiTned on a high spii^al tower standing on a rolling 
globe; and the nine Landaures in their Living Statue act. 
These ladies and gentlemen, dressed in nothing but very tight 
tights covered with white paint, assumed the attitudes of fa- 
mous pieces of classic sculpture. It was a highlv popular dis- 
play, since it permitted the sex-starved midwestern audience 
to enjoy the appearance of nudity under the guise of appreci- 
ation of Art with a capital A. 

The most sensational act— a great deal more dangerous 
than Zacchini's modern cannon act— was an insane character, 
calling himself Speedy, diving eighty feet from the dome of 
tlie roof into a small tank of water tlnee and a half feet deep. 

To quote the Circus Annual once more: "The verdict of 
Cliicago pronounced it the largest as well as the best show 
ever given there. . . . The Circus became a fad; it was the 


thing to do and the thing to see. . . . Hundreds of thousands 
saw it; thousands were turned away." 

In plain fact, the Ringhngs had finally caught up with their 
splendid boasts. 

Fresh from this success the show moved on to St. Louis and, 
in June, to Boston, where, though it showed in a tent, special 
grandstands with private boxes were erected and lavishly 
furnished as in Chicago. In spite of following both Barnum & 
Bailey and Buffalo Bill, the Ringlings scored another tri- 

This upset the opposition no end. All three of the other 
great shows, Barnum & Bailey, Sells Brothers, and Buffalo Bill, 
combined to fight tliem, led by James A. Bailey. 

Now I think I should speak a Uttle of our chief opponent, 
although his story is well known. Bailey reached the top of 
the circus world by bluff backed by abiUty, for he was second 
only to Barnum himself in imaginative showmanship. His real 
name was James A. McGinnis. When he was about twelve 
years old he ran away from home and talked himself into a job 
with the Cooper and Bailey circus, where he made himself so 
valuable that, when Mr. Bailey died a few years later, he was 
in a position to ask for a partnership. Mr. Cooper agreed that 
he deserved it, but is reported to have said, "We don't want to 
change the name of the show. You can be a partner if you 
change your name," 

So McGinnis became James Anthony Bailey. By the time 
he was twenty-six he had gained control of the show. In 1880 
he outsmarted his great rival Barnum on a deal over a baby 
elephant, which so impressed the supreme flimflammer that 
he offered Bailey a partnership. This combination of talented 
necromancers produced The Greatest Show on Earth, which 
was without a serious rival for fifteen golden years, until the 
Ringlings brashly challenged it. When Phineas T. Barnum 


died in 1891 in his eighty-first year, Bailey stood alone at the 
pinnacle of the circus world. 

But he knew that you did not stay there without fighting, 
and in 1895 he went after the Ringlings. His first move was to 
buy into partnership with Colonel Cody. While his own cir- 
cus kept clear, he used Buffalo Bill's cowboys and Indians to 
harass the Ringlings at almost every stand in the East. My 
imcles retorted with the unparalleled effrontery of playing 
Bridgeport right in the shadow of Bamum & Bailey's huge 
winter quarters. 

This did nothing to reduce Mr. Bailey's blood pressure. He 
aheady ov^oied the Forepaugh Circus and in 1896 he bought 
a half interest in Sells Brothers Circus, which he sent out to do 
battle with the Ringlings under the name of the Forepaugh- 
Sells Circus. 

That year the Ringlings tried to keep out of trouble 
by avoiding the East, but Bailey sent Forepaugh-Sells raiding 
after them through the West. The two shows clashed directly 
at no less than forty-five stands during a hectic season in 
which the batthng billposters painted virtually every tov^Ti in 
the Midwest red, not only vdth flaming posters but with their 

That was the ruggedest campaign. By 1897 both Mr. 
Bailey and the Ringlings realized tliat nobody wins a spite 
fight. In that heyday of the circus there was plenty of room 
for two great circuses and several small ones. By tacit agree- 
ment they arranged their schedules to avoid each other. There 
was only one direct clash, when Barnum & Bailey and the 
Ringlings hit Minneapolis at the same time. Apparently 
Bailey's billposters won a battle but not the war, for the 
Ringling Route Book records, "At Minneapolis, Minn., we 
were shut out of billboards— used no large boards or walls- 
only banners, small boards and newspapers strong. Turned 
people away each performance." 


That day in Minneapolis was the last great scene of carnage. 
In a sense the Ringlings won the ultimate victory by default. 
Whether from prudence, weariness, or a desire to gather new 
laurels in fresh fields, Mr. Bailey took The Greatest Show on 
Earth to Europe in 1898. It remained abroad for five years, 
and if laurels were indeed his goal, he reaped a great harvest 
of them. As they liked to phrase it those royalty-loving days, 
all the crowned heads of Europe came to look and remained 
to applaud. More important from a financial point of view, 
the uncrowned heads turned out in multitudes. The tour was 
a spectacular success. 

While he was away, Bailey left Forepaugh-Sells to hold the 
eastern seaboard for him. If he reaUy expected those boys to 
do a man's work, it was a serious miscalculation. Perhaps, in 
the flush of his European triumphs, he did not really care. In 
any event, during those years the Ringlings established them- 
selves as the pre-eminent figures of the American circus— a 
position that was never afterward successfully challenged. 




At the end of the century the American people were moving 
out of their homespun phase. Those who could afford it were 
going to Europe in search of the culture and amenities of an 
older civilization, while those who could not, nevertheless 
aspired to a more sophisticated mode of life. The adjective 
"elegant," instead of being synonymous with "pretentious," as 


it now is, was an accolade. The Ringling brothers felt the pop- 
ular pulse, as good showmen always do, and went in for 
elegance in their circus; and in their private Hves as well. 

This trend was apparent in the lavish way they furnished 
Tattersall's in 1895. In 1897 they added a number of things 
to the circus which were designed to appeal to this taste. The 
first was their famous mounted band, tliirty brilliantly uni- 
formed bandsmen mounted on pure- white horses. The ghtter 
of their highly polished brass instruments was equaled only 
by the golden sparkle of their red-plumed hehnets as they 
maneuvered their steeds and simultaneously tootled their 
horns in the parade or arena v^dth military precision. 

The Ringlings' second concession to culture was a truly 
original contribution to circus lore, known as the Bell Wagon. 
It consisted of a twelve-bell carillon mounted on an ornately 
decorated chariot drawn by eight matched bays. A musician, 
perched on a gilded rumble seat, caused it to discourse 
melodious chimes as it rumbled along. 

The Bell Wagon was dreamed up by Charles and Alf T. 
Ringling, whose love of music contributed much to the high 
standard of the music which accompanied the show. Though 
certainly not great musicians, they composed many pleasing 
tunes for the circus of that era, just as my brother John does 
now. Since they could not write music, they played the airs 
for the musical director, George Ganweiler, who wrote them 
down and scored them. 

Like aU our magnificent chariots of that time, the Bell 
Wagon was built by our cousins, the MoeUer brothers. Under 
its fanciful decorations they concealed a rugged frame. The 
biggest bronze bell weighed nearly a ton, with the others in 
proportion. Since the wagon would be parked on muddy cir- 
cus lots, where under its weight the iron-shod wheels would 
sink so deep that a fifty-horse hitch might be needed to 


wrench it free, it had to be constructed so that, speaking quite 
literally, wild horses could not pull it apart. 

Another touch of elegance with which the Ringlings 
adorned the 1897 show was the English Derby Day Pageant 
with its concourse of beautiful carriages of the time: coaches, 
victorias, landaus, phaetons, tallyhos, two-wheeled dogcarts, 
and other "nobby private equipages" drawn by high-steppers 
hitched in fours, in pairs, and in tandem, in which rode 
fashionably dressed gentlemen and ladies of the company. 

A number of great equestrian acts were with the circus that 
year, among them the Rooneys. A member of the family, 
Charhe Rooney, who was also with the Bamum show for a 
while, came back to us as boss of the ring stock when he got 
too old to do stunts. Later still he retired to hve in Baraboo. 

He was a wonderful horseman, and he used to take care of 
my first pony for me. 

So Charhe Rooney became a friend of my youth and 
sometimes a terrifying one. He was a disastrous drinker and 
when he got d.t.s he would not recognize me. I would go out 
to the stable expecting to see my old, kindly Charhe. Instead 
he was a wild man, seeing snakes and monkeys climbing the 
beams and running along the rafters. Perhaps he mistook me 
for one of those hallucinatory monkeys, for he would take oflF 
after me with a terribly purposeful look in his eye. And 
I would take oflF too. 

But at their time of greatness, the Rooneys, especially 
Lizzie and John, were as fine as any equestrians in the world, 
and they, too, contributed to the beauty and elegance of the 

As a gesture toward the imperial splendors then touching 
the American imagination, the parade included elephants 
dragging siege guns, just as in Rudyard Kipling and as tliey 
did, in fact, with the British Army in India. According to 
Kipling, the elephants were too intelligent to take the guns 

A solid Ringling front to the world: Albert, Alf T., August, Charles, Otto, John, 
Grandmother, Grandfather, Mother, Henry. (Lawrence Studio) 

The five who built the circus, and their mustache cups. 

v*--^ r^ £<' 

The Ringlings always took part; 
left: Uncle John was known in 
1882 as "The Emperor of Dutch 
Comedians." below: Brother 
John at seventeen rode in the 
parade as a hussar. (Lawrence 



into actual battle— I have always had great respect for ele- 

For a fact, an Indian durbar at the peak of Victorian pomp 
and circumstance could hardly have had the impact on 
its viewers of the arrival of the circus at a small American city 
of this period of our history. Half the adults and all the small 
boys would be up in the gray dawn, and the column of smoke 
from the engine of the first section of the circus train led them 
to the railway tracks as inevitably as Moses' piUar of cloud 
led the Israehtes to the Promised Land. An eyewitness 
account of its arrival gives a vivid picture of it. 

"The engine drags its hne of gaudy yellow stockcars and 
flats with heavily laden wagons carrying canvas, stakes, stable 
tents, etc., slowly over the Main Street crossing to the sidings. 
The 'runs' [wooden troughlike planks] are quickly placed in 
position against the flats. Roustabouts and razorbacks swarm 
off the sleeping cars. The gigantic pole wagon comes slowly 
down the runs and its ten-horse team hauls it to the show 
grounds. Two-, four- and ten-horse teams come out of the 
stockcars with clocklike regularity, each arriving at the runs 
in the nick of time to pick up the proper wagon. 

"Meanwhile another long train and another and another 
arrive in the yards. With the same precision their contents 
are transported to the show grounds, which becomes a city of 
tents as exactly situated as a military encampment." 

Our anonymous eyewitness goes on to cite the tremendous 
effect of the parade on the people: "The sidewalks, curbs, 
gutters and streets are a packed, surging mass of humanity 
when the first of the chariots appears around the corner. The 
enlivening strains of the superb band starts the enthusiasm, 
... a round of applause which develops into a salvo of 
greeting as den after den of the grand menagerie passes in 
review; the side-show band in glaring uniforms of red, richly 
emblazoned and heavy with gold; tlie famous English Derby- 


Day section . . . ponderous war elephants hauling can- 
non . . . the children's section with allegories of Mother 
Goose and dainty cages displaying baby animals. The Arabian 
Caravan; the representatives of the standing armies of the na- 
tions of the world— all these as well as each of the thirty 
separate sections of the grand spectacular street pageant, be- 
wilder the eyes of the throng with their very magnificence— 
a mile and a half of marvels." 

The accent was indeed on splendor. But do not suppose 
that the circus was going sissy then any more than it is now. 
There were plenty of "death-defying feats," low-comedy 
clowns, and such side shows as Lionette the Lion-faced Girl, 
human skeletons, fat girls, bearded ladies, and three-legged 
men, to appeal to the earthiest instincts of the crowd. In fact, 
it had something for every taste, which is exactly what a cir- 
cus should have. 

In general, however, the trend toward splendor, continued 
during the five years when freed from the competition of 
Barnum & Bailey, the Ringling Circus waxed and grew great. 
Of course, they took the whole of America as their province. 
In 1901 the circus ranged from Boston, Massachusetts, to San 
Diego, California; and from Montreal, Canada, to Yazoo City, 

During each of those years the uncles added to the beauty 
and grandeur of the show. In 1899 Uncle Al staged the fa- 
mous sixty-one-horse spectacle. More and more of the great 
European acts were scouted and imported by Uncle John, 
giving finish and style to the performance. The chariots, al- 
though always gaudy, were artistically improved until some 
of them became genuinely valuable examples of the wood 
carver's art. And, of course, the spectacles that opened and 
ended the show not only became ever more lavish but also 
better staged and more historically accurate. 

Though aU this striving after splendor and style may sound 


somewhat farcical and phony, it did in fact meet a pub- 
lic need, and it gained an appreciative response. For tliis rea- 
son I feel that my micles and other showmen like them 
contributed something of real value to American life by 
introducing scenes of comparatively sophisticated magnifi- 
cence and beauty to a pubhc that, especially in the small 
western cities, hungered desperately for the things which 
they had read of but never seen. 

In 1903 James A. Bailey brought the Bamum show home 
from Europe with a fanfare worthy of Phineas T. Many 
splendid things had been added, among them tlie Two-Hemi- 
spheres Band Wagon drawn by the famous forty-horse hitch 
of matched Enghsh bays. Another importation was Ella and 
Fred Bradna. She was the finest equestrienne in the world. 
Dressed in a beautiful sequined evening gown with its skirt 
slit to the waist, she performed an astonishing series of 
equestrian acrobatics, including a bareback ballet dance 
which ended with a somersault from the galloping horse to 
the ground. Her husband, Fred Bradna, was a militarily slim 
man of aristocratic birth and impeccable dress, who was a 
great ringmaster and, later, a fine equestrian director. 

In addition to these and many other European novelties, 
Bailey had some splendid new chariots made in America, tlie 
most beautiful being the tableau wagon America. It was a 
massive vehicle of red, blue, and gold, decorated by cai-ved 
medallion heads representing the different coimtries of the 
two Americas liberally interspersed with shields of the United 

As The Greatest Show on Earth landed from a small fleet of 
chartered ocean hners in New York, it looked as though the 
stage were set for the battle of the new century between the 
titans of the circus world. It never came off. 

There were two reasons for this. The first was that the 


Ringlings were by now so strongly entrenched in the favor of 
the American people as to be almost impregnable. The second 
w^as that Mr. Bailey was growing old and weary. Had it been 
otherwise, who knows what might have happened, but like 
Napoleon at Waterloo, he was not the man he once had been. 

After testing his strength agaiost us in the season of 1903, 
Bailey ojffered my uncles a treaty of peace, which they 
sensibly accepted. In that agreement Bailey sold them a half 
interest in the Forepaugh-Sells Circus, which was sent out 
under the management of Henry Ringhng, who had proved 
his abihty by managing the John Robinson Circus, which the 
Ringlings had leased in 1898. All three circuses were carefully 
routed to avoid any conflict of dates. 

This arrangement prevailed until 1906. In the spring of that 
year, while Mr. Bailey was directing the three days of chaotic 
rehearsals in which he customarily threw a new show together 
at Madison Square Garden, he was suddenly stricken with 
erysipelas. The fine old gentleman was carried unconscious to 
his home in Mount Vernon, where he died within forty-eight 

Control of the Bamum show was inherited by his widow, 
who sent it out that year under the joint management of 
George O. Starr and her nephew-in-law Charles Hutchinson, 
whom I later knew and loved as Mr. Hutch. 

The season was a disaster. Without the generalship of Mr. 
Bailey everything went viTong. In addition, rainy weather 
pursued them and the final catasti'ophe was a tornado which 
hit the show at Iowa City, Iowa, blowing every tent, from the 
Big Top to the smallest dressing tent, into shredded canvas. 
Although in true circus tiadition they dug themselves out, 
scraped off the mud, and gave a performance in the open air 
the following day, it was a terrible blow. 

Sometime during that fatal season, Mrs. Bailey telegraphed 


Henry Rmgling offering him the position of manager. He put 
it up to the conclave of the brothers, who told him to refuse. 
Perhaps they were already contemplating a more drastic 

Nineteen hundred seven was a panic year. Barnum 
& Bailey, now under the management of W. W. Cole and 
Hutchinson, continued to lose money. Its stock fell to eighty- 
five cents a share. John BingUng began to buy it. 

John was the most ambitious of the Bingling brothers and 
the most daring. His was the spirit of the great industrial em- 
pire builders of the day; and he saw a chance to gain a 
monopoly of the circus business. Pride, too, may have entered 
into it. Even when Barnum & Bailey was in Europe, the 
Ringhngs never had played the greatest city in America, for 
Bailey controlled Madison Square Garden, the only suitable 
arena in New York. 

That summer, stocks were crashing in Wall Street and 
banks were failing all over the country. (Incidentally, the 
Ringlings more than repaid their debt to the Bank of Bara- 
boo. It was on the point of collapse when they shipped sack- 
fuls of greenbacks and silver dollars, direct from their ticket 
windows, to restore its credit.) In the midst of panic, John 
Bingling began secretly negotiating with Mrs. Bailey for the 
purchase of Barnum & Bailey. The poor lady was fearful of 
losing her whole patrimony and agreed on a reasonable— a 
very reasonable— price. Then John laid his deal before his 

No one quite knows what went on in that momentous con- 
ference, though it appears that most of them were against 
taking a chance in such dangerous times. But Otto, who al- 
ways thought big, was for it; and they respected his judgment. 

So the deal was approved and consummated. The Ringlings 
bought The Greatest Show on Eaith for $410,000. In 1908, 


while Charles and Albert ran the Ringling Circus, John, as- 
sisted by Alf T. and Otto, commanded the Barnum train. Its 
profits in that one season were greater than the price they 
had paid for it. 

Part III 




In their private lives the Ringling brothers, each according to 
his taste, began reaching out for a more spacious hfe. This 
v^^as only natuial, since most of the brothers had mairied by 
now and v^ere raising families. Giis, who had married Anna 
Herley, had three daughters, Mattie, Lorene, and Alice. Alf 


T. was married to Delia Andrews of Baiaboo and had a son, 
Richard. Charles and Edith had a boy and girl named Robert 
and Hester. 

In 1902 Henry married Ida Palmer, also a Baraboo girl. 
Their son, named after his father, was always known as Little 
Henry, even after he grew to be six feet two and a half and 
weighed weU over two hmidred pomids, though he never 
attained the gargantuan proportions of his father. Al and 
Louise had no children and Otto never married. He always 
lived with the AJf T.'s when in Baraboo. 

The first luxury the brothers bought themselves was a 
splendid private car in place of the old sleeping- dining car 
they had first used. This was not really a luxury at all, but a 
necessity, since they and their v^ves, especially Al and 
Charles, spent a great part of their lives on the circus train. 
It was at about this time that Charles began his collection of 
exquisite old viohns, many of which he carried with him on 
the train. He loved to play duets witli Edith, who accompa- 
nied him on a reed organ or a piano. 

The brothers often took their children along on the train, 
just as later they took John and me. That the younger 
generation had a keen sense of the most impoHant thing is 
shown by two letters written to my grandmother from circus 
trains. The first one is in a round baby hand on note paper 
adorned by a photograph of a round-eyed little girl with long 
corkscrew curls. It is dated Spokane, Washington, August 15, 


Dear Grandma 

I am with the show now but I am coming home soon 
in about a week. We are all quite well and the weather 
has been fine and business is good with the circus. . . . 

Love to all 
Hester Ringling 

The second one, written from Canada tlie same year, is 
from an even yomiger Ringling: 


Dear Grandma 

Yesterday it was hot and today is very cold. I feel 
fine and get my lessons every day. There is the tiniest 
pony colt with the show I ever saw. His name is 

How are you and do you ride every day? The cars 
are by the lot. Business is good. 

Your loving grandson 

Soon the brothers began building big pleasant houses in 
Baraboo. Gus did not long enjoy his, for he died in 1907, the 
first of the brothers to go. Charles', Alf T.'s, and Henry's 
homes were spacious columned pseudo-colonial houses. A 
little later Al outdid them all by building the great castle- 
chateau LQ which John and Salome and I grew up. As I said, 
when Uncle Al died in 1916, the conclave of surviving imcles 
made a settlement with Aunt Lou which gave them the 
ownership of the house, and they told my mother to go and 
live in it. The fact that Aunt Lou had removed the furniture 
and left the place as bare as a Roman ruin had escaped their 
notice. When my distraught mother called this to their at- 
tention they promptly supplied the deficiency with van loads 
of massive furniture in the latest style. 

The other brothers developed their hobbies. Alf T. had his 
music. In addition to collecting violins, Charles became an 
avid fisherman and sportsman. Otto amassed a Hbrary of fine 
books, every one of which he read. Unfortimately, his hobby 
for food led him to eat more than any one person should— 
he would eat a large sirloin steak for breakfast— which un- 
doubtedly contributed to his early death. Henry, too, was 
fond of reading, and was, perhaps, the most home-loving of 
them all. 

In these ways all the brothers but one opened the windows 
of life, though remaining based in Baraboo. The seventh 
brotlier sought much wider horizons. John Ringling was the 


Sport of the family, using that word in both its colloquial and 
its biological meaning. He got out of Baraboo just as quickly 
as he could; and he ranged very much further afield, geo- 
graphically, financially, and artistically than his brothers. This 
restlessness is exemplified by the fact that he was the only 
brother who ever ran away from home. He kept on running 
all his life. However, he was not running away from things, 
but toward them. 

As early as 1890 he went to live in a hotel in Chicago, only 
returning to Baraboo for circus business or family gatherings. 
He must have been a very gay young man; indeed, he 
basically ever remained so even when weighted with years 
and troubles. This is one of the stories he told me about the 
early days in Chicago: 

"We had great fun tishing the girls," he said. "Do you know 
what that is?" 

Of course, I said, "No." 

"Well," he said, "it was what I used to do when I was a 
young man around Chicago. We were just getting started 
with the circus and didn't have too much money, but we 
liked to have a good time and this was a way to help out a 
meager bank roll. We would go to the sporting houses and the 
girls would come in. Now, it was the custom in those days, in 
the higher types of places, that there would be no discussion 
about payment. Anything Hke that would spoil the temporary 

"You would probably order a bottle of wine and sit around 
talking about anything but money. The gii'ls all wore high 
silk stockings with round garters, and after you had warmed 
up a bit the big spenders would just bring out a fat roll of 
bills, and pulling back the garter a little, slip the roll down a 
gill's stocking. This made the girl happy and you had a fine 

"Now, I didn't have such important rolls at that time, so I 


would prepare a bit. I'd take a twenty dollar bill and wrap 
it around a big wad of tissue paper, so it looked like a big, 
splendid thing. When the time came I would shove it down 
the girl's stocking and she would never know until afterward 
the nature of the gift. Your uncle Charlie and I used to call it 
'tishing the girls.' " 

Later, when Uncle John was fairly rich, he Hved at the 
famous Palmer House in Chicago, but he had not changed 
his ways. The hotel was very strict about propriety, and tlie 
house detective, a man named Bismark, was most conscien- 
tious. For years Uncle John and Bismark fought a battle of 
wits. He would sneak a girl into his room without being seen, 
but somehow Bismark would sense that she was there and 
come barging in to spoil all the fun. 

Finally my uncle discovered how the detective did it. He 
would come along the corridor after the room key had been 
taken up and the occupant was supposedly in bed, and lean 
a wooden match upright against the door. If it was not still 
standing there the next time he came around, he knew some 
unauthorized person had gone in. 

After he solved the mystery, Uncle John defeated Bismark 
for quite a while. When the girl was safely in his room, he 
would pull the door almost to. Then he would lie down and 
slip his fingers through the crack and carefully balance a 
matchstick against the door, which he then closed very 
gently. When Bismark made his rounds there was proof that 
the propriety of the Palmer House was intact. 

Incidentally, Uncle John had one rigid rule of conduct in 
the matter of women. He never went with any of tlie girls in 
the show, though some of his brothers did. I am not sure 
whether this was because he felt it was undignified and bad 
for discipline, or whether he thought that his position as 
owner gave him too great an advantage and that it was un- 
sporting, like shooting a sitting bird. In any event, he never 


broke this rule, and Brother John, who modeled himself in 
many ways on his beloved uncle, keeps the same code. 

In the nineties Uncle John began making his annual trips 
to Europe to collect new acts for the circus. In his inquiring, 
untaught way he loved beauty, and the great pictures he 
saw abroad stirred him as nothing of an aesthetic nature ever 
had before. He decided he would like to have some that he 
could enjoy at home, and he began to buy, indiscriminately 
at first, but never rashly. 

Once, many years later, I was going through the ware- 
houses at Sarasota, where the treasures he had brought home 
from Europe were stored waiting for the completion of the 
museum which he intended to present to the state of Florida. 
Uncle John loved to go through the storage rooms and look 
at his great pictures. He would teU me which ones he wanted 
to see and exactly where they were. I would haul them out 
and he would sit on a crate in the bare, vaultlike room drink- 
ing in their beauty by the hour. 

On this occasion I unearthed a perfectly frightful late- 
nineteenth-century picture. It was a painting of a nude female 
statue in a garden setting. The lady was holding some cherries 
in her hands. She made me think of Venus rising from a bed 
of concrete. Uncle John sat looking at it, not exactly proudly, 
but nostalgically. "That is the first picture I ever bought," he 

For all I know, it is still in the cellar of the museum, for he 
never sold a picture in his life. 

John Ringling did not long make such mistakes. As his 
interest in pictures grew, he studied art with the terrific 
intensity which he applied to any field in which he became 
active. He devoured books on the subject by the authoritative 
critics and spent hours and days in the great European 
museums training his eye to form and color and technique. 

For the most part, this was because he Hked what he was 


doing; he seldom did anything he did not Uke. But there was 
also his fear of being flummoxed by the art dealers. For John 
Ringling had a most suspicious nature, and his misgivings 
were indubitably justified at a time when many unscrupulous 
dealers regarded the whole year as the open season for wide- 
eyed American millionaires. Furthermore, he enjoyed horse 
trading as much as David Harum; and how could a man best 
another without expert knowledge of the matter in hand? 

By the time he finished educating himself. Uncle John, if 
not a great connoisseur, had a very respectable knowledge of 
the subject, which, coupled with his innate taste and shrewd 
instinct for detecting a phony, whether in works of art or 
human beings, made him a formidable bargainer. 

Part of his method was to conceal his knowledge behind 
a bucolic manner. Arthur Newton of the Newton Galleries in 
New York likes to tell the story of the time in the 1920s when 
he spent days of hard trading with John Ringling over the 
pm-chase of several minor works of the eighteenth-century 
English school. While Ringling was viewing these pictures, a 
fine Sassoferrato was hanging in another room. Ringling 
hardly glanced at it as he went past. However, after offers and 
coimteroffers had been made and the deal seemed stalled, my 
uncle sent for Mr. Newton. When he came into the beautifully 
furnished New York office, where Ringling sat in suitable 
grandeur behind a huge flat-topped desk, he was greeted by 
the words "You had better sit down, Mr. Newton, while you 
listen to this offer." 

Newton perched himself nervously and gripped the carved 
arms of his chair. "Now I tell you what 111 do, Mr. Newton," 
Uncle John said with affected rusticity. "I'll give you two 
thousand dollars for the lot, provided you thiow in the 

It was exactly the minhnimi Newton would take and the 
deal was made. 


Another of Uncle John's techniques was to go to the great 
auctions at Christie's in London accompanied by Newton or 
some other expert. He knew that the other dealers would try 
to bid him up, so he would have Newton bid on the pictures 
he really wanted, while he ostentatiously bid for pictures he 
did not particularly like. 

Now, I do not want to imply that my uncle never got stuck, 
for he assuredly did. Some of the pictures he thought great 
bargains had been impugned by the experts, though Uncle 
John never believed these gentlemen if he did not choose to. 
But the fact remains that his do-it-yourself art education 
enabled him to amass a collection of old masters— he never 
bought modem pictures— which at the time of his death was 
appraised at close to $15,000,000, about five times what he 
paid for it. His collection put the John and Mable Ringling 
Museum in the first rank among the galleries of the world. 

While John Ringling was cultivating artistic discrimina- 
tion, he also acquii-ed a good deal of social polish. Though 
he had no affectations, except his occasional affectation of 
vulgarity, he was far too sensitive not to perceive the merits 
of good usage. One of the first tilings to go was that barber- 
shop mustache. His store-bought clothes were replaced by 
the products of Saville Row or equally well-cut and even more 
expensive garments by Mr. Bell of New York. Good horses 
were an inherited love of all the Ringlings. After all, such 
products of the harness maker's craft as "a gold- and rubber- 
mounted double harness" needed a blooded animal to show 
it oft' properly. As the age of the automobile came in, im- 
patient Uncle John transfened his affection to them, though 
Uncle Al did not. However, Uncle John was equally fastidious 
about internal-combustion locomotion; he never owned any- 
thing but Rolls-Royces and Pierce- Arrows. 

The one vulgar taste he kept was food. Though he could 


enjoy a European dinner with vintage wines, what he hked 
best was Old Curio scotch and hash— any kind of hash. He 
could put away tremendous quantities of hash. I remember 
an occasion when a Chinese valet who had left Uncle John's 
employ came to his Venetian palace in Sarasota to see him 
and ask for his old job back. 

"But I have a good man now, Willy," Uncle John said. "I 
don't need a valet, I need a cook." 

"I can cook, Mr. Lingling," said Willy, who had the oriental 
block against the letter r. 

"You kept your secret well," Uncle John observed. "Can you 
make good hash?" 

Willy beamed. "Mr. Lingling," he said, "I can make sleven- 
teen kinds of hash." 

He got the job. 

So far I have discussed the frivolous side of John Ringling's 
emerging character. But anyone who supposed that this was 
his measure— and some did— was apt, in the words of the old 
song, to find "his head tucked underneath liis arm." 

During the time of Ringling Brothers' great expansion he 
gradually assumed the leadership of the partnership. Though 
in theory each partner remained equal with an equal voice, 
in practice Uncle Jolm played the dominant role. There were 
several reasons why he was able to do this. For one thing, 
the others were immersed in the technical problems of theu' 
respective departments of the circus, while John, freewheeling 
between Europe and America, did not get bogged down in 
details. Coming back from his trips with a fresh point of view, 
he was able to see what military men call the big picture. And 
his imagination showed him the way to profit by it. 

While his brothers were generally content to progress 
slowly, John's tremendous drive and soaring ambition made 
him impatient with conservative pohcies. His was an all-or- 
nothing spirit, ready to go out on a long financial limli to 


grasp glittering opportunity. Because he was also the most 
ruthless and egotistical of the brothers, he forced them to go 
along with him. And because he was the most farsighted, 
with the possible exception of Otto, his gambles paid golden 
dividends for many years, until in the days of depression, 
when opportunity shriveled and all bets were off, he came 
close to lonely ruin. 

Nor were John Ringhng's ventures confined to circus busi- 
ness. As he traveled around the country on the circus train, 
his eyes were always searching for opportunity. He loved 
money more than anything except pictures, and he never 
missed a chance of making some. He might see a theater in 
some small city that was doing badly and could be turned 
into a profitable movie house; or a streetcar line that needed 
a httle capital; or even a steam laundry whose owner wanted 
to retire. It did not matter to Uncle John what the line was as 
long as there was money in it. As a result, he owned businesses 
all over the United States. 

Another of John Ringhng's extraciu-ricular activities was 
building short-line railroads. Since he routed the circus, he 
was as famihar with rail systems of the United States as a 
spider with its web. Although the great railroad-building days 
were over and the transportation system almost complete, 
Uncle John occasionally would discover a missing link that 
might be forged with profit. One such hne, built about 1911, 
was the fifty-five-mile connection between Mark Twain's 
home town, Hannibal, Missouri, and BowHng Green, wliich 
Uncle John proudly named the St. Louis and Hannibal, 
though it went nowhere near the Missouri metropolis. It 
operated profitably until the 1930s, when it was scrapped. 

Anotlier short line was in Montana. Before starting this 
railroad. Uncle John took the precaution of buying about 
70,000 acres of adjoining real estate. He then built a twenty- 
mile line from White Sulphin: Springs, Montana, to Broken 


Jaw, whose grateful inhabitants rechristened their town 
Ringhng— a great loss of picturesque nomenclature, but very 
gratifying to Uncle John. With his usual recklessness of geo- 
grapliical exactitude he called it the White Sulphur Springs 
and Yellowstone Park. It is still running, with my brother 
John as president, while my cousin Paul Ringling ranches the 
remaining 20,000 acres of the original landholding. 

My uncle's fondness for calling his raihoads by high- 
sounding names was probably a reflection of circus-style 
exaggeration. One of his most grandiose gestures in this 
direction was the twenty-mile railroad he built between East- 
land and Breakwater, Texas, which he called the Eastland, 
Wichita Falls and Gulf. The family were teasing him about 
this pretentious title when Uncle CharUe came to his rescue 
by saying, "It may be only twenty miles long, but it's just as 
wide as anybody's railroad." 

The most profitable of all John Ringling's gambles in rail- 
roading was not due to his acumen, but to pure happen- 
stance. Perhaps this is not quite correct, for Uncle John al- 
ways put himself in the path of Opportunity and that 
capricious dame did not even have to knock once; she had 
but to droop her left eyehd. 

In 1913 one of her favorite haunts was still the old Waldorf 
bar. At five o'clock every weekday afternoon tycoons and 
tycoonlets gathered under the potted palms in its somber 
magnificence to discuss past triumphs and future amalgam- 
ations; and to refresh themselves with old bourbon or those 
newfangled martinis. There might sit Otto Kahn, Frank 
Vanderlip of the National City Bank, and George F. Baker 
of the First National, a trio of Morgan partners, a couple of 
Vanderbilts, Charles M. Schwab, Payne Whitney, Cornelius 
Kelley of Anaconda, and, with ears quivering and his mind 
working like a still uninvented electronic computer, tliat 
brilliant young opportunist, Bernard M. Baruch. 


Into that Utopian gathering where every man was a king- 
oil king, steel king, copper king— came one afternoon an 
ambitious but relatively unknown gentleman from Oklahoma 
who was looking for money. His name was Jake Hammond, 
and he hoped to get financing for a raihoad which he expected 
would open up the cattle country of his native state. 

Mr. Hammond sat alone at a httle table. He knew that 
almost every man in the room was a Who, but he had no 
idea who was who. Among the men crowding the famous 
long bar, he noticed an impressive individual dressed in 
superbly tailored clothes. He was a big man, getting a little 
stout, and he carried himself with an air of authority. But 
Hammond noticed that his face was round and merry and 
his manner was simple and friendly. 

"Who is that?" Hammond asked a waiter. 

"John Ringling, the circus king," was the reply. 

Hammond told my uncle that he decided that he was 
the most amiable looking king in the room. He got up and 
shoved his way to the bar. In doing so, he knocked over 
Uncle John's drink. Jake Hammond pretended to be terribly 
embarrassed by his clumsiness. Playing Uncle John's own 
game of exaggerated rusticity, he begged him to show his 
forgiveness by letting him buy a drink. Uncle John was 
practically always willing to let somebody else buy the drinks. 

Jake Hammond's guardian angel could hardly have led him 
to pick a better man. John Ringling's short-line raikoads were 
doing very well. He lent an attentive ear to Hammond's sales 
talk and was induced to go to Ardmore, Oklahoma, with him 
to look the ground over. The upshot of the trip was that Uncle 
John bought a townsite in the cattle country near a farm 
owned by a certain Mr. Healdt. He called his town Ringling 
and helped Hammond to finance a twenty-three-mile rail- 
road from Ardmore to Ringling, which he named tlie Okla- 
homa, New Mexico and Pacific. 


Now, the law of averages always operates in the long run. 
The red and the black come up the same number of times if 
you give them long enough; and no run of luck lasts forever. 
But there seems to be another law of chance which ordains 
that a great gambler's luck is either very, very good or 
incredibly bad. There are no httle swings, no median range. 
These were the years when Uncle John's luck was very, very 

Just as the railroad was nearing completion, a wildcat oil 
well on Mr. Healdt's farm came in with a stupendous roar 
that blew the derrick into the next county. Before they got 
it capped John Ringling had the circus lav^er John M. Kelly 
down there buying up oil leases. Kelly stood in the bar of the 
local hotel and bought them from speculators and farmers, 
and from the Indians. My uncle used to say, "If Kelly had not 
had to go to the men's room, I would have owned the whole 
Healdton field. While he was there some good parcels got 

This, of course, was circus talk, but he wound up with about 
eight thousand acres, and the Healdton field became for a 
while the largest oil producer in the world. 

Jake Hammond became one of the richest men in the state 
and aspired to be governor of Oklahoma. However, the luck 
turned against him. Mr. Hammond had the misfortune to be 
murdered by his sweetheart. 

Uncle John did very well indeed. He took approximately 
$7,000,000 out of his holdings in the Healdton field. My 
brother John and I still own 60 per cent of the eight thousand 
acres, having purchased them from John Ringhng's estate. 
Some of the wells are still producing. 



No matter how widely John Ringling's interests ranged he 
never neglected the circus. After his great coup in purchasing 
Barnum & Bailey, which resulted in a virtual monopoly of the 
field— a sort of circus trust— he devoted most of liis energies 
to that show. In 1908, the first year it was under Ringling 


management, Uncle John routed both shows. Though he 
hated detail work, routing the trains was a game to him like 
doing an enormously intricate crossword puzzle. His card- 
index memory and relentless accumulation of facts enabled 
him to know exactly which towns in any state were to be 
avoided because of depressed conditions, local strikes, or crop 
failure, and which had bumper crops of greenbacks to be 
harvested. His routing of the two trains was a tour de force. 

The following year, 1909, the brothers' council decided 
that Ringling Brothers should open in Madison Square 
Garden in New York and Barnum & Bailey in Chicago. 
Whether Uncle John approved of this decision or not, I can- 
not say. He may have gone along with it because of family 
pride— after all, the Ringling show had never played New 
York. In any case, it was a mistake. New Yorkers thought that 
Barnum & Bailey was the only circus worth seeing, and 
Chicagoans were equally loyal to Ringling Brothers. Both 
cities felt cheated and neither show did well. The experiment 
was not repeated. 

Though he routed both shows, Uncle John took a prime 
interest in his new acquisition; for one thing, he had to prove 
himself right. That first year, 1908, he rode the Barnum train 
almost all the way. While Otto Ringling tightened up manage- 
ment procedures, John oversaw the performance. Ed Shipp, 
who had been Uncle Al's assistant on the Ringling Brothers 
show, became equestrian director of Barnum & Bailey, but 
John Ringhng was really in command. He added to the 
splendor and precision of the performance, which had 
deteriorated during the interregnum, and made notes as to 
the acts he should seek in Europe to strengthen the show. 

His first move was to give Ella Bradna and Fred Derrick 
the center ring with notliing else going on to distract 
audience attention. They had developed a remarkable eques- 
trian act. May Wirth, who came to us from Austraha in 191a, 


may have excelled Ella Bradna, She easily accomplished 
feats few men could do— the forward somersault, back somer- 
sault with her back to the horse's head, and somersault from 
one horse to another. But Fred and Ella as a team were with- 
out a peer in the style, elegance, and beauty of their per- 
formance. Fred Derrick dressed for his act like an ambassador 
to the Court of St. James's, except that his tail coat and knee 
breeches were made of white satin. Ella wore a low-cut white 
bodice embroidered with sequins. Her long graceful legs were 
displayed in white tights. She wore long white kid gloves and 
carried an ostrich-feather fan. 

She opened the act standing astride two white horses 
Roman style and lifting Derrick to her shoulders. From there 
he somersaulted to the ground and began an incredible series 
of leaps and pirouettes off and on the horse, never once miss- 
ing. After that Ella did her famous fork leaps and bareback 
toe dance. They came together again at the finale in a 
dazzling series of equestrian acrobatics in unison. 

In 1915 Uncle John made Ella's husband, Fred Bradna, 
equestrian director of the Barnum show, a post he held with 
Barnum, and later with the Combined Shows, for over thirty 
years. He and Ella were unique in their zany, quixotic self- 
characterizations of their Bohemian heritage. Fred was the 
son of a sohd banking-brewing dynasty from Strasbourg in 
Alsace. He was a lieutenant in a crack cavalry regiment in 
the German Army when the small circus in which Ella was 
the star equestrienne came to Dieuze, where his regiment 
was stationed. He resigned his commission and chucked his 
career and his family to marry her. They were together until 
his death sixty-four years later. 

Though Fred traded his uhlan's uniform for the silk hat, 
tail coat, and patent-leather boots of an equestrian director, 
he never for a moment lost his air of command. He ran the 
circus like a Prussian drillmaster. He was a perfectionist who 


would not tolerate the slightest letdown in even one of hun- 
dreds of performers. Woe to the actor who gave a slipshod 

Though Fred was small and slight, he was capable of 
towering rages and could curse majestically in at least nine 
languages. I remember one season when he used all nine 
simultaneously at every performance. The object of his wrath 
was Papa Leers, whose daughter Lucita was an outstanding 
acrobat. At the end of her act she did a full split on the 
roman rings and lowered two ends of a rope to the ground, 
where Papa was waiting for his moment of glory. The climax 
of the act was the spectacle of a lovely muscular girl with the 
weight of a fully grown man dangling from her torso while 
in the impossible position of a full split on the roman rings 
high above the center ring. 

But Papa ruined it every time by hamming up his part to 
attract attention to himself. Though each day. Bradna 
threatened to grind him into pate de maison and eat him 
spread thin on slices of pumpernickel, Papa persisted. Lucita 
never quite split in two; Papa never became a sandwich 
spread; and Fred never forgave him. 

Everyone in tlie circus knew that Ella was several years 
older than Fred, but that gallant gentleman always insisted 
that he was ten years older than she. In spite of Uncle John's 
sensitivity to the true ring of a well-turned dollar, he too re- 
mained a sentimentahst about Ella. Long after she had passed 
her prime and could no longer pretend to her former excel- 
lence as an equestrienne, he kept her in the center ring with 
"The Act Beautiful." This was a weird sort of display that 
she and Fred dreamed up, in which Ella made her entrance 
in a golden chariot drawn by a white winged horse, with 
large dogs running under the chassis and little ones tread- 
milling on top of the wheels, and a supporting cast of twelve 


beautiful girls and a flock of pigeons dyed to match the colors 
of the costumes. 

It requued a whole railroad car to transport the animals 
and equipment, but Uncle John paid and smiled benignly 
and nostalgically upon the fading queen of bygone years as 
twice daily she got herself inextricably involved vdth that 
fantastic collection of people, birds, horses, and dogs. The 
latter ranged from a huge Siberian husky named Zero to a 
whole pack of peanut-brained Russian wolfhounds and yap- 
ping Pomeranians. 

By the time my brother John took over the management, 
changing conditions made "The Act Beautiful" impossible, 
but the indestructible Ella was still young in spirit, so he 
continued to feature Mme. Bradna in the center ring on a 
reduced scale of magnificence. Zero, the wolfhounds, Ponier- 
anians, and pigeons had long since passed to the place where 
the cookhouse flag is always up and every day is payday, but 
"Mein" Eagle, Ella's favorite Arabian stallion, was as durable 
as she. Until 1942 these two defied the clock and, in a deco- 
rous exliibition of manege, brought to us who knew and loved 
them a daily remembrance of what circus life should be— a 
combination of gaiety and pathos. 

In 1913, when Europe was quivering in anticipation of the 
First World War, the Bradnas became very homesick. Uncle 
John sent them to Hungary, ostensibly to sign up the Konyot 
family, whom he had scouted the year before, but actually 
so that they could have a final reunion with their families. 
Like most of Uncle John's generous gestures, this profited him 
as well, for Bradna secured the fourteen Konyots, who were 
so multitalented that they performed in sLx different specialty 
acts. They were immensely valuable when the war shut off 
the supply of European performers. 

Another great family troupe that Uncle John imported was 


the Hannefords of Ireland. They, too, were equestrians— com- 
manded by a magnificent matriai'ch, Mrs. Ehzabeth Hanne- 
ford, who acted as their ringmaster clad in a long evening 
gown ablaze with jewels and a headdress of ostrich plumes. 
The star of the family of six was Poodles ( Richard ) Hanne- 
ford. In calculated contrast to his mother's coruscating osten- 
tation, he staggered into the ring, apparently drunk and dis- 
orderly and dressed in rags which would have made Emmett 
Kelly seem a model of sartorial splendor. Clinging in 
simulated helplessness around a horse's neck, he had a series 
of hilarious mishaps which involved such skillful equestrian 
acrobatics as have seldom been equaled. In later years 
Poodles performed some of these same feats in a derby hat 
and a ragged coonskin coat that trailed on the floor. 

My brother John has often been accused of corrupting the 
simon-pure atmosphere of the "real" circus by introducing 
the beautiful production numbers designed by such theatrical 
artists as Charles Le Maire, Miles White, and Max 
Weldy. It may be news to his critics that the circus was 
"corrupted" when he was still in grade school. In 1914 John 
Ringling staged a ballet danced by eighty trained ballerinas, 
and this at a time when most Americans regarded the ballet 
as an exotic and alien form of art. 

For that matter, the merging of theater and circus was 
evident in the spectacle plays which Bamum first introduced 
and which Alf T. brought to a sophisticated peak of perfection 
in such productions as "Joan of Arc" and "Cinderella." To 
stage the latter, a large section of seats was removed and 
replaced by scenery representing a medieval castle, includ- 
ing a broad, practical staircase down which Cinderella fled 
from the ball. Even Billy Rose's imagination never vaulted to 
such extravagant heights as this Ringling Brothers "spec," 
which requiied a cast of 1370 performers, 735 horses, and 
"five herds of elephants." They would have astonished Cinder- 


ella, who must have thought that her Fairy Godmother was 
drunk with power. 

Despite his ruthlessness in financial matters, John Ringling 
was attentive to the safety of his people. He objected to the 
brutality of wild-animal acts and there were few in our 
circus while he was running it. He also disliked uselessly 
dangerous stunts, though he was obHged to have these to 
appeal to the thrill-seeking audience, who still retained some 
of the same instincts which animated the crowds in the Roman 
Colosseum. He had one of the most dangerous acts ever staged 
in the Bamum show just before World War I. Ernest Gadbin, 
a mad German acrobat who appropriately billed himself as 
Desperado, did a swan dive from a height of eighty feet, 
landing on his chest on a sort of toboggan slide made slippery 
with a layer of com meal. He landed going more than a mile 
a minute, shot down the slide and up its curving end to soar 
off into a net. 

Such acts were gradually toned down, but, of course, you 
could never completely eliminate risk in running a circus, 
and Uncle John did not expect to. He just tried to make it as 
safe as possible. 

An example of this is described by Fred Bradna in his book 
The Big Top. It was in 1928 and the circus was located on 
a muddy lot in Washington, D.C. That year the Wallendas 
had joined the show. The climax of their act came when four 
members of the family, in human-pyramid formation, rode a 
bicycle across a tight wire stretched across the very top of 
the tent with no net beneath them. The wire had to support 
about a thousand pounds of people and equipment. If it 
sagged during the perilous trip, the Wallendas were in bad 
trouble. Once, when a storm hit tlie Big Top, the Wallendas' 
wiie loosened. As the bicycle went over, Karl Wallenda, who 
was riding it, grabbed the wire and caught Helen by the neck 
with a scissors grip of his legs as she went past. He held her 


until a hand net was rushed under them. Meanwhile Herman 
Wallenda caught his brother Joseph in the same fashion and 
went hand over hand along the wire to the platform. 

In Washington, John Ringling was dissatisfied with the way 
the Wallendas' wire was rigged, and so was Karl. They tried 
various means of mooring it, without success. Finally, about 
midnight, Fred Bradna suggested putting two heavy poles 
outside the Big Top and bracing the wire to them with a 
series of stays. "But where are you going to get poles at this 
time of night?" he asked. 

"Take me to a telephone," said Uncle John. 

Within an hour an emergency squad from the Chesapeake 
and Potomac Telephone Company was driving two telephone 
poles into the ground. 

Though his working hoiurs drove people crazy and his dis- 
taste for detail made him prone to rely too much on his sub- 
ordinates, Uncle John was both an imaginative policy maker 
and a magnificent field commander. He was at his best in an 
emergency, and there were plenty of them to test his quality. 
In those days the tents were waterproofed with paraffin, 
which made them horribly combustible. One season both 
Bamum's and Ringling Brothers' Big Tops burned up within 
a few weeks of each other. Luckily no one was badly hurt. 
The audience dropped between the seats and crawled out 
under the bottom of the tent. We were not always so fortu- 
nate. ... 

Despite his distaste for Baraboo and his far-ranging travels, 
abroad and on the circus train, Uncle John had the same 
strong fraternal feeling which kept the family so closely 
united. As I have said, Christmas was the time when they all 
got together at my grandparents' home. As long as his father 
and mother lived, Uncle John always came home for Chiist- 
mas. Only once, in 1907, he did not quite make it. 


When my grandmother heard that her son was unable to 
reach Baraboo until mid-January, she simply postponed 
Cliristmas. In this connection, we have a check for fifty dollars 
drawn to her order by Otto Ringling and dated December 
24, 1907. She even refused to cash it until John came home. 
The check was never cashed. 

Grandmother decreed that Christmas should fall on Janu- 
ary 16, 1908. That evening all seven of her surviving children, 
their wives and offspring, gathered as always in her home. 
My brother John was there; I was not yet bom. As always, 
they had a roaring wonderful reunion with plenty of rousing 
arguments and homeric gustatory exploits. That night my 
grandmother died in her sleep. One may be sure she was very 

On April 4, 1911, Otto became the first of the partner- 
brothers to go. Though he died in New York with the Bamum 
show, Otto was brought home to Baraboo to be buried from 
Uncle Al's great house, which was directly across the street 
from the little frame dwelling where he was born. There was 
no circus that day. Bamum & Bailey in New York and Ringling 
Brothers in Chicago canceled all performances. All the 
brothers came to Baraboo, and special cars from Chicago and 
New York brought people from the two shows to pay their 
respects to "The King." Perhaps the most touching tribute 
was a floral piece in the shape of a wheel from a Roman 
chariot, with one of its five spokes broken as a token that 
one of the five founders had gone. 

Though John Ringling began to play a leading role in the 
councils of tlie brothers as early as the turn of the century, 
his final position as absolute czar of the circus world was due 
to his powers of survival. Until 1932 Ringling Brothers was 
not a corporation, but a simple partnership. As one by one 


the partner-brothers died, the survivors made a settlement 
w^ith their heirs and carried on. 

Since Otto had no descendants, they divided his share 
among themselves, giving some of it to Henry Ringling and 
making him a partner in Otto's place. Hov^^ever, Henry, 
though hard-w^orking and competent, could not fill Otto's 
shoes. "The King" had the most financial acumen of them 
all. The inevitable result was that Uncle John became more 
dominant than ever, taking Otto's place as arbiter of Ring- 
ling Brothers' finances. 



So far I have spoken of things of which I had no direct knowl- 
edge, but the time is past due for my appearance, as I was 
born in 1909. In order not to confuse tlie narrative, I have 
hardly even mentioned my motlier. However, since her chil- 
dren later played a not insignificant part in the history of 


our circus, it is time she was introduced. Her upbringing— 
and ours— was very different from that of her brothers and 
exemphfies the changes that money brought to the Ringlings' 
way of Hfe. 

Ida RingHng was only sixteen when our show first went on 
rails, and therefore her brothers were able to give her ad- 
vantages they had never had. Of course, she lived with her 
father and mother in the house my uncles had given them in 
Baraboo and was graduated from Baraboo High School in due 
time. At that time she was very lovely, a tall girl with olive 
skin and dark auburn hair which was so long she could sit on 
it, a highly thought-of accomplishment for young ladies of 
that era. 

Her life was extremely sheltered. No young woman of to- 
day would stand for the restrictions which an old-fashioned 
German father and mother and seven sedulous older brothers 
imposed on her. Even when she was a grown woman they 
would never allow her to come home from dances or evening 
parties with one of her beaux. Either her father or one of 
the brothers would always call for her. She found it very 
embarrassing but could do nothing with them. On one oc- 
casion, when the party she was at broke up early, she walked 
home a block and a half with a young doctor. Her parents 
and brothers treated her as though she were a fallen woman. 

On another occasion, when her brother Alf T. took her to 
call on some old friends in Baraboo, she decorously crossed 
her ankles— not her knees— in the parlor. When he brought 
her home. Uncle Alfred was livid with rage at her unseemly 
conduct, and not only her father and mother but every one of 
her brothers and tlieir wives spoke to her severely. 

In fact, all her life Ida's menfolk bossed her. It was not 
that she lacked spunk; but they were all so utterly immovable 
in their ideas of right and v^Tong and propriety— for women. 
And, of course, there were "so damn many of tliem." 


Like Alf T. and Charles, Ida was very musical, and her 
brothers gave her every opportunity to develop her talent. 
That new organ which Louise Ringling mentions Grand- 
mother getting was bought for Ida. And as soon as they could, 
her brothers gave her a piano. When she had exhausted the 
extremely limited tutelage of the best piano teachers in 
Baraboo, she was sent to the Chicago Musical College, run by 
Professor Florenz Ziegfeld, the father of the famous Florenz 
Ziegfeld, Jr. In Chicago, Mother also studied with Professor 
Emil Liebling, who was recognized as one of the best piano 
teachers in America. 

Ida became a very fine musician, but her accomplish- 
ments were only for the enjoyment of her family and friends. 
She never played prof essionally— the brothers would not allow 

Naturally, Ida was not allowed to live alone in a big bad 
city like Chicago. Her brothers arranged for her to stay with 
an Italian family named Allegrhetti, of whom she became very 
fond. Already an expert in German and Akatian cookery, 
she learned to make wonderful ItaHan dishes from them. In 
fact, she was as much a virtuoso at the cookstove as on the 
piano— and equally temperamental. In later years it was 
absolutely impossible for us to keep a cook. Mother was al- 
ways out in the kitchen giving orders, and finally taking over 
herself because she thought she could do much better than 
the professionals. She could. 

In all her life Ida Ringling defied her family only once— 
when she married my father. 

Henry Whitestone North was an engineer on the 
Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. However, his ancestry 
was considerably more distinguished than that of the Ring- 
lings. He came from one of those aristocratic English families 
who had acquired land in Ireland during the British con- 


quests of that unfortunate island. The family place in Galway 
was Northbrook, a small eighteenth-century manor house set 
in wide lawns, shaded by great oaks and copper beeches. The 
stables were far more impressive than the residence, as be- 
came the fox-hunting Norths. Built around three sides of a 
flagstone court, they were made of red-hued field stone with 
slate roofs the color of mist off the western sea. The fields of 
Northbrook spread over some 600 Irish acres, equivalent to 
1500 of ours, and were watered by a small clear stream which 
ran under a massive single-arch stone bridge. My brother and 
I recently bought Northbrook back. 

My great-grandfather was Captain William North of the 
British Army. Many people know their great-grandfathers. 
But so long is the span of generations in the North family 
that mine was commanding a company of infantry at Gi- 
braltar during the Napoleonic wars and there my grandfather 
was bom in 1812. This foreshortens history for me. He 
married a Spanish lady, about whom I know only that her 
name was Letizia. 

Samuel Wade North, my grandfather, being a younger son, 
came to America about the same time as the Ringhngs. After 
pausing in Montreal to abstract a pretty seventeen-year-old 
Irish girl named Mary Fahey from her convent and marry 
her, he settled in Onalaska, a village near Lacrosse, Wisconsin. 

There he lived the life of a displaced Irish gentleman. Down 
the main street of that little frontier town, among trappers in 
fringed buckskin, farmers in overalls, and Indians in blankets 
and feathers, he would stroll wearing formal gray-striped 
trousers, a cutaway coat, and a high silk hat. He never, never 
did a stroke of work. 

It is hard to imagine anyone living in a land of such vast 
opportunities and bustling enterprise that it was difficult to 
make a move without making a fortune, and not doing any- 
thing at all. My father remembered being lined up, when he 


was a very small boy, with his two older brothers by my 
grandfather, who told them, "You must remember that a 
gentleman never works." 

Unfortunately, he neglected to provide his sons with the 
means of following this precept. But he did give them a 
knowledge of Greek and Latin and other impedimenta of a 
classical education far beyond the capacity of a one-room 

I remember my father very well, though I was only eleven 
when he died of a heart ailment. He inherited a Spanish cast 
of features from his grandmother Letizia, with thick dark hair 
and an olive skin. He was a short, powerfully built man with 
enormous strength in his arms— a natural athlete. As a youth, 
he was catcher for the Lacrosse, Wisconsin, baseball team. 
In those days they wore no gloves, but the catcher used a 
hunk of raw meat to protect his left hand. 

Harry North came to Uve in Baraboo about 1891, because 
it was a division point on the Chicago and Northwestern. He 
was in his early thirties at the time, with all the devil-may-care 
gaiety and charm which even tlie English acquire after a few 
generations in Ireland. My mother met him soon after she 
graduated from high school, and they appear to have fallen 
in love for keeps. But their courtship was hardly as rapid as 
the ignition of love. It lasted for ten years. 

The delay was due to parental and fraternal objections to 
Harry North. Ida's family had nothing against him person- 
ally; in fact, they liked him immensely, as did everyone who 
knew him; but there was an insuperable objection rooted in 
his past. Harry North had been divorced. 

It is diflBcult now to recall the terrible stigma attached in 
the nineties to those who, whether at fault or not, had broken 
the bonds of matrimony. But it existed even in the most 
sophisticated society. Imagine, tlien, the horror with which 
Ida's naive, strait-laced family regarded the prospect of their 


sheltered darling's marriage to a man under so dark a cloud. 

The struggle between love and filial duty continued un- 
abated all those years. However medieval their attitude to- 
ward women, the Ringhngs could not prevent the young 
people meeting frequently. For Harry North was very popu- 
lar in Baraboo and was invited to many parties that Ida also 
attended. One of the great amusements of that sweet time 
was amateur theatricals, and they both took part in these. But 
it must have been a difficult and heartbreaking period for 
them both, and a stringent test of the strength of their love 
and the constancy of their characters. 

In the end, prejudice appeared to triumph over love. Under 
extreme pressure Ida gave up Harry North and became 
engaged to a young man of her family's choice. The invitations 
were out; the house was full of wedding presents; when, like 
Lochinvar on an iron horse, my father swept my mother 
off and married her in Chicago. 

That was in 1902. For a whole year no member of the Ring- 
ling family spoke to my mother. She hved in Baraboo because 
of her husband's job; and she suffered the misery and shame 
of being cut dead on its familiar streets by those she loved 
most next to him. Only when her first son was born and 
christened John Ringling North did her parents and brothers 
forgive her. The family circle opened to enclose her and hers 
in its protective shield against the world. 

My brother John was born in 1903. Four years later came 
my sister, who was named Mary Salome Ringling North, 
after our grandmother. And I, Henry Wliitestone Ringling 
North, was bom in 1909. 

The Baraboo where we grew up was still quite close to 
pioneer times. Not too many years before, the streets had been 
full of Indians, and even in my memory the Winnebagos and 
Cliippewas came back every year for their spring encamp- 
ments. They pitched their tepees just outside of town and 


held a sort of fair to sell beadwork moccasins and baskets. 
They were exciting, picturesque, and smelly, though perhaps 
not in that order. 

Old Indian John, who lived in a shack outside of town, 
was a friend of mine. His face was etched with wrinkles like 
an engraver's copper plate, and he said he was a hundred 
years old. Mother hired him in Prohibition days to make some 
wine for us, which was his specialty. When Mother went dovim 
to the cellar to see how he was doing, she found him chewing 
tobacco and casually spitting into the great mash of grapes. 

"Now you'll have to throw it all away," she said sadly. 

"No, ma'am," said Indian John. "It wiU work ofiF." 

Very good wine it was, too. My cousin Henry Ringling and 
I sampled it by sticking a rubber hose into the kegs and 
sucking hard. That was my first hang-over. 

Having forgiven my mother, the uncles set about spoihng 
her children. They were experts in this pleasant art, having 
had a great deal of practice with our numerous older cousins. 
I have already given some description of the wonderful times 
they gave us. 

In those days the Moeller brothers were stiU builduig our 
wagons. My cousin Heinrich, or Henry, Moeller, though 
many years older than I, was a great friend of mine. Some of 
the happiest times of my childhood were spent in his black- 
smith-wagon shop, where I took my ponies to be shod. He 
was the one who used to ride out to the cemetery with me ui 
later years on my periodic returns to Baraboo. I'd say, 
"Come on, Henry, let's go to the cemetery." And he would 
always reply with a ritual joke: "O.K., Buddy, I'll go, but 
you'll have to promise not to leave me there." 

However, he had no horror of it. When his brother and 
partner Corwin died, Henry had a tombstone made. To save 
future expense he had his own name carved on it as well as 
Corwin's, leaving his date of death blank. To my great dehght 


it wasn't filled in for many years and Henry lived to be ninety. 

Once Henry saved me from being expelled from Baraboo 
High School. The principal, Mr. Kingsford, though a fine 
man and a splendid educator, had a violent temper. One day 
it flared at a small boy named Calflish. Mr. Kingsford threw 
him down on the floor and began belaboring him. It was more 
than I could stand, so I tapped his shoulder and, calling him 
by his nickname to enrage him further, I said, "Hey, Dingl 
If you want to fight, why don't you pick on somebody your 
own size?" 

Mr. Kingsford dropped the Httle Calflish boy and took off 
after me. But I was fast in those days. Not being able to 
catch me, Mr. Kingsford expelled me. 

I went to Cousin Henry with my troubles. He took me by 
the arm and led me back to school and into Mr. Kingsford's 
office. And Henry said, "Mr. Kjngsford, my cousin Buddy 
says you've discharged him from school. He told me the 
circumstances leading up to it. I don't think you're right, Mr. 
Kingsford. I think you'd better let Buddy back in school." 

Mr. Kingsford looked at my cousin Henry, who might have 
posed for Longfellow's blacksmith with his big brawny arms. 
He stood looking at those aims; and finally he said, "Buddy 
can come back to school." 

Another cousin Henry was a close pal of mine; this was 
Henry Ringling, Jr., "Little Henry." He was a sickly child, 
though, as I have said, he grew to be a perfectly enormous 
man. Henry was just as imbued with love of the circus as we 
were, and after Brother John put away childish things and 
went with the real circus, it was Henry who helped to stage 
our annual children's show in Baraboo. 

To show you how crazy Henry was about the circus : when 
he was about twelve years old and at summer camp at Culver 
Military Academy, he heard that the Ringling Circus was 


going to be at Portage, near Baraboo, and that we were all 
going to see the show. He ran away from camp and beat his 
way home, hooking rides on trains when his money ran out. 
We found him early in the morning asleep on our porch with 
his white sailor suit looking as though he had ridden in a coal 
car. The consensus of the family was that anybody who cared 
that much about the circus ought to be allowed to go, so 
Mother cleaned him up and took him along. 

He and I disappeared as soon as we reached the show 
grounds to call on our friends. Uncle Charles finally found 
us playing craps with some roustabouts under a lion's cage— 
we had won most of their money. Nothing much happened to 
us, but the roustabouts caught hell, which seems hardly just. 

As I said, I knew almost all the circus people, either from 
riding the train with Uncle Charles or from meeting them at 
Winter Quarters. Most of them went ofiF for part of the winter 
to do their acts in indoor shows, such as Shrine circuses; but 
there were always a few who remained in Baraboo. And in 
the spring they came drifting back, so that the place was 
swarming and hustling with all the activity of getting the 
show on the road, until the great day came when the long 
gaudy trains pulled out on their way to Chicago. Everybody 
in town was lined up along the railway tracks yelling and 
cheering; and people on the trains yelling back, and cIovntis 
doing funny tricks, just because they felt like it; and the lions 
and tigers, catching the excitement, roaring and screaming 
in their cages. It was a great day. But when it was over, the 
town seemed empty and dead and you had a gone feeling in 
the pit of your stomach. 

One spring the trains went out, and they never came back. 
This was in 1918, when Uncles John and Charlie decided 
to consohdate the two shows at the Barnum winter quarters 


in Bridgeport. Bridgeport was more convenient from every 
point of view than Baraboo, The move made good sense, but 
their fellow townsmen never forgave them. For without the 
circus Baraboo was dead. 



In 1903, at thirty-seven years of age, John Ringh'ng had 
finally married. His bride Mable Burton of Columbus, Ohio, 
was in her twenties. She and her sister were dancers in one 
of the great specs of the circus. Though John Ringling would 
never trifle with the performers, he could and did fall com- 
pletely in love with one. Marriage was different. 

"the big one" 163 

Of all the Ringling wives. Aunt Mable was by far the most 
beautiful. In describing her, one is forced to fall back on all 
the old-fashioned adjectives out of Victorian novels. She had 
a lovely, piquant little face with delicate features and large 
brown eyes that always seemed to have laughter close be- 
hind them, just as her lips always seemed to be on the point 
of smiling. Her dark hair was piled in a Gibson-girl pompa- 
dour. She had the figure knowni as willowy and was able to 
wear the long elaborate gowns of the Edwardian era with 
beauty and distinction. 

Aunt Mable was, in fact, exactly the right wife for Uncle 
John, and their marriage came as close to perfection as any 
imion between mortals may, which is astounding in view of 
John Ringling's character. Not that he was completely faith- 
ful to her. When he was with her he was a devoted husband, 
showing her the gentle consideration which could come only 
from deep aflPection. She usually accompanied him on the 
circus train, but when he was on it alone or off on his busi- 
ness trips, he was apt to relapse into his bachelor ways. 

With far more wdsdom than most women, Aunt Mable 
realized that her husband was too old and gay a dog to learn 
new tricks of behavior. She treated his infidelities as though 
they had never happened. So, of course, they did not exist 
for her. In this she was far more intelligent than Aunt Edith, 
who soured her happiness with constant worry about what 
Uncle Charlie might be up to. 

When they were first married the John Ringlings lived in 
an apartment-hotel on Dearborn Avenue in Chicago. It was 
there that Uncle John bought his first Fierce-Arrow— a clear 
sign in those distant days of opulence and distinction. By 
1910 my uncle had moved to New York, where for many 
years he resided in a handsome apartment at 636 Fifth 
Avenue. I have two outstanding boyhood memories of it. One 
is of an exciting parade, viewed from the windows of the 
Fifth Avenue side, celebrating tlie state visit of King Albert 


of the Belgians right after World War I. The other is of the 
wonderful ice-cream desserts that were the creation of some 
nearby confectioner, and my uncle's and my chief delectation 
at every dinner— Uncle John often said that he wasn't finicky 
in the shghtest degree about dessert, as long as it was always 
ice cream. I can see him still, sitting erect and dignified in the 
back seat of his chauffeur-driven Rolls consuming with 
obvious relish and childish delight a huge ice-cream cone 
which he had sent me to procure in the course of an after- 
noon's drive. 

Uncle John also bought a country place at Alphine, New 
Jersey, with a huge field-stone house and hundreds of acres 
of lawns and meadows, great trees, and little lakes. We Norths 
often stayed with them there, and it was from that house that 
I started with Uncle John oflBcially to begin my career with 
the circus. 

The John Ringlings went to Sarasota, Florida, in 1909 and 
fell in love with it at first sight. At that time it had less than a 
thousand inhabitants, a very small town on the Gulf of 
Mexico, with a huge harbor protected by the long, unin- 
habited outer keys. A few discriminating wealthy people had 
recognized its charm, however, and built winter cottages 
along the bay front. Uncle John bought one of these, about 
three miles north of town, from Charles Thompson. It was a 
spacious frame house with the gabled roof and columned 
verandas that made the dwellings of that period such com- 
fortable, happy places to live in. With it the Ringlings ac- 
quired about a thousand feet of water front and a long 
wooden dock. The house looked over the bay toward the dark 
green tangled wilderness of Longboat Key. To the northwest 
you could see the open Gulf. 

With his strong family feeling. Uncle John wanted his 
relatives around him. In 1912 he persuaded Uncle Charlie to 
buy a similar place adjoining his. The next year Uncle Al 

"the big one 165 

came to Sarasota for a few months, and Uncle Alfred rented 
the Ralph Capleses' big bungalow next door to Uncle John. 
Uncle Henry, who liked to be different, moved to Eustis, 
Florida, some one hundred miles away. 

In 1913 we Norths also came to Sarasota. At this time my 
father was a semi-invalid who could no longer withstand the 
bleak Wisconsin winters. The year before, we had gone to 
Biloxi, Mississippi. Incidentally, it was there that I first gave 
promise of a littie literary bent and a large tendency to say 
the wrong thing. My mother introduced me to a southern 
lady named Mrs. Brown, who had come to call. I acknowl- 
edged the introduction by saying: 

"Mrs. Brown 
Came to town 
Riding on a billy goat 
Upside down." 

I meant no harm; I was very fond of billy goats. 

There were no proper houses for rent in Sarasota, so Uncle 
Charlie got us half of a double bungalow on what, I believe, 
was then Fourth Street. The John Burkets lived in the other 
half. It was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted until 
the present time. 

So Uncle John brought all the Ringlings together again, a 
long way from Wisconsin. It may seem strange, but Florida 
reminded them of their childhood in the northern woods be- 
cause of the great pine forests which existed there. Now they 
have mostly been cut down or burned off to make room for 
jungles of modern housing, but forty years ago there were 
long, solid, fragrant stretches of pine. 

The Sarasota I knew, before the Florida boom, was half 
fishing village, half western cow town. The level, grassy 
plains inland provided fine pasturage for animals, and tlie 
great cattle industry which now makes Florida one of the 
leading beef -raising states was just getting started. The herds 


were still the runty native cattle, scarcely larger than Shetland 
ponies. They looked very strange to a boy from Wisconsin's 
lush valleys. 

On Saturday nights the cowboys rode in from the ranches 
and turned Sarasota into a reasonable facsimile of a TV serial. 
As the raw corn liquor took hold there were shootings and 
knifings on Main Street. The sheriff was a very busy man. 

I remember Sheriff Hodges well because he was the most 
important man in town (at least on weekends) and a char- 
acter right out of Owen Wister. In fact, I hoped to grow up 
to be like him. I can see him now with his drooping mustache 
and black slouch hat, riding a big western-bred horse, with a 
shotgun in his saddle holster and a pair of handcuffs chnking 
ready on a hook behind his saddle. 

The sheriff was also fire chief. When a blaze broke out, he 
fired off his shotgun to sound the alarm and galloped to the 
shed where they kept the hose wagon. At the signal the 
volunteer firemen dropped everything and hurried to rally 
round him. So did everybody else in town. So you see, Hfe 
was not dull in Sarasota. 

During those years when Father was so ill, we children 
spent a great deal of time at Uncle Charlie's place. Though 
Aunt Edith was well into middle age, she was one of the 
nicest companions I ever had, for she had a wonderful 
faculty for making young people enjoy themselves. Some- 
times in the early morning, when the tide was out, we would 
walk way out on the glistening sand flats collecting the 
curious, beautiful shells for which the Gulf coast is famous. 
Quite often Uncle Charlie would go along, and he, too, was 
a good companion. He invented imaginative games for us to 
play— one day I would be Captain Kidd and the next, George 

When I was about ten Aunt Edith taught me to shoot her 
favorite gun, a fine little 28-gauge Parker Double Barrel. A 

"the big one" 167 

little later I used to go hunting with an old Negro named 
Cummins, who worked on the Charles Ringhng place. He 
used an ancient 10-gauge shotgun held together by copper 
wire, a regular blunderbuss that sounded like a cannon and 
belched great clouds of black powder smoke. I must shame- 
fully admit our victims were meadow larks as often as quail. 

One of Cummins' jobs was to take care of the chickens. In 
summer, when Uncle CharHe and Aunt Edith were away with 
the circus, my uncle kept getting monumental bills for 
chicken feed. He could not understand how so few could 
eat so much. When he got home a httle detective work un- 
covered a still in the pinewoods back of the house, where 
Cummins was turning the com into moonshine. 

Another colorful retainer of whom we were all very fond 
was Julius, who worked for Uncle John. I suppose everybody 
looks big to a little boy, but JuHus must have been a gigantic 
man by any standard. He got into a fight one Saturday night 
in town and the police were called in. Julius refused to sur- 
render, and my friend Sheriff Hodges shot him three times. 
Julius ran at least a block with three forty-five-caliber slugs 
in him before he toppled over dead. And there was great 
sadness at Uncle John's. 

I did not see much of Uncle John in those days except at 
family parties. I remember meeting him on the street one day 
and his asking me, "Why do you always go to Uncle Charlie's? 
Why don't you visit me more often?" 

I could not think of the right answer, but the truth was 
that, though he liked having us around. Uncle John's schedule 
did not coincide with that of a httle boy. 

A few years later, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I used 
to skin out the window of our bungalow at night and set off to 
see life on Main Street. Sometimes I'd meet Uncle John on 
the street around midnight. He would never express any sur- 
prise at seeing me out at that hour; perhaps he felt none. He 


would likely say, "Buddy, would you like to borrow the Fierce- 
Arrow tomorrow?" 

Of course, I would answer, "Yes, Uncle John," and he would 
say, "Come up and get iti" 

When we first moved to Sarasota, John and Salome and I 
went to Miss Pierce's private school, which she ran for the 
children of winter visitors. It consisted of a one-room wooden 
building, in which she taught children of all ages— I believe I 
was the youngest. Miss Pierce taught us reading, writing, 
arithmetic, history, literature, and French. I was very fond 
of her despite the fact that I was very bad in school and 
spent most of the time behind the wood box. 

At school we met the children of the winter visitors. It was 
a small but rather distinguished colony, which received the 
final accolade when Mrs. Potter Palmer, leader of Chicago's 
Four Hundred, or whatever the magic number was in that 
city, built The Oaks near Sarasota. She also went in for real 
estate in a large way, buying over a hundred thousand acres 
of inland fields and pine forests. Her aunt by marriage, Mrs. 
Benjamin Honor6, also built a rather elaborate residence, 
called The Acacias. When Mrs. Honore died, her niece Mrs. 
Frederic Dent Grant, daughter-in-law of the President, in- 
herited it. Mrs. Grant's daughter, Juha Grant, had married 
Russian Prince Michael Cautacuzene. In 1918, when the 
Cautacuzenes got out of Russia just ahead of a Bolshevik 
posse, they came to live at The Acacias. 

The princess had lost most of her possessions in Russia, but 
not her grand manner. She decreed that my sister and I were 
among the few children ehgible to play with the httle 
Cautacuzenes. It was always a big deal. Mother would dress 
us in our very best clothes and we would be taken to the 
big solemn house, where we would play decorously with the 

"the big one** 169 

little prince and princesses. Then we would be served a 
nursery tea and sent home in the limousine. It seemed pretty 
dull after our freewheehng Hfe. We were glad our uncles 
were only circus kings. 

It took a very sad occasion to bring all the brothers back 
to Baraboo once more. On New Year's Day 1916, Al RingUng 
died. He was the real founder and anchor man of our enter- 
prise, balancing the Concert Company, like the plow, on his 
chin, and equestrian director of the show from that first per- 
formance of the circus in Baraboo until the summer before he 
died. While his brothers branched out into finance and social 
hfe, he remained a working circus man. 

In fact, his illness dated from one of those fires which have 
played such a tragic role in circus history. In Cleveland the 
cars had been run on a siding near a lumberyard. The yard 
caught fire and the blaze spread to the circus train. Though 
the equipment and animals had luckily been unloaded, many 
of the cars were destroyed. As equestrian director, Uncle Al 
was determined that the show would meet the next day's 
engagement. He worked all that day and night; dragooning 
the railroad to divert other cars to him, double-loading those 
that remained, and, somehow, fitting the other equipment 
and cages into the cars borrowed from the railroad. Then he 
directed two shows the following day. 

The excitement and a forty-hour stretch of work was too 
much for him. He developed a heart condition which 
culminated in the fatal attack on New Year's Day. 

Al Ringling had the sweetest disposition of all the brothers; 
he was the one whom the circus people really loved. When 
the news reached Winter Quarters, clowns and cooks, 
hostlers and equestrians, wept for "Uncle Al." 

He was buried from his great house in Baraboo, with all 
his remaining brothers and their wives and, of course, my 


mother and father present, as well as circus people from all 
parts of the comitry. His fellow townsmen were there, also 
deeply affected. For they knew that Al was the only Ringling 
who really loved his home town. Alf T. had built a magnificent 
place in New Jersey. Charles was settled in Evanston and 
Sarasota, while Henry spent comparatively Httle time in 

But Al had built his life in Baraboo and spent his money 
there. Only the year before he died, he gave a further proof 
of his affection for the little city. He built a small exquisite 
opera house, which he intended to present to Baraboo. It was 
an almost perfect copy of the theater Marie Antoinette built 
at Versailles. His last pubhc appearance was his attendance 
at the opening, on November 17, 1915. Unluckily for Baraboo, 
he died before he signed a deed of gift. 

After Uncle Al's death the conclave of uncles took over his 
affairs, as they always did at the death of a brother. As I have 
said, they handed down their ukase that my mother should 
live in Uncle Al's mansion. They also decided not to present 
the theater to Baraboo. 

This was typical of their highhanded ways. Their reason 
was that the city fathers were taxing circus property in what 
they considered an extortionate manner. By their reckoning 
they had contributed far more to Baraboo than Baraboo to 
them. Their indignation, righteous or otherwise, ran high. 
Here was one way to get back at the townspeople. The 
theater just went back into tlie family pot. Had gentle Uncle 
Al been at the conference, the result would have been far 

That was the last great avuncular conclave. The Ringling 
brothers were not very old— Uncle John was just fifty— but 
the scythe swung fast among them. Henry was already facing 
death; he died in Baraboo in 1918, aged forty-nine. Uncle 

"the big one" 


Alfred died in 1919. He lived just long enough to see the first 
performance of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Com- 
bined Shows— The Big One, as circus people called it— at 
Madison Square Garden in 1919. 

The decision to combine the shows had been taken by John 
and Charles Ringling the year before, in 1918. That was the 
summer when the First World War reached its crisis of 
slaughter and national effort; and its climax of victory. The 
brothers had managed to keep both shows on the road despite 
wartime shortages of labor, material, and transportation. This 
presented a tremendous problem and would have been im- 
possible without government co-operation. But then, as in an- 
other war, the authorities took cognizance of the circus as a 
national institution and a morale builder. 

However, wartime stringencies had little to do with the 
decision to combine the shows. Two other factors were con- 
trolling. The first was the canny conclusion of Charles and 
John that the American people would no longer support two 
circus colossi. With the coming of the movies and the auto- 
mobile, the farm communities were no longer so isolated; 
their tremendous hunger for entertainment was appeased if 
not yet sated. They would still go to the circus— all America 
loved the circus— but it was no longer the single great event 
of the year, no longer an absolute must. Also, with the new 
mobihty they could travel farther, and therefore one com- 
bined show playing the large centers of population could take 
care of them. 

The second factor was the question of management. Tliere 
were no longer "so damn many of tliem." One or more of the 
partner-brothers had always been on the trains to nfake 
instant decisions, quell revolts, or meet emergencies with the 
full authority and confidence of all the others behind him. 

What then of the younger generation, who might have been 


expected to be waiting like heirs apparent to grasp the 
scepters their elders let fall? They were not there. 

The seven brothers between them had only three sons. 
Little Henry was a big good-natured fellow whose mother 
had deliberately alienated him from circus life. And besides, 
he was only twelve when his father died. 

Uncle Charlie's son, Robert Ringling, had made a fine 
career for himself in a different, though aUied, world. In fact, 
he had two careers in unusual juxtaposition. The lesser one 
was as a sportsman— a daring and successful owner-driver of 
very fast racing boats. By profession he was an opera singer. 

I can personally testify that Robert had one of the most 
beautiful baritone voices I have ever heard. This opinion is 
confirmed by the fact that during his fruitful years Robert 
sang in half the great opera houses of Europe and also with 
the famous Chicago Civic Opera Company. 

It must be admitted that Uncle John could not stand him. 
I remember one evening when Robert came to Ca' d'Zan with 
his music, prepared to give us a marvelously enjoyable 
evening, and Uncle John naughtily said, "I have a treat for 
xjou, Robert." 

He called in his valet, Taylor Gordon, who was studying 
voice on the side, and Manny (as we called him) sang for 
hours while Bob listened as gracefully as possible. 

Shortly after his musical evening Manny asked my uncle 
John for the loan of a thousand dollars so that he could 
seriously pursue liis studies. I would like to report that my 
uncle promptly granted the loan which started Manny on 
his road to fame and world acclaim, but that would be only 
half the truth. What actually happened was that Uncle John 
recognized Manny's preoccupation with his music by firing 
him for paying more attention to the perfection of his 
cadenzas than to the pressing of my uncle's suits and the 
shining of his shoes. 


Little more than a year after his dismissal Manny stopped 
my micle in the foyer of the Palace Theatre on Broadway 
and proudly called his attention to the lobby posters which 
announced that Taylor Gordon was to make his debut that 
same night as a headliner. With rehsh he also presented his 
former employer with two complimentary tickets, and Uncle 
John and Aunt Mable attended happily. Manny went on to 
become a highly successful concert singer. 

Richard, Uncle Alfred's only son, was a very different sort 
of person. He was the best companion, the wittiest, the most 
imaginative, and the worst spoiled of all my cousins. He once 
told me that at the age of twelve his father took him to task 
for smoking and drinking too much. He promised Uncle 
Alfred that he would take only one drink and smoke one cigar 
a day. He kept his word, but he made the drink in an oversize 
beer stein and had specially procured cigars that were a foot 
long. That is Richard's own story; perhaps he exaggerated it, 
for after all, he too belonged to the circus. 

Rick was indeed enterprising; he was also so unstable that 
it ruined all his enterprises. That and the fact that he was a 
two-bottle man— two bottles of whisky a day did little to 
sharpen his judgment. His biggest investment was in Montana 
ranch land. But he at one hilarious period of his too 
short career owned a billiard parlor on Broadway. He loved 
the life along the Main Stem and was always surrounded by 
a cast of Broadway characters straight out of Damon Runyon 
—prize fighters, theater people, racing men, and gamblers, 
though he was no gambler, except in business. Shortly before 
he died Rick realized the heavy price he was paying for over- 
indulgence and went on the wagon. Unfortunately, it was 
too late, as his health had already been irreparably damaged. 

Rick was a circus fan, but he never worked in the Ringling 
show. He told Uncle Alfred that he wanted to work up as 
his father and his illustrious uncles had, with his own show. 


In other words, he wanted to start at the top. Uncle Alfred 
was willing to give his only son anything he wanted. He set 
him up with a truck circus. It was small but completely 
equipped from excellent acts to a little menagerie. It had 
everything but managerial ability. Rick took it out as the 
R. T. Richard Circus. In half a season it went into bank- 

So the trucks and the new tent and the cages of animals 
rolled sadly back to Alf T.'s country estate. Until they could 
be disposed of, the lions and tigers were housed in the big 
stables, where their nlulations shattered the peace of the well- 
groomed New Jersey countryside. Guests who wandered 
down to those formal brick stables with their coach house 
and box stalls, courtyard and belvedere with a gilt trotting- 
horse weather vane, were considerably startled by a sign that 


Richard was the only one of the boys who inherited a 
financial interest in the circus. Alf T. left him his share of 
the partnership by will— a full third. Theoretically, this gave 
Rick a voice in the management. Practically, it did nothing 
of the sort. Uncle John and Uncle Charlie simply ignored 
him. This may have been reasonable in view of his record. 
But they would probably have done so even if he had been 
a second Barnum. 

So much for the second generation in 1919, for I was only 
ten and Brother John sixteen; and no one could know that he 
was destined to be the true heir. I have said that Richard was 
the only boy who inherited a financial interest in the circus. 
This is true, for John and I bought our shares many years 
later. The only thing that Brother John inherited was the 
most valuable of all— tlie Ringling touch. 


It was easy for Charles and John Ringling to decide to 
combine the shows. Doing it was as intricate and explosive 
an exercise in diplomacy as a Em^opean peace conference. 
When the Ringling show was ordered to winter in Bridgeport 
instead of Baraboo, the performers became uneasy. Tensions 
built up which exploded in panic when the combination was 
announced. Everyone was frantic about his job or possible 
loss of prestige through the competition of other similar acts. 
Nor were the uncles unmindful of these human problems. 

During the strain of operating under wartime conditions 
the show people had been extraordinarily loyal to them. Both 
circuses were short of everything. With no new acts coming 
from Europe and foreign performers being called back to 
serve in their respective armies, there were simply not enough 
to go around. Everybody had to double in brass. In the 
Bamum show, for example, the Konyots appeared six times 
under their own name and five times as the Spelvins. Great 
equestrians risked their necks riding as jockeys in the hippo- 
drome races; and acrobats learned to walk the tightwire. 
Finally, because the labor shortage was even more acute— 
80 canvasmen instead of 250— everybody pitched in to move 
the show. Equestrian director Fred Bradna would be out at 
6 A.M. swinging a sledge to drive stakes for the Big Top; 
aerialists and clowns manhandled the poles, seats, and can- 
vas; great women stars loaded wardrobe trunks on the wagons. 
Now, as the war suddenly ended and two shows were tele- 
scoped into one, there was too much of everytliing. And the 
extra people had to be taken care of. 

Part of the problem was solved by natural attrition. Per- 
formers drifted off and were not replaced. Others hastily got 
new jobs on their owoi. A few retired on their savings, or were 
pensioned. There was room for most of the rest in the greatly 
enlarged Combined Show— if they would work together and 
accept some downgrading. An act that had been guaranteed 


the center ring might have to go in a wing. There was the 

Since Uncle Charles had been more intimately associated 
with the Ringling show, and Uncle John with Barnum & 
Bailey, each had his favorite people whom he wished to put 
in the top spots. The most touchy question was who would 
be equestrian director of tlie Combined Show. Charles 
promised the post to John Agee, who had succeeded Uncle 
Al in the Ringling show. John gave a similar promise to Fred 
Bradna. It looked as though an immovable force had met an 
irresistible object. 

Bradna and Agee were in a dither. The two Ringlings were 
worried. They both knew that although Agee was an excellent 
equestrian director, Bradna was an inspired one. However, 
Agee had Charles' promise and my uncle was a man of his 
word. Finally John Ringling came up with a face-saving 
suggestion. "A great show like this needs two equestrian 
directors," he said. "Let's make Agee equestrian director, and 
Bradna general equestrian director." 

So it was done. John Agee did not like it much, but honor 
was satisfied. 

One of Uncle John's favorites with the Barnum show was 
an enormous giil named Katy. She lay down flat on her back 
in the ring. Her assistant put a plank over her stomach and 
then led a hefty work horse over the plank. One season Katy 
was pregnant, but she continued the act until the last month. 
A few days after the baby was born. Uncle John dropped 
in to see the show and did not beheve his eyes. There was 
Katy with the horse walking over her. He insisted on keeping 

The two brothers spent most of the winter of 1918-19 in 
Bridgeport, planning, programming, and placating. There 
were 168 different acts to be fitted into the performance. 
When the Combined Show opened in New York on March 


29, 1919, it was a tremendous and harmonious aggregation 
of talent, noise, and glitter. There was not room for all of it in 
Madison Square Garden, Some of the side shows and lesser 
acts had to wait until it went on the road under the enormous 
new six-pole Big Top. Nor did it reach its full effulgence in 
that first year. Throughout the twenties new acts were added 
and the best of the old ones retained. At its zenith, about 
1928, it was in very truth The Greatest Show on Earth. There 
had never been anything like it before; and I am willing to 
prophesy that there will never be again. 



I have already spoken of some of the gi-eat artists of the circus 
during the twenties, especially the Bradnas and the Hanne- 
fords. There were even greater ones with us during those years 
of glory. When I was a little boy May Wirth was queen of the 
back yard. In his book, Fred Bradna unequivocally states 


that she was the greatest equestrienne of all time; a true and 
generous tribute, since May was a rival of Fred's beloved 
Ella. It is doubtful if there will ever be another like her, for 
the family discipline that made her great is out of fashion. 

When May came to Barnum & Bailey from Australia in 
igi2, she was sixteen years old, a small, softly rounded girl 
with lovely, pure features. She wore her hair tied httle-girl 
fashion with a big bow of pink ribbon. May had been an 
equestrienne under her mother's tutelage since she was five 
years old and was a star at thirteen. Perhaps her greatest 
trick was the back-backward somersault. She stood with her 
back to the horse's head and did a complete somersault with 
a twist so that she landed facing forward. Though a terrific 
athlete and one of our brightest stars, she was so sweet and 
gentle that we all loved her. 

Another charmer was Bird Millman, the first American girl 
to work on the tightwire with no pole or parasol for balance. 
Dressed in short fluffy skirts, with her long hair piled on top 
of her small head and a fittle balloon in her hand, she made 
a series of birdlike runs on the wire, chirped a couple of popu- 
lar songs, and danced a hula while a chorus sang "Aloha." 
Con Colleano, of course, far exceeded her in daring and 
agility on the tightwire. This dashing if unpredictable fellow 
of Spanish-Irish-Australian descent wore toreador pants and 
a flowing white shirt as he danced a dazzling bolero, and 
wound up his act with a feet-to-feet forward somersault. He 
was the first man ever to accomplish this most difficult of all 
tightwire stunts. 

Toward the end of this period, we acquired Mabel Stark 
and her tigers when Uncle John bought the Al G. Barnes 
Circus. Mabel was an Amazonian lady with masses of yellow- 
dyed ringlets on her head and a body covered with scars. 
And no wonder I For her specialty was wrestling with a full- 
grown Bengal tiger. Without whip or gun or fear in her heart, 


she worked sixteen of the great cats in the most commanding 
manner a lady ever had. 

Though Mabel was so formidable, she could not have been 
without feminine wiles, for she had two ardent suitors whom 
she played off against each other to the delight of the entire 
circus. One of them was our manager, Fred Worral. Quarter- 
Pole Worral we called him, because he seemed always to be 
leaning against a quarter pole with his great paunch im- 
pressively decorated with an elk's-tooth watch charm and a 
skimpy little pipe sticking out from under his handle-bar 
mustache, the perfect, pompous picture of an old-time circus 

Also, Andrew the giraffe man fell in love with Mabel. He 
must have been seventy-odd; but spring came into his life 
for the first time. As far as anyone knew, he had never before 
shown affection for anything but ghaffes. 

With extraordinary dexterity Mabel kept these suitors 
separate and unknown to each other, while each lavished gifts 
upon her and no doubt dreamed of sharing a rose-embowered 
cottage when Mabel should finally forsake her tigers for 
domestic bliss. It was an awful shock to both of them when 
they finally discovered the mutuality of their courtships. Poor 
Andrew was the worse affected, having waited so long for 
love. He went to Mabel and demanded his presents back. 
Hopeless rebellion! Eyes that could quell a Bengal tiger 
pierced and confounded him. Back he went to the gentle 

My favorite clown as a boy was Herman Joseph. Herman 
was Jewish and played the role to the liilt, exaggerating his 
already adequate nose. He worked in the main show, but 
his moment of limelight came in the Wild West after show 
which we still had in those days— twenty-five cents extra. 
Then he would dress himself up in a cowboy suit calculated 


to end all cowboy suits, and clown throughout the show 
with a constantly varied repertoire of gags and impromptu 
wisecracks. For the finale Herman fired off an ancient blun- 
derbuss that seemed to kick him halfway across the track. 

Another clown— not a great one, but a great person— whom 
I love dearly is Pat Valdo. He came to the Bamum show in 
1902, seven years before I was bom. He was a tall skinny 
lad of twenty-one who, like my uncles, had seen one circus 
in his home town— Binghamton, New York— and became 
insanely inspired to become part of it. Pat worked up from 
walk-ons to a good clown spot and married a circus girl. To- 
gether they developed a wonderful boomerang act which we 
used for many years. Pat's executive ability was early noted 
by my uncle John, who made him assistant equestrian direc- 
tor to Fred Bradna. 

When he was over seventy years old my brother and I 
retired him on a pension, but Pat refused to stay retired. He 
is still a tall lanky lad with the sawdust oozing out of his ears; 
and happy as a circus seal doing a great job as general 
director of The Greatest Show. He is seventy-nine years old. 

Bobby Clark was also with us when I was a boy. He was a 
good clown who became a great comedian. 

There were others almost as great, many others. Merle 
Evans, the superb bandmaster who for thirty-seven years 
produced the blare and cacophony, the sweet, soft strains, or 
the roll of drums that accompanied each act; responding to a 
couple of hundred cues twice every day and sending the 
audiences with the brazen clangor of the loudest cornet in 
show business. There were the Wallendas with their pyramid 
of people riding a bicycle across a wire at the top of the tent; 
Charlie Sigrest, a good acrobat, flier, tightwire man, and 
equestriaii, but spreading his talents too tliin to be quite great; 
Clyde Beatty was with us for a while. In the Wild West after 
show we had Tom Mix, the good cowboy in the white hat 


who in real life was just that, for he always played himself. 
We paid him $10,000 a week one season, and he lost it all 
when he started his own show. He was not quite smart enough 
for the black hats. 

Another great character whom Uncle John brought to 
America in the twenties was Hugo Zacchini, who had himself 
fired out of a cannon. Of course, other people had done it 
before. I think the genesis of the act was in 1870, when some 
Italian invented a cannon that was supposed to shoot a soldier 
over the enemy lines. The idea was that he would float down 
on a parachute and wreak havoc in the rear. Lulu, a man 
dressed up as a girl, first did it in the circus in 1879. But 
Zacchini brought the act to dramatic perfection, with a huge 
cannon actuated by a spring— but lots of noise and smoke— 
which hurled him in a great arc the whole length of Madison 
Square Garden into a net. It is very dangerous, for if you do 
not fall into the net just right you can be badly hurt. To say 
nothing of the total damage if one misses the net entirelyl 

There were dozens more with us in the twenties, many of 
whom might have been greats today but who were over- 
shadowed them by those who were even greater. It is im- 
possible to speak of them all, though I knew and liked them 
all. But there was one, or rather two in one, whom I have 
saved— the best and dearest— for the last. 

They were Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona, who in the 
circus firmament belong together like the Gemini. As in the 
case of all those inseparable pairs of lovers who walk forever 
side by side through history and myth, many fine writers have 
told their story. However, having known and loved Leitzel 
from the time I was five years old, and watched Alfredo at 
his apogee of greatness swooping as effortlessly as a bam 
swallow imder the luminous peaks of the Big Top, perhaps I 
can add a fresh touch or two to their portraits. 

Leitzel came first— she always came first, for she was the 


greatest star of them all, personifying in her tiny lambent 
person the quintessential glamour of the circus. Like most 
of our otlier greats, she was a child of the tented arenas; 
reared, trained, and disciplined from babyhood for her pro- 
fession. Unhke most of them, she was beautifully educated, 
knowing the hterature and philosophy of five languages, and 
the language of music as well. Had she chosen, she could 
have been a fine concert pianist. 

She came to America from her native Bohemia with a family 
trapeze-and-bicycle act, of which her mother was the star. 
From the age of nine she had been stealing the show from 
her mother, and when the family act went back to Europe, 
Leitzel elected to remain. She got her big break in a Hoboken 
honky-tonk and became a star of vaudeville before she joined 
the Ringling show in 1915. 

At the time I met her, Leitzel was not only our brightest 
star but om: smallest. She was only four feet ten inches tall, 
and her luxuriant golden hair covered her in glory. In all 
things but one she was exquisitely formed; with an incredibly 
narrow waist, lovely legs, and feet so small that she wore a 
child's size- 1/2 shoe. Exquisitely dainty and femmine, she 
had the shoulders of a Notre Dame tackle. This was due to 
the exigencies of her act. 

It consisted of two parts. Wearing silk tights and a 
diaphanous short-short skirt, Leitzel would go up the web- 
as the dangling ropes for the aerialists are called— in a series 
of apparently effortless roll-overs until she reached a pair of 
roman rings high above the center ring. There was no net 
beneath them— Leitzel never used a net. For technique, 
grace, and style, her performance on the rings was unequaled. 
Where others labored, she floated; where others assumed 
grotesquely contorted positions, her body held the grace of a 
Grecian marble; where others wore the set smile of stress and 
fear, she laughed as joyously as a Httle girl playing on a swing. 



Though Leitzel's artistry reached its height on the rings, 
it was the second part of her act which appealed to the 
Roman-hohday instincts of the crowd. When she had de- 
scended from the rings and taken a bow, she grasped another 
rope and was flown aloft to the top of the tent. Now every- 
thing in the whole great arena was stilled. Even the candy 
butchers were forbidden to hawk their sweets while Leitzel 
did her final turn. 

As a single spot focused on her tiny glittering figure, she 
slipped her right wrist through a padded loop attached by 
a swivel to a hanging rope. Then she got up by momentum 
and hurled her entire body in a full circle over itself. This is 
called the full-arm plange, or "dislocate," for each time she 
did it her right shoulder was dislocated and was snapped 
back by its powerful muscles. 

Over and over and over Leitzel went while the drums 
signaled each turn with a roll and crash and the audience 
chanted the count: "one— two— three— four . . . twenty-five— 
twenty-six . . . fifty-one~fifty-two . . . eighty-five— eighty- 
six . . ." Often she did a hundred turns; her record count was 
two hundred and forty-nine. Incredible endurance! On a 
blazing August day up there in the peak of the tent, where 
the temperature was twenty or thirty degrees liigher than at 
ground level, she would still complete the dizzy century of 
turns. As she spun around, her long hair gradually, artfully 
loosened from its pins and swung free, following the parabolas 
her body made like a golden comet's tail. . . . 

Sensational as her performance was, it was not what 
Leitzel did, or even how she did it, that made her so great a 
star. It was her own self. She could walk out and simply stand 
there before ten thousand people, and win and own them 
before ever she made a move. They felt the incandescence of 
her personality back to the last row of the "blues." 

Sometimes we wondered that she was not consumed by 


the violence of her passions. Oh, she was a violent personl 
Without doubt, part of her flaming temperament was calcu- 
lated showmanship. But where artifice ended and Leitzel 
took over, no one, not even Leitzel, knew. When she flew into 
one of her terrible rages everyone took cover. I think that 
even Uncle John was afraid of her. Cursing in all five lan- 
guages, she often let fly with a right-arm slap that stunned 
the recipient. On the other hand, she could move in the most 
sophisticated society with perfect decorum; and talk at ease 
witli kings. 

She could be tender, too. There was no artifice in her love 
of children. There were many youngsters traveling with us in 
family troupes. They all called her Aunty Leitzel, and adored 
her. Wlienever she went shopping she came back loaded with 
presents for them, and she was always giving them birthday 
parties with cake and all the trimmings. 

There was no proper schooHng for the performers' young 
families at that time, so every weekday Leitzel kept school in 
her luxurious dressing tent for the children of the circus. With 
infinite patience she taught them to read and write, and enjoy 
the beauty of music and poetry; and to understand noble 
thoughts. She also had a fittle trapeze rigged up in her tent, 
on which she showed the tots who wanted to emulate her the 
rudiments of her art. 

It was because Leitzel first knew Johnny and me when we 
were young that she always loved us. In her blackest mood, 
when all else failed to move her, Johnny would go into her 
tent and whisper some secret magic words to her. She 
would start to laugh and quickly be on her way to the Big 
Top to charm the audience with her graciousness. 

I remember one time when I was at Manlius she came to 
Syracuse with a little "winter circus" that Fred Bradna had 
put together. Some of my best friends at the Academy and 
I got leave to go over to see the matinee. As I entered the 


auditorium Bradna came up to me looking desperate. "That 
God-damned Leitzel is having a tantrum," he said. "She 
claims I hung her rigging wrong, and she won't go on. See if 
you can do anything with her, Buddy." 

So I went to knock on her dressing-room door, and she 
screamed between lurid oaths that she wanted to be let alone. 

"It's me, Buddy North," I yelled. 

The door flew open and a radiant Leitzel jumped at me 
and hung around my neck. After the eff^ervescence of her 
greeting subsided, she admired my uniform and I admired 
her lack of same, for she was nude to the waist. I asked her 
how things were going. 

The lightning flashed around my head. "That triple- 
blanked son of a gim Fred Bradna hung my rigging wrong," 
she yelled. 

"He's a dope," I said sympathetically. "But I've brought 
some friends over from Manlius just to see you, and we feel 
pretty bad that you aren't going on today." 

"What Gk)d-damned fool told you I wasn't going on?" 
Leitzel demanded. Then she added sweetly, "Of course, I 
am. And you are going to introduce my act." 

I was horrified, but I knew better than to refuse. So when 
the time came I stood on the stage and went through the 
spiel I'd heard Lew Graham give a hundi-ed times to introduce 
Leitzel's act. Looking over my shoulder, I can see myself 
standing there very tall and lanky and young in my cadet 
uniform, with big frightened blue eyes and a small squeaky 
voice saying those grandiloquent phrases. The audience 
loved it. It was, in fact, superb showmanship, which Leitzel 
knew very well when she made me do it. 

Leitzel was married three times, but only once that counted. 
The fii'st time she was very young. She always claimed she 
could not remember her first husband's name. Certainly no- 


body else could. The second time she married Clyde Ingalls, 
our great side-show manager. On a certain tempestuous night 
she cut oflF one of his fingers with a butcher knife. Her tliird 
and true husband was Alfredo Codona. 

Again I say without fear of contradiction that Codona was 
tlie greatest flier of all time. Though he was not the first to 
do a triple somersault from the flying trapeze to the hands of 
his catcher, who was his brother, Lalo Codona, he did it 
better than anyone before or since. Arthur and Antoinette 
ConceUo both did tlie triple later, but they were never able to 
emulate Alfredo's apparently effortless style. Indeed, that 
word— style— was tlie mark of Codona's greatness. Whether 
in the most difficult feats or a simple pirouette from tlie 
catcher back to the bar, his form was as classic as Nijinsky's 
in ballet. When he caught the bar he seemed merely to touch 
it weightlessly; and when he ffew through the air it was as 
though he were moving in his natural element. Even if he 
missed and fell to the net, it was gracefully done. 

Indeed, one of Alfredo's most hair-raising stunts was based 
on the time Lalo missed his catch and he fell into the net 
far off center, bounced high in tlie air, and came down 
through the spreader ropes at the side of the net. They broke 
his fall, but he hit ground quite hard. He got up and dusted 
himself off. Then he climbed up again to complete his famous 
triple amid a perfect tornado of applause. 

Frequently after that, Alfredo would do this dangerous 
trick on purpose. Fred Bradna tells of how he got Codona to 
do it one time when Uncle John was in the house. He says 
that in his agitation Uncle John swallowed his cigar. 

Alfredo Codona was of Mexican-German extraction. His 
father flew in a small one-ring circus in Mexico. He came to 
us first as a talented young flier, and promptly fell in love 
with Leitzel, as who did not? She had no time for liim then, 
and he went away and married someone else. He came back 


to US about 1925 as a full-fledged star. By that time Leitzel 
was married to Clyde Ingalls, but no bonds of God or man 
could keep those two fated and fatal people apart. Codona 
became a fixture in Leitzel's tent, which was furnished with 
oriental rugs and always adorned with fresh flowers provided 
by the management. There she taught him, as she taught the 
circus children, the pleasures of hterature and the social 

Leitzel got a divorce and she and Alfredo were married in 
Chicago in 1928. 1 have a wonderful snapshot of them leaving 
the show grounds in an open landaulet plastered all over 
with Just-Married signs. Though Leitzel was well into her 
thirties that year, she looks hke a high-school girl, and a 
small one at that; while Alfredo looks like the boy next door. 
They were so radiantly happy that their faces wore, not pro- 
fessional smiles, but broad grins. 

Alfredo Codona was nearly as great a star and almost as 
violently temperamental as his wife. No one could describe 
their marriage as serenely happy. It was gloriously impas- 
sioned. It lasted for three years. 

In February 1931 Alfredo was flying at the Winter Garden 
in Berlin while Leitzel was performing at the Valencia Music 
Hall in Copenhagen. Frank McClosky, who later became 
general manager of our circus, was her head rigging man for 
this winter engagement. 

On Friday the thirteenth— so obvious are the coincidences 
of real-hfe tragedy— Leitzel was doing the first part of her 
act on the roman rings. McClosky was standing beneath her 
anxiously watching every move. Something distracted his at- 
tention, and in that instant the swivel supporting one of the 
rings crystalHzed and snapped. Leitzel plunged headfirst 
twenty feet to the ground. 

McClosky was beside her in a flash— too late a flash. In a 
moment or two she stood up shaking her golden head. The 


audience cheered wildly, and Leitzel said, "I'm all right. I 
can go on." 

McCIosky would not let her and took her to the hospital. 
Codona canceled his performance in Berlin and rushed to 
her. On Saturday she seemed so weU and gay that he let her 
persuade him to go back to Berlin. On Sunday, February 15, 
1931, Leitzel died. 

Leitzel's death saddened her admirers all over the world. 
It stunned us who had known and loved her so well. It 
destroyed Alfredo Codona. 

For many months he disappeared into some accursed 
sohtude. Then he came back to fly again with the circus. 
Never had he been so briUiant. But now his brilliance had 
the raw edge of recklessness. Even the crowds watching him 
sensed that the flashing figure doing impossible feats was 
inviting death. As is his way, Death declined the invitation. 

In his frantic effort to escape memory, Alfredo was married 
again, to Vera Bruce of the Austrahan equestrian family. He 
continued his reckless performances, with the inevitable 
result— not death, but a fall that tore his shoulder Hgaments 
so that he could never fly again. 

Now the descent from glory quickened. If he had saved 
any money, it quickly disappeared and he was forced to take 
unsuitable jobs— Vera's equestrian director in a one-ring 
show. That was too bitter to be borne. Then he was part 
proprietor of a gas station. One wonders if the casual 
customers were frightened by the bright gleam of hatred in 
his eyes; hatred or madness. . . . 

No one could live with a man who could not live with him- 
self. Vera sued for divorce. A conference was arranged at her 
lawyer's office. 

Alfredo came there very calm and reasonable. He asked the 
lawyer if he might have a moment alone with his wife. At 
Vera's nod the attorney went out, closing the door. 


On cue, at the click of the latch, Alfredo pulled a forty-five 
automatic from under his coat. As fast as his finger could puU 
and release the trigger he fired five shots into Vera Bruce's 
body— three of them unneeded. The sixth shot pierced his 
own brain. Thank God, at least he did not miss. 

Alfredo Codona was buried beside Uttle Leitzel. 

The dolorous story of Leitzel and Codona emphasizes 
again my underlying theme of the violence and tragedy that 
stalk the back yard of the circus. This is the inevitable nature 
of an entertainment which endeavors to appeal to all the basic 
ideas of diversion— not only the enjoyment of beauty and 
glamour, courage and skill; but also the taste for the strange 
and exotic in the wild animals and primitive people, and 
titillation by the unnatural, such as the strange and often 
revolting deformities of the side shows. It is implicit above 
all in the circus' legacy from imperial Rome of a spectacle 
in which death, if no longer inevitable, yet plays a leading 
role, walking those high, thin wires in the peak of the Big Top 
and standing beside each Clyde Beatty and Mabel Stark 
every time they enter the arena cage. 

Violence was made inevitable, also, by the heterogeneous 
collection of people and wild animals which made the back 
yard a little like a tented jungle. Consider the labor force 
which manned the great trains of the twenties. Apart from 
the wonderful and skillful people who were our permanent 
emplovees and the mainstays of the show, these thousand 
roustabouts and razorbacks came from the floating residue of 
labor. It was financially impossible to give so large a group 
permanent employment when the circus spent five months in 
Winter Quarters with no money coming in and nothing for 
them to do. Therefore, each spring we had to recruit a whole 
new army. Thev were mostly men who lacked either the 
capacity or the desire to hold permanent jobs. Rootless, reck- 


less, and feckless, owing no loyalty to us— why should they? 
—nor, in most cases, to families or communities, they were a 
tough, anonymous lot— a sort of Foreign Legion of the Labor 
Army. Throw a thousand such as these together in one 
nomadic community and you have the makings of trouble 
every day. It is wonderful that we had so Httle of it. 

Sometimes the stench that rose from the crew's cars was 
awe-inspiring. The performers were very clean even though 
on the road they had to wash in pails of water. We had ar- 
rangements on the lot and in the dressing rooms to bring them 
pails of hot water and you could get very good at taking a 
bath out of a bucket. 

But we could not possibly provide hot water for a thousand 
roustabouts and razorbacks. Most of them managed to do 
surprisingly well wiih cold water, but some became famous 
for their polluted condition. I recall a character named Willy 
Green, who boasted that he had not had a bath for forty 
years. Willy came out of Bridgeport and was really a dis- 
reputable character; but by the inevitabihty of his arrival 
every spring and his blatant, almost impish uncleanliness, he 
became a legendary and privileged figure. 

I remember one night, when I was a boy, Willy approached 
Uncle John on the lot. He looked like Red Skelton in his char- 
acter of Freddy the Freeloader and smelled like a camel. 
Uncle John was standing there with his hat and his cane, 
his clothes beautifully pressed, and his shoes pohshed mirror 
bright, looking, as he always did, as though he were just start- 
ing out for the Easter Parade. 

"Hello, Jawn," said Willy. Nobody, not even Fred Bradna, 
addressed John Ringling as anything but Mr. John. 

"Hello, Willy," said Uncle John, who had knovini him for 
thirty years. "How are you?" 

Willy said, "Pretty good, but give me a light." 

Uncle John puffed up the fire in his great double corona 


and, bending over, held his cigar solicitously to Willy's 
cigarette while he puffed away. When he had the hght, Willy 
said airily, "Thanks, Jawn." And strolled away like a circus 

Another source of potential violence was the continuing 
tradition from the bad old days linking the circus and the 
underworld. Even the argot of the circus stemmed from it. 
Oddly enough, it did not come from contemporary criminal 
jargon, but straight from the imibrageous, fetid alleys of 
eighteenth-century London, from Polly Peachum's Newgate 
and the rogues who swimg from Tyburn Tree. 

When I first joined the circus I wrote my mother a show-off 
letter that was full of such words as dip (pickpocket), block 
(watch), shiv (knife), keyster (suitcase). She could not 
understand a word of it, but it would have been perfectly 
intelligible to Dick Turpin. 

The price of comparative freedom from criminal camp 
followers was eternal vigilance. With all our efforts, and those 
of the Bums detectives as well, we could not keep it com- 
pletely clean. Shell-game operators, confidence men, pick- 
pockets, gamblers, and bootleggers all preyed on the circus. 
The parasites would attach themselves to the circus train 
like barnacles to the bottom of a ship in tropical waters. Every 
so often we would have the engineer stop in the middle of 
nowhere, preferably a desert, and delouse the train. We 
would go through it from end to end, digging the human 
rats out of baggage wagons and from under cages on tlie flats 
and heaving them ungently to the ground, where enthusiastic 
assistants would urge them on their way. Somehow they 
seemed to manage to rejoin us soon thereafter, but at least 
they had a nice long walk. 

This was the sort of world in which Brother John and I 
served our apprenticeships to the circus. One thing we 


learned. Because it was a tough world, raw and savage, 
management had to be even tougher. To maintain the accu- 
rate timing of setup and teardown, the exact scheduling on 
wliich the whole great operation depended, required an iron 
discipline enforced by stem measures. But because these 
were very human sort of people and, in the case of the per- 
formers, very high-strung ones, it also requii^ed diplomacy 
and understanding. 

The man who ran a circus train had to be harsh and utterly 
ruthless, wise and sympathetic; a general of the army, rail- 
road executive, showman, and psyclriatrist combined. He had 
to be a howhng optimist, a compulsive gambler, and also 
capable of taking infinite pains to avoid disaster. Above all, 
he had to be dedicated to the circus. 



There had never been anytliing but love and loyalty between 
the Ringling brothers until AK T. died. But when Charles 
and John were left to divide their world between tliem, a 
ground mist of jealousy rose to cloud their relationship. This 
did not aflpect their management of the circus. There, as al- 
ways, tlrey acted in concert. But in tlieir outside business 


ventures and their social life, the rivahy between them be- 
came more acute, even bitter. John Ringling went his own 
freewheeling way, and his wife Mable was very easygoing 
and still one of the most beautiful women in America; but 
Edith, though handsome, was gray-haired and matronly. 
She kept prodding Charles to outdo his rambunctious younger 

Whatever the cause, they carried this competition to 
ridiculous lengtlis. If Uncle John got a yacht, the Zalophiis, 
Uncle Charles had to have an even bigger one, the Symphon.a. 
Because John had formed the Bank of Sarasota, Charles 
founded the Ringling Trust and Savings Bank. Sarasota of 
tliat time needed two banks considerably less than a dog 
needs two tails; today, however, it boasts at least six, although 
the two Ringling banks are no more. 

There is an amusing story in connection with the banks. 
Charley Kannally, Uncle John's circus secretary, worked in 
the winter in Uncle Charlie's bank. As the circus train started 
North one spring, Kaimally came to see Uncle John in the 
Jomar. "I'm flat broke, Mr. John," he said. "Could you lend 
me fifty dollars until payday?" 

"Mable, come here," Uncle John called. "I want you 
to witness a wonderful example of loyalty. Kannally, 
here, works at Charhe's bank but he still gives us his busi- 

One way in which Charles indicated his disapproval of 
his brother's offbeat hours was always to make business ap- 
pointments with him at nine o'clock in the morning, knowing 
full well that he habitually breakfasted at tluee in the after- 
noon. John was invariably late for ordinary business confer- 
ences; in fact, his tardiness at one vital meeting helped to 
bring about his financial downfall. But his retort to Uncle 
Charlie was always to appear on the exact stroke of nine. I 
suspect he stayed up all night to make it. 


The rivalry between the brothers reached its climax in 
the palaces— no lesser word describes them— that they built 
side by side facing the bay in Sarasota. Uncle Charles began 
his in 1924, immediately after hearing of Uncle John's 
grandiose plans for a Venetian palazzo. Charles Ringling's 
home was, and still is, an uncommonly beautiful house. Fol- 
lowing tlie classically simple lines of eighteenth-century 
English architecture, it was built of Georgia marble tinged 
by the palest shade of pink. The spacious, beautifully pro- 
portioned rooms were filled with appropriate graceful furni- 
ture built by Sheraton and Hepplewhite in England nearly 
two hundred years ago. Because Charles Ringling loved 
music so much, he installed a magnificent organ, and the 
music room, with its carefully planned acoustics, was often 
filled by the voices of the great singers of the time, most of 
whom were his son Robert's friends. 

Such a beautiful house, and $10,000,000 with which to 
maintain it, should have been enough to satisfy any man. It 
probably did content Uncle Charles, but not Aunt Edith. The 
trouble was that by 1924 Uncle John was reported to be one 
of the twenty richest men in the world. This, like so much 
else in our peculiar environment, was a wild exaggeration. 
Nevertheless, the oil wells were pouring out their wealth; the 
railroads were running to the limit of capacity; theaters, 
turned into movie houses, were packing them in; and in ad- 
dition, the Florida boom was on, and John Ringling had 
bought those jungled islands across tlie bay from Sarasota— 
Bird Key, St. Armands, Coon, and Otter— and several miles 
of Longboat Key. He pom^ed $700,000 into building the 
John Ringling Causeway with its drawbridge to connect his 
islands with the mainland, and began the business of laying 
them out in lots with streets and sewers, landscaping, and 
all the trimmings. In addition, with Iris friend Albert Keller 
of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in New York, he began to build a 


luxury hotel on Longboat Key at an estimated cost of 


In 1925 Brother John brought him a firm oflFer of $10,000,- 
000 for his islands; which he turned down without blinking 
his heavy-lidded eyes. That year John Ringling was worth 
$100,000,000— on paper. 

Then Uncle John built Ca' d'Zan— the name is Venetian 
patois for "House of John." At a time when the east coast of 
Florida was being dotted with extravagantly ornate castles 
from Spain whose fantastic design, evolving in the fecund 
brain of Addison Mi^izner, genuflected only slightly to the 
pm-ported land of its origin, John Ringling out-M^iznered 

This must be said: Ca' dTIan was not built to wipe Uncle 
Charlie's eye, or even to gratify Uncle John's and Aunt 
Mable's luxurious tastes. It was part of a long-range plan 
John Ringling had evolved to give the state of Florida a 
memorial to Mable and himself that would be at once as 
magnificent and much more useful than the Pyramids. 

The plan also included a museum to house the superb old 
masters he was buying at an ever accelerating rate. A corps of 
art experts, headed by Julius Boehler, whom everybody called 
Lulu, combed the crumbling palaces of Europe for these 
pictures which Uncle Jolin stored temporarily in a warehouse 
in Sarasota and with Manhattan Storage in New York. 

Perhaps his most important purchase was the four huge 
Rubens cartoons for tapestries. These marvelously painted 
scenes from the Bible were bought from the then Duke of 
Westminster. When Uncle John went out to the Duke's estate 
to see them, he was horrified to find tliem stored in an out- 
building, rolled up like old rugs. 

Though Lulu Boehler advised him. Uncle John liked to 
make die final deal himself, for he loved a horse trade like 
David Harum. He did not enjoy simple little business deals, 


but preferred intricate negotiations. The key to the moment 
when he was about to exert all his wizardry as a trader was 
when he would drape one arm over his victim's shoulder and 
say, "Now I want to be fair to you." Then look outi 

My uncle had another trick of trading which he employed, 
whether consciously or not. He would never sit down; so, of 
course, his adversary could not either, with John Ringling 
standing imposingly or striding around the room puffing his 
long cigar. He would keep it up for hours, and I think the 
other fellow often yielded from sheer exhaustion. 

In this way Uncle John acquired a great many pictures 
at bargain prices. For example, on a trip to Europe in 1927, 
he purchased a Frans Hals for about $100,000. On the very 
day it was unpacked in New York, Lord Duveen saw it and 
offered Uncle John $300,000. He was turned down. Hence it 
now hangs in Sarasota rather than in Washington, D.C., as 
Duveen was bidding for Andrew Mellon, 

In addition to pictures, John Ringling was piu"chasing 
ancient sculpture. Renaissance columns and colonnades, 
heavily carved cinquecento furniture, tapestries; in fact, any- 
thing and everything that represented the ancient culture of 
Europe— particularly of Italy— which so many years ago had 
opened the eyes of a midwestern countiy boy to the beauty of 
great art. 

John Ringling bought literally by the shipload. On one oc- 
casion at least, he chartered a freighter to bring his purchases 
directly from Genoa to Port Tampa. The lesser statuary he 
scattered among his keys to add a touch of ancient grace to 
his real-estate development. Aithur Vining Davis' roaring 
tractors dug them out of tlie renascent jungle thirty-five years 
later. The best pieces were reserved for the future Jolin and 
Mable Ringling Museum of Art. 

But though Ca' d'Zan was designed as a cultural monument. 
Uncle John and Aunt Mable proposed to have fun with it 


while they lived. It was built for them according to their 
specifications as to the smallest detail. Armed with sketches 
by Italian designers, they went to see New York architect 
Dwight James Baum and told him what they wanted— a 
Venetian-Gothic palazzo which would embody the best 
features of the Doge's Palace and the old Madison Square 
Garden, which Stanford White had designed after the Ve- 
netian manner. Mr. Baum is said to have turned pale. 

In the end he succeeded in modifying their ideas some- 
what, but Ca' d'Zan was still one of the most fantastic houses 
ever built anywhere. Two hundred feet long, the basic 
material of its exterior was rose-cream stucco, but you could 
see very little of that because of the elaborate decorative 
designs of glazed terra-cotta tiles baked in soft red, yellow, 
blue, green, or ivory tints. Columns faced with polished 
Mexican onyx supported the rounded-arch windows wliich 
exfoliated into clover-shaped Byzantine oriels. 

Above the main body of the house rose a square tower, also 
embellished with colored tiles, which contamed an open 
loggia. The landward side was ornamented by medallions 
with bas-relief figures. The central one, by the designer's 
whimsy, contained easily recognizable full-length sculptures 
of John and Mable Rmgling costumed like Adam and Eve 
before the Fall. It happened that I was walking with Uncle 
John the day this medalhon was unveiled. He looked up at it 
and for the only time in my remembrance blushed. "We've 
got to do something about that," he said. "Jesus, look at that I" 

It was, in fact, plastered over, but later the state of Florida's 
great museum director. Chick Austin, would countenance no 
such prudery. Uncle Jolm's fig leaf was removed. 

The interior of Ca' d'Zan was, if anything, more gorgeous 
than its fagade. You came into an immense tluee-story hall 
with a balcony running around three sides of it. Its pavement 
consisted of squares of black and white marble and its high, 


cambered ceiling, from which hung the biggest Venetian- 
glass chandeHer I ever saw, was made of carved, pecky cy- 
press framing a stained-glass skylight. Tall, small-paned win- 
dows of colored glass diffused the brilliant sunhght reflected 
from sky and water. The walls were hung with Renaissance 
tapestries. There was a great organ and perfectly enormous 
carved and gilded furniture. Aunt Mable worked for three 
years making exquisite needle-point upholstery for it. 

On the right was the long ballroom divided halfway down 
by antique columns. It was much more gaily furnished and 
the lighthearted medallions in tlie ceiling were painted by a 
Hungarian artist, Willy Pogany. John and Mable again ap- 
peared in one of them; this time waltzing together in 
full evening dress. To the left, through the breakfast loggia, 
was the state dining room, paneled in dark walnut with 
crimson draperies. Its most starthng feature was a wall-sized 
still life by the Flemish painter Frans Synders depicting the 
trophies of a hunt. Painted with meticulous realism was 
a heap of dead animals, including a deer, a swan, peacocks, 
rabbits, small birds, and a great boar sliced down the middle 
and running with gore. Weak-stomached guests faintly 
turned tlieir eyes away. Uncle John suffered no qualms. 

A catalogue of innumerable rooms grows exhausting, so let 
me but touch a few high spots— the barroom, with its long, 
pohshed bar bought complete with colored-glass panels 
from the famous Cicardi Winter Palace Restaurant in St. 
Louis; Uncle John's balhoom-sized bedroom, furnished in 
Empire for a change, with an anachronistic modeiTi barber's 
chair, in which he was shaved every day; the master bath- 
room, walled with Siena marble, its tub cut from a solid block 
of the same, with gold-plated fixtures; Aunt Mable's suite, all 
curvilinear rococo Louis XV decor; Uncle John's ofiice, a 
plain, businesslilve room, but the telephone was repousse sil- 
ver; and, finally, the rumpus room, occupying most of the 


third floor, its groined ceiling frescoed by Pogany with 
a Venetian carnival scene featuring John and Mable in fancy 
dress surrounded by their exotic pets. 

Ca' d'Zan stood right on the edge of the bay. A vast terrace 
of differently colored marbles in a streak-of-lightning pattern 
ended at tlie dock, to which the Zalophiis was usually moored. 
Alongside her, hitched to a striped pole topped by a 
golden ball, lay an imported gondola. With its furnishings, 
not including the tapestries and works of art, Ca' d'Zan cost 
Uncle John $1,650,000. 

If I have made fun of my dear uncle's house, it is not 
malicious but affectionate teasing. For I loved Ca' d'Zan. 
What roaring wonderful times we had there 1 What magnifi- 
cent meals were cooked in its great kitchens! What superb 
wines we drank around tliat long refectory board! And what 
wonderful talk we heard from the brilliant guests, whose 
names were a Who's Who of the twenties! Flo Ziegfeld and 
vivacious Billie; Irvin Cobb, his brisket bulging with good 
food and jollity; S. Davies Warfield, whose niece Wallis almost 
made Queen of England; Tex Rickard; Al Smith; Frank 
Phillips, who started as a barber, married a banker's daughter, 
became a checker for the bank at the Coliseum in Chicago 
when the circus was there, and finally founded Phillips 
Petroleum; W. J. Burns, the top private eye; John McGraw of 
the Giants, who gave me a uniform and let me practice with 
them; Fred Albee, vaudeville king; Jimmy Walker; Will 
Rogers; dozens more, and all their lovely ladies. The echo of 
their long-stilled laughter may yet break the museum pall of 
that great house nights, when the tourists are tucked in their 
motels— at least, I like to think so. 

And mistake me not! Ca' d'Zan was, with all its excesses, 
neither ugly nor vulgar. It was so riotously, exuberantly, 
gorgeously fantastic, so far out of the world of normality, that 
it surpassed the ordinary criteria of such things and emerged 


a thing of style and beauty by its magnificent indifference to 
all the so-called canons of good taste. It was, in fact, the epit- 
ome of its owner. 

Take a look at him as I knew him at this his opulent peak, 
an intelligent, daring gambler whose luck was riding high 
and whose personality was as extravagant as Kublai Khan's. 
He stands better than six feet tall, heavy, as all the Ringlings 
were. But there was nothing paunchy about Uncle Jolin in 
his superbly tailored clothes. You felt only massive power. He 
still had a moon-shaped face, but there was power in it, too, 
and in liis round heavy-lidded eyes. Power? Arrogance? Per- 
haps—reinforced by a temper of torrential violence. But 
its blast was as short-lived as a thunderstorm. Ten minutes 
after he had laid you out. Uncle John was as warmly sunny 
as a summer day. This was not true of Uncle Charles. He was 
far more gentle and considerate, and his resentment was 
harder to arouse. But once ignited, it smoldered for years. 

Even at his autocratic apogee Uncle John still loved fun. 
He was still and forever a wonderful clown. One of the de- 
lights of my youth was watching him have breakfast. Often 
my sister Salome and I would go over to Ca' d'Zan in the 
afternoon just to see the show. Uncle John always put on a 
special performance for our benefit. 

We would find him in the breakfast room surrounded by 
as strange a group of companions as ever Alice saw through 
her looking glass. On its perch was a gray African parrot 
named Jacob, with whom my micle conversed in German. 
Both John and Jacob were very fond of the coffeecake 
my mother baked. My uncle would dunk some in his coffee 
and give it to his friend, who would say politely, "Schmecks 
gut, Johann." Then the bird would whistle shrilly and call, 
"Komme Tell Komme Tel!" and the big German police dog 
would arrive in a series of liquid leaps. Aunt Mable's white 
cockatoo, Laura, watched from another perch, while two 


lovely little African bullfinches perched nearby. The com- 
pany was completed by six or seven delicately built little 
gray pinschers, who sat in a semicircle looking hopefully up 
at Uncle John. 

Then the butler, Frank Tomlinson, entered carrying an 
enormous dish of fruit. Uncle John devastated it. I have seen 
him eat twelve king oranges and five grapefruits; or two 
pounds of Tokay grapes. Mangoes were the most fun. Nine 
was a fair average for him. He would wade into the soft pulpy 
fruit with juice running all over his face and hands and the 
special oilcloth bib he wore. Then Tomlinson would bring him 
a silver basin of water, and he would make a circus of his 
ablutions for our benefit, dunking his face, snorting, puffing, 
and blowing wliile he rolled those round clown eyes of his 
and made marvelous faces. 

After the fruit he got dovini to the serious business of 
breakfast— a king-sized sirloin steak or a heaping dish of 
corned-beef hash with poached eggs aU over it. Then the cof- 
feecake and coffee. 

When the show was over he disappeared to his room to 
dress. This process usually took about three and a half hours. 
I never knew what mysteries of toiletry he practiced that took 
so long; for he locked the door, and no one was allowed in, 
not even Aunt Mable; not even Tomlinson. 

As I have indicated. Uncle John was very close with 
money in some ways, despite the splendor of liis establish- 
ment. He would haggle over the price of a window screen or 
a small tradesman's bill. Yet when the Mexican onyx for Ca' 
d'Zan failed to arrive on time, he had it sent from California 
by railway express. The shipping bill was several thousand 

And sometimes Uncle John made magnificent gestures. A 
brand-new two-tone Cadillac might drive up on Mother's 
birthday. He paid for my education at Manlius and Yale; and 


gave me a big allowance. In fact, he took great pride in my 
academic career, and sometimes forgetting our exact relation- 
ship, would introduce me as "my son who is at Yale." 

I admit I loved him; never more than, when broken physi- 
cally and financially, he leaned on me to be chauffeur and 
handyman and sometimes even cook in the great empty 
kitchen of Ca' d'Zan. So be warned that I am a prejudiced 
witness. For his very inconsistencies— his splendor and his 
meanness, his arrogance and kindness, his lasliing temper and 
his bubbling humor, which he kept when all else was gone- 
made him the most fascinating man I have ever known. 

You may imagine what chance gentle, conservative 
Charles Ringling had of rivaling Uncle John. Nor did the 
competition long continue. In the spring of 1926 Charles 
Ringling had a stroke. Aunt Edith would never admit the na- 
ture of his illness, but it was plainly evident. He came to Bara- 
boo that summer with the writing of death on his face. Uncle 
John was there as well. The brothers conferred; and for the 
only time in the history of the family there was talk of selling 
the circus. Charles knew that he would ride the train no more, 
and John was deeply involved with his great affairs. 

It was a momentary weakness. They agreed that economi- 
cally it was tlie wise thing to do. But when it came to the 
point of decision neither brother could imagine tlie 
circus without a Ringling. 

That fall Uncle Charlie came to Sarasota as usual. One day 
word came to Ca' d'Zan that he had had another stroke. Uncle 
John almost ran across tlie big lawns separating the two 
houses. When he arrived Aunt Edith said liis brother was too 
ill to see him. So he waited alone all day in one of those splen- 
did rooms. In the late afternoon he was told that he could go 

He found his brother lying unconscious, with our family 


physician. Dr. Joseph Halton, sitting beside the bed. John had 
no need to question Dr. Joe; the enormous struggle each 
breath cost Charles was plainly too great a strain to be borne 
long. John sat down in a chair. He did not make a sound, but 
Dr. Joe saw that the tears were Hterally pouring down his 

So they sat silent and helpless. One would never know what 
Uncle John was thinking in his grief, though there may be a 
clue in what he said. Quite suddenly the horribly harsh 
sound of breathing stopped. Dr. Joe jumped up to feel his pa- 
tient's pulse. John Ringling heaved himself to his feet witli the 
diflficulty of an old man. As he stood beside the doctor looking 
down at Charles, pawing at his eyes to clear his vision, he 
said somberly, "I'm the last one on the lot." 



On the death of his last brother, John RingHng considered 
himself the sole proprietor of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & 
Bailey Combined Shows. True, Aunt Edith had inherited a 
third share of it from her husband, and Cousin Richard also 
owned a third. But Richard had aheady been discounted in 


Uncle John's mind and Edith Ringhng was only a woman. 
The Ringlings traditionally paid no attention to women in 

The fact was that he had been making circus policy for a 
long time. He could always dominate Charles in big decisions, 
tliough the latter had more to do with the actual management 
of the show. 

One of the most important decisions that John Ringling 
had made, almost unilaterally, was to abandon the old 
Madison Square Garden and build a new one. He had been 
closely associated with Tex Rickard, that eminent promoter 
of lucrative sport, for a long time. Indeed, it was Uncle John 
who financed Rickard's promotion of the first "million-dollar 
gate," the Dempsey-Carpentier fight in 1921, and the build- 
ing of Boyle's Thirty Acres, the arena in which it was held. 

Whether Rickard came to Ringling, or vice versa, I do not 
know, but they both decided that New York needed a new 
amphitheater. The New Madison Square Corporation was 
formed with John Ringling as its largest stockholder and first 
chairman of its big-name board of directors. Of course, this 
was an enterprise tliat went far beyond the necessities of the 
circus for a five- or six-week stand in New York. Rickard re- 
garded it mainly as a place for prize fights, and the promoters 
of other professional sports had their special interests at 
heart. But in John Ringling's mind it was built primarily for 
the circus. Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey opened there 
in the spring of 1926. 

It was not long before Uncle John got disputatious with his 
fellow directors and resigned as chairman. However, it is not 
true that he quan-eled with Tex Rickard. In fact, when Tex 
got into trouble over his allegedly amorous attentions to a 
young lady who had not reached tlie age of consent, Uncle 
John raised $50,000 in a hurry and hired Max Steuer to de- 
fend him. 


Nineteen twenty-six was in other ways a trying year for 
John Ringhng. For it was then tliat the Florida boom burst 
with the second loudest financial bang of the century. It had 
been one of those seizures of mass madness which occasionally 
turn the public, and the smart guys, too, into packs of lem- 
mings rushing to fiscal destruction. Though vast tracts of land 
were bought and sold at skyrocketing prices, very little prop- 
erty actually changed hands. So hectic was the pace that 
the trading was done in contracts to purchase with lo per 
cent down. Nobody had time for formal deeds. As a result, 
when the bottom fell out, everybody owed everyone else and 
nobody owned anything. An exception was Uncle John, who 
still owned his islands. 

However, he realized that you could not even give land in 
Florida away, so he cut his losses. Overnight the bulldozers 
stopped snorting, the trucks stood still, concrete solidified in 
the mixers, and, as silence settled on the keys, the jungle 
thrust its first tentative tendrils under roadways that led no- 
where. Most melancholy spectacle of all was the rusting steel- 
work of the Sarasota Ritz-Carlton rising from the mangrove 
swamps like the skeleton of a gigantic dinosaur which had 
become obsolete before it had even evolved. 

Though the Florida debacle put a considerable crimp in 
John Ringling's finances, it did not really shake them. His in- 
terests were too vast and too far-flung, and in those years, 
when the whole nation was exhibiting the preliminary symp- 
toms of the speculative hysteria which had lured the Floridi- 
ans to destruction, tliey were enormously profitable. 

Though he stopped his grandiose plans for its development. 
Uncle John did not forsake Sarasota. He now regarded it as 
his home town, and he sought means to restore its fortunes. 

He had been thinking up ways to publicize Sarasota for 
years. Back in 1923 he had conceived the idea of preparing 
the big Worcester house on Bird Key as a winter White House 


for his friend President Harding. It was a felicitous thought, 
for at that time Bird Key could only be reached by water and 
therefore would be easy to guard. And the spacious white 
mansion even had a circular veranda with Corinthian columns 
like the south portico of the real White House. The only 
trouble with the plan was that President Harding died in a 
miasma of government scandal that summer. 

In the spring of 1927 Uncle John had an even better plan, 
which was to move the circus winter quarters from Bridge- 
port to Sarasota. He foresaw that it not onlv would be a great 
tom-ist attraction for his beloved little city but would reduce 
circus overhead. The great cost of heating those block-long 
brick animal barns in Bridgeport would be viitually elimi- 
nated, for only the most delicate animals would need artificial 
heat in Florida, and then only for a short time. In addition, 
he thought the circus people could live far more comfortably 
and cheaply in Florida. He was right, of course, but his 
abrupt decision caused considerable dismay at first. 

Fred Bradna describes being called from Bridgeport to Ca' 
d'Zan in March 1927 and watching Mr. John absorb one of 
his huge afternoon breakfasts. Then my uncle told him of his 
decision to buy the old fairgrounds for winter quarters. Ac- 
cording to Bradna, he said, "I can buy the land for twenty- 
nine cents on the dollar, now. I'm going to make Sarasota one 
of the sights of the South. Think of the tourists who would 
visit our winter quarters here and pay for it. Revenue in mid- 
winter, that's the ticketl" 

He ordered Bradna to break the news in Bridgeport, which 
the equestrian director was afraid to do. He knew tliat many 
of the permanent staff were born and bred Bridgeportians, 
and he thought they would take it hard. However, Fred was 
even more afraid of Uncle John, so he finally carried out his 
orders; and he was agreeably surprised tliat, after the first 
gasp of horror, most of the circus people sensibly began to 


look forward to wintering in the South, In fact, the only per- 
son who was really upset was "Good Luck" Lombard, who 
ran their favorite speak-easy. He just kept on moaning, "Say 
it isn't sol" 

Uncle John gave a banquet for seventy prominent Floridi- 
ans and imported big shots to announce liis coup. On the 
menu were terrapin soup, to which his special terrapin pool 
at Ca' d'Zan contributed, and Sophie's (the Alsatian cook) 
chef-d'oeuvre, roast pheasant with wine kraut. The next day 
he went to the faugrounds with Bradna and personally laid 
out the proposed winter quarters, staking out the bams, 
menagerie, workshops, roads, and railroad sidings, and an 
outdoor arena exactly the size of Madison Square Garden, in 
which the performers could practice and he could earn— while 
they learned— the dollars of gaping tourists. 

However, according to Bradna, John Ringling's enthu- 
siasm, for once, was generated less by the money than by what 
he was doing for Sarasota, which now commanded his loyalty 
second only to the circus itself. 

For a few years more, life in Ca' d'Zan went on at full tilt. 
The house was filled with people all winter long, and often 
the kitchens produced dinner for a hundred guests. There 
were lawn parties to which all Sarasota was invited to eat 
and drink on the great terrace while Uncle John's favorite 
orchestra, which he had imported from Czechoslovakia, 
played on tlie deck of the Zalophiis. On Sunday tlie band 
gave free public concerts on St. Armands Key. 

Uncle John did not much care for sailing, and the yacht 
was more oiTiamental than useful to him. However, he often 
lent it to his friends. Indeed, his generosity led to the sad 
end of Zalophus, wliich might have been much sadder but 
for his quick thinking. He was in New York one spring, when 
he offered the boat to Mayor Jimmy Walker and his lovely 


lady of the theater, Betty Compton, for a Florida cruise. A 
well-known banker, who shall not here be named, and his 
sweetheart were also in the party. 

The next tiling Uncle John heard was a telephone call from 
his red-faced captain, Al Roan, who said, "I don't know how 
to tell you this, Mr. John, sir. But the fact is we hit an un- 
charted sand bar right in Sarasota Bay, and Zalophus sank." 

"Jesus I" said Uncle John. "Anybody drowned?" 

"No, sir. I got 'em off in the launch, but they act like they 
wish they had. They're scared wild of the publicity." 

"Who knows about it?" 

"Nobody yet. It was black night." 

"Listen carefully, Al," Uncle John said. "You take those peo- 
ple to Tampa and put them aboard a train for New York or 
anywhere there's a train going. That boat won't sink until to- 
morrow morning!" Nor did she— according to the newspapers. 

Maintaining the enormous flow of liquor at Ca' d'Zan in 
Prohibition days required some illegal ingenuity. Supplies of 
run-of-the-mill stuff were easy enough to get, but the fine 
wines and whiskies which my uncle loved were less easy to 
come by. Though he was a moderate drinker, or because of 
this, perhaps, he was very particular. His favorites were 
Peter Dawson's Old Curio scotch before dinner and either 
Pilsner or Beck's beer from Bremen afterward. A rumrunner's 
craft once felicitously foundered off Ca' d'Zan and my uncle, 
with his friend and neighbor Ralph Caples, profited thereby. 
They bought and salvaged the entire cargo. 

To conserve his supply of Old Curio, which he had laid in 
years previously by direct piuchase from his friend Sir Peter 
Dawson, he ordered Tomlinson to keep the dusty cobwebbed 
bottles and refill them with bootlegged White Horse. "I leave 
it to your discretion," he said to his butler, "which guests get 
the real thing and which won't know the difference." 

Nevertheless, John Ringling was generous with liquor. His 


standing order to Tomlinson was "Never ask a guest if hell 
have another drink. Even if he's faUing down drunk, just say, 
'Will you have a drink, sir?' " 

There was one time when Tomlinson got into trouble by 
following these instructions. It was during a visit by Jimmy 
Walker, who came to open a dog-racing track which my 
uncle had promoted. As the time drew near for the mayor of 
New York to go to the track to speak, Uncle John observed 
that he was incapable not only of speech but even of locomo- 
tion. A hurricane blew up around poor Tomlinson's head. 
"You ought to have better sense than to let him get like this," 
Jolin Ringling thundered. "He's got to make a speech. 
Do somethingl" 

Tomlinson told his wife Hedwig, "Make some strong coflFee. 
Make it hke licorice." 

He fed cup after cup to the mayor, who drank it docilely— 
he was always courteous and amiable even when half-seas 
over. Tomlinson laced the last cup of coffee with brandy to 
complete His Honor's restoration. Those who heard him, say 
that Walker made one of the best speeches of his life. 

Meanwhile the grand design of the museum was tak- 
ing shape on the land just south of Ca' dTian. It must, of 
course, be Italian in feeling, and so Uncle John, with his ar- 
chitect, John H. Phillips of New York, planned it on the 
classic lines of an Italian villa. From the severely simple east 
fagade, two long, low wings stretched westward toward the 
bay enclosing a formal garden filled with lovely ancient 
bronze and stone sculptures. The garden ended in a mirror 
pool, beyond which stood the heroic "David" of Michelan- 
gelo. It was one of three bronze replicas cast from the original 
marble on the four hundi-edtli anniversary of Michelangelo's 
biith in 1874. O^ the others one remains in Florence and the 
thiid is in the Vatican Museum in Rome. The museum itself 


was made of rose-pink stucco, and the rounded arches of the 
colonnades of the garden court were supported by nearly a 
hundred slender ancient marble columns brought from Italy. 
The flat balustraded roof was lined with the best statues in 
the collection. It was by any standard a tiling of rare beauty, 
and it housed beauty incomparable. 

By this time the John Ringling Collection consisted of over 
seven hundred pictures, not all of them good, but some of 
them great. In the museum the first room you entered was 
designed for the four great Rubens cartoons. They hang 
there now. As you come in, their sheer magnificence, the 
glory of color and design, literally stuns you, so that it takes 
a little time to compose yourself sufficiently to study tliem 

Inevitably, the rest is something of an anticlimax, but a 
magnificent anticlimax. Uncle John loved, above all, the 
seventeenth-century Baroque, whose splendid exuberance 
was in harmony with his character. His taste was out of fash- 
ion then, so he was able to obtain great works of tliis period 
for a fraction of the price which the changing vogue makes 
them worth today. However, he did not let liis personal pref- 
erence unbalance the collection which he designed for the 
benefit of the people of Florida. Instead, he acquired master- 
pieces of all the great classic schools of painting, stopping, as 
though a curtain had fallen, at the beginning of modernism. 

Since catalogues, even of the beautiful, are boring, I will 
drop only a few eminent names to show the range of the col- 
lection. In it are represented Fra Bartolommeo, Veronese, 
Tintoretto, Titian, Andrea del Sarto, Canaletto, Bassano, 
Sassoferrato, Piero di Cosimo, Lucas Cranach, Rem- 
brandt, Frans Hals, Breughel, Cuyp, Jan Fyt, El Greco, 
Velazquez, MuriUo, Goya, Jean Marc Nattier, Raeburn, 
Reynolds, Gainsborough, and Lawrence; and so on and so on, 
through pages and pages of great names whose mention stiis 
but a dim anticipation of tlie beauty they created. 


In 1928, when work was only starting on the great project, 
though most of the pictures were aheady safely housed 
in warehouses in New York and Florida and in Ca' dTian, 
John Ringling publicly announced his gift to Florida. Mark 
you, he signed no deed of gift or any legal document. The 
whole great collection was still in his name and remained so 
on the day he died. But having given his word, he regarded 
himself merely as a trustee. So when the time came when tlie 
sale of just one of those masterpieces would have pulled him 
back from the verge of ruin, he refused to consider it. Thus, 
tliis uncle of mine, who began life as a barefoot boy on the 
banks of the Mississippi, made himself a millionaire, and 
loved to live the life of a Renaissance prince, ultimately risked 
all to leave intact tlie dream he had created. 

Now the circus was having its golden autumnal age. Every 
year Uncle John brought back the cream of the European 
crop of new acts. He kept the best of the old ones and intro- 
duced such new faces as Con Colleano, the Wallendas, and 
Zacchini. I suspect that at this time it was not only The 
Greatest Show on Earth but the greatest show there ever had 
been on this planet. 

Of course, such entertainment was dated. The world had 
moved— how it had movedl Because they have mellowed in 
retrospect, we forget what a violent contrast the twenties 
presented to tlie serene and secure years which had preceded 
World War I. This change was even more shattering than the 
difference between our era and the one which was blown to 
bits by the first atom bomb. For by now we have grown un- 
happily accustomed to mechanization, to ruthless war and 
genocide, to tlie disintegration of moral standards, and to a 
sense of total insecurity. But the adult population of those 
days Jiad grown up believing that mankind had become 
civilized. They were utterly appalled by the sudden revela- 


tion of savagery erupting through its well-bred surface when 
for the &st time the whole world went to war. 

Despite the flush of materialistic triumphs, the great surge 
forward of mechanical and industrial techniques which were 
bringing tremendous advances in our standard of living dur- 
ing the postwar years, people were afraid. They were fright- 
ened by the very progress they had made and the changes it 
had brought about. Even while they gloried in their new 
freedoms from the necessity of long hours of drudgery and 
from the tyranny of puritanical conventions, they secretly 
longed for something permanent and unchanging. I tliink 
that is why the circus was so popular. 

For it was almost the only thing in that era of flux which 
had not changed at all. In its essentials it followed the formula 
of the show which Mr. Barnum had put on rails in 1871— 
better, certainly, less crude and more artistic, but basically 
the same. Millions of people came to see it every year in a 
nostalgic return to remembered serenity. They brought their 
children to see the last remaining bit of tlie simple, happy 
America they had grown up in. 

Uncle John was perfectly cognizant of this public reaction. 
In fact, it was why he worked so much harder for the circus 
than for all his other enterprises, though they were far 
greater in scope and far more lucrative. No matter how mod- 
em his personal hfe, how deeply he was involved in the 
hectic finance of tlie twenties, and how much he enjoyed 
the frenetic pace, he worked to keep the circus inviolate. Con- 
cerning it he was a starry-eyed romantic, for he felt that The 
Greatest Show on Earth was a precious part of the American 
heritage, which it was his responsibility to preserve. 



John Ringling's troubled times began in 1929. Nothing unu- 
sual in that, except that in his case personal grief compounded 
them. For several years Aunt Mable had been keeping a 
secret. So well did she counterfeit that no one, except her doc- 
tor, certainly not Uncle John, knew that she was mortally ill 
of a complication of diabetes and Addison's disease. Early in 
1929 strength of will could no longer overcome their ravages. 
That spring she took to her bed, and with her customary con- 


sideration for her husband, died very quickly in June 1929. 

Uncle John was desolated. He was so much older than Ma- 
ble and she was so vital and beautiful and gay that until the 
last few days he had never contemplated life without her. So 
Httle was he prepared that he, who hated black, had no proper 
clothes to wear. Tomlinson stripped the braid off his butler's 
trousers and lent them to his master to wear at the funeral. 

I saw my uncle in New York soon after that. He was 
desperately grief-stricken, and completely convinced that "I 
will never be gay again." So sure was he of this that he pre- 
sented me with his entire wardrobe of magnificent suits made 
for him by Bell. They hung like curtains on my lanky frame, 
but I was able to sell them very profitably to a secondhand- 
clothes dealer in New Haven. I am sure that part of the price 
was due to the labels sewn in the linings, which said, "Made 
expressly for John Ringling." 

The violence of John Ringling's grief, hke the storms of his 
rage, was bound to exhaust itself quickly. Nor could such a 
lusty man stop living. Within the year he was back at Bell's 
ordering a whole new outfit. In the summer of 1930 he fell 
in love, or thought he did, with an attractive widow named 
Mrs. Emily Haag Buck, whom he saw lose $32,000 one night 
in Monte Carlo. He was married to her by Mayor Frank 
Hague of Jersey City in December 1930. 

Why they ever married is beyond all understanding; for 
two less compatible people have seldom promised to cleave 
only to each other. That my uncle was not easy to live with 
must be clear by now. Eccentric, egocentric, and arrogant, 
able to impose his will on outsiders by tlie power of his wealth, 
and accustomed to Aunt Mable's loving acquiescence in his 
home, John Ringling was unable to change even if he had 
wanted to. 

Emily Buck was equally set in her ways. She was rich, at- 
tractive, and spoiled. She flitted around the house so much 


that Uncle John would roar at her, "For God's sake, Emily, 
hght somewhere." 

Quite early in their marriage Uncle John borrowed $50,000 
from his new wife, pledging three of his fine pictures for the 
loan. This is not an exception to my statement that he would 
not part with his pictures. At the time he was not yet seriously 
embarrassed and thought it was merely a temporary accom- 

Under such circumstances the marriage could hardly be ex- 
pected to last. It did not. They were separated within two 
years and their divorce was within one week of becoming final 
when Uncle John died in 1936. 

John Ringling's first step on the facile descent to insolvency 
was due to his faults and his virtues, to his pride and his 
ideals. In the spring of 1929 it was time to negotiate the usual 
circus contract with Madison Square Garden for the season 
of 1930. A date was set for a meeting with the ojQBcials of the 
Garden. Uncle John did not show up. 

There is no explanation of why he did not keep this critical 
engagement, but it is no great mystery, either. He was quite 
accustomed to making engagements with important people 
and breaking them cavalierly. However, the directors of the 
Garden corporation were aheady irritated with him. When 
the meeting finally took place they told him that they would 
sign only on condition that the circus did not play Friday 
nights in order to permit the very profitable prize fights to 
take place. At the end of a violent scene Uncle John told them 
with anatomical exactitude precisely where they could put 
their contract, and announced that the circus would open at 
the 22nd Regiment Armory. 

The Garden promptly made a contract with the American 
Circus Corporation, our only serious rivals, for April 1930. 

John Ringling was thunderstruck. He was so stricken and 


hurt that for a little while he was not even angry. Then, as he 
pondered what he thought of as blackhearted treachery, his 
rage generated in itself until it was all-consuming, destroying 
his business judgment. 

There is considerable excuse for his intense emotion. For 
over fifty years either Barnum & Bailey or Ringling Brothers 
or the Combined Shows had opened in Madison Square 
Gai den. In fact, both the old Garden and the new had been 
bui't for this very purpose. It was unthinkable to my uncle, 
and indeed to many other people, that a rival circus should 
play there. 

In John Ringling's fiery brain there were only two possible 
alternatives— either to buy the Garden or the American Circus 
Co -poration. The first he discarded because the other circus 
would still have a contract. He bought the American Circus 
Corporation from its owners, Jeremiah Mugivan, Albert 
Bowers, and Edward Ballard— all old circus friends of his 
—for about $2,000,000. He paid only a little cash down and 
gave his personal note for $1,700,000 to the Prudence Bond 
and Mortgage Company, which financed the deal. "I'm play- 
ing the Garden next year," said Uncle John. 

Now, this transaction was not quite as foolish as it seemed; 
or to put it another way, it did not, at that time, seem as fool- 
ish as it was. The American Circus Corporation owned five 
good little circuses— Sells-Floto, Hagenbach-Wallace, John 
Robinson, Sparks, and Al G. Barnes. They had bought the 
last two in 1928. Their total assets included 150 railroad cars, 
2000 animals, tents, baggage stock, and 4500 people. It was 
definitely a going concern. 

John Ringling proposed to incorporate a new company and 
sell its shares to the stock-avid public, thus paying oft the note. 
His Wall Street associates told him that they would have no 
trouble floating such an issue, backed as it was by very real as- 
sets and his own great name. That was the grave miscalcula- 


Everyone who was in any way connected with finance re- 
members the terrible days in October 1929, when the great 
American dream of boundless prosperity bm^st on the floor of 
the New York Stock Exchange in a bedlam of bellowing 
brokers and chattering tickers, punctuated by occasional 
pistol shots and the thuds of falling bodies. Everyone knows 
that it was no local adjustment of the stock market, but a mo- 
ment of truth, when the fact that they had been living beyond 
tlieir means began to dawn on the whole American people. It 
was, in fact, the end of a historical era. It was also the end of 
John Ringling's hope of selling an issue of circus stock. 

Throughout the dismal years of the great depression, that 
debt was a killing encumbrance to John Ringling. He suc- 
ceeded in transferring it and the ownership of the American 
Circus Corporation to Ringling Brothers, despite the justified 
reluctance of Aunt Edith and Richard Ringling, but it was, 
nevertheless, his obligation. 

Of course, his other great interests went bad, too— almost 
every business in America did. The circus, which had netted 
$1,000,000 in 1929, was doing so badly that in 1931 it closed 
down on September 14, the earliest date thus far in its long 
history. But Uncle John would have been able to ride out the 
storm had it not been for that piece of paper as heavy as a 
granite boulder dragging him down into ever deeper water. 

Another aspect of his character did not help. He had an 
amazing faculty for ignoring bad news. It was as though his 
mind were divided, like the hull of a ship, into thought-tight 
compartments and he could close the doors on any fact he 
did not want to face. 

I remember once years later, after Uncle John had had his 
stroke, in the darkest days at Ca' d'Zan, we were having din- 
ner when the doorbell rang. TomHnson had long since 
departed along with most of tlie cash-consimiing luxuries, so I 


went to the door. It was a United States deputy marshal, and 
he wanted to see Mr. Ringling. 

Knowing well that this meant another action for debt- 
there were over a hundred suits pending— I went back and 
told Uncle John. 

"For God's sake, tell him I'm not here," he said. 

"I'm afraid he knows you are." 

"How does he know?" 

"You haven't gone out." 

"Buddy, don't argue with me," Uncle John said sharply. 
"Tell the man I'm not in." 

But I was young and inexperienced and had let the marshal 
follow me far enough to see and hear Uncle John. So I had to 
biave my uncle's ire and tell him that the man was in and 
refused to leave. 

"Very well," said Uncle John. "Tell him to wait." 

Then, just as though nothing had happened, we went on 
with dinner, which, incidentally, was the result of a com- 
bined operation of his trained nurse, myself, and Uncle John. 
As we hngered over coffee he was never more charming, tell- 
ing wonderfully amusing stories of the old days. You would 
have thought that he had not a care in the world, and the fact 
is he did not, while the meal lasted. Then I helped him into 
the great hall, where we found the marshal looking a little 
lonely amid its splendors. Uncle John put him at ease with 
the charming affability of an English duke greeting his favor- 
ite bailiff, was served with the papers, and undoubtedly for- 
got all about tliem. 

This strange ability to ignore trouble was probably an as- 
set to John Ringling in the good days. It saved him from un- 
necessary worry, which has reduced other men in positions of 
great stress to ulcer-ridden misantliropes. But it was almost 
fatal in such a time of crisis. So Httle did Uncle John concern 
himself about his crumbling fortunes that in 1931, when they 


were tottering toward the final disaster, he went to Europe as 
usual and attended a sale at Cliristie's in London, where he 
bought more paintings for his beloved museum. 

That year my cousin Richard Ringling died. He had gone 
through five or six million dollars and his estate was a tangled 
mess whose principal asset was his one-third interest in the 
Combined Shows. To help his widow, Aubrey Barlow Ring- 
ling, in her distress, Uncle John squeezed some money for her 
out of the hard-pressed circus. 

John Ringling's personal crash came in 1932. In the spring 
of that year he suffered a clot in an artery in his leg which 
threatened blood poisoning and amputation. His superb con- 
stitution and ability not to worry pulled him through, but he 
was told he must have a period of rest free from the pressure 
of affairs and the importunities of creditors. For his hideaway 
he chose the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, which along 
with Dreamland Amusement Park was owned by his great 
and good friend Sam Gumpertz, with whom he had been as- 
sociated in several business ventures and who sometimes ac- 
companied him to Europe. There he would be peaceful and 
safe— so he thought. 

Samuel W. Gumpertz was an ambitious man who had 
started his career as an acrobat at the age of nine. He had 
been, in turn, a candy butcher, usher, actor, singer, press 
agent, and, in an off moment, a cowboy, before he became a 
producer of kinetoscopes, as the earliest moving pictures were 
called. He was on the road with a flicker called The Corona- 
tion of the Czar in 1897 when the fantastically extravagant 
Bradley Martin fancy-dress ball hit all the newspapers. Gum- 
pertz changed the name of his picture to The Bradley Martin 
Ball and raised the price from a nickel to fifteen cents. That 
put him on the road to fortune as a successful theatrical 
producer, showman, and real-estate operator. What Uncle 


John did not know was that Sam's ambitions included owning 
The Greatest Show on Earth. 

While John Ringling was recuperating at the Half Moon 
Hotel, two things were happening. An interest payment on 
tlie circus note, which had been reduced to $1,017,000, was 
defaulted; and Sam Gumpertz organized two groups of busi- 
nessmen, who, under the corporate titles of Allied Owners 
and New York Investors, bought the note from tlie Prudence 

Gumpertz also gained the confidence of Edith and Aubrey 
Ringling. This was easy enough in the case of Aunt Edith, 
who had disliked her brother-in-law for years and who had 
been further incensed by his cavalier treatment of her rights 
in the circus. Aubrey was, I believe, fond of Uncle John, but 
her share of the circus was the only support of herself and her 
children. Gumpertz succeeded in convincing her that John 
Ringling had lost his grip and was bringing the show to ruin. 

Now only one thing more remained before they snapped 
tlie trap on tlie unsuspecting invalid. This was to get a com- 
plete list of John Ringling's vast and scattered assets. This 
they did, down to the very last laundry, through one of his 
most trusted employees. 

In July 1932 John Ringling was summoned to a meeting of 
the circus creditors and his relative-partners. When he limped 
into that luxurious office he was utterly dumfounded and con- 
fused to find who were his enemies. He looked dumbly from 
Edith to Aubrey, his close Wall Street friend William Greve, 
who represented Allied Owners, and to Sam Gumpertz. 
Though he may have been autocratic and foolish in his deal- 
ings witli Aunt Edith, he believed he had guarded her inter- 
ests. To Aubrey he had shown great kindness. To find them 
arrayed against him was a fearful shock because of liis strong 
feeling of family solidarity. 

He was almost as shaken by the implacable attitude of 


Gumpertz, who up to that moment had been so solicitous for 
his health, so warm in his professions of friendship. 

It was Gumpertz who deHvered the carefully thought-out 
ultimatum. Because one installment of interest on the note 
had not been paid, Allied Owners claimed they were in a 
position to throw Ringling Brothers-Bamum & Bailey into 
bankruptcy and to take it over. They would refrain from do- 
ing so only on the following conditions: 

1. The circus would be turned into a stock company to be 
chartered in Delaware. 

2. The creditor groups would receive lo per cent of the 
stock as a bonus for their work in forming the corporation. 
The remainder of the stock would be divided one third to 
each of the partners— Edith, Aubrey, and John Ringling. 

3- The note for $1,017,000 would be assumed by the new 
corporation; but to secure it John Ringling would pledge all 
of his personal assets, a full, itemized list of which was ap- 
pended. The banking group would hold them as collateral un- 
til the note was paid off. 

Probably for the first time since he had started his own busi- 
ness at the age of twelve, John Ringling felt unable to cope 
with a situation. He was in a state of shock, beaten down and 
bewildered by the sudden onslaught of misfortune, and un- 
done by the disloyalty of his friends and kin. In fact, he did 
not even have a lawyer to consult, for the circus attorney, 
John M. Kelly, was advising the opposition. Had Uncle John 
had a good lawyer of his own, he would have been advised 
that it was legally impossible to throw the circus into bank- 
ruptcy without a long-drawn-out lawsuit. As it was, John 
Ringling did not know where to turn. 

Even a year or two previously he would have fought back 
with flashing power that would have left his enemies holding 
their severed financial heads. But Uncle John had been 
enfeebled by his illness. Now he broke under the strain. 


The terrible dilemma, to his mind, was that the ultimatum 
posed a conflict of loyalties between the things dearest to his 
heart: the circus and his magnificent gift to the state of 
Florida— his pictures. For Allied Owners demanded that these 
be pledged as collateral as well. Even in those depression days 
Uncle John could have sold a few masterpieces and cleared 
himself— but this was unthinkable to him. So, too, was the 
idea of hocking them to the creditors. Most unthinkable of 
all was permitting the circus to be thrown into bankruptcy 
and losing it forever. 

In the end he surrendered almost unconditionally. The one 
concession he demanded, and got, was that another corpora- 
tion be formed called the Rembrandt Corporation, to which 
he deeded his art collection. He then put up the stock of his 
corporation as part of the collateral his creditors demanded. 
AH his other assets were also pledged. 

Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, In- 
corporated, was duly formed in Wilmington, Delaware. Then 
came the dramatic moment of the first stockholders' meeting, 
at which John Ringling received the ultimate blow. After the 
preliminaries had been completed, it was proposed and 
seconded that John Ringling be elected titular president of 
the new corporation— for the sake of his name— at the token 
salary of $5000 a year— his drawing account had always been 
$50,000. Sam Gumpertz was to be general manager in com- 
plete charge of running the circus— he had no experience in 
circus management. Edith and Aubrey Ringling and Jolm M. 
Kelly were to be vice-presidents. 

Almost incredulous of his hearing, John Ringling voted his 
30 per cent of the stock against the proposition. Edith voted 
her 30 per cent for it; and, of course, Gumpertz's group voted 
dieir 10 per cent of the stock in favor. Thus the balloting stood 
40 per cent for, 30 per cent against. At this moment, Aubrey, 
who seemed terribly unhappy about the situation, said, "Now 


there have been enough votes cast. It's all settled, so I don't 
have to vote at all." 

Uncle John focused his bulldog eyes on her. He would 
spare neither her nor himself. "You will vote, Aubrey," he said. 
"I must know where you stand." 

Aubrey voted, and the balloting now stood 70 per cent for 
the opposition slate, 30 per cent against. Thus the last of the 
brothers lost control of their circus. 

There remains a tragic anticlimax. That autumn John 
Ringling began negotiating a contract with the Christiani 
family, who had the greatest equestrian act left in the world. 
One afternoon, as he was sitting in his little oflBce, he suflEered 
a paralytic stroke. He managed to stagger part way to the door 
in an attempt to get home, and collapsed. 

Crumpled in the pocket of the suit he was wearing we 
found a telegram informing him that he must cease his 
negotiations with the Christianis— they afterward came to the 
show— and, furthermore, if in the future he tried to take any 
part in the operation of the circus, "we will hold a stockhold- 
ers' meeting and turn you out." It was signed "Sam Gum- 



In one sense. Uncle John made an amazing recovery from his 
illness, due to that tremendous vitality of his. After five or six 
weeks rest his speech cleared and he partly recovered the use 
of his paralyzed right side. In another sense, he never recov- 
ered. His power of instantaneous, imperious decision was 


gone. He was frightened and suspicious of everyone. Nor can 
I blame him. 

These were the years when my brother John and I came to 
know him well and love him; for there was no one left to look 
after him but us and our mother. At this time Johnny was 
working for the fine old Wall Street firm of Parish and Com- 
pany, but he devoted the best part of his energies to what can 
only be described as a desperate struggle to help Uncle John 
regain control of his fortune and the circus. After I graduated 
from Yale, I was with my uncle almost constantly. 

Remembering an incident in the early spring of my junior 
year, I realize how much I owe him. We were coming down 
in the elevator from his apartment when he said to me 
casually, "Buddy, do you really care about going back to Yale 
next year?" 

Astonished, I said, "Of course I do. Uncle John. It's my sen- 
ior year, the best one of all." 

He just said, "O.K., Buddy." 

So I went back with the same allowances and unrestricted 
charge accounts at the co-op I had always had. When I 
learned how hard-pressed he then was for ready cash, I real- 
ized what an effort it had been for him to give me that final 
uninliibited year. If he had told me of his circumstances I 
would probably have said, "No, Uncle John, I'll go with the 
circus." The casual way he put it to me showed an unsus- 
pected sensitivity in. his character. 

From the time he desperately signed his assets over to the 
banking groups, John Ringling's position was increasingly 
precarious. The fact is that the last four years of his life were 
a period of financial cliff hanging. Though he still had a great 
fortune, he also had large fixed charges, such as the taxes on 
his properties in Florida, the rent of his apartment at the 
Marguery in New York— 636 Fifth Avenue was torn down to 


make room for Rockefeller Center— and many other unavoid- 
able obligations. According to his agreement with the bank- 
ers, a large percentage of his income was automatically 
diverted to paying ofiF the note. They could have allowed him 
to keep a Httle more to Hve on without imperiling their inter- 
ests; but they would not. With all his capital assets frozen in 
their hands, he had no room to maneuver. 

It is not only fraternal aflFection which makes me state that 
my brother John was remarkably resourceful and steadfast in 
his handling of Uncle John's affairs. He had absorbed a busi- 
ness know-how during his Wall Street experience and with his 
real-estate agency in Florida and his service with the red 
wagon of the circus; but his financial ingenuity was his own. 
He displayed it a hundred times in those years, particularly 
in the worst crisis of all— the attempt to tlirow Uncle John into 
bankruptcy in 1934. 

When the Florida boom broke in 1926, Owen Burns, 
a friend and business associate of my uncle's, had almost com- 
pleted a beautiful hotel in Sarasota. It was advantageously 
situated on the bay close to the business district. He went into 
bankruptcy, and the Prudence Company— mother of all our 
misfortunes— took it over. John RingUng bought it from them; 
paying no cash, just giving his personal note for $55,000. It 
was a bargain even for those depressed prices, as everyone 
knows who has stayed at the John Ringling Hotel. Of course, 
the hotel was part of the collateral held by Allied Owners. It 
was frozen. 

In 1934 the note came due, and payment was demanded 
on the threat of bankruptcy proceedings against my uncle. 
Two other small debtors joined in what, I believe, was a con- 
certed effort to finish him off financially. We had to get the 
$55,000, and we had hardly enough cash to eat on. But 
Brother John discovered some hidden assets. 

One was a disbanded branch of one of the short-line rail- 


roads that the creditors had not thought worth taking. John 
sold the old rails for $20,000. He sold some bonds of our 
mother's with her consent and threw that money into the pot. 
Then he succeeded in borrowing $25,000 from a money- 
lender in New York for six months at the incredible rate of in- 
terest of 25 per cent. When he heard about it, Uncle Jolm 
screamed, "For God's sake, Johnny, are you trying to break 

We needed $10,000 more. I knew that in a special closet in 
the New York apartment Uncle John had 400 cases of bourbon 
whisky distilled in 1893, which he had bought fiom Ed 
Ballard just before Prohibition went into eflFect. However, 
even though the Eighteenth Amendment had been repealed, 
we needed a wholesale liquor license, costing $4000, to sell it. 
As John says, "We did not have four cents"; nor could we 
borrow a nickel more. And we had to procure the money in 
two days. 

In this emergency John went to a friend who was in the 
hquor business. This man agreed to buy the whisky, paying 
$40 a case for 300 cases— he sold the last few bottles for $50 
apiece. Uncle John agreed to the sale by telephone and we 
had $12,000. 

So John got the money and Uncle John was saved. It was 
like those old-fashioned melodramas with the prodigal son 
galloping up just in time to pay off the mortgage. In the last 
confused months of his life Uncle John told people in Sar- 
asota that Johnny had stolen tlie whisky. 

Life was very strange during the years I spent at Ca' d'Zan 
with Uncle John, serving him as business agent, chauffeur, 
handyman, and sometimes cook. The only employees were liis 
trained nurse. Miss Saunders, and faithful Al Roan, the 
yacht captain in happier days, who did his best to keep the 
grounds and gardens from going back to the jungle. 


Yet we lived in a setting of magnificence. The huge house 
was so well built that there were few signs of decay even 
though nothing was spent on upkeep. The substantial fur- 
nishings got very little wear and tear; and the superb paint- 
ings still hung on the walls to light the rooms with beauty. 

Since Uncle John could not make up his mind to part with 
any of his personal possessions, he still had two Fierce-Arrows 
and five Rolls-Royces, some in New York, but most of them 
at Ca' d'Zan. One of the Rollses had been built especially for 
the Czarina of Russia in 1914. It got as far as Berlin when 
World War I broke out. Uncle John bought it there in 1919. 
We used only two of the cars, a Fierce-Arrow and Uncle 
John's favorite 1924 Rolls-Royce touring car. 

With all this I was terribly pressed to find cash to buy our 
groceries— our credit with the local merchants was nil. Out on 
the rejungled keys were piles of hardware from the old 
Waldorf Astoria and vast supplies of plumbing— bathtubs, 
toilets, and other fixtures— intended for the Sarasota Ritz- 
Carlton. We survived by selling these piecemeal for the new 
buildings that were beginning to spring up in Sarasota. I be- 
came a very good salesman of sewer pipe. 

Another source of revenue was big piles of Spanish tiles on 
the grounds of Ca' d'Zan. While the house was being built 
Uncle John had gone to Barcelona, where a lot of old build- 
ings were being torn down. He had bought the softly weath- 
ered tiles from the roofs and sent two shiploads of them direct 
to Port Tampa. That was more than was needed for Ca' 
d'Zan and the museum. We ate off the proceeds from the rest. 

A thing that troubled me greatly was the deterioration of 
the paintings in that sea-damp climate. Varnish was cracking 
and paint peeling off. Though the museum was open and 
some money came in through tlie turnstiles, it was not enough 
to keep the place staffed, let alone keeping it up. So I bought 
or borrowed books from the library and studied a quarterly 


technical paper from Harvard University, giving myself a 
how-to-do-it course in art restoration. Then I went through 
the museum, the house, and the storage vaults carefully clean- 
ing the paintings that seemed most in need of it, stripping 
and re varnishing those whose varnish had cracked, patching 
weakened canvases, and gluing back peeling patches of paint. 

It makes my curly hair stand straight up to think back on 
messing with works of art that are the heritage of all man- 
kind. But it was better to have a dub get some good mucilage 
and stick the paint back on than to lose it altogether. Uncle 
John was very pleased with me. 

The extraordinary thing about our penury was that it was 
all unnecessary. In spite of the crippling restrictions placed 
on John Ringling's resources. Brother John worked out 
several deals that would have relieved us; only to lose them 
through Uncle John's fatal suspicion and indecision. One time 
Johnny came to him with a firm oflFer from one of the big oil 
companies of $200,000 cash and 25 per cent of the gross to 
be allowed to sink a well on one of his unencumbered oil 
properties. Uncle John said furiously, "Those crooks are tiy- 
ing to steal my oil." 

The oflFer was good for sixty days. Just after it expired Uncle 
John decided to accept it. He was too late. 

One would tliink that, subject to such frustrations, the life 
of a young man in a great empty, fading mansion with an 
elderly invalid who was facing ruin would be distinctly grim. 
The contrary was true. It had for me a curious kind of charm. 
Of course, I had many young friends in Sarasota, with whom 
I occasionally went out, but in the main I was tied pretty 
closely to the house. It was Uncle John himself who made it 

This, again, came from that thought-compartmented mind 
of his which could lock out not only monetary difficulties but 
also the evident signs of failing health. He was as gay a com- 


panion as though the sap of youth were boihng through his 
veins and the money were rolHng in. He even threw off a 
near-fatal heart attack he had in 1934 without losing his 
nerve, or his verve. 

In the evening we would dine in the loggia, looking 
through tall windows at silvered waters with a quarter moon 
sinking over Longboat Key. The china we ate from was 
delicate spode; the glasses were Venetian crystal; the wines 
were light and dry; and the food, however hardly come by, 
was delicious. My uncle was a perfectionist at table and I 
reckon that I inherited some of his taste. My mother, as I 
have said, was a master of Alsatian cookery. There was noth- 
ing my uncle liked better than to have dinner at our house, 
when she would cook for him all those dishes he had loved 
from the time they were children together. 

At Ca' d'Zan I would push him into the cavernous kitchen 
in his wheel chair and he would sit there directing operations 
while Miss Saunders and I prepared the food. With this and 
that I became quite an accomplished chef. 

But the best part of the meal came when we lighted our 
cigars and sipped our coffee and liqueurs while Uncle John 
bubbled with the fun of living, clowning outrageously for our 
benefit. One night, when his divorce proceedings from Emily 
were in full swing, the telephone rang. It was long distance 
calling "Mrs. John Ringling." Uncle John screwed his face up 
in a wonderfully woebegone expression and said, "Tell them 
that Annie doesn't live here anymore." 

During these sessions he told hilarious tales of the old times 
and made witty comments on current affairs. These were the 
early days of the New Deal, when Franklin Roosevelt's 
liberal leadership offered plenty of opportunity for amusingly 
acrid comments by an old die-hard who believed that the 
income tax was unconstitutional; and did not pay a cent of 
it for the last ten years of his life. 


However reactionary his political views, there were many 
nuggets of real wisdom and insight gleaming through my 
uncle's conversation. I remember him saying of my brother, 
"The trouble with Johnny is that every time he gets fifty cents 
he thinks he's a millionaire." This, of course, was perfectly 
true, but on the other hand, it was Johnny's ineradicable opti- 
mism that eventually made him a millionaire. 

A bit of prudent advice from Uncle John on business tactics 
was "Never go after a Masai warrior with a buggy whip." 

On another occasion he said, "Don't put your faith in 
receiving gold coins from the little bluebirds— they are 
definitely more prone to drop an entirely different sort of 

One of my uncle's great pleasures and mine was to have me 
wheel him tlii-ough the museum, stopping before his favorite 
pictures while he reveled in their radiance and made illumi- 
nating critical comments. Guercino's rendition of Joseph's 
spurning of Potiphar's opulently proportioned wife invariably 
provoked my uncle to remark, "What a chump!" Never one 
to defer his judgment to the experts, he always made me stop 
in front of a certain painting. Unfailingly he remarked, "They 
say it's not, but I am convinced it's an early Titian." And 
years later it was authenticated as such by no less an 
authority than Dr. Wilhelm Suida. 

Certainly his judgment had frequently been vindicated, 
as once when he was walking past a small art shop in New 
York and a picture in the window caught his eye. There was 
something about the painting of tlie head that rang a bell in 
his brain. He bought it for $200. When the overpainting was 
scraped off, it turned out to be a Tintoretto, which was valued 
by the appraisers of his estate at $50,000. 

And how he would have chuckled at having overruled 
Boehler and bought the Duke of Westminster's Rubens for 
$150,000 if he could have known tliat in 1959 the Duke's 


"Adoration of the Magi" by the great Flemish master was 
sold at auction in London for $770,000. 

Perhaps the finest times we had together were our long 
automobiles rides. Uncle John, who seldom forgot anything, 
might say to me, "There is a wonderful royal pomciana tree 
south of Fort Myers that must be in bloom now. I'd like to see 
it once again." 

So we would drive a hundred miles or so to see a tree. 
And well worth it! 

This brings me to what was almost our last drive together. 
It was just before the cloud of suspicion was aroused in his 
failing mind that broke the close bonds between him and 
my brother and me. I shall write of that in a later chapter, but 
not here. For Brother John expressed our feelings about it 
when he said, "Nothing that Uncle John did or said in the 
last six months of his life makes any difference. What counts 
is the years before." 

The ride came about when Uncle John looked up from the 
local paper and said, "The Cole Brothers Circus is going to 
parade in Pensacola next Thursday. I'd like to see it." 

It was fifteen years since either of us had seen a circus 
parade. When we combined the shows, "The Big One" proved 
too monstrous to parade. The last time we did it, in 1919, the 
three-mile-long line of tableau wagons, cages, band wagons, 
elephants, horses, clowns, and steam calliopes snarled up 
traffic for hours. In one parade, only the spectacular driving 
of Jake Posey at the reins of the forty-horse hitch of the band 
wagon averted a massacre when the brakes failed on the 
seven-ton vehicle with its iron-shod wheels. The horses began 
to run down Beacon Hill in Boston like a cavahy charge to- 
ward the crowd massed at the end. No one, not even Posey 
himself, knew how he managed to turn that torrent of horse- 
flesh safely around the comer at the bottom of the hill. 

On the appointed day I drove Uncle Jolm in the open 


Rolls to Pensacola. There was a small hotel with a second- 
story balcony overlooking the main street, and I arranged a 
comfortable chair on it for my uncle. While we waited he 
sat absolutely silent staring down at the gathering crowd— 
the small boys running about and roughhousing, parents and 
just people buying pennants and whips and those familiar 
whirly birds from the vendors, little girls in frilly dresses star- 
ing big-eyed up the cleared roadway, and the inevitable 
mongrel pups dashing madly back and forth. I was silent, too, 
with a rising sense of excitement mixed with sometliing like 
dread of nostalgia too bitter to be borne. 

The thump of a drum and a wind-borne blast of music 
brought a complete hush. Just like the kids, I was straining 
my eyes up tlie street. I saw the eight horses with nodding 
plumes of the band wagon round the corner. Then the full 
blast of sound hit us, tlie gay, raucous blare of brass playing 
circus music. It got louder and louder and behind the tootling 
musicians I could see red-and-gold howdahs rolling and 
pitcliing on the stately gray backs of the elephants. 

As the procession passed beneath us my professional eyes 
automatically noted certain deficiencies— gold paint flaking 
from gaudy tableau wagons, spangles missing from worn 
costumes, the decrepit condition of a tired Bengal tiger. And 
these things did not matter at all. I was almost choking with 
excitement, my eyes riveted on the spectacle. Then I tliought 
to look at Uncle John. 

He was sitting absolutely motionless in his chair and tears 
were streaming like miniature cascades fi'om his eyes. That 
he could not see that terribly gay scene below him was 
evident; but having been so close to him, I shared his inward 
vision. At no other time would I presume to hypothesize what 
went on in my uncle's mind; but that afternoon I knew. 

As though our brains were meshed together in telepathic 
television, I saw with him the Ringling band led Iw white- 


whiskered Yankee Robinson come down Broadway in Bara- 
boo— Al and Alf T., Charles blowing mightily on his trombone, 
and Otto lambasting the big bass drum. And capering along 
with a French horn wound around his shoulder, a gangling 
young musician-clown . . . 

I saw the heavy work teams and the farmer boys guiding 
our spring wagons with their pathetic homemade decorations. 
Then, in an Einsteinian relativity of time, the procession 
lengthened. There went the ferocious, man-eating hyena, the 
dusty brown bear, and the glowering bald eagle; elk, lions, 
monkeys, a deer; Aunt Louise wrapped in a boa constrictor; 
and, very proudly, Babylon and Fannie, those first ponderous 

Time accelerated and vision overlapped. Now came a 
multi-team hitch of horses that filled the whole thoroughfare 
from curb to curb, pulling a crimson-and-gold band wagon 
as long as a railroad car with thirty musicians playing for 
dear life. A herd of forty elephants in gorgeous trappings 
with gorgeous girls on their backs went past; a white horse 
curvetting all alone carried young Ella Bradna, while further 
back rode a schoolgirl named May Wirth. Smiling from a 
splendid carriage was little Leitzel. Another stream of horses 
drew the Bell Wagon, its carillon chiming sweetly after the 
noise of the band. Clowns cavorted along, led by old Herman; 
cage after cage of sleek, pacing jungle beasts were followed 
by the open dens with tamer creatures— Louise the hippo, 
and Katy, bowing her long reticulate neck. More and ever 
more magnificent tableau wagons, iron wheels rumbling on 
cobblestones; riding on them, glimpsed for only an instant 
but with brilhant clarity, familiar faces— young radiant 
faces . . . 

Then, blasting us with its cacophony until the buildings 
seemed to rock, came the biggest steam calliope of them all. 

Time stopped. The real calliope was passing out of sight 


followed by a swarming mass of children young and old. 
Uncle John pushed himself out of his chair with enormous 
difficulty, and clung to my shoulder. "Time to go home, 
Buddy," he said. 

On December 2, 1936, John Ringling died. He had $311 in 
the bank. His estate was ofiBcially appraised at $23,500,000. 


Part IV 



In following the fortunes and misfortunes of Uncle John, the 
personal aflFairs of my brother and me have been left behind. 
What we were doing while the main narrative proceeded to 
its almost Aeschylean conclusion is important only in its bear- 
ing on what we, and more particularly John, did later, and to 
show the impact of the circus on our private hves. 


As to Brother John, then. He had curly dark hair and 
piercing hazel eyes under heavy brows. His powerful stocky 
body radiated vitality. He looked more than a little like Uncle 
John, with a dash of the Black Irish to him. 

In his youth he was a genuine romantic. In fact, despite 
his hard-boiled exterior, he still is one; otherwise he would 
have taken the easy, sensible way out and no show would 
now have the right to call itself The Greatest on Earth. 

As a young man, John fell in and out of love with the same 
apparent ease tliat Cadona flew through the air. There was 
the time he loved a lass in the circus. The lass was May Wirth, 
who gave him lessons in bareback riding when he was twelve. 
Unfortunately he sprained his ankle, and there ended a 
promising equestrian career. 

In a more adult state, but before his position became so 
powerful as to make him follow Uncle John's precept that 
trifling with performers was unsporting, he loved another 
circus girl and nearly broke his neck. He was riding the train 
on a long night haul. The cars were not connected like 
ordinary Pullmans, and if you desired to visit someone in 
another part of the train, you waited until it stopped and 
then ran like a son of a gun alongside until you reached the 
fair one's car. Johnny had paid his call and it was time to 
retire to the staff car, where he bunked. The train stopped in 
a deserted countryside and John got off and started running 
tlirough the darkness alongside the rails. Suddenly solid 
ground vanished. He caught the end of a tie as he dropped, 
and found himself hanging under the train on a trestle over 
a gorge. The only lesson this taught him was to wait until 
the train reached a station. 

When John turned twenty-one he was in love with a girl 
named Anne. Her claim to fame is that he composed the first of 
his many lovely songs to her. Oddly enough, it was called 


As he passed the magic milestone that made him officially 
a man John went to Baraboo to collect a legacy of $20,000, 
which Uncle Al had left him. His plan was to return to New 
York and marry Amie. Instead, he met Jane Connelly of 
Connellsville, Pennsylvania; Jane was visiting her amit, who 
was married to our family physician. Dr. Dan Kelly of Bara- 
boo. They were married without giving it too great thought 
in 1924, Since in those days Yale students were not permitted 
to marry, John left college at the beginning of his jimior year. 

Jane was a very nice girl— in fact, all tlie women we have 
ever married were. Blame our matrimonial failures on our- 
selves if you like, for they were not the ladies' fault. Or blame 
them on the circus. It was probably half and half. This, 
though, I will repeat: to be happily married to a cii-cus man, 
a girl must be part gypsy. Whether hereditarily or merely 
figuratively, all the great circus people who Hved and loved 
and raised fine families with the show had more than a drop of 
Romany blood in their veins. 

John and Jane had a lovely long honeymoon. It lasted six 
months. He went through the $20,000 in that time. Then he 
had that lucrative year as a real-estate salesman in the Florida 
boom, during which he came to New York and sold Texas 
Guinan a lot for $5000— Hello, suckerl 

However, each summer he went off on the circus train for 
six to eight months. Once Jane went with him, but she could 
not stand a hfe to which she was so unaccustomed and in 
which she could take no active part. So, in sum total, they 
spent about four months a year together. It was not enough. 
They were divorced in 1927. 

Now, it is not to be supposed that after his divorce John 
led a celibate existence. Far, very far, from it. Life with the 
circus is hardly conducive to that. (Later, when he was in 
Wall Street, he was more noted for his taste in beauty than 
his acumen in finance.) Thus, in an astonishing maimer he 


eventually reversed the life cycle of the Lepidoptera. From 
an emperor moth fluttering in the spotlights of a hundred 
night clubs, responsibility turned him into a sort of financial 
caterpillar, whose voracious appetite for, and uncanny ability 
to acquire, the lovely green leaves printed by the United 
States Mint earned him the respect and credit of the banking 
community. However, his mutability included the ability to 
change himself back again each night, when the sun set and 
the baby spots came out over Broadway. He remains a 
nocturnal creature. 

Our sister Salome was twice wedded by this time. She was 
a lively but amiable girl raised in the Ringling tradition of 
female obedience. As she often says, "The only time I diso- 
beyed my mother was when I got married while she was out 

Sally's first husband was Lieutenant Roy Biggs Stratton, 
U.S.N., whose bulky build earned him the nickname of Beef. 
He sailed into Sarasota Bay on a destroyer and promptly fell 
in love with my sister. When he sailed on to Port Tampa she 
motored up there with Mother to lunch with him and, quite 
literally, married him while Mother was in Tampa shopping. 

The marriage had Httle chance of perpetuity. Beef was 
away in his ship for months at a time. When he was home on 
leave the young couple Hved with Mother, who despite her 
many virtues was intensely possessive of her family. She made 
poor Beef feel like an intruder. Soon after their daughter, 
Salome, Jr., was born, they were divorced. 

Sally's second marriage was forever. Randolph L. (Duck) 
Wadsworth was— and is— a tall, rangy gentleman from Fort 
Thomas, Kentucky, who was several years older than she. He 
came to Sarasota in 1930. Despite his conventional upbring- 
ing, Duck fitted into the ebullient North family like the last 
piece of a pictme puzzle. Even Motlier loved him. Uncle 


John, who had recently married Emily, oflFered to have the 
wedding at Ca' d'Zan on Christmas night 1930. 

There was a slight difficulty about the ceremony. The 
Episcopal minister refused to marry them because of Sally's 
divorce. The Methodist minister stood on his dignity because 
his colleague had first refusal. Finally, a young Presbyterian, 
who had just been called to the church of that faith in 
Sarasota, agreed to perform the ceremony. 

Duck and Sally talked the arrangements over with him. 
Wadsworth, a stout Episcopalian, said that he would not feel 
truly married with the plain Presbyterian service. The ami- 
able young minister had no objection to using the Episcopal 
form. Then Duck asked, "What are you going to wear?" 

"Since it is in the evening, I thought I would wear my tux." 

Broad-minded though he was, Wadsworth turned a trifle 
pale at the thought of being married by a minister in a "tux." 
"A friend of mine was married by a Presbyterian minister 
who wore his doctor's robes," he suggested tactfully. 

The poor young fellow blushed. "I have not taken my 
doctorate yet," he admitted, "so I have no robes." Then, see- 
ing Wadsworth's consternated expression, he added, "Til try 
to an-ange something." 

He hurried oflF to call on our wonderful Catholic priest, 
Father Elslander, who quickly agreed to provide suitable 

So Salome was married amid the splendor of Ca' d'Zan with 
the Episcopal service said by a Presbyterian minister wearing 
the full canonicals of a Catholic priest. It was a wonderfully 
happy occasion. Most of the hving Ringlings were present, 
and for once they were all speaking to each other. The tri- 
sectarian nature of the ceremony was a good omen, for tliirty 
years later Duck and Sally are as much in love as any two 
people I know. 


For the record, I was first married on New Year's Day 1933. 
No doubt luckily for my young bride, her parents interfered 
before the marriage could be consummated, and it was 

After the break with Uncle John in 1936, I went to work 
for the Chronicle Pubhshing Company in Marion, Indiana, 
under my friend David Lindsay, There I met Ada Mae 
Thornburgh, a lovely petite blonde. We were married in the 1 

autumn of 1936. Ada Mae and I were very happy together J 

until the circus recalled me to her exacting service. " 





In his time John Ringhng made many wills, but I have definite 
knowledge of only the last two and a half. In the first of these 
he left the art Museum and Ca' d'Zan to the state of Florida 
and the residuary estate to his only sister, my mother. About 
1934 Brother John suggested that since, if all the residuary 



estate were left to Mother, the new high inheritance taxes 
would take most of it, he leave only half of it to Mother and 
the rest in trust to Florida to maintain the museum and add 
to the collection. This he did, naming my mother and John 
co-executors of the will, and Randolph Wadsworth, John, and 
myself trustees for the state of Florida. 

Now came our unhappy falling out with Uncle John. My 
brother had proposed that he use a new law firm. Uncle John 
gaily said, "Who is this new mouthpiece you're bringing me?" 
and agreed. 

However, a little later, when the new lawyers demanded 
that he post security for their ultimate fee, Uncle Jolin flew 
into one of his towering rages and blamed John bitterly for 
"this horrible mistake." He evidently felt that I shared John's 
guilt by association, for while he was still fuming. Uncle John 
had Eugene Garey of Garey and Garey draw a codicil to his 
will specifically cutting John and me off— though we had 
never been legatees— and reducing Mother's legacy to $5000 
a year for life. However, nothing was said about new 

Later still. Uncle John was sued by the first firm for a large 
fee. My brother testified on his uncle's behalf, and he won. 
After that Uncle John told a mutual friend of ours that he had 
torn up the codicil. 

However, none of us ever saw my uncle ahve again. It is 
my belief that during those last months we were deUberately 
kept apart. He was tired and sick and a prey to suspicions, 
which may well have been famied by the jealous people who 
surrounded him. Whether this be true or not, I agree with 
my brother that whatever he did then should not affect our 
feehngs for him. 

That was the situation when Uncle John died. It was typical 
of his shifting suspicions that after tlie funeral that infernal 


codicil turned up in the office of still another lawyer, whom 
he had secretly employed. 

I shall never forget the day we were smnmoned to this 
gentleman's office to hear it read. It may have been my 
imagination, but he seemed to take an evil glee in our dis- 

Naturally we were grieved by it. I do not expect to be 
believed when I say that this feeling was more because it 
showed our loss of Uncle John's affection than because of the 
money; but diis statement will seem more plausible if I add 
that at this time we did not think there would be any money 
left after the bequest to Florida. 

However, we had our moment of triumph. John handed 
a copy of the will, of which tlie document we had just heard 
was a codicil, to the lawyer, who had never seen it, and asked 
him to read it. When he came to provisions naming John and 
Mother co-executors, and myself a trustee, he looked abso- 
lutely thunderstruck. The codicil had no effect on that. So 
we Norths were struck out of inheriting what seemed un- 
hkely to be worth anything, but given the whole responsi- 
bility for the administration of the estate, together with the 
large executor's fee. 

What a welter of imbroglios resulted! There were at least a 
hundred lawsuits pending against my uncle when he died. 
Soon a whole new crop arose. Emily sued for her widow's 
tliird— she had previously waived her dower rights. Nine 
Ringlings, headed by Robert, sued to have Jolm and Mother 
ousted as executors on the grounds that the codicil indicated 
John Ringling's intention to cut them out of the will and left 
the disposition of Mother's original bequest unclear. Lots of 
other people got into the act, and on top of it all the United 
States Government put foi-ward a claim for $13,500,000 for 
estate taxes and unpaid income taxes. 

John Ringling North, aged thhty-tliree, with the reputation 


of a playboy and a contested claim to be executor of the 
estate, was the only hope of averting utter chaos, and 
incidentally, of saving the circus. It looked as though he did 
not have a chance. 

I very much doubt if John himself knows how he got 
through the next year. Looking back, it seems to me that in 
three hundred and sixty-five days tliere were at least a thou- 
sand crises, which works out at about three a day. Of course, 
twenty-four hours sometimes passed without any new emer- 
gency, but on really busy days we had at least ten. John met 
them by a combination of bluff bravado, ruthless determi- 
nation, and some of the fanciest financial footwork since the 
Mississippi Bubble. 

In his maneuvers John had extremely able assistance from 
Leonard G. Bisco of Newman and Bisco. He was attorney for 
the Manufacturers Trust Company, which held a personal 
loan from John Ringling for $200,000 made back in the lush 
days. John liad met Bisco when he was helping Uncle John 
stave off bankruptcy and he had proved very helpful. John 
asked Bisco to handle an appeal case in New York. When 
he won, John appointed him general counsel for the estate. 
Meanwhile I had given up my job in Indiana and come East 
to act as John's assistant. Because the worse things got, the 
less Uncle John wished to know about them, his books and 
records in Florida were in a state of confusion that would 
have baffled Univac. John engaged James A. Haley, a Sarasota 
accountant, for the herculean task of ordering this chaos. 
Haley did an excellent job, but added another comphcation 
to this tangled tale. 

In dealing with the multiple lawsuits we adopted tlie tactics 
by which the foxy old Roman General Fabius wore Hamii- 
bal's armies down— delay after delay, and never, if possible, 
coming to grips with the enemy. In this way we exhausted 


many of the litigants until they were willing to settle on easy 

But where offensive action was possible, John moved with 
a daring that would have been foolhardy had our case not 
been so desperate. One of his strategic coups was not to fight 
the codicil, but to probate it uncontested. This put the state 
of Florida on our side— a powerful ally. Since practically the 
entire estate was a charitable bequest, we claimed that this 
knocked out the federal government's right to estate taxes. 
Naturally, Florida backed us ardently. Eventually John was 
able to settle with the government for $850,000. As Leonard 
Bisco put it, "That thirteen million was only a telephone 
number. There was no real basis for it." 

When we came to look into the affairs of the circus we 
were appalled. With a $2,500,000 gross in 1929, Uncle John 
had cleared nearly $1,000,000. The total net for five years 
under Gumpertz's management was only $300,000 on a gross 
of over $20,000,000 from the Ringling show and all its sub- 
sidiaries. Furthermore, in order to get even this meager re- 
turn, everything had been allowed to run down. Wagons and 
cars were shabby and unpainted; the quahty of the perform- 
ance had deteriorated because penny-pinching salaries failed 
to attract first-class new acts; even the big cats and other 
animals looked mangy. All this was reflected in loss of 
patronage. By 1937 the circus was losing money like a broken 
hydrant gushing water. As has often been the case since 
ancient Rome, people said the circus was done for. They 
would be proved right unless something were done fast. 

Saving it and gaining control of it by hook or crook became 
my brother's main motivation, as it still is. Whether by 
hereditary or environmental influence, he was dedicated to 
this purpose almost to the point of fanaticism. As will be seen, 
he recklessly sacrificed far more lucrative assets, throwing oil 
wells, lands, and other sohd cargo overboard to lighten the 


leaky ship. No rules bound him. Had he seen such tactics in 
the prize ring, the Marquis of Queensbury would have 

On November 6, 1937, the circus note to Allied Owners and 
New York investors would become due. It had been some- 
what reduced, but still amounted to approximately $850,000. 
The banking groups were as anxious as ever to take control of 
the Combined Shows. Not only would they give us no time, 
but they stood on every technicality in an endeavor to grab 
it. Although by now John Ringling's estate had been ap- 
praised at $23,500,000, there was virtually no cash in the till. 
Almost all the assets were still frozen as collateral for the note; 
and the federal government was still suing for that thirteen 
milhon. November 6 rushed upon us with the inevitability of 
an avalanche. 

Late in October not even hope was left. It was then that 
John went to pay a caU on his friend Harvey Gibson of the 
Manufacturers Trust Company. He was quickly shown into 
Mr. Gibson's walnut-paneled office. He walked across the 
deep pile rug with his bouncy, confident stride and greeted 
the banker with his open-faced Irish charm working at full 

When they were seated, Mr. Gibson asked, "Well, Johnny, 
what can I do for you?" 

"Lend me a million dollars," said John. 

Without the quiver of an eyeUd Mr. Gibson said, "Just give 
me the facts, Johnny." 

John gave him the facts and figures wdth a command of 
convincing detail that must have impressed the banker. 
John's proposition was that the Manufacturers Trust should 
lend the Ringling estate $950,000 to pay off the circus note 
and take care of some other minor matters. This would not 
only reclaim the circus but get all the collateral out of hock 
and enable the executors to dispose of the assets, which were 
at least twenty-three times tlie value of the loan. 


This in brief was the plus side of John's case. Against him, 
besides his youth and rafiBsh reputation, were all those law- 
suits and the federal government's gigantic claim. 

"What makes you think that the circus can still make 
money?" Mr. Gibson asked. 

"If I run it, it will," John said confidently. 

"Are you going to run it?" the banker asked. 

"If I can't get my relatives to agree to that, the deal's off," 
John said. 

"I beheve you," said Mr. Gibson. 

He sent for Bisco and asked him whether, in view of the 
htigation, "we will come out all right." 

Bisco, bless his black heart, said, "Yes." 

Then Gibson said, "Yes," provided Edith and Aubrey 
Ringling agreed. 

If that was John's greatest piece of salesmanship, his great- 
est stroke of diplomacy followed. His aunt and his cousin 
were inclined to think of him as an ally of Uncle John's against 
them, which was the truth. To make an agreement placing 
him in charge of the circus for five years or imtil the note was 
paid off was abhorrent to them. In fact, it sounded crazy. 
John told them that it was the only chance of the Ringlings 
keeping control of the great institution which they had 

Whatever may have been oin: differences before or since. 
Aunt Edith and Cousin Aubrey had strong family feelings. 
Though Ringlings by marriage only, they were completely 
imbued with oiu: tremendous loyalty to The Greatest Show 
on Earth. Among ourselves we might fight like alley cats; but 
for our circus we stood together against the world. John's 
evident emotion and total sincerity overcame their prejudice. 
With shghtly wry faces they swallowed the pill, bit the bullet; 
and signed on the dotted hne. 

On the other hand, the banking groups fought to the end. 
Even after the loan was repaid, their representative refused 


to resign from Rmgling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey's board of 
directors. Their lo per cent of the stock was entitled to special 
voting privileges by the fatal agreement Uncle John had 
made with them. We finally signed a contract with them for 
the circus to purchase their lo per cent ( lOO shares ) holding 
of its stock for $137,000, paying $52,000 down and giving 
them its note for $85,000. They were to hold the stock as 
collateral, but since it was no longer in their name they could 
not vote it. 

A Httle later the bankers got their comeuppance. The circus 
was in such bad financial shape that it could not meet the 
second payment on the note. John consulted Bisco, who ad- 
vised, "Let them keep the stock. The voting trust was broken 
by its sale, so it won't do them any good." 

Later still, New York Investors went into bankruptcy. Bisco 
bought their 18 shares of Ringling stock for $3000. At the 
same time he secured a ninety-day option to purchase the 
82 shares held by Alhed Owners for $25,000. Thus, the cost 
of the whole 100 shares was $28,000. "I bought them in my 
own name," Bisco says, "but I wanted them for Johnny." 

At a meeting with Edith, Aubrey, and Robert Ringling, 
Bisco persuaded them to let John have 70 shares while they 
divided the remaining 30. This insignificant 7 per cent of the 
stock was the small beginning of John RingHng North's hold- 
ings in Ringhng Brothers-Barnum & Bailey's Combined 

After we first got rid of the bankers, the circus stock was 
held as follows: 

Edith Conway Ringling 300 shares (30%) 

Aubrey Ringling 300 shares (30%) 

Estate of John RingHng (voted 
by John Ringling North, Execu- 
tor) 300 shares (30% ) 

Treasury stock ( not voted ) 100 shares ( 10 % ) 


According to our voting trust agreement, Aubrey and 
Edith, though holding 60 per cent of the stock, were entitled 
to only three directors on the board. John was entitled to 
name three directors. The seventh director, with the deciding 
vote, was William P. Dunn, Jr., of the Manufacturers Trust 
Company. The new board elected John Ringling North 
president of the circus. I was elected vice-president and 
assistant to tlie president. 

Thus, in a few hectic weeks John achieved his first great 
ambition— absolute control of the management of the circus. 
And as yet he owned not a share of stock in it, since his 
purchase of 7 per cent came later. Putting him in charge was 
a splendid gamble on the part of our relatives and the 
Manufacturers Trust Company, It was a tremendous chal- 
lenge to him. His task was to pull a disintegrating, has-been 
institution out of its doldrums and make it once again The 
Greatest Show on Earth. Johnny never doubted for a moment 
that he could do it. 



In taking command of the circus my brother and I did not 
rush blindly into a situation and improvise a solution. In the 
middle of all the legal sound and fuiy we had been doing 
some very hard thinking. In the course of it we had developed 
a philosophy of circus showmansliip to fit the new age in 


which we were Hving. We were very harshly criticized for 
modernizing the show. The hard-shells and nostalgics said 
that we had ruined it. We were even criticized for making it 
less odoriferous. Well, people may think they want bad 
smells, but I am willing to bet odds on that, if we were to put 
those awful stinks back just as they used to be, these same 
people would yell the house down through closely held 

As we saw it, the mood of the American people was vastly 
different in the thirties from what it was in the rip-roaring 
twenties. Then they had felt themselves hurtling forward into 
a future of irresistible progress. So they looked fondly over 
their shoulders at a seemingly serene past. Progress had been 
stopped dead by the depression; and the zest had gone out 
of hving. The mood now was one of Weltschmerz, world-woe. 
The past was thoroughly discredited by the hardships of the 
present. In their stagnation, people looked, not too hopefully, 
to the future. They sought a "new deal," a Brave New World. 

Another thing. The generation that had been raised on 
the tinsel glitter of the old-fashioned circus, and had taken 
their children to see it in an effort to recapture the past, had 
moved on. The young parents who now brought their cliildien 
to the circus had been raised on more sophisticated entertain- 
ment, and their children were more sophisticated than they. 
Automobiles and movies, to which color and sound had just 
been added, had done that. People expected more entertain- 
ment, more value, for their money. You just could not oflPer 
them the tired old stuff and expect to get away with it. 

What John and I tried to do was to cater to this new 
sophistication wliile keeping the best of the old circus. We 
wanted to give our audiences beauty and style; well-designed, 
harmonious costumes; artistic lighting; the big, handsome 
production numbers they had become accustomed to; and a 
miity of theme instead of a hodgepodge of mn^elated acts. 


At the same time we had no intention of losing the magnifi- 
cently exciting atmosphere of wild animals, elephants, aeri- 
alists, equestrians, and clowns that made the circus a unique 
form of entertainment. Above all, we thought it needed an 
infusion of Barnumesque showmanship tuned to the age of 

Our aim, then, was something added but nothing lost. 
Inevitably we fell short of perfection. Something was lost; but 
a great deal was gained. I am sure that we were right, and 
that had we not done as we did, Ringhng Brothers-Barnum & 
Bailey Combined Shows would have ended, not with a bang, 
but, in the pessimistic words of the poet, "with a whimper." 

The first year we ran tlie show, 1938, we had so short a 
time that we could not make too many changes. What we 
could do was to give it unity and glamour. To design it we 
engaged Charles Le Maire, who had mounted The Ziegfeld 
Follies and George White's Scandals. He was rightfully 
billed in the program as "the noted master of color tone and 
exquisite fabrics." 

Until that time the performers in the different acts had 
brought their own costumes. John changed that by supplying 
them with costumes especially designed for harmonious 
effects in all the tliree rings and four stages. He also intro- 
duced what, I beheve, was an original contribution to circus 
entertainment. The aerial ballet, a production number with 
sixty beautifully costumed girls performing acrobatics high 
above the arena on the webs.* 

And we did add showmanship. In this connection John 
pulled off two coups tliat were worthy of the old master him- 
self. The first was to hire Frank Buck at a salary of $1000 a 
week, along with a private car— how the stockholders howled 
over that. But Buck was worth the money. He was at die 

" Canvas-covered ropes suspended from swivels. 



height of his reputation as the apotheosis of the white hunter 
and about the last of the truly glamourous adventurer types, 
in the tradition of Livingstone, Stanley, and Paul du Chaillu, 
to come out of darkest Africa. 

I shall never forget the day he reported at Winter Quarters 
in Sarasota. So great was his prestige that the performers were 
in a dither and even the blase waiters in the cookhouse were 
excited. The head chef sent all the way to Tampa for a steak 
fit to serve so robust a character. 

When Frank came into the cookhouse with us, everybody 
was standing up or jumping on benches to get a better look. 
The chef bustled out in his tall white hat and asked very def- 
erentially, "How would you like your steak, Mr. Buck? Very 
rare, I suppose." 

Frank looked up at him and said apologetically, "My 
stomach's a httle upset today. May I have some milk toast?" 

I almost wept for our chef; all the childlike tragedy of disil- 
lusionment was written on his face. 

We built the show that year around Frank Buck. John 
dreamed up and Charles Le Maire designed an opening spec 
called "Nepal." To quote the florid circusese of the program, 
"It portrays in fantasy, splendor, and exotic opulence the 
royal welcome to 'Bring 'Em Back Alive' Frank Buck by the 
Maharajah of Nepal and his native court." 

Frank, in his famous pith helmet, was to arrive riding on 
a hunting elephant in a basket howdah, accompanied by a 
wildly picturesque train of native hunters and beaters, danc- 
ing girls garlanded with hibiscus and wild orchids, and an 
odd assortment of jimgle animals, including Lotus, the hip- 
popotamus and Edith the giraffe. The Maharajah was no 
slouch when it came to oriental splendor. He awaited Frank 
on his magnificently caparisoned state elephant, surrounded 
by maharanis, ghttering native princesses, guards, and a 
troop of dancing girls in diaphanous saris. Supposedly he had 


managed, too, to borrow a troop of Bengal Lancers from the 
British Government. 

The Indian-jmigle theme was carried throughout most of 
the show. Even Merle Evans' band wore Bengal Lancer uni- 
forms. A special feature was Terrell Jacobs in the center arena 
witli twelve particularly vicious black panthers— supplied by 
Frank Buck, of course. No one had ever dared to handle so 
large a group of those beasts before. Terrell was a rough-and- 
ready character who had lost one eye to a Hon. His was the 
old-fashioned, brutal, wliip-and-pistol technique that I hate; 
but he was very, very brave. 

The only big non-oriental feature was the second produc- 
tion number, a beautiful pageant based on Disney's Snow 
White and the Seven Dwarfs. The latter, of course, were 
played by our famous group of httle people. 

When the time came to start North in 1938, we felt we had 
a show that justified its resounding title. In order to build up 
the traditional aspects of it, John had engaged the two great- 
est equestrian acts in the world, the Christianis and the 
Loyal-Repenski troupe. He was warned that these two eques- 
trian families had feuded for generations like the Hatfields 
and tlie McCoys, but this did not deter him. 

I was very fond of the Christianis, who now have a circus 
of their own. They were a great big family— it took half a rail- 
road car to transport them. There were Poppa and Mamma 
Christiani, six sons, and five daughters, all in the act. Cosetta, 
the second sister, was a wonderful girl and a great acrobat. 
Just to give you an idea of how nice a circus girl could be to 
have around, I will tell you about one night when I took 
Cosetta out to dinner at Max's in New York after the show. 
A drunk came into the crowded room and stumbled over my 
long legs. Instead of apologizing, he belligerently offered to 
knock my block off. 


I thought I'd have to do something about it, but before I 
could make a move, Cosetta was up hke a flash. She grabbed 
the drunk by the collar, lined him up, and let him have a 
right to the jaw that knocked him over two tables. "Nothing 
to worry about. Buddy," she said as she sat down. 

The Christianis did some tremendously spectacular bare- 
back riding. The climax of their act came when five of the 
brothers ran at a galloping horse, leaped in unison, and 
landed standing on the animal's back. A variation of this was 
all five boys making the same amazing jump and landing 
astride the rosin-back. 

In addition to the equestrian acts, we had the Flying 
Concellos, who, as I have said, were the only man-and-wife 
aeriahst team who could both do the triple somersault from 
the swinging bar to the hands of the catcher. Antoinette 
ConceUo was a lovely person, pretty and graceful. Her 
husband, ArthiK, though below medium height, was an enor- 
mously strong, wiry, tough-talking fellow with a brilliant 
mind and surprising executive abihty. He owned a school for 
aeriahsts in Bloomington, Illinois, where he trained young- 
sters and put other aerial acts together. When he stopped 
flying in 1942, John made him general manager of the circus. 
He is still general manager of the Combined Shows. 

The Wallendas were with us still, and we had added 
WiUiam Heyer, the master of manege, who also had a won- 
derful troupe of hberty horses, and Ralph Clark, who jumped 
two horses Roman standing style over a flaming automobile. 

Begging and borrowing the money to do the job, we com- 
pletely refurbished the physical aspects of the show. Every- 
thing was repainted and regilded until it blazed with glorious 
ghtter. Like everything else, the old Jomar had been allowed 
to go to seed. John had it redecorated for us. 

Whenever the papers want to make a story out of John's 
Medicean splendors they play up his magnificent private car. 


Actually, as a place to live eight months of the year, com- 
biaed with an oflRce from which to run a multimillion-dollar 
business, it was barely adequate. There was a sitting room at 
the rear with a couple of easy chairs, two settees, a glass- 
topped coflFee table, and a small icebox-bar. Then came a sin- 
gle room followed by Uncle John's double stateroom con- 
necting by a bath with Aunt Mable's single. Beyond that was 
a small dining room with a wall table that seated five people 
comfortably or seven jammed together. A small serving 
pantry, kitchen, and the chef's and valet's quarters com- 
pleted the picture. 

All the crimson draperies, glass beads, lace curtains, and 
fretwork, which had delighted Uncle John, were ripped out 
when the ceilings were lowered for air conditioning. We put 
in severely fmictional furniture and plain pine cabinets and 
lockers. The color scheme was pale green and cream. Such 
was the austere scene of those alleged Lucullan revels. We 
jazzed it up later by hanging over the dining room a charming 
fantasy of a bobbed-haired Lady Godiva dismounting after 
her ride assisted by two flamboyant Negro mammies and a 
blindfolded stableboy, which Charles Baskerville painted for 
John in honor of a dehghtfully disgraceful incident at tire 
World's Fair of 1939. 

As in Baraboo long ago, the departure of the circus train 
was a great event in Sarasota. For the first two stands, in Mad- 
ison Square Garden and the Boston Garden, we used only 
two sections— the other two, carrying the Big Top and forty- 
one other tents, the tent crews, transport wagons, and three 
hundred work horses, would join us when we went under can- 
vas in Brooklyn. The first train had the flats with the tableau 
wagons, floats, props, and the roaring, howling, grunting, 
braying, hissing, screeching menagerie. Fifty elephants were 
jammed side by side in tliree large cars. The precious ring 


stock rode in luxurious box stalls. The giraffes were snugged 
down in odd-shaped well-padded boxes that were underslung 
in the rear to give them enough room. Seals and hippopota- 
muses traveled in their comfortable tanks. 

The second train carried the extra-long sleeping cars for 
the performers and staff and, of course, the Jomar. 

It seemed that all the people of Sarasota and the hinterland 
were there to say good-by. They lined the tracks from Winter 
Quarters to far out on the main line. Mother came down to 
see her two sons off. With the wind whipping his priestly 
robes, Father Elslander, assisted by two acolytes swinging 
censers, blessed tiie trains in sonorous Latin and sprinkled 
them with holy water. 

The first section moved off in a tremendous hubbub of 
shouting people and yowling animals. Then our big engine 
huffed and puffed and the long line of cars painted in glisten- 
ing silver and "Ringling red" began to move. John and I 
swung ourselves aboard the Jomar and Mother called, "Be 
careful in the yards!" 

We slid along between the cheering crowds, with every per- 
former leaning out of windows or crowded on platforms ex- 
changing good-bys and wisecracks with their friends. John 
and I, on the rear platform, were more excited than any of 

When we had left the station behind and were rat- 
tling through the pinewoods, we retired to the bar for a much 
needed drink. As we toasted each other and The Greatest 
Show on Earth, we were wildly elated, without a thought that 
we were heading for trouble at forty-five miles an hour. 

One of the things that saved us was Gargantua, "The Most 
TeiTifying Creature the World Has Ever Seen." 





Probably the most publicized animal ever shown was Jumbo, 
the huge African elephant that put Bamum in business and 





above: Arthur Concello (left)— a 
great aerialist. right: Arthur 
Concello today as executive director. 






Brother John and I "never trust the cats." (Acme Newspictures Inc.) 

Gargantua, "the most terrifying creature the world has ever seen," John and 
I found in a quiet httle lady's back-yard shed in Brooklyn. 

John's ex-wife, Germaine Aussey, was a French movie star, and a fine horse- 

__ Avi 

The great days in the Big Top (opening spec). (Knickerbocker Pictures) 
The six-pole Big Tops and satellite tents. (Chester Photo Service) 





«. f 


# *W"f, 




-_ ^ ^ 

Loading the menagerie at Winter Quarters. (Steinmetz) 

Alfred Court, greatest of all wild- 
animal trainers, trusted the cats. 

Pinita del Oro, at home 
on the trapeze. 

The great Christianis practicing 
at Winter Quarters. 

The Hartford fire. "The horrors of war paled by comparison." (United Press 
International Photo) 

Coffee cups— the most famous slack- 
wire act. 

Emmett Kelly contemplates the 
S glory that was Ringling. (Steinmetz) 

"That year . 

we traveled 17,117 miles and showed in twenty-seven states.' 

"the world's most terrifying CaElEATURE" 265 

a new word in the English language. In the annals of show- 
manship, Gargantua rims Jumbo a close second. His han- 
dling of the great gorilla showed that Brother John had the 
magic touch and the calculated recklessness tliat a successful 
circus man must have. 

Back in November 1937, when we were still at the Ritz Ho- 
tel in New York anxiously awaiting the issue of the intricate 
negotiations over the future of Ringling Brothers, the tele- 
phone rang one evening. A lady on the other end mtroduced 
herself as Mrs. Lintz. She said she had a full-grown gorilla. 
Would John be interested in buying it for the circus? John 
said, "I certainly would. When can I see it?" 

At this point the lady became somewhat evasive, but finally 
invited us to come to tea at her home m Brooklyn. 

John, who did not yet have control of the circus and only 
a hazardous prospect of getting it, said excitedly, "Buddy, 
we've got to have that gorilla!" 

In a taxicab— John's chauffeur-driven Cadillac was still in 
the equivocal future— we drove to Brooklyn, winding through 
dismal streets of rubber-plant-decorated houses, down into a 
tenement district, and up agaia to a once elegant, water-front 
street. We mounted the brownstone stoop of a mansion of 
faded grandeur straight out of Charles Addams' macabre 
cartoons. A small middle-aged lady let us in, and we sat down 
on rosewood and horsehair chairs to drink tea with her. We 
drank gallons of tea and chatted inconsequentially and 
looked at the magnificent view of the lighted towers of 
Manhattan until we botli began to suspect that we were the 
victims of an old lady's fantasy. 

Finally, John said abruptly, "Now we would like to see the 

Mrs. Lintz fluttered nervously. "Oh, yes, yes. You must see 
the gorilla. We'll go out now." 

She led the way through her big old house, down worn 


stairs to the basement kitchen and across a yard to a shed 
that had once stabled the owner's horses. Inside, one naked 
electric bulb hung from the rafters lighting dust and cobwebs, 
and a man was sitting on a wooden chair. He was introduced 
as the gorilla's keeper, Richard Kroner. 

"Dear little Buddy lives in there," said Mrs. Lintz. 

Tliis was shock number one to me; dear little Buddy 
indeed! So my namesake lived in there. I saw a big rectangu- 
lar wooden box standing on end. It looked something like an 
oversized coffin. The peculiar thing about it was that it was 
braced on three sides by heavy timbers set against the walls 
and one coming down from the ceiling. We learned later tliat 
it was lined with steel. 

"Before you see Buddy, I want to tell you his story," Mrs. 
Lintz said. 

She told the tale which all the world now knows, about a 
baby gorilla being brought from Africa on a ship and some 
disgruntled member of the crew throwing acid in the poor 
httle thing's face, burning it horribly. "I bought him from the 
captain," Mrs. Lintz said. "He thought the gorilla's value was 
ruined and sold him cheap." (Ruined? Heavenly day! That 
acid was worth a million to us. ) 

It seemed that Mrs. Lintz's late husband was a plastic sur- 
geon. He had tried to do some repair work on Buddy without 
too much success. "But he was the sweetest little thing," Mrs. 
Lintz continued. "We all loved him. He used to come into 
the parlor and have tea with me every afternoon," 

"Well, let's see him," said Jolm. 

The front of the box had a slatted sliding door. Kroner 
raised it, revealing iron bars, and behind the bars glowered 
the most fearful face I have ever looked upon. A tremendous 
hairy head, great dripping fangs, and the horrible sinister leer 
of the acid-twisted mouth. In that dim light, cribbed in liis 
box, he looked even bigger than life. Gigantic! 

"the world's most terrifying creature" 267 

While we looked in horror, Mrs. Lintz kept talking about 
how dear and lovable Buddy was, and moving closer to the 
box. Suddenly the whole building shook as the creature 
hurled himself against the bars in a slavering, raging effort to 
get at her. With a shriek in the excruciating key of terror, our 
hostess ran for her life. We saw her no more that day. 

John was absolutely determined to have that gorilla. He 
was eight years old, and very few goJllas had then survived 
that long in captivity. Uncle John had imported two which 
lived only about six months. John figured that if Buddy had 
lasted eight years he was well acclimated. 

Mrs. Lintz was equally determined to sell him. According 
to Kroner, there had been some carelessness a while back, be- 
fore tliey had built up the cage so strongly, and the gorilla 
had gotten out. Mrs. Lintz woke up in the middle of the night 
to find lovable little Buddy in her bedroom. It was enough. 

So John and I bought him for $10,000. We signed tlie con- 
tract with Mrs. Lintz even before we got control of the circus, 
but John said, "We just can't afford to miss having tlie most 
terrifying creature the world has ever seen." 

"All right," I agreed, "but one thing I insist: we're not going 
to have a vice-president of tlie cucus and a gorilla both 
named Buddy." 

"It isn't a good name for a gorilla anyhow," Jolm re- 
marked. "What do you suggest?" 

Still full of my classical education from Yale, I had perhaps 
my brightest flash of inspiration. "Let's call him Gargantua," 
I said. 

Then came the question of getting Gargantua the Great to 
Florida. We did not want any premature publicitv that fall. 
Rather let him burst on the world in his full ferocitv when 
tlie circus went out in the spring. So John called up our 


uncle's old friend Bill Eagan, stationmaster for the Pennsyl- 
vania Railroad. I heard only his end of the conversation: 
"Look, Bill, I want to arrange to take a gorilla down to Sara- 
sota with me on the Orange Blossom Special on December 

There was a long harangue and voluble explanations from 
Eagan. Then I heard John say, "Gorilla, Bill? Who's talking 
about gorillas? You must be hearing things. This is a delicate 
little monkey. The reason I want him to go with us is that 
he'll die of loneliness in a freight car." 

They talked a lot more and Eagan evidently agreed. When 
John hung up he said, "Eagan savs that ever since one of Dr. 
Ditmars' boa constrictors got loose in a Pullman they've 
made a rule against carrying dangerous animals in the bag- 
gage cars of passenger trains. We've got to work this carefully, 

We all got down to the station early. The only newspaper- 
man there was our friend Gladwyn Hill, then of the Associ- 
ated Press and now Los Angeles bureau chief, who had 
promised to hold the story until we were ready. Presently 
Gargantua's huge box arrived, accompanied by Kroner. It 
was carefully placed upright in the baggage car. At this point 
Frank Eagan arrived to see how we were doing. He eyed the 
box balefully. "A small monkey?" he asked. 

"He needs room to exercise," John said. 

Gargantua exercised, and the box shivered and rocked. 

"I think he's feeling chilly," Kroner said. A small diamond- 
shaped hole had been cut in the front of the box. Kroner 
stiiflFed a corner of a full-sized blanket in it. It was whipped 
through like a handkerchief. 

"Small monkey?" said Eagan. 

I was looking hypnotically at the top of the box, where great 
big nails had been driven in and bent over to hold the shutter 
down. Those nails were slowly, incredibly, straightening out. 

"the world's most terrifying creature 269 

Then I looked down and saw eight black fingers as big as 
cigars under the shutter. Wham! It flew up in the air, crashing 
against the roof of the car. Gargantua and Bill Eagan were 
eye to eye. 

At that blessed moment whistles blew, the engine bell 
clanged, and the Orange Blossom Special began to move. Bill 
Eagan jumped for the platform and stood there shaking liis 
fist at Johnny's impudent Irish grin. 

When we got Gargantua to Sarasota we had a wonderful 
time with him. There have been many discussions among an- 
thropologists as to which is the smarter animal, the gorilla 
or tlie chimpanzee. I vote for the gorilla. Gargantua was with- 
out doubt a thinking character. His mind was about equal 
to that of a maliciously capricious moron, and, like a child, 
he loved to play games. Catch was one of his favorites. We 
always used a softball. We would throw it into his cage and 
he would catch it and toss it back underhand. Then all of a 
sudden he would change from toss to throw and wham it at 
your head like a big-league pitcher. You would not want to 
play tliat game witli croquet balls. 

Another game he liked was tug of war. You threw the end 
of a rope into his cage. He took it and you both pulled. Some- 
times he politely let you win, but he could always win if he 
wanted to. Four or five men might get on the other end, and 
Gargantua would take the rope in his hand and wind it 
back under his arm for leverage and jerk them all right off 
their feet. Then he would throw the end of the rope out to 
you because he wanted to play some more. But each time he 
threw it, he would give you a shorter length, trying to lure 
you nearer. Then that son of a gun would try to jerk you close 
enough so he could grab you and bite you. He was a wonder- 
ful animal. 

The moment we released tlie news about him, Gargantua 


became an international celebrity. Arthur Brisbane wrote a 
syndicated column about whether he could beat heavyweight 
champion Gene Tunney. Gene, who was a friend of ours, went 
along with the gag and gave an interview saying that he 
could take Gargantua in nothing flat. But he did not try it. 

A number of scientific people came to Sarasota just to see 
the gorilla, Dr. Yerkes the great anthropologist from Yale 
among them. Another visitor was Bernard Baruch's brother, 
Dr. Sailong Baruch. Dr. Baruch was a distinguished-looking 
man who wore a handsome beard. When we took him to see 
Gargantua it was a tossup as to whether the doctor or the 
gorilla was more interested by the other. Gargantua, who 
had never seen a bearded man before, was absolutely fasci- 
nated. He walked all over his cage studying this phenomenon 
from different angles. Suddenly he made up his mind that he 
didn't like it, and picked up all the loose things in his cage 
and hurled them at the doctor. 

One of the great stories about Gargantua— he made the 
cover of Life, with a double spread inside— came when he bit 
my brother. John was playing with him and got a little too 
close. Gargantua grabbed him in his tremendous grip and be- 
gan biting his arm. John bellowed for help and Dick Kroner 
hurried up and beat the gorilla over tlie head with a pole 
until he let go. 

Did John rush to a hopital with his mangled arm? Yes, but 
not until he had stopped at the advertising car to give the 
news to a palpitating world. Our famous old press agent, 
Roland Butler, released a dispatch stating that John had re- 
ceived "the most massive antitetanus shot ever given to a hu- 
man being." 

John was not too badly bitten, but Roland's round-the- 
world headlines were so bloodcurdling that my brother's cur- 
rent fiancee, a lovely German girl named Carlotta Gertz, 
called liim in the middle of the night from Berlin. When the 

"the world's most terkefying creature" 271 

connection was made she sobbed, "Are you dead, Johnny?" 
He answered, "I'm not dead. I'm talking to you." 
But she kept on repeating, "Are you dead, Johnny? Are you 


Gargantua thrived in Florida, but as the time came to take 
him on the road John became more and more worried. Living 
normally in germfree jungles, gorillas are terribly susceptible 
to human respiratory diseases. We were afraid that 
Gargantua would literally catch his death of cold from the 
circus crowds. As to so many of us, inspiration came to John 
in the still hours; unlike most of us, he did not wait until 
morning to act. Reaching out of bed for the telephone, he 
called his friend Lemuel Bulware of the Carrier Corporation 
in Syracuse, New York. "My God, what are you calling me 
for at thi5 hour?" Lem asked angrily. 

"Cool off," John said. "You'll be delighted when you hear 
this. I want you to build an aii'-conditioned cage 
for Gargantua. Good tie-up, great publicity for us both." 

That was a time when air conditioning was just get- 
ting started. Bulware saw the possibilities right away. "It's 
four A.M., John," he said, "but I'll start working on it right 

Bill Yeske, who had built our wagons for forty years, built 
the magnificent cage wagon in which Gargantua was exhib- 
ited. Carrier did not just air-condition it; they made tests of 
climatic conditions in the Congo and fitted up the cage with 
thermostatic controls and humidifiers that reproduced them 
exactly. The phrase "jungle-conditioned cage" won them the 
advertisers' award for 1938. 

Gargantua lived as happily as his nature permitted in that 
cage for twelve years. Once he got pneumonia in New York, 
when the air conditioner could not cope with the concentra- 
tion of germs in Madison Square Garden. Jolm called in the 


greatest diagnostician and the best man for pneumonia in 
America. There they were, in the basement of the Garden at 
five o'clock in the morning, fighting for a gorilla's life. They 
had a battery of oxygen flasks connected to the air ducts of 
the air conditioner, feeding him pure oxygen. 

Gargantua was a good patient. The poor fellow was almost 
gone, and he was like a sick child. The doctors had no fear 
of his great strength. He seemed to know he was sick and that 
they were trying to help him. We were all happy when his 
old ferocity returned. 

After that, Gargantua remained in good health until the 
close of his life. In his prime he weighed five hundred and 
fifty pounds and was five feet seven and one half inches tall. 
His enormously powerful arms had a total span of over nine 
feet. He ate everything we did except meat, but he did get 
boiled liver and cod-liver oil for vitamins. 

In 1941 John heard of a lady gorilla in Cuba who was for 
sale. Her name was M'Toto, which means "Little One" 
in Swahili. John went to Havana to call on M'Toto, who was 
hving in a pretty little house of her own on the grounds of 
her opulent owner, Mrs. Stephen Hoyt. The reason Toto was 
for sale was that one day, when she was having tea in the 
garden with Mrs. Hoyt, she playfully broke both the lady's 
wrists. It was an accident, for Toto had a sweet disposition. 

John bought Toto. This was the beginning of the wonderful 
idea of the marriage of Gargantua and Toto. We planned a 
lovely wedding on Washington's Birthday 1941, with a cake 
flown down from Schrafi^t's in New York. Mrs. Hoyt, in flow- 
ing chiffon and a pictuie hat, was matron of honor, and lots 
of reporters were invited. The ceremony took place in a bower 
of flowers under a canvas canopy at Winter Quarters. 

The strains of Lohengrin's Processional hailed the ap- 
proach of Toto's chaste v^'hite cage, bearincr a placard, "Mrs. 
Ga'gantua the Great." Toto's trainer, Jose Thomas, was rid- 


ing in the cage with her. A snorting tractor backed it into 
position end to end with Gargantua's monster cage. The great 
ape was pacing the floor in an amiable humor. When the back- 
board of Toto's cage was removed, Gargantua stopped dead 
in his tracks. An expression of dawning amazement grew on 
his terrible countenance. As he moved forward to grasp the 
bars he was plainly thunderstruck. 

Toto had her back to him. She must have felt that someone 
was following her, for she glanced over her shoulder. One 
look and she lurched forward and flung her arms around the 
trainer's neck. This evidently made her feel secure, for she 
turned and bellowed at her husband. 

At that, they both went into tantrums. From a docile, 
pampered pet, Toto became a raging jungle beast. Gargantua 
exceeded his previous high of ferocity. Roaring and yelling, 
he pelted his wife with half-eaten vegetables and shook the 
cage in his raging efforts to tear out the bars. The congrega- 
tion was hysterical between laughter and terror. 

I regret to say that tlie marriage was never consummated. 
When the bridal couple got a httle used to each other we 
connected their cages, with only bars between, in the hope 
that propinquity would foster love. Toto showed signs of in- 
terest. She made coy advances, like throwing an overripe 
melon at her husband. But Gargantua spurned her. George 
Jean Nathan always claimed he was a fairy. 

Each cage had two compartments so that you could shut 
the gorilla in one end and clean out the other. When we got 
to the Garden that year, Mrs. Hoyt came to call on Toto. To 
get into the unoccupied end of her cage, she had to pass 
Gargantua's. Incautiously she turned her back on him. He 
grabbed for her and just got her dress. A loud rip and there 
was Mrs. Hoyt in nothing but her bra and panties screaming 
bloody murder. 


Anthropologists say that a gorilla's normal life span is the 
same as that of primitive man— forty-five or fifty years. How- 
ever, Gargantua began to age visibly when he was twenty- 
one. His coat turned the color of a silver fox and he became 
progressively more feeble throughout 1949. Our last stand of 
the season was Miami and that night Gargantua died. Even 
his passing was publicity-timed, for our press agents wrote 
that he had waited until the last night of the season to die 
like the good trouper that he was. 

I had promised Dr. Yerkes to send Gargantua's body to 
Johns Hopkins for autopsy. We sadly packed him in a piano 
case full of dry ice and flew him to Baltimore. After they 
were through with him, his skeleton went to New Haven, 
where it now stands in company with some of our most fa- 
mous animals. Harvard wanted him, but Gargantua was 
a Yale man. 



We brought the circus into New York in March 1938, allowing 
one week for rehearsals. This seems like a short time to put 
an entire show together, but James A. Bailey used to allow 
only three days. It can be done if everybody knows his busi- 
ness. The performers are all old pros. They don't have to think 


about the entire circus, just the five, seven, or twelve minutes 
they are allotted out of the total running time. 

Fitting them together and planning a balanced per- 
formance was up to John and Fred Bradna, our great eques- 
trian director, and their assistants. You have your specs and 
production numbers, your wild-animal acts, acrobatic num- 
bers, clowns, aeriahsts, equestrians, trained elephants, and so 
forth, and you always plan so that either the clowns or a 
httle aerial act is going on while the crew is tearing down 
after an act that requires heavy props, such as the arenas for 
the trained cats. 

Normally, planning for next year's show begins the day 
after you open in the Garden; but, of course, in 1938 we did 
not have that much time. However, Bradna and Valdo had 
been programing the shows for so long that they did not find 
it too difficult. The big production numbers had been rou- 
tined, rehearsed, and timed in Sarasota. Acts had been arriv- 
ing from Europe for a month, but some of them did not reach 
New York until a few days before we opened. Then it was just 
a matter of dropping them into the slots that had been held 
open for them. Merle Evans, our veteran bandmaster, had to 
learn over two hundred music cues. 

The night of the dress rehearsal ran the unholy time of four 
hours, but this was largely due to Terrell Jacobs' trouble with 
his panthers. You cannot cut an animal act short. They must 
be forced to go through their entire routme every time; other- 
wise, they will quit at that spot and have to be withdrawn 
for a week or so of retraining. So one balky cat can hold up 
the whole ciicus. That night Jacobs' act lasted an hour in- 
stead of its allotted twelve minutes. Otherwise, things ran 
very smoothly. Superstitious show people said tliis was a bad 
omen. They were right. 

To go back briefly. In May 1937 Sam Gumpertz had 
signed a five-year contract with the American Federation of 


Actors, an A, F. of L.-ajBBliated union that represented the 
working crews and handlers, doubhng their minimum wage. 
A shghtly smaller scale prevailed while in Winter Quarters, 
and traditionally this continued during the New York and 
Boston engagements until we actually went under canvas. 

A few hours before opening night a union delegation 
headed by Ralph Whitehead came to John and demanded 
full scale immediately. John knew they were pointing a pistol 
at his head. The famous Ringling rage boiled up. He told 
them to go to hell. Shortly before the performance every man 
jack walked out, except the staflF, the performers, and the 

It looked like total disaster. The Garden was our biggest 
stand. Everything hinged on it, from the publicity which 
spread throughout the country to the profits which carried 
us over many a rough spot on the road. We had stretched our 
credit to the breaking point to refurbish the show. If we dis- 
appointed the large opening-night audience, it would deal us 
a blow from which we might never recover. 

We all knew that if we lost the circus again it was gone for 
good. In the back yard, down in the cavernous basements of 
the Garden, the performers were milling around, a leaderless, 
panicky mob, asking, "What happens now? What shall we 

Pat Valdo, our personnel director, shouted the answer: "Mr. 
Johnny says we showl" 

That was a frantic night. The house, though not packed, 
was well dressed. To dress a house is to distribute the tickets 
so that most sections are peopled and there are no glaring 
expanses of empty seats. Rumors were running through the 
crowd that made them irritable and uneasv. Then the lights 
went down. Merle Evans gave us a blare and ruffle of drums. 
Under a single spot John stood at tlie microphone. He told 
the crowd what had happened and announced that we would 


try to go on anyhow. He ended with the sentence that has 
become a tradition of all the opening nights we have played 
since: "I welcome you to The Greatest Show on Earth." 

The audience answered with a full-throated roar vastly dif- 
ferent in power and emotion from the usual polite applause. 
Then the floodhghts came on, the band played furiously, and 
the show began. 

The spec was terribly different from the way we had 
pictured it. There were no grooms for the horses, no bull men 
to bring up the elephants, not even a small donkey. Led by 
an unelephanted Maharajah of Nepal, the royal court— 
maharanis, princesses, and all— trudged into the arena fairly 
staggering under their heavy gold-encrusted costumes. Sixty 
Bengal Lancers shuffled along in cavalry boots and spurs. The 
final irony was the appearance of the Great White Hunter, 
Frank Buck, in riding breeches, sport shirt, and sola topee, 
limping along carrying his pet cheetah in his arms. But at 
sight of him our loyal audience shouted the roof down. 

Loyalty was, in fact, the leitmotiv of that night. Not 
loyalty to us, for we had not been with the show long enough 
to deserve it, but loyalty of the audience to the sporting spirit 
of the performers, and, in turn, their loyalty to their art. Be- 
yond that, the loyalty of aU concerned to the circus itself. 

We gave a pretty ragged performance— a hodgepodge to 
end all the hodgepodges, which John had planned so care- 
fully to avoid. The first problem was getting TerreU Jacobs' 
big iron cage up. John, Artie Concello, Pat Valdo, Clyde 
Ingalls, myself, and a lot more good people I don't remember, 
and a midget named Harry Earle, pulled and hauled ineptly. 
When we finally got it set, the audience applauded wildly. 

When it came time to strike the cage, our artist friend 
Charlie Baskerville vaulted over the arena railing and ran to 
help. He was followed by hundreds of other men in ringside 
seats. At times the arena was so full of society razorbacks. 


and reporters taking their pictures, that we had to beg them 
to return to their seats. 

Amateur bull men helped lead the performing elephants on; 
very dangerous it was, too. The feuding Loyal-Repenskis 
acted as hostlers for the Christianis, and the Christianis, in 
turn, performed this menial service for their arch enemies. It 
usually took a six-horse team to haul Gargantua's huge cage. 
A great crowd of performers and civilians pushed it around 
the arena. It was pretty hard to see Gargantua, but the 
audience went wild. 

How long the show ran that night I don't exactly know, 
because nobody checked. But it was dawn by the time John 
and I, with our faces blackened and our evening clothes in 
tatters, got back to the Ritz. We never wanted another night 
like that. But the strikers had really done us a favor. The 
publicity was magnificent. 

After two more makeshift performances to packed houses, 
the union settled for a small compromise. After tliat, there 
was only one more untoward incident of the run. This was 
caused by a tigress named Lady, a magnificent animal who 
had been raised on the bottle. She was as gentle as a kitten 
and had never been known to unsheath her claws. When she 
first came to Sarasota, John and I used to walk her around 
Winter Quarters on a leash. 

So in the great Nepal spec we had her keeper parade her 
around the hippodrome. He had the leash and a little cane 
to push her away if she got too playful. She seemed to enjoy 
walking along among the other animals, a group which 
included old Edith tlie girafte, Lotus the hippo, and a troupe 
of tiny Sicilian donkeys. 

Then one night, as she waited among the crowd of people 
and animals to go on, the strange jungle madness seized her. 
Without tlie slightest warning she sprang at a poor little don- 


key and bit his whole rear end oflF with one massive crunch. 
Then in long, sinuous bounds she started up the tunnel pas- 
sage headed for the crowded foyer of the Garden. People 
were paralyzed around the bloody corpse of the donkey. 
Mayhem and the dreadful self-slaughter of a panic-stricken 
mob loomed if she reached the foyer. 

In the corridor was a brave little midget named Paul 
Runkel, dressed for the role of Dopey in the "Seven Dwarfs." 
As the great beast loped toward him he stepped out and hit 
her squarely on the nose with his Uttle rubber hammer. The 
sudden shock startled her back into her own sweet self. Her 
keeper snapped the leash on and led her docilely back to her 

We thought we had troubles in the Garden; but it was not 
until we went on the road that things really got tough. The 
first blow fell on a cold, rainy night as we began to load the 
show after the final performance in Brooklyn. With the Big 
Top about half down and everything sodden and flapping in 
the wet wind, work suddenly ceased. Ralph Whitehead and 
Judge Padway of Milwaukee, who was the A. F. of L. counsel, 
were both out there in the rain. John and I met them and we 
adjourned to a saloon near the lot to talk things over. They 
said that we owed the union some money that had not been 
paid. It amounted to $3500, so these two said, and the circus 
would not move until it was paid. 

We were to open in Washington the next day. To miss even 
two performances there would cost us at least $25,000, and 
our operating expenses that year were about $17,000 a day. 
John threw up his hands, and I went back through the rain 
to the red wagon and got $3500. I offered the cash to Judge 
Padway, who refused to touch it. But another member of the 
union took it, and everybody went back to work. We got off 
the lot at 7:30 A.M. and opened in Washington that night. 


Oddly enough, the union found that there had been a 
similar error in our accounts with the union the night we 
pulled out of Washington. These tactics were typical of the 
union in those days. They did it to let you know that the ax 
was over your head. 

Right here I want to state that both John and I are not anti- 
union. Our own father was a member of the Brotherhood of 
Locomotive Engineers and we were brought up in sympathy 
with organized labor and an understanding of what it had 
done, not only for working men but for everyone in the 
United States. Our feelings in this respect is shown by our 
friendship with many labor leaders, especially that grand old 
gentleman Matthew Woll, and by the fact that in the year of 
our 2;reatest battles with the union we had the circus take 
part in the Labor Day parade in Wichita, Kansas, where we 
were playing. 

However, when labor got tough with the circus we got 
tougher. It was the only way to save it. For tlie circus is ter- 
ribly vulnerable to mischance. Bad weather can come at any 
time; wrecks and disasters are an ever present possibility; if, 
in addition, there is tlie constant threat of a strike, you are in 
an impossible position. 

A railroad show like ours must keep its schedule or perish. 
Even a few hours' delay can upset the carefullv planned 
timetable of the railroad; a day's delay is extremely costly; 
and an idle week could spell financial disaster. Not only that, 
but there is the public to be considered. If we failed to show, 
it seriously damaged our carefully nurtm-ed popularitv— tliou- 
sands of people, who had planned to make a fete of circus 
day, disappointed and disgruntled. 

We considered it extremely reprehensible of unscrupulous 
la]-»or leaders to take advantage of this Nulnerabi'itv. So v,e 
fought them as viciously as they fought us; just as we fouglit 
eveiy other threat to our circus. 


The next blow came when all our teamsters struck in 
Toledo, suddenly refusmg to drive the wagons from the lot 
to the runs. We were expecting trouble and had prepared an 
unpleasant surprise for them. John had a battery of tractors 
ready to take over. Again the strikers had done us a favor by 
forcing mechanization upon us. The circus was operating ex- 
actly as it had fifty years before, just as though the internal- 
combustion engine had never been invented. The wagons 
were still unloaded from the flats by hand and hauled to the 
lot by horses; and the Big Top was still raised by elephant 
power. Eighteen tractors replaced tliree hundred horses with 
all the problems of transportation, feeding, and handling that 
they involved. 

Naturally this raised a howl. "People love the horses," our 
conservative managers said. "They'll miss them." 

"We still have lots of horses for the equestrian acts," John 
pointed out. "If people want to see horses we'll pitch the 
horse top near the Big Top and open it to the public." 

It became a very popular attraction. 

We sent all the horses to our farm in Peru, Indiana, to be 
sold. When John and I reached the lot next evening, Jim 
Pepper, a wonderful old character who drove tlie gilly 
wagon, was waiting for us. He was hterally in tears. 

"What's the matter, Jim?" I asked. 

"Mr. Johnny sold Bill." 

"What's this? Who's Bill?" John asked. 

"You know Bill," Jim ahnost sobbed. "He's pulled my gilly 
wagon for ten years. He's not a horse, he's a friend." 

We could not break the old boy's heart, so we had Bill sent 
back from Indiana. As long as Jim lived, he hitched Bill to 
the gilly wagon eveiy night and drove it around the lot pick- 
ing up the tent stakes. When Jim died we retired Bill 
to Winter Quarters. That was the last horse-drawn gilly 


The final showdown with the union came in Scranton, 
Pennsylvania. From the time we had gone on the road we 
had been losing money and our reserves were getting thin. 
In Syracuse, Jolin announced that if the show was to go on, 
everybody, including the president, must take a 25 per cent 
cut in salary. My pay as vice-president was reduced from 
$100 to $75 a week. All the performers cheerfully agreed, but 
the workers stood on their contract. John offered to show 
them our books, but they just laughed at him and said, "We've 
got a contract covering a minimum wage, and you'll pay it or 

Boarding each man cost about $45 a month, which brought 
their pay to a point much higher than the prevailing average 
wage for unskilled labor. In fact, even after a 25 per cent cut 
it was still above average. 

In a ground swell of grumbling we moved from Syracuse 
to Scranton. We set up and gave the matinee. Then the work- 
ing crew struck. We could go on in the Garden without them; 
under canvas we could not do it safely. Ringling Brothers- 
Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows ended its season that day, 
June 26, 1938. 

John and I and my roommate from Yale, Charlie Bedcaux, 
whose father was the famous efficiency expert, were virtually 
barricaded in the Casey Hotel in Scranton, We were in con- 
siderable danger. That was an era of labor violence; of sit- 
down strikes and pitched battles between specially trained 
labor goons and professional strikebreakers hired by em- 
ployers. Feeling was often bitter. It was very bitter in 

For five days we were besieged in the Casey Hotel, \\'ith 
the circus stalled on the lot. We could not move it out, and 
the left-wing mayor of Scranton was disinclined to help us or 
offer much protection. The union leaders thought that if they 
held us there we would have to go on under the contract 


Gumpertz had signed with them. We knew that to do so was 
financial suicide. 

I remember one conference with Ralph Whitehead, who 
was an old Shakespearean actor given to dramatic speeches. 
John told him that all we wanted to do was to close up and 
move back to Winter Quarters in Sarasota. 

"You can't mean that you would close the circus in mid- 
season I" Whitehead said incredulously. 

"We have no choice," John answered. 

Whitehead struck his chest and, voice at full diapason, 
said, "John, would tliat the ground would open up and swal- 
low me before this dreadful thing should come to pass!" 

Very quietly John said, "You know, Ralph, I wish to God 
it would, too." 

After five days we managed to round up enough men to 
move us out. Even then the union would not allow us to go. 
They said we had to pay strike costs of about $12,000 or face 
a full-scale fight. It was an obvious injustice, but we had to 
yield. However, we made the most of it. I alerted the press 
and photographers. When Mr. Whitehead came for the pay- 
off they were all there. John ostentatiously took the money in 
cash out of his pocket and ceremoniously handed it to him 
while flash bulbs started popping. The pictures were run in 
papers all over the country under captions such as "White- 
head Getting His Pound of Flesh." 

We still had an ace in the hole. When Ringling Brothers 
was incorporated in 1932, the American Circus Company was 
incorporated as a separate subsidiary company under the 
name of Circus Cities Zoological Gardens Corporation. While 
we were playing the East we had that corporation running 
the Sells-Floto-Al G. Barnes Combined Shows out West. This 
circus had no union contract. John went to all our best acts 
and asked the perfoi*mers if they would sign at reduced 


salaries with Sells-Floto. They did. Frank Buck took a cut 
from $1000 to $250 a week. 

Then I took The Big One back to Winter Quarters. We got 
in on a Friday. The following Monday afternoon I left 
Sarasota with twenty-five railroad cars loaded with motorized 
equipment, the Big Top, and most of the feature acts— 
Gargantua, of course, Frank Buck, the Christianis, Heyer's 
dressage display and Hberty horses, Terrell Jacobs' animals, 
the Flying Concellos, and Ralph Clark's Jump over the 
Flaming Automobile. We joined Sells-Floto at Redfield, 
South Dakota. We had closed in Scranton on June 26; we 
opened at Redfield on July 7. It was fast work. While I was 
readying the show and effecting the transfer and amalgama- 
tion, John had not been idle. He had devised entirely new 
billing and publicity, which proved a miracle of improvisa- 
tion—the newspaper ads and bills stated in small print: "The 
A] G. Barnes-Sells-Floto Circus PRESENTS [in larger type] 
STUPENDOUS NEW FEATURES [the biggest type J. 

The new combination was quite a show— in fact. The 
Greatest left on Earth. Sells-Floto already had some splen- 
did displays, including Mabel Stark, billed as "The Queen of 
the Jungle presenting a Notable Congress of the Earth's Most 
Ferocious Performing Lions and Tigers." Another feature was 
a charming girl named Dolly Jacobs with a lion that rode on 
horseback. Since the show was designed for a more provincial 
audience than The Big One, it had the traditional "Thrilling 
Roman Chariot Races." 

We began to make money again. 

Of course, the A.F.A. still dogged us. Thev picketed every 
performance; and their pickets even rode our trains and 
sneaked meals in the cookhouse. But it was a losin<j struercfle. 
People in general were tired of labor strife; even the pic":;ets 
seemed lackadaisical. 


In Omaha, John and I came on the lot about noon to see 
how tilings were going. One bedraggled union picket was 
stalking up and down in front of the midway. John stopped 
to chat with him. "How are you enjoying your work?" he 

With a sour grin the man said, "Not very much." 

"How would you like to stop doing this and work for the 
circus?" John asked. 

The picket threw down his sign and said, "I sure wouldl" 

We gave him a note and sent him over to the boss canvas- 
man. I suppose that could be called tampering with a miion 

John had dehberately dated the show into Houston, Texas, 
to coincide with the American Federation of Labor conven- 
tion there. We did good business with the delegates. Mattliew 
WoU asked John for some seats, and we gave him the best we 
had. Then our friend Tom Hogg, son of a former governor of 
Texas and one of those Texan conservatives who are so far 
right they make the Morgan partners look like Commies, came 
to town. When he asked for seats we warned him that Woll 
would be in the audience. He let loose a blast of profanity- 
it seemed that there had been trouble out on his oil rigs and a 
striker had taken a pot shot at him, wliich put him in the 
hospital for a wliile. However, he said he'd be "thus and so" 
if he'd let any "this and that" labor leader keep him away from 
the circus. 

We had to give him seats near Woll's party. Tom was 
snorting fire when he saw them. In the middle of tlie show he 
said loudly to his chauffeur, "Go back to the hotel and get my 
six-guns. I don't feel easy witliout 'em in such low company." 

The chauffeur brought the guns. Hogg checked them care- 
fully and stuffed them in his belt. He sat there for a few mo- 
ments more glaring at Woll, and tlien stalked out, saying, "I 
can't stand the smell of skunks." 

Luckily Woll was amused. 


Much to our surprise, we snatched a nice profit from ap- 
parent disaster. The show made back all our losses and 
closed the season of 1938 with more than enough to see us 
through the winter. It was the final appearance of the Sells- 
Floto-Al G. Barnes Circus. 

In 1939 nobody knew whether The Greatest Show would 
disappear from earth forever or not. We had learned that it 
was impossible to operate it under the Gumpertz contract. 
John invited the union leaders to confer with us. The meeting 
was set up in the New York offices of our friend Matthew 
Woll, who, we hoped, would exercise a moderating influence 
on his colleagues. 

The conference began very pleasantly. We were all glad to 
see each other again. It was "HowVe you been, John?" And 
"Great, thanks, Ralph," with Matt Woll beaming benevo- 
lently. We talked informally all afternoon, and, we thought, 
constructively. A late dinner was sent in— paid for by the cir- 
cus, naturally— and we were the happiest people you ever 
saw. After dinner we sat down at Woll's long walnut confer- 
ence table to hammer out an agreement. 

It was at this point that Whitehead said they would accept 
the same contract tliey'd had before. John looked as thunder- 
struck as poor old Gargantua when he fhst saw Toto. "What 
have we been talking about all day?" he gasped. "You know 
I'm not going to stick my neck in the same noose that 
strangled us last year. I thought we were trying to work out 
something that would give us a break and still be fair to you." 

The union people grinned at such naivete. "You have a con- 
tract with us," Whitehead pointed out. "It's got three vea rs 
more to run and we've never recognized that it can be 
changed. You have to go on with it." 

We tossed it back and forth for a few minutes without the 
slightest change. There was no more give to them tlian to 
casehardened steel. Then my brother made one of the 


shortest addresses in the history of labor relations. He stood 
up, short and stocky and electric, facing the union bigwigs 
across the table. "Well, gentlemen," he began, "I have 
lis ened to everything. Now I have only two words to add to 
it." They don't need repeating. Then: "Come on, Buddy, let's 

Matt Woll and Judge Padway caught us at the elevators. 
Each took one of us soothingly by the arm. "Come back, 
Johnny . , . Buddy. We can still work something out." 

We went back. An hour later we had a contract we could 
live with. 



Even before we knew that the circus would show in 1939, 
John was going full speed ahead with his plans for moderniz- 
ing it. Perhaps liis greatest innovation was the design for a 
new Big Top. The old six-pole tent had not been designed; it 
"just growed." In the beginning there was a round top. Long 
ago, when the five brothers needed more space, they put in a 


center section with the half-round tops at each end. As the 
show grew and the crowds increased, more center sections 
were added and the tent stretched out and out, becoming 
impractically long and narrow— 510 feet long by 210 feet 
wide. It was almost impossible for people at the ends of the 
arena to see what was going on in the center ring. But so 
unchangeable are circus traditions that this inefficient mon- 
ster remained in use for fifty years. 

Remember that the Big Top was not just an inanimate 
mobile structure in which to seat an audience, but a hving 
thing of vital canvas, rope and wood that was brought to life 
each day by our wonderful old boss canvasman. Captain BiU 
Curtis, and his men. The fact that it had this kind of life of 
its own was an essential ingredient of the circus; we had to 
change it without destroying its vital essence. 

John's new Big Top was shaped like an oval stadium, with 
four center poles instead of six. It was his idea, but the detail 
and construction was by our boss saihnaker, Leif Osmondson. 
The new design enabled us to increase the diameter of the 
center ring to fifty feet, the biggest we had ever used. These 
improvements naturally brought criticism upon us, but what 
reaUy roiled the traditionahsts was the question of color. 

The harmonious Hghting effects which Le Maire had 
worked out were beautiful in the Garden and at night per- 
formances under canvas. But they were obhterated at mati- 
nees by sun blazing through the white canvas. John said, 
"Let's make the canvas blue." 

The Big Top was, to quote the Circus Magazine for 1939, 
"reborn in shades of blue— dark blue at the peaks, paling, 
down its slopes, to tints of hghter blue. The center poles were 
gold and the scores of quarter poles were silver. The vast oval 
of boxes and grandstand were painted a new shade of 'Ring- 
hng red,' and the draperies at the ends of the grandstand 
and the rail draperies along the entire circumference of the 


hippodrome track were deep blue with giant gold tassels. . . , 
Golden stars glittered in the center of the ring carpets, on 
drapes and on the poles. . . ." It was a child's-eye view of 

Another problem of the matinees on the road was heat. 
Once people had been willing to swelter in the hundred- 
degree temperatures built up by a Kansas sun beating on a 
couple of acres of canvas; not so the modem American. On 
hot days we played to half-empty houses, and this affected 
the evening show as well, for there were fewer people circu- 
lating through town talking of the wonders of The Greatest 
Show. Air conditioning was the answer, but everyone said, 
"You can't air-condition a tent." 

Well, that is the truth; for a tent leaks hot air through many 
orifices. But if you cannot attain perfection, you can improve 
conditions. We bought eight motor-driven units operating on 
the blower system from the Buffalo Forge Corporation. It took 
tluee extra flatcars to transport them and an additional crew 
of fifty men to run them; but they performed a near miracle. 
Matinee crowds increased and our ushers reported people 
saying that they came to get out of the heat as much as to see 
the show. 

Many less obvious but quite as important operating 
improvements were made. Diesel generators supplanted our 
outmoded gasoline plants, increasing our electrical output at 
decreased costs. Huge-wheeled tractors replaced the pull-up 
teams at the runs. Caterpillar-mounted booms loaded and un- 
loaded the canvas and the Big Top rigging. Somewhere 
around this time John had an idea for a mechanical stake 
puller, which our boss wagon builder, Bill Yeske, realized for 
him along with improvements on the mechanical stake 
drivers already in use. Later still came a machine for guying 
out the tent ropes, an operation which had been performed 
by large gangs of men. As soon as we saw it demonstrated 


John and I decided to use it; but as we walked away, despite 
our enthusiasm for modernization, we both were sad that 
never again would we hear the resonant chant of "Heebie 1 
Heebie I Hobie! Hold I GolongI" which was the euphoni- 
ous rendition of "Heave it! Heave iti Heavyl Holdl Go onl" 

Meanwhile we were not neglecting the show itself. Just as 
he had given the performance a theme and over-all unity, 
John now took the music in hand. Heretofore the band had 
played totally unrelated bits and snatches of music. There 
was lots of noise and lots of brass, but the tunes did not tie 
up with anything except the individual acts with their 
required drum rolls, gallops, and so forth. John decided to 
program each year's circus music as an entity, and he hired 
one of Broadway's best arrangers to give unity to the arrange- 

My brother was well equipped to organize the musical pro- 
grams. He had a considerable share of the Ringling's musical 
talent. He had loved and studied music for years— classical, 
modem, and jazz. In addition to playing a hot saxophone, 
he had studied composition. For years now he has composed 
the music for the production numbers of the circus himself, 
working in collaboration with such top lyric writers as Irving 
Caesar, Ray Goetz, and in recent times with Tony Valona. 
Though John is not a great musician, he has produced some 
lovely melodies for the circus; among them "Lovely Launana 
Lady," a hit time of the De Mille's movie TJie Greatest SJww 
on Earth. 

However, John did not rely on his own talents to provide 
original music for the circus. When he dreamed up the idea 
of an elephant ballet for the 1942 show, he had the effrontery 
to ask Igor Stravinsky to write the music for it. To the surprise 
of everybody but John, Stravmsky accepted, and produced 
a classic composition. Thus encouraged, John engaged 


George Balanchine as choreographer, and his lovely wife of 
that time, Vera Zorina, danced in the center ring on opening 
night. That was the year the show was staged by Norman 
Bel Geddes, directed by John Murray Anderson, and cos- 
tumed by Miles White. 

I suppose everybody loves circus music, gay and noisy and 
brassy tliough it be. John helped to make it good as well as 
noisy. Writing of the music in one of our shows, Lauritz Mel- 
chior said, "I could not leave Madison Square Garden while 
the circus band was playing 'Thunder and Blazes,' not even 
for Tannhduser. Of course, I had a little something to worry 
about. I was supposed to be singing Tannhduser." 

In 1939 we decided not to send out the Sells-Floto-Al G. 
Barnes Circus, and its best acts, including Mabel Stark and 
the riding lion, were incorporated into The Big One. As a 
variation, we also had a Bengal tiger riding on the back of 
his deadly enemy, an elephant. 

Gargantua was a greater star than ever. In the autumn of 
1939 John took him to London. He was booked to sail on the 
new Queen Mary, but when it came time to load him, the 
hatches proved too small to pass his cage. So he went igno- 
miniously by freighter. He was the star attraction of the 
Bertram Mills Circus at the Olympia several weeks. 

A new revival of elegance was in sight that last spring 
before World War XL People were getting tired of the "Age 
of the Common Man"— especially the common man himself, 
who began making money and, as was right and proper, 
aspiring to the niceties of life. Like our uncles before us, we 
anticipated this trend. One of the productions for 1939 was 
called "Blue Grass Beauties." It reproduced the atmosphere 
of Louisville, Kentucky, on Derby Day. 

It was, in fact, a glorified manege number. Where foiTnerly 
such an act had one man or woman riding a dressage horse 


in each ring, John turned it into a big production, for which 
he used special Hlting music. We hired several of the best 
gaited-horse riders in America. We brought thoroughbreds 
and saddle horses up from Kentucky. Some of the former were 
trained as Hberty horses, I also acquired coaches which had 
belonged to August Belmont and Mrs. Vanderbilt, Sr. We 
filled them with our prettiest girls dressed in the flowing- 
skirted, picture-hatted fashion of the nineties. As they drove 
around the hippodrome behind the high-steppers, whose 
silver-mounted harness jingled softly, they were a lovely 
sight. Old August Ringling would have approved. 

The opening spec that year, which set the theme of the 
show, was "The World Comes to the World's Fair." To quote 
the program again: "Europe, South America, South Africa, 
Canada and the United States march in almost indescribable 
splendor, followed by glittering sections from the Orient in 
the traditional glory of chromatic costumes and jewelled tm"- 
bans, all supposedly bringing precious gifts to the World's 
Fair. They come mounted on gold and silver draped ele- 
phants, ahorse or on camels, in palanquins or afoot. . . ." 

It was, in truth, almost that good. 

The World's Fair management was so delighted by the 
idea that they put me on the art committee and asked Jolm 
to stage a wild West show. He said bluntly, "The wild West 
idea couldn't be worse; but I'll do an international horse show 
that will knock your eyes out." 

Grover Whalen agreed that it was a splendid idea and 
signed John to stage it. Immediately Jolm's imagination be- 
gan to flourish and exfoliate. Through Karl Bickel, former 
president of United Press, he contacted an Arab sheik for a 
contingent of desert horsemen on Arabian steeds. From all 
over the world he brought almost every kind of horse used 
by man. Everything had to be as real as the Arabians. There 
were a band of Cherokee Indians, Mexican cowboys, real 


bullfighters— to cape, but not kill, bulls— and Argentine 
Gauchos, who were experts in bringing steers to their knees 
with the bolas. We induced our friends Jack and Charlie of 
New York's 21 Club to set up a frontier bar— a real one, 
from the film Dodge City. As the final fantastic Ringling 
touch, John envisaged a Lady Godiva chorus riding white 
horses clad in notliing but long golden wigs. It was a magnifi- 
cent conception— evidently too magnificent for the limited 
imaginations of oflBcialdom. Suddenly everything went 

Let the lamentable tale be told in John's own terse words: 
"They had promised me $12,000 a week for expenses. In a 
wave of economy they cut me down to $4000. The Fair 
management demanded that Jack and Charlie give the Fair 
25 per cent of their gross. Since they had planned to invest 
$250,000 of tlieir own money, they naturally refused and 
pulled out. The S.P.C.A. said that even though the bulls 
would not be touched it was cruel to cape them. They said 
the Gauchos could not use the bolas. So the bullfighters and 
Gauchos were out. 

"On opening night everything was lousy. We had abso- 
lutely nothing. Not even a publicity agent. I let a Brahma 
bull loose in the Fair the day before. We got some publicity 
all rightl 

"The final blow came a few hours before we went on. The 
ukase came down from on high, no nudity.' There went my 
Lady Godivas. I thought of Charlie Baskerville and all my 
other friends waiting expectantly in the grandstand. To see a 

"We finally lined up for the Coventry pageant. The Indians 
were all drunk. The cowboys were sober, but very cross. 
Mayor La Guardia and Grover Whalen were out in front in 
cowboy getups mounted on ancient cow ponies. The little 


mayor was almost lost under his Stetson hat. Whalen was 
even fmmier. Whoever saw a cowboy with a toothbrush 
mustache? John Kjrimsky wore the pink coat and topper of 
an M.F.H. 

"Immediately behind Mayor La Guardia and Whalen rode 
Anne Wilson, a perfectly beautiful Model in a blond wig. 
When the order 'no nudity' came she had been draped in an 
Indian blanket. I took a handkerchief and tied it around her 
head. Then I plucked a feather out of an Indian's headdi^ess 
and stuck it in the handkerchief. 'What are you wearing 
under that blanket, Anne?' I asked. 

" 'Just a bra,' she answered. 

" 'Give it to me.' 

"She was a nice obedient girl who did exactly as she was 

" 'Now listen carefully, Anne,' I said. 'Not right away, but 
when you get out there, well out, throw away the blanket. 
Then tlirow away the feather. Then the handkerchief. Get 

"Anne laughingly said, 'Yes.' 

"The band played. Mayor La Guardia rode out ahead, with 
Whalen a Httle behind. Polite applause. As they got to the 
center of the arena there was a wild burst of cheering. The 
two of them waved tlieir cowboy hats and grinned with de- 
light. Came a second frenzy of cheers and yells like to burst 
your ears. Then a third, almost hysterical salvo of shouts as 
Anne threw the handkerchief away. Even those two applause- 
conscious pohticians could not beheve it was all for them. 
They looked over their shoulders and saw Anne riding in 
glorious nudity. . . ." 

Grover Wlialen called John on the carpet the next morning. 
"Are you famihar with clause five of your contract?" he asked. 
( Clause five said that if John's management should prove un- 


satisfactory he could be dismissed at the discretion of the of- 
ficials. ) 

"Yes," John said. "May I ask if you have examined clause 

"No," said the Fair's president, "but I intend to fire you 

"Yes, sir," John said. "About clause six. It says that if I am 
dismissed you have to pay me $1500 a week for fifteen weeks." 

John rode the train with me in 1939, nursing the show 
through most of the summer. When he was with us, I devoted 
myself mainly to personnel problems and publicity. This was 
appropriate, since I had begun getting publicity for the cir- 
cus at the age of two, when I fell out of a second-story win- 
dow in Baraboo. It did not hurt me, but papers all over the 
country gave it a big play with a circus tie-in. 

That year we took the circus all around the perimeter of 
the United States. After looping through Pennsylvania, New 
York, and the New England states, we went west along the 
northern border with a foray into Canada. Then down the 
West Coast to the Mexican border and along that to El Paso 
and the great Texas cities, looping back to Corpus Christi and 
Alabama. Then up to Atlanta, down the Florida east coast to 
Miami, and across the state for our final stand in Tampa. We 
traveled 17,117 miles and showed in twenty-seven states. 

This, our first full season, was a splendid tour. The crowds 
who came to see the show proved to us that the public would 
support a modern circus. Money flowed into tlie red wagon. 

Incidentally, of tlie hundreds of red wagons with tlie cir- 
cus, only one was the red wagon. To tliis fiery caravan came 
tradesmen with their bills, staff performers and workingmen 
alike for tlie money due them, press agents with expense ac- 
counts, and politicians with outstretched hands. Within its ar- 
mored walls reposed each night the day's take. 


Like everything else with the circus, the red wagon was 
personahzed, taking its being from its current incumbent. In 
my early days this was dear, crusty old Mr. Hutch. Fred de 
Wolfe was its custodian in 1939, and the ink was black. De- 
spite our unusually large expenditures for the new Big Top, 
air conditioning, and mechanization, we closed the sea- 
son with a net profit of over $400,000 on a total gross income 
of $2,635,000. 

As we gaily traversed the wide plowlands, plains, and for- 
ests of the western states, playing the pleasant, appreciative 
little towns and the thriving big cities, we could almost kid 
ourselves that, except for superficial things like automobiles, 
this was the same secure, happy, prosperous world our uncles 
had known before the Age of Terror dawned. But there was a 
ring around the moon. 

Over in Europe the towering thunderheads of war were 
piling up black-purple warnings. Then they burst, sending the 
hghtning of diving Stukas spewing death on the hot Polish 
plains, which are so like our own Midwest. The world was at 
war again. 

The moment he realized war was imminent, John decided 
to go to Europe to get what new acts he could before the 
supply was cut oflF as it had been in Uncle John's time. The 
danger of submarines did not deter him, but it caused the 
cancellation of every ship he booked on. Flying plays havoc 
with his stomach, but there was nothing else for it. Anning 
himself with Pepto-Bismol he took off in one of the new Pan 
American Clippers. 

In spite of the difficulties and dangers of wartime condi- 
tions, John's trip was very fruitful. He signed up a number of 
excellent acts. He also discovered Max Weldy and brought 
him to America as our costume designer. He has been in 
charge of The Big One's wardrobe department ever since. 


The most important feature which John brought back was 
Alfred Court and his assistant, Damoo Dhotre of India, with 
a genuinely terrific wild-animal act. It consisted of three rings 
of mixed wild animals: lions, tigers, mountain lions, and black 
leopards; a Kodiak bear, Himalayan bears, polar bears, great 
Danes, and a wonderful white snow leopard— all mixed up to- 

To my mind Alfred Court is the greatest wild-animal 
trainer the world has ever seen. I realize that statement 
sounds like circus-style talk, but it is tlie truth. He is none of 
your whip-and-pistol bully boys, pretending to stand in 
deadly danger while cowing the cats by sheer brutality and 
the alleged power of the human eye. Instead, he makes it all 
seem as easy and polite as an Arthur Murray class in ball- 
room dancing. 

Court, a slender, gentle man with a fine aquiline face, 
trained all these animals himself, though, of course, he had 
assistants. It is not usually a pretty sight to see the big cats 
trained. If they are full-grown they are quite capable of kill- 
ing their trainer, so he takes precautions. When he starts oflF 
they are all chained to their pedestals, and ropes are put 
around their necks to choke them down and make them obey. 
All sorts of other brutalities are used to force them to respect 
the trainer and learn their tricks. They work from fear. 

But Alfred did not use such methods. He did start off with 
the animals collared and chained to their pedestals, but he 
began by making friends with them. He went into the train- 
ing ring with a leather pouch full of beef cut into small mor- 
sels. He would put a piece of beef on the end of a sharp stick 
and offer it to the animal, whatever it was. Then he would 
talk to it, coming closer mitil he was alongside. The next tiling 
you knew he was stroking it. Of course, it took several days 
to gain an animal's confidence. 


Then he took it off its leash and taught it its first lesson, 
which was to know its own pedestal, to which it must always 
return after its act. 

As I have repeatedly said, a wild animal is always poten- 
tially savage. Association with man is contrary to his nature, 
so danger is ever present. But Court, through his patience and 
system of reward for effort, got his animals to respect him 
without fear. Of course, when it came to teaching them the 
more involved tricks he had to use a whip. 

In fact, he had tlie greatest whip hand I have ever seen— 
very strong with absolute accuracy. If an animal got out of 
line, he would flick that animal in the most sensitive place 
you can hit either a male or female. He hit, but only because 
the animal had made a mistake, and had to know, at that 
very second, that it had done wrong. However, any animal 
which performed properly got his reward immediately. 

Because of his methods, Court's animals always looked 
wonderful. They were glossy and full of spirit and seemed to 
treat him with real affection, especially the leopards. He in- 
troduced the trick of letting a full-grown Bengal tiger leap 
over him while he stood holding a small baton in his upraised 
hands for the animal to gauge his spring by. 

I am not going to bore you with a catalogue of all the won- 
derful people my brother brought home on that last trip 
to Europe. They were sufficient to keep the show going 
throughout the sad years when the ring of Nazi steel closed 
around Europe. Of course, he had great difficulty getting them 
all out and onto ships. With nearly every noncombatant who 
had the price of an ocean passage trying to get out of there, 
it presented quite a problem— for example, Alfred Court and 
his animals came on four different ships. The way John solved 
it was by ingenuity, charm, arrogance, bullying, and pour- 


However, I will speak of the most exotic, brilliant, and dif- 
ficult of all the people he brought back. She did not come for 
the circus or for money, but for love. Her name was Germaine 




When John and I took over the circus we began to spend 
our winters with Mother in Sarasota. Back in 1932 Uncle 
John had suggested tliat she move from tlie small bungalow 
she was occupying to the big Worcester house in Bird Key. It 
was a wonderful place to live. 


Bird Key was an island in the middle of Sarasota Bay only 
five minutes from the center of town via Uncle John's cause- 
way. In a place where even millionaires Uved in one another's 
back yards, the big white house stood alone, except for a gar- 
dener's cottage, in a grove of coconut palms on its twenty- 
two-acre island. We were careful not to spoil its natural 
beauty with manicured lawns and artificial planting. Except 
for the formal gardens near the house everything was left so 
wild and shaggy that the island lived up to its name. Birds of 
all sorts nested there. As you drove up the long drive between 
two rows of Australian pines a white heron might take off on 
laboring wings before the car, or a crane zoom over you trail- 
ing his long legs. Along its banks were flocks of wild ducks, 
and pelicans surveyed the harbor from the dock. The only 
nonindigenous characters were John's peacocks strolling on 
the terrace. 

The house was ideal for our way of life. It had big high- 
ceilinged rooms that were fine for entertaining and equally 
good for the lively games we liked to play when we were alone. 
I had a fine billiard table in one of them to practice my favor- 
ite indoor sport. 

Upstairs there was plenty of room for us and our guests. 
Ada Mae and I had a bedroom, study, and bath. Our small 
son, John Ringling North II, slept nearby with his nurse. 
Brother John added a spacious bedroom-study-dressing-room 
suite over the kitchen. Its walls were paneled in pecky cypress, 
and a terrifying picture of Gargantua hung over the fireplace, 
on which he could look fondly when he woke every afternoon. 
Mother slept in a downstairs bedroom, and the rest of the 
house was available for guests, of whom there were almost as 
many as birds. 

It was to this house that John brought his bride in 1940. 

Her name was Germaine Aussey. She was very beautiful 
in an exotic European way, aquiline features, large greenish- 


blue eyes, and masses of auburn hair. Her figure was quite as 
enticing as Marilyn Monroe's and far more graceful She was 
a French movie star. 

John met her in a Paris black-out on Christmas Eve 1939. 
For the second, and probably the last time, in his life he fell 
truly in love. My brother has had many beautiful fiancees 
whom he always managed to elude just before the nuptial 
knot was tied. But his engagement to Germaine was for real. 

In fact, John was so much in love that he even betrayed 
his instinct for showmanship. When Germaine arrived in 
America with him the circus publicity people were entranced. 
They dreamed up a wonderful fantasy for the marriage of tlie 
president of The Greatest Show on Earth and the "gorgeous, 
glamourous, glittering French movie star." 

They pictured the wedding as taking place in the center 
ring under a battery of spothghts while Merle Evans' brasses 
gave everything they had, and the wedding party entered on 
white horses between two rows of elephants holding American 
flags in dieir upraised trunks. 

John vetoed the whole idea as undignified and unworthy of 
true love. He and Germame were married very quietly in 
Philadelphia on May ii, 1940. Soon thereafter he sent Mother 
a telegram that he was bringing his bride to Bird Key. The 
poor girl did not know what she was getting into. 

Since I was off with the circus, I cannot give an eyewitness 
account of Germaine's entrance into the family, although I 
understand it was quite dramatic, like all her entrances. How- 
ever, I did participate in her first winter there. It was the mad- 
dest we ever had. 

John had the house aU done over, for Germaine, the col- 
umned porches gleaming with fresh white paint, everything 
shining and polished. The household consisted of Mother, 
myself, Ada Mae, young John, and his nurse; Duck and Sally 
Wadsworth, Sally, Jr., Ducky, Jr., and tlieir nurse; Charles, 


the French chef from the Jomar; Rene, the Itahan butler; 
two helpers for Charles; and Brother John, Germaine, and her 
personal maid. It was as explosive a mixture as anything 
Nobel ever cooked up in his dynamite days. 

Add to it our guests and the brilliant temperamental peo- 
ple who were working on next year's show and who often 
dropped in at dinnertime to talk things over. I am not sure if 
they were ever all there at once, but at one time or another 
in 1940 and 1941 we had Jolm Murray Anderson, putting on 
the production numbers; Peter Amo, designing the circus pro- 
gram and magazine; Max Weldy on wardrobe; Balanchine 
for ballet; Stravinsky, writing music for the elephant ballet; 
Norman Bel Geddes for engineering; Miles White for cos- 
tumes; Jimmy Strook of Brooks Costume Company; and 
Charlie Baskerville, Heywood Broun, and Monte Woolley, 
just for fun. We seldom sat down less tlian eighteen or twenty 
for dinner. 

Mother loved the exciting theatrical whirl, which brought 
back memories of the days in Baraboo with her tremendous 
brothers arguing over next year's show. She went to a great 
deal of trouble to provide marvelous meals for us. Trouble is 
not the right word; it was a pleasure to her, for she was a 
cordon bleu in everything but name. She would hang around 
the kitchen giving directions, finally ordering everyone out 
and cooking the meal herself. One night Charles could take it 
no longer and chased her out of the kitchen with a carving 

Meanwhile, Rene conceived an irresistible passion for my 
sister's children's governess, who reciprocated, addmg to the 
confusion belowstairs. 

Confusion above was even further compounded. While 
Mother gaily cooked and played bridge all day and poker all 
night, poor Germaine could not stand tlie pace. As she once 
confided to a columnist, "I didn't marry one man, I married 
a whole family." 


Indeed, her European upbringing and the acclaim she had 
known in France completely unfitted her for a life where she 
was just one member of a big family of robust extroverts and 
their friends. We would sit around in the great hall of Bird 
Key in casual clothes having cocktails before our nine o'clock 
dinner. Down the staircase would sweep Germaine in a Paris 
couturier's dream of high fashion with egrets in her hair. This 
endeared her not at all to my forthright wife and sister. 

Another difficulty was that it literally made Germaine sick 
to stay up late. She had been a hard-working actress, used to 
getting on the set at 8 a.m. and going to bed at a reasonable 
hour. We hardly ever went to bed until four or five in the 
morning. Germaine, hating cards and parlor games, would go 
upstairs around midnight to be kept awake all night by roars 
of merriment from below, while she burned with jealousy that 
Johnny should be enjoying himself without her. 

Not that Germaine was a bad sport. She rode the circus 
train for three seasons with John, posing prettily for publicity 
pictures with lions and elephants and on our beautiful dres- 
sage horses— she rode very well— and helping to entertain his 
swarm of friends all over the country. But circus life was 
wrong for her. As she said, "Traveling seven months of the 
year, even though it was in John's private car, did not fit well 
with our private lives. It was fun in the big towns, but in the 
small provinces I had nothing to do except sit alone in the 

Even when they stayed together at the Ritz in New York, it 
was hardly any better. They were out every night at El 
Morocco or the Stork, with breakfast at Reuben's. When she 
remonstrated with her husband, he said, "Why can't I stay 
out late? Uncle John always did." 

To expect a private life married to the head of a circus is 
wishful thinking. 


Inevitably the marriage did not last. With the sad 
httle comment that "it is not always fmi to be married to a 
genius," Germaine announced their separation in 1943, the 
year our dear relatives got the circus away from us. 

However, she was loyal to John in the face of scandal- 
mongers who said that she was leaving him because he was 
a playboy who had let the circus slip through his fingers. In 
answer to this nonsense she wrote a dignified letter to the 
press, in which she said: 

Dear Sirs: 

Your article of November 16 [1943] ... is thor- 
oughly false to say the least. ... I want to point out 
that I knew exactly when Mr. John Ringling North 
asked me to marry him . . . what his standing was with 
the "wealthy" circus as well as with the "fabulous 
estate" of his uncle. May I say at this point that the 
circus was not wealthy to everybody's knowledge. On 
the contrary, Mr. North is the one who took it over 
when it was bankrupt and put it back on its own feet 
out of the ditch. . . . But you see, sirs, I have married 
Mr. North for love and not for the glamor of the cir- 
cus. ... I like this country, and the prospect of living 
in it with the man I loved appealed to me. 

I have always admired my husband's business ability 
and your calHng him a playboy will not change them, 
nor will it lessen the strength and quality of the friend- 
ship of countless important people who are our friends 
throughout the United States. The Ringling personnel 
have always been extremely nice to me during the 
three seasons I Hved with the circus on the road. ... I 
know that the great majority of them regretted John 
Ringling North's withdrawal from the management 
post. . . . 

I beg to remain 

Yours very truly, 

Germaine A. North 

(Mrs. John Ringling North) 


Though John's nocturnal habits and her incompatibility 
with our admittedly difficult family contributed to the 
breakup of his marriage with Germaine, it was primarily the 
fault of the circus. Had it not forced an abnormal way of life 
upon tliem, they would have had a home of their own where 
they might well have lived happily ever after. 

I am delighted to say that Germaine is happily remarried, 
and Hving the much less exotic life of a Long Island matron. 
Every spring, when the circus comes to New York, John sends 
his Cadillac to bring her and her children to the Garden, 
where they sit in his center box to enjoy the show Germaine 
still loves. 



In those last prewar years, the circus did extremely well 
financially. With the shadow of war hanging over them the 
American people once again turned to dieir old-time favorite 
form of entertainment. Whatever some critics might say 
about John's "razzle-dazzle" innovations, the public loved 


them; and he spared no expense or eflFort to hold their favor. 
The specs and the production numbers became increasingly 
lavish and beautiful. One of the most successful was the 
Mother Goose theme of the 1941 season, produced by Nor- 
man Bel Geddes with a ballet directed by Albertina Rasch. 
Incidentally, Norman was a wonderfully inventive man who 
also designed a tent for us with no interior poles to interfere 
with the audience's vision. The whole thing was ingeniously 
supported by cables slung between outside poles. We tried it 
out with smaller tents, but never were able to use it for the 
Big Top. 

In addition to the splendid spectacles, the talent was the 
best we could get at any price. The ink on the red wagon's 
ledgers got blacker and blacker. The debt to the Manufac- 
turers Trust Company was rapidly whittled away. In the end 
this latter circumstance was our undoing. 

Naturally, it was not all smooth sailing— such a state of 
affairs in a circus on the road is more improbable than the 
arrival of the millennium and our lions lying down with the 
llamas. • 

There were stOl occasional flash strikes. James C. Petrillo 
and his musicians' union pulled one on us in 1940. When the 
strike was announced, John sent for Merle Evans, who had 
been with the circus all these years in a position of trust, and 
asked if out of loyalty he would not come out alone and play 
his famous cornet. Merle expressed his sympathy but said, 
"What can I do?" When the fateful hour came there was no 
band and no Merle either. 

But we had not been asleep at the switch. We had made 
arrangements for recording all our music. We played the rest 
of the season to canned music. It saved tlie circus about 

The next year we made an agreement with Petrillo, and 
the band came back with Merle as musical director. But John 


never forgave Merle for what the bandmaster felt was loyalty 
to his colleagues but what my brother considered treason to 
the circus. 

On the whole, our labor relations were excellent. What 
troubled us most was the manpower shortage as America be- 
came ever more deeply engaged in building her defenses 
against the slow, irresistible approach of war. After the draft 
started and we were more and more shorthanded, I did a 
great deal of physical work myself, more to set an example to 
the men than because one man's eflForts at stake setting, for 
instance, would make much difference. 

This stood me in good stead in 1942, when between the 
matinee and the evening show the bull men threatened to 
strike. John was in New York planning next year's show and 
I had the train. So I thought I should do what I could to 
reverse the situation. I asked the bosses to have all the work- 
ingmen called together in the menagerie top. They had seen 
their vice-president working side by side with them, so it was 
not like someone shooting off his mouth who did not know 
anything about their problems. Five or six hundred men 
gathered inside the tent. I climbed on one of the big piles of 
baled hay stacked up for the stock. I have never been good at 
pubhc addresses, but this was an emergency. 

As I started to speak the professional agitators who were 
stirring the men up began to heckle me. I was feeling lost and 
rattled when an unexpected ally turned up. He was the huge 
Negro boss of tlie horse tops, who had been with us for many 
years. His name was Blue, because he was so black that he 
looked blue. 

Seeing my distress. Blue stood up. He loomed gigantic 
among the smaller men and he had a great iron stake in his 
hand. He waved it gently and spoke in a soft voice. "You all 
had better shut up and listen to Mr. Buddy!" he said. 

They shut up. I made no promises except tliat if tliey would 


move the show that night and set it up at the next town, I 
would meet with their representatives in the morning and 
try to work out their grievances. I think they knew I wished 
them well and that I appreciated the loyalty they had shown 
under increasingly difficult conditions. They roared accept- 
ance of my oflFer. The next day I sat down with them and 
negotiated a moderate wage increase. That was the last labor 
trouble we had that year. 

Being shorthanded, we tried harder than ever to maintain 
safety practices. But in anything like the circus, with its con- 
stant movement, the trains, and the ordered confusion on the 
lot— trucks moving in and out, tractors towing wagons and 
cages around in daylight and darkness— accidents were almost 
inevitable. Because it was well ordered and well organized 
they were kept to a minimum, but they did occur. 

For example, there were forty quarter poles, each weighing 
over six hundred pounds, to be set up and taken down every 
day. One night a lowering rope broke and a big quarter pole 
fell on poor old Cigarette Bill, a character who had been with 
the circus for many years, whom we all liked and respected. 
Les Thomas, our seat boss, was also once nearly killed by a 
falling quarter pole. 

Whenever it was possible to save a life we spared no ex- 
pense. In Oklahoma one of our young fellows, named Pat 
Graham, was an innocent bystander in a barroom shooting. 
He was hit by a bullet that went right through his chest. He 
was taken to a local hospital and I was notified. I grabbed 
a circus car and rushed there only to be told by the doctor 
in residence that it was only a question of time. There was 
nothing to be done because Pat had an internal hemorrhage. 

"Have you given him blood transfusions?" I asked. 

"No, we haven't," the doctor said. 

"Why the hell not?" 


"It would be a waste of blood," he answered. '^We can't 
stop the internal bleeding." 

I had just read an article in Time magazine about a new 
drug that caused quick coagiJation of blood. I asked if they 
had any, and the doctor said yes but he did not think it would 
work in this case. 

"You must try everything," I said. 

"Well, who's going to pay for it?" the doctor asked. 

I realized then that I was up against the old prejudice and 
distrust of circus people. Evidently even yet they were re- 
garded as not quite human. In a rage I pledged the credit of 
Ringling Brothers, and my chauffeur and I volunteered our 
blood for the transfusion. Graham's life was saved. 

Sudden windstorms were always a menace to our acres of 
canvas. Once at Chattanooga we were tearing down in near- 
tornado winds. We dropped the Big Top, and the men rushed 
from the sides along the lines of lacing undoing them so the 
canvas would be rolled up. This night two canvas hands were 
on the center section, which was two himdred feet long and 
sixty feet wide. As they started imlacing it the wind tore 
underneeth, ballooning the great tent and hurhng the men 
high in the air. Down they came, and up again as though 
tossed in a gigantic blanket while canvas thundered and 
cracked with loud reports and the gale howled through the 
rigging like an old square-rigger taken aback. 

The Big Top gang just stood there laughing hilariously at 
those doll-like figures flying into the air to be caught on tlie 
billowing canvas and tossed up again. But I knew it was not 
funny. If the wind suddenly dropped, the poor boys might fall 
sixty or seventy feet to the ground. Shouting for the men to 
join me, I laid hold of a side rope. With dozens of hands 
hauling on the ropes, we brought the section down and 
landed our men unhurt. 

That same night a cloudburst hit us, and the lot was 


flooded. The wagons were mired to their axles, but we had to 
get moving. If one tractor failed to budge them we teamed up 
two or three or four. In the old days I have seen sixty horses 
hitched to one wagon and the teamsters cracking their bull 
whips to get them heaving in unison. Ordinary vehicles would 
pull apart under such a strain, but Bill Yeske built our wagons 
to take it. 

I was never in a serious train wreck, though I well know 
how terrible that could be. Sometimes, however, when the 
train made an emergency stop the wagons on the flats would 
break loose from their chocks and roll off. Our men— and the 
"trailers" sneaking rides on the train— might be sleeping under 
them in spite of our warnings. Three of them were killed in 
one such stop in South Carolina. 

Nor could we always prevent accidents among the per- 
formers. The thriU of watching men and women defy death 
is a traditional titillation for a circus audience, and there are 
plenty of performers willing to gratify this appetite. In fact, 
these professional daredevils resent safety precautions. Re- 
cently, when New York State law forced us to put a safety net 
under Harold Alzana while he performed his perilous feats 
on a wire stretched sixty feet high in the roof of the Garden, 
he was furious. "You're spoiling my act," he complained 

The menagerie was always hable to accidents. Sometimes 
it was sudden jungle madness, as when, in 1940, one of AMred 
Court's "friendly" cats attacked him, and in the roaring, spit- 
ting rhubarb that ensued in the big cage, his beautiful snow 
leopard was accidently killed. That same year eleven seals got 
loaded by mistake in a different section from their trainer. 
Without anyone to keep them wetted down, they all died of 
dehydration. A little later four polar bears suffocated because 
the attendant forgot to open the ventilators of their car in 
very hot weather. 


These were minor disasters. But because of their helpless- 
ness, a painful accident to one of our animals affected me 
more profoundly, perhaps, than the injury of a human being 
who knew and willingly accepted the risks of our business. In 
this connection, the most sickening sight I ever beheld ia 
peacetime occurred on August 4, 1942. 

We almost decided not to send the show out that year. 
Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war 
made the circus seem pretty frivolous. In addition, we did 
not see how we could recruit the necessary workers and we 
were well aware that an undermanned show was dangerous. 

In this situation we sounded out opinion in Washington as 
to the wisdom of continuing. It was almost unanimously in 
favor of it as a morale builder in a time of sorrow and pubhc 
uncertainty. As a result of these discussions we issued a state- 

"The Management of Ringling Brotliers-Bamum & Bailey 
Circus thinks it timely and fitting to state its pohcy and hopes 
for the future at this critical period in our national history. 
Through letters from many individuals, wdde editorial com- 
merft . . . and direct expressions from the country's Army, 
Navy, and pohtical leaders, it has been made clear that the 
pubhc wants The Greatest Show on Earth to carry on dining 
wartime. . . . President Roosevelt personally has expressed 
his appreciation of the fact that the Show is Going On. . . ." 

We then described the co-operation of draft boards and 
the Selective Service System in Washington in deferring key 
personnel; and the War Production Board's grants of priori- 
ties for necessary materials. We ended by expressing "our hope 
that our circus will continue just as our American Way of Life 
certainly wllll— John and Henry Ringling North." 

As key personnel, I was, of course, deferred; but I did not 
feel that I was quite that essential, so I enhsted in the Navy 


in the spring of 1942. However, the authorities did not see fit 
to call me for active duty luitil January 1943. 

We put on one of our greatest shows that year. It was staged 
by John Murray Anderson and designed by Norman Bel 
Geddes, We had the elephant ballet with Stravinsky music 
and Balanchine choreography. Even the programs were 
special, enhvened by Peter Arno's witty cartoons. 

From the point of view of attendance it was a banner year. 
Just as had been foreseen, the public flocked to the circus to 
find brief forgetfulness from grinding work and the terrible 
anxiety for their menfolk going overseas. From the point of 
view of operating a railroad show it was hell on wheels. 

There was never enough of anything. Every question of 
supply was a crisis; every move we made, which, of course, 
happened almost every day, was bedeviled by lack of man- 
power and shortage of equipment on die hard-pressed rail- 
roads. And every performance was a critical risk. 

My troubles began early. The first of them was over George 
Smith, our general manager. George was an old circus hand 
and a dear friend who knew all tlie intricate technicalities of 
moving the circus army. But infirmities gradually overcame 
him, and he kept getting worse. Finally it reached a point 
where he could no longer handle the show. 

We were on our way from Sarasota to New York with the 
great, long trains and had just reached the Jersey terminal, 
where we had to transfer the coaches and equipment to rail- 
road ferries to get across the Hudson. It became evident to 
me that George was in no condition to handle that complicated 
operation and get the show set up in the Garden. So I sent for 
Ardiur Concello and asked him if he thought he could take 


Arthur, who is a confident fellow, said, "I am sure I can." 

"All right," I said, "youVe got tlie job." 

That is how the great aerialist became general manager of 


Ringling Brothers— Bamum & Bailey Combined Shows. To- 
day he is executive director and a member of the board. It 
may seem strange to give a flier a position of such great 
executive responsibihty, but Arthur is an extraordinary man. 
Even when he was still very young, he was ambitious to be- 
come part of the management of the circus. He was interested 
in everything about it. He stayed on the lot late and got there 
early in the morning, studying all the various operations. He 
reahzed even then that the life of a flier cannot last long; for 
even if he escapes serious injury there is no escaping the 
slowdown of age. 

From 1938 on, John and I had watched the progress of this 
dynamic ConceUo, and when the moment came I gave him 
the post for which he had been fitting himself all those years. 
He performed wonderfully well in it. Later he threw his con- 
siderable fortune into the pot to help refinance the circus in 
one of our periodical fiscal crises. 

One of the things we feared most in 1942 was fire. Although 
fireproof canvas had been invented, the government needed 
an absolute priority of it. The Big Top was a compromise 
flame-resistant canvas that leaked. The other tents were the 
old-fashioned kind, waterproofed v^th a solution of paraffin 
and benzene. Baked in the blazing prairie sun they were 
terribly inflammable. We countered the danger by choosing 
lots with an ample water supply and surrounding the Big Top 
with our own fire-fighting equipment, fully manned with 
engines running. Nevertheless, our fears were tragically 

On the soft and sunny morning of August 4, 1942, our tents 
were pitched on a lakeside lot in Cleveland, Ohio, for a five- 
day stand. At eleven-thirty that morning the menagerie top 
suddenly flashed into fire. We never knew how it happened. 
One moment it was standing there normally in the sunshine, 
and the next it was a roaring inferno of flames hundreds of 


feet high. Three minutes later there was nothing left but 
charred, tottering poles, smoking bits of canvas, still-burning 
cages, and a wild confusion of frantic, tortured animals. 

Men rushed into the ruins through the smoke and the 
horrible stench of burning flesh to get the animals out. Walter 
McClain, boss of the bull men, shouted an order to his ele- 
phants. They pulled up their stakes and paraded out trunk to 
tail. But what a fearful sight they were! In some cases their 
flesh was peeling off in long sheets and their tliin, floppy ears 
were seared completely off. 

The camels would not move at all, but lay there looking 
calmly at us as they died. We snaked some of them out with 
tractors and saved their hves. Badly burned zebras were 
running wild all over the place. Giraffes galloped about 
frantic with fear. Dear old Edith jumped the fence and ran 
away down the avenue. We found her four hours later quite 

Many of the caged animals were cooked by the burning 
straw of their bedding. Om- wonderful veterinary, Dr. J. Y. 
Henderson, borrowed a pistol from a policeman and ran 
through the ruins shooting those suffering creatures whose 
cases were hopeless. The most terrible thing was that they 
suffered and died in utter silence with their eyes full of pain 
and wonder. 

To treat the animals who had a chance for life. Doc 
Henderson filled spray guns with a healing preparation called 
Foille and set men to spraying every creature in sight. He put 
ladders against the sides of the elephants and had tlie bull 
men with big paint brushes slathering Foille all over them. 
In that way many were saved. 

The matinee was canceled that day because everybody was 
taking care of the animals. But we gave the evening perform- 
ance to a packed house. It may appear heartless, but it was in 
the cherished tradition of the circus. 


When we came to count our losses the toll was terrible. 
Sixty-five animals died of burns— 4 elephants, 12 zebras, 2 
giraffes, 13 camels, an ostrich, 4 lions, 3 tigers, 4 Pinzgavens, 
3 pumas, 16 monkeys, 2 black bucks, and a sacred cow from 

Not one human being was injured. All John and I could 
tliink of was "Thank God it wasn't the Big Topi" 




In spite of our difficulties the 1942 season was the best we 
have ever had. The circus netted over $900,000 before taxes. 
This was a good thing and a bad thing; good, because it re- 
estabhshed the circus as a going institution and vindicated 
John's management; bad, because our dear relatives felt they 
no longer needed John. 


At the end of the season John and I decided that no matter 
how profitable it might be we were not going to take the 
show out again in wartime— I would be in the Navy in any 
event. We had nm it with as few as 350 workers and we 
needed 800 to do it right. This resulted in inefficiency, the 
stress and strain of overwork, and, most important of aU, 
danger to the public. The fire in the menagerie top was a 
terrible portent. In all its fifty-nine seasons our circus had 
never killed a single customer. We would not risk breaking 
that wonderful record. 

We knew we would have a difficult time convincing Edith 
and Aubrey Ringhng, who still held 63 per cent of the stock 
between them, that it was necessary to close the circus for 
the duration of the war. You may recall that under the agree- 
ment of 1937 John was to have control of the show for five 
years or until the note to the Manufacturers Trust Company 
was paid off. The five years was almost up, and the note had 
been hquidated, partly witli $450,000 in bonds which the 
federal government had released to the John Ringhng Estate 
and partly from the earnings of the circus. For the first time 
in many years, Ringling Brothers paid dividends in 1941 and 

Late in 1941, anticipating the end of the trust agreement, 
Aunt Edith and Cousin Aubrey had gotten together and 
signed a mutal contract to vote their majority stock together. 
In the event that they could not agree on how to vote it, their 
lawyer, Karl D. Loos, was to decide between them. This was 
knovioi as The Ladies' Agreement. Its purpose was to kick 
John and me out of the management of Ringling Brothers. 

We were perfectly aware of this mobihzation of strength 
against us. John made the first move in the summer of 1942. 
He wrote to Aunt Edith and Cousin Aubrey asking if they 
would sell him enough of their circus stock to give liim 51 per 
cent. They refused, as he expected. 


The showdown meeting of the board of directors was 
called for January 1943. At that time it consisted of, on our 

John Ringling North, president, Henry Ringling North, 
vice-president, and George Woods. 

On the ladies' side were Robert Ringling, Sr., vice- 
president, Edith C. Ringling, vice-president, and Aubrey B. 
Ringling, vice-president. 

Holding the balance of power was William P. Dunn, Jr., 
secretary and treasurer. 

John had prepared for the meeting very carefully. In his 
speech to the board he described the difficulties and dangers 
of the past year's operation, dwelling heavily on tlie fire 
hazard. He then offered two carefully thought-out alterna- 
tives. The first was to offer to run the circus for the United 
States Government for the duration of the war as a nonprofit 
national institution, playing wherever it was sent, especially 
for the benefit of servicemen. He had reason to befieve that 
President Roosevelt would accept the offer. If the circus came 
under government sponsorship it would receive much higher 
priorities, enabfing it to get fireproof canvas and operate 

John's second alternative was to keep the circus in Winter 
Quarters on a caretaker basis for the duration. He pointed out 
that the new excess-profits tax made it impossible for the 
circus to make any real money. Moreover, as the result of the 
carry-back and carry-over provisions of the tax law, Ringling 
Brothers could keep a much larger percentage of recent earn- 
ings and possible future earnings. The circus could tlierefore 
remain in Winter Quarters for two and a half years without 
suffering any serious loss. The $1,000,000 which it had in the 
bank would be ample to see it tlirough. At this point he rested 
his case. 

There ensued a sneering silence. Then the ladies voiced 


disgust with John's ideas and his management. Robert natu- 
rally went along with his mother. 

Aunt Edith was especially implacable. Stout, grim-faced, 
with her hat riding high on her white hair, she was a com- 
manding personality. In many ways she was a very lovable 
lady; but in other ways not so lovable. I believe she disliked 
John because his character resembled Uncle Jolm's, whom 
she could not abide. She resented my brother's unspoken 
attitude that "I've saved the circus and it's mine." Finally, 
she had a burning ambition to make her son Robert president 
of the circus. 

There was always a lot of jealousy in the distaflf side of the 
Ringling family. If the brothers had not had their strong 
German love of family to bind them together, and if they had 
ever listened to their various wives, I am sure they would 
never have stayed together in harmony all those years. This 
is one of the reasons why I believe that it was no wish of 
Robert's that got him into the circus business, but his mother's 

Aubrey Ringling, thin-faced and tense, peering rather 
nervously at the other directors through her rimless spectacles, 
was in a difiFerent position. In addition, Aubrey was in love 
with that same James A. Haley whom John had engaged to 
audit the estate. It seems probable that she, too, was ambitious 
—for her future husband. She married Jim Haley in 1943, and 
he became first vice-president and assistant to the president 
of Ringling Brothers. 

After the noisy argument the voting went as expected— up 
to a point. My brother and I and George Woods voted to 
accept John's proposal; Robert and the two ladies voted 
against it. Then, to our shocked surprise, Bill Dunn voted to 
continue operating the circus. Until then he had always 
thrown his deciding vote to us. Why he suddenly shifted 


puzzled and saddened us at the time, though I can now under- 
stand his reasons. 

Having no actual experience in running a circus, Dunn 
could not envision the difficulties and dangers of operating 
it shorthanded. He probably thought John was overstating 
them. He was basically a financial man, being a vice- 
president of tlie Manufacturers Trust, and as such, could see 
no sense in closing up a profitable operation. Especially since 
he knew that by the time the board met again in April the 
voting trust would have ended and the ladies would be able 
to elect anybody they chose. 

As soon as the vote was recorded John resigned, his black 
eyes snapping with anger. Robert Ringling was elected 
president of Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined 

As everybody had foreseen, at the stockholders' meeting in 
April the ladies elected five of the seven directors. My brother 
John and George Woods continued as minority directors with 
no power to control policy. I was oflF to the wars. The officers 
of the company were Robert Ringling, president, and James 
A. Haley, first vice-president and assistant to the president 
( my old spot ) . Bill Dunn continued as treasurer. 

Thus the management of The Greatest Show on Earth was 
entrusted to Robert, who had made his career in opera; a 
certified public accomitant who had never ridden a circus 
train; a banker; and to two matriarchs who actually owned 
control of it. 

( Now, for three years, everything I write is hearsay— backed 
by documents— for I was overseas. My war memories have no 
place in this book. I will only say that, not caring for the desk 
job tlie Navy had in store for me, I wangled my way into the 
OSS and was engaged in some exciting cloak-and-dagger 


work, which included participation in the African, Itahan, 
and Normandy campaigns and a brief appearance at the 
Battle of the Bulge. On the whole I found it more agreeable 
to be shot at by the Nazis than sniped at by my relatives.) 

Naturally Robert Ringling's first acts as president of the 
circus were to get rid of two of our top men. Leonard Bisco 
was replaced by Karl Loos as legal counsel, and George Smith 
returned as general manager, replacing Concello, who, how- 
ever, continued to stage the aerial acts. 

George Smith had pulled himself together. In the summer 
of 1943 he was loaned to the Army. Because of his vast 
experience with the circus, he successfully directed the train 
movements of hundreds of thousands of troops across the 
United States to ports of embarkation. In 1944 he returned 
to the circus, to his lasting regret. 

Robert Ringling's first season as president was a qualified 
success. The Big One made big money. However, he set up a 
smaller, European-type circus called "Spangles" to play in 
tlie Garden, which was a dismal flop. In spite of this there 
was a considerable over-all profit. 

A great deal was made in the circus publicity of the return 
of a "real" Ringling to head the show. The circus program 
featured a photograph of Robert beneath tlie famous picture 
of the five mustachioed brothers. The caption was: 


A Ringling son has taken his rightful place in the cir- 
cus sun. 

The mantle of the Ringling Brothers, the famous 
founders of the Ringling Circus, has been draped on 
the broad shoulders of Robert Ringling, son of the 
late Charles Ringling, one of the most brilliant show- 
men that ever lived. 

Raised with the circus under the tutelage of his illus- 
trious father, Robert knows the Big Show inside 


out. . . . His father and uncles (see picture), . . . the 
most powerful and successful group of amusement pur- 
veyors in the world, have a worthy scion. 

In Robert Ringling the circus dynasty Hves on as they 
would have it. 

Even in a book as outspoken as this one, Brother John's 
comments on this flimflammery are unprintable. 

The season of 1944 started well for the circus. As usual, it 
made a nice profit in the Garden. On the road it was playing 
to near-capacity audiences. However, the manpower problem 
had become even more acute. This was the very peak of the 
war effort— D Day and our armies pouring into Normandy, 
and the great steppingstone advance through the Pacific 
islands toward Japan. There was virtually no such thing as 
unemployment. What men could be recruited as razorbacks 
and roustabouts were almost imemployable except for a few 
faithful old-timers. 

Nevertheless, Robert Ringling was satisfied with the results, 
and sure that the decision to carry on the show had been a 
wise one. However, he was not in good health, and after a 
bit, he went to his home in Illinois, leaving Jim Haley in com- 
mand of the train. 

On July 6, 1944, the circus was playing Hartford, Connecti- 
cut. The forty-one tents stood on a lot close to town. It was 
admirably situated for accessibility; but there were only two 
fire hydrants on it. Since our fire-resistant Big Top had proved 
to be unsatisfactorily waterproofed, the new management had 
abandoned it in favor of the old paraffin-benzene-treated 
canvas, which was admittedly more watertight. On that day 
boss canvasman Leonard Aylesworth was in Evanston confer- 
ring with Robert Ringling. 

Tlie standing rule was that during the performance tractors 
vidth the circus' fire-fighting equipment were to be marshaled 


outside the tent with engines turning. For some reason tractor 
boss David Blanchfield had not ordered them into position. 
Fire extinguishers were normally placed under the seats. Be- 
cause the show was so shortlianded, they had not been un- 
loaded from the train at Hartford. 

It was a typical July day, hot and muggy with thunder 
over the horizon. Because of the threatening storm George 
Smith and Fred Bradna wisely decided to shortchange the 
customers. Three of the opening displays were canceled. 

Despite the unpleasant weather the people of Hartford 
were in a holiday mood. Many of them had taken a long 
Fom'th-of-July weekend. It was a wonderful opportunity to 
take the children to the circus. There were eight thousand 
people in the tent when the opening spec began its trium- 
phant procession around the arena. 

After the spec the clowns kept the kids roaring with laugh- 
ter while the cage was rigged for Alfred Court's wild-animal 
act, which had been moved back from first to sixth place that 
year. A runway of steel mesh through which tlie cats entered 
and left the cage led across the back hippodrome track, wliich 
was partially blocked while it was in place. 

In the condensed schedule decided upon, tlie Wallendas 
followed the clowns with their tremendously dangerous high- 
wire act. The show had now been rumiing for about twenty 

Photographer Dick Miller was standing near the end of 
Clown Alley looking up at the Wallendas. He saw a tiny spurt 
of flame running up a guy rope and yelled. A policeman on 
duty outside noticed a circle of flame "like the glowing end 
of a cigarette" burning the roof of the Big Top. It seemed to 
widen slowly. "Then it suddenly burst through in a big 
common flame and went roaring all around the place." It was, 
in fact, like the terrible flash of billowing fire when a gasoline 
tank bursts. 


Inside the tent Fred Bradna saw smoke at the main en- 
trance. His shrill whistle stopped the Wallendas in mid-air. 
They came sliding down the guy wires. Fred yelled to Merle 
Evans. Somebody made an announcement over the public- 
address system asking the audience to leave quickly, and the 
band burst into "The Stars and Stripes Forever," the tradi- 
tional circus signal of disaster. That was the last moment of 
order. Complete chaos ensued. 

With sun-baked canvas roaring in hundred-foot flames 
above them, the crowd went crazy. They stonned toward the 
main entrance toward the fire, and piled up against that fatal 
animal chute. Thousands more pushed behind, tramphng 
every small thing in their way, building up tremendous pres- 
sures that crushed and ground the life out of those in front. 
Others saved themselves by crawling out under the sides of 
the tent. Many tried to crawl back again to save beloved 
children lost in that first blind panic. 

Inside the tent performers and roustabouts were heroically 
saving lives. Fred Bradna, with his hair aflame, dragged eleven 
children out of "the monstrous pile in front of the animal 
chute" and shoved tliem to safety. Dick Miller, who gave the 
first warning, rescued many more. Countless others performed 
acts of heroism. 

But thousands of people stood trapped and helpless like 
cattle packed in a slaughterhouse pen while the holocaust 
above their heads made the interior of the tent a furnace. To 
the helpless onlookers, watching the soaring, roaring flames 
and black billowing clouds of smoke, it seemed impossible 
that anyone could still be ahve in that inferno. After eight or 
ten minutes the great main poles began to waver. Moaning ia 
anguish, people watched them totter and crash down like tall 
pines in a forest fire; down in fountains of sparks bringmg the 
remnants of burning canvas upon the heads of those within. 

Five minutes later it was all over. Where the Big Top had 


stood was a devastated oblong of blackened earth, with 
Court's great cage rising crazily above it, and against tliat 
fatal chute, a ghastly heap of humanity piled four and five 
deep. The living were writhing under tlie dead. And beneath 
them again were the small crushed bodies of the kids who 
had come to see the circus. 

I read about the fire in the Stars and Stripes at an OSS 
advance base in Normandy. I have no words to describe my 
sickened reaction— the "horrors of war" paled by comparison. 
One hundred and sixty-eight persons were killed— more than 
half of them children. Four hundred and eighty-seven were 
badly injured. 

John got the news in New York and immediately telephoned 
Robert oflFering to help in any possible way. He was curtly 
refused. Robert was in a state of shock, from which he never 
completely recovered. Poor Jim Haley bore the brunt of the 
storm. That night he, George Smith, David Blanchfield, seat 
boss James Caley, and lighting boss Edward R. Versteeg were 
arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter. A 
warrant was served on Leonard Aylesworth when he reached 

Before the scorched ground was cool the damage suits be- 
gan. Attachments were slapped on all that was left of the 
circus. It was evident that the claims would run into millions. 
The liability insurance carried by the chcus was only $500,- 
000. In this situation the sensible thing was to let Ringling 
Brothers go into bankruptcy and then buy it back at auction. 

I am proud to say we did no such thing. For once our entire 
family was in agreement that, cost what it might, our circus 
would pay its just debts. Our lawyer spoke for all of us when 
he said, "The Ringling family is not interested in escaping 
liability. It wants to help and it wants to carry on." 

In the crisis Jim Haley acted with prompt decisiveness. The 


first step was obviously to get the circus on the road again 
as rapidly as possible or nobody would get anything. Bonds 
were promptly posted to secure the release of the attachments 
—the officers were out on bail. The circus then retired to 
Winter Quarters and reorganized. It went out again in August, 
playing in stadia and ball parks without a Big Top, and ended 
the season with a small operating profit. 

Meanwhile circus lawyer Karl Loos called in an eminent 
colleague, Daniel Gordon Judge of Engel, Judge and Miller, 
to attempt to work out a plan for paying the claims. In con- 
sultation with dozens of lawyers representing the claimants 
and the Hartford Bar Association, he was able to negotiate 
the arrangement known as The Hartford Arbitration Agree- 
ment. Under it the circus accepted full responsibility for 
damages and left it up to a local arbitration board to decide 
what was to be paid. The circus was then to pay a "receiver," 
out of earnings, the amounts necessary to pay off these claims. 
The circus further agreed not to enter into any unusual ex- 
penses during the term of the agreement and to pay every 
cent of net profit to the claimants. 

At first John thought this was a bad deal, but he afterward 
changed his mind. Eventually the circus paid out nearly 
$5,000,000 in damages. 

A condition of the circus' assuming these vast liabilities was 
a "gentleman's agreement" that Haley, Smith, and the others 
would not be sent to jail. However, the Connecticut officials 
were not that gentlemanly. I suppose pubHc outcry for 
vengeance was too great for pohticians to ignore it. Haley, 
Smith, Ayleswortli, Caley, Versteeg, and Blanchfield were all 
brought to trial late in 1944. Robert Ringling was not in Con- 
necticut at the time of the fire and did not go there. 

When the trial began, the defendants threw themselves on 
the mercy of the court. Counsel for the defense claimed that 
Haley and the others were indispensable for keeping tlie 


circus running so that it could earn the money to pay the 
damage claims. Nevertlieless, they were sentenced to jail 
terms but allowed to go to Sarasota to get the show on the 

In April 1945 they all returned to Hartford to surrender to 
Judge Shea. Their counsel had entered motions for suspension 
of the sentences, again on the grounds of indispensability. 
They had brought Robert Ringling on an interstate subpoena 
to testify on their behalf. Robert made a poor witness. He did, 
indeed, testify that circus operation would be "desperately 
jeopardized" without these men. All he said about Jim Haley 
was "He is a great help to me." 

My brotlier had also been subpoenaed. He was far from 
unwilling. He gladly testified to his extremely unfavorable 
opinion of the management of the circus— he was beginning 
suit against Robert and Jim Haley for mismanagement. When 
asked if he considered "that the accused were indispensable 
to tlie running of the circus," he said tliat none of them was. 

Counsel for the defense attacked John's testimony on the 
grounds that he was anxious to regain control of the circus— 
which he was— and impHed that he thought himself the indis- 
pensable man— which he did. 

However, Judge Shea agreed with John. Jim Haley got a 
year and a day. The others were given more or less severe 
sentences. Only Blanchfield got oflF. He had testified that he 
was not indispensable and Judge Shea commended him as 
"tlie only one who told the truth." 



Never for one moment had John stopped trying to regain 
control of the circus— that was his Everest, his Promised Land. 
His first move was a very canny one. He went to see Jim 
Haley in jail in Comiecticut. 

At first Haley absolutely refused to see him. John persisted 


and Haley finally agreed to talk to him if the warden were 

When the two men met in the warden's ofiice of the jail, 
Haley naturally blew his top about John's testimony. My 
brother allowed him to let oflF steam for a while. Finally he 
said, "Now Jim, I was under oath to tell the whole truth. 
Everybody knew damn well I didn't think you were indis- 
pensable. What could I say?" 

Haley glumly admitted that John could not vouch for him. 
Then with real anger he started to talk about Robert Ringling. 
Jim thought that the president of Ringling Brothers had let 
him down; that he was interested only in saving his own skin. 
He believed that had Robert's testimony been more forcefully 
in his favor he would have been given a suspended sentence. 

Until then John had thought that calling on Jim Haley was 
a futile gesture, which he made only because he would leave 
no stone unturned to regain the circus. 

I came home from the wars in the summer of 1945, expect- 
ing to be reassigned to the Pacific. Then came the Bomb and 
V-J Day. I became a civilian again. The first thing I did was 
to try to get some sort of work with the circus— the only thing 
I was fitted to do. I was turned down cold. But from here on 
I was in the thick of tilings. 

Meanwliile John was trying to see Aubrey Haley. He failed. 
It appeared that Aubrey had an understanding with Robert 
that neither would talk to John without the other present. 
John tliought that this was due less to hostility on Aubrey's 
part than as a legal precaution because of his suit against them 
all for mismanagement of the cii'cus, which was progressing 

On Christmas Eve 1945 Jim Haley was released from jail. 
He had a deep sense of disgrace and dreaded returning to 
Sarasota. His fears were unjustified. His loyal friends there 


were convinced that he had unjustly taken the rap. They 
canceled a banquet for General Jonathan Wainwright, and 
instead, gave Jim a royal welcome home. A few years later he 
was elected United States Congressman from that district, a 
position he stiU holds. 

Two extraordinary things happened in the spring of 1946. 
First Aubrey sent for me. When I met her in Washington, 
D.C., she said, "How would you like to be president of the 
circus? I think I could get the others to agree if you want it." 

I was dumfounded. Then my brain began to work. "I'm 
awfully flattered by your confidence, Aubrey," I said, "but I 
wouldn't be a good choice for you. You want me to help you 
get rid of John. The first thing I'd do as president would be 
to turn the operation over to John, who has a lot more abihty 
than I have." 

That was that. 

Then John's friend Karl Bickel came to him and said that 
Haley was still very bitter against Robert, who had never gone 
to see him in jail or even written to him. Bickel indicated that 
Haley would make a deal that would put John back running 
the circus. There were, however, two conditions. The first 
was that Haley was to be president of Ringling Brothers. The 
second was that I was to have nothing to do with the show. 
Haley was still brooding about a caustic letter I had written 
him from North Africa. This was a weird switch from my talk 
with Aubrey. 

Just about then Haley and Robert had a real dingdong 
blazing row. Red-eyed with anger, Haley sent for John and 
told him that he wanted to be president of the circus for only 
one year, as a sort of vindication; that he wanted to pay tlie 
Hartford debt and then go fishing. John agreed to these 
conditions provided he could nm the show. 

In 1946 the stockholders' meeting again took place in 


April. This time it was Aunt Edith and Robert who got the 
unpleasant surprise. Aubrey, who was ill— either really or 
diplomatically— was not present. Jim Haley, holding her 
proxy, voted her stock with Brother John. What an unholy 
row ensued! Robert and Edith in outraged voices demanded 
that the stock be voted in accordance with The Ladies' Agree- 
ment. The arbitrator, Karl Loos, ruled that this must be done. 
Jim Haley told Loos where to go and voted with John. A new 
board of directors was elected, which named Haley president 
and John Ringling North executive vice-president of Ringhng 
Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows. 

John and Jim Haley went over to Madison Square Garden, 
where the circus was playing, and took over. When Robert 
and Bill Dunn came in stating that the election was illegal 
and demanding their rights as president and treasurer, they 
were politely but firmly ejected. 

So John once more came into control of his beloved circus. 
But for how long? He was in the saddle by courtesy of Jim 
and Aubrey Haley, who had voted against him before. Their 
right to vote their stock for him was challenged by Edith and 
Robert suing in Delaware under The Ladies' Agreement. 
Three hundred shares of the stock John had voted himself 
belonged to the estate of John Ringling. His own holding was 
still only seventy shares, a measly 7 per cent of the total. In 
plain fact, his position was more precarious than that of the 
Wallendas balancing a human pyramid on a bicycle travers- 
ing a sixty-foot-high wire with no net. 

John's authoritarian ways did not sit well with Haley. It 
soon began to appear that he was not content to be president 
in name only. Some heated arguments developed over policy. 
In spite of this the circus had a very good season. There were 
no profits taxes to pay because there were no profits— all the 
net earnings went to the victims of the Hartford fire. At the 


end of the 1946 season we paid over $1,000,000 to the receiver 
on their behalf. 

But John was involved in more lawsuits than a hyena has 
fleas. Robert was suing in New York for his salary as president; 
Edith in Delaware to declare the April election void. John, in 
turn, was suing them and the Haleys for $5,000,000 damages 
for mismanagement of the circus at the time of the fire. Also, 
the John Ringhng Estate was not yet settled. The federal 
government, the state of Florida, and a lot of private indi- 
viduals were suing it and Jolm as executor. 

In comparing John with the Wallendas I may have erred. 
He was more like a juggler trying to keep a sixty-four-piece 
dinner service in the air while standing on his head. How he 
ever kept it all straight in his mind I do not know. 

Ringling Brothers had been chartered in Delaware. Aunt 
Edith's suit to declare the April election void came to trial 
there in the fall of 1946. The lower court held in her favor. 
So Haley and John were thrown out and Robert came back as 
president— for three weeks. John appealed the case and got 
an injunction temporarily reinstating Haley and himself. 

At this point poor Robert, who I am convinced had never 
really wanted any part of this family squabble, had a stroke. 

John went off to Europe to sign new acts for the circus. 

Nineteen forty-seven was the year of decision. It began 
very badly with a flare-up between John and Haley. The latter 
wanted him to fire John Murray Anderson as producer of the 
show. John liked Anderson and thought that he made a great 
contribution to the beauty of the circus. In the course of the 
argument my brother said, "Anderson needn't worry you, Jim. 
After aU, I'm going to be president of tlie circus this year." 

"The hell you are!" said Haley. 

There went John's understanding that he was to succeed 
Haley at tlie end of a year. John immediately tried to induce 


Aubrey and Jim to sell him 140 shares of their Ringling 
Brothers stock, which, added to the 70 shares he owned and 
the 300 shares he controlled through the John Ringling Estate, 
would give him control of the circus with 51 per cent of the 
total stock. They refused to do so. Instead, Haley told Robert's 
son, young Jim Ringling, who was serving his apprenticeship 
with the circus, to write to his father tliat he, Haley, was ready 
to bounce John. 

Meanwhile, Daniel Judge had replaced Loos as adviser to 
Aunt Edith and Robert. Robert, recovering from his stroke, 
had lost all desire to run the circus. Therefore, Judge was 
faced with the problem of choosing between Haley and John. 
This was a splendid opening for John's "divide and rule" 

John decided to leave the circus train at Dallas and fly to 
New York. Evidently Jim Haley had an unhappy prevision of 
a triple cross. At tlie airport he said to John, "Don't make a 
deal with your Aunt Edithl" 

Of course, that is exactly what John did. In New York he 
called on Mr. Judge, with whom he had a long discussion. 
At their next meeting Leonard Bisco was also present. In these 
meetings John had tremendous leverage because his mis- 
management suit for $5,000,000 had won in the lower courts 
and was being appealed. He had no desire to wreck the cii-cus 
or impoverish Aunt Edith and Robert. He only wanted to run 
the show. 

In these circumstances an accord was soon arrived at. All 
suits were dropped. John personally agreed to pay Robert 
$7500 as partial compensation for his loss of salary as presi- 
dent, and Robert was to be chairman of the board at a nice 
salary. In return, he and Aunt Edith formally agreed to vote 
with John. 

When they heard of this new alliance, the Haleys knew 
they had been outmaneuvered. Almost immediately they 


agreed to sell their stock at a fair price to John and Robert. 
Robert agreed to buy 175 shares for $243,055.55, giving him 
and Aunt Edith a total of 490 shares, or 49 per cent. John 
agreed to pay $194,444.45 for 140 shares, which with the 370 
shares he already voted gave him 510 shares, or 51 per cent. 
The Haleys thus received $437,500, which in view of the 
tremendous fire claims still outstanding against the circus was 
more than fair. 

The only thing wrong with this deal was that John did not 
have $194,444.45. He had to raise it somewhere in a hurry. 
Eventually John and our mother put up $100,000. He raised 
the rest with the help of his favorite flier, general manager, 
and true friend, Arthur Concello. 

If the affairs of the circus seem complicated, they were like 
the child's game of musical chairs compared to the intricacies 
of the settling of Uncle John's estate, which was proceeding 
simultaneously. Although John and Mother were performing 
all the duties of executors of Uncle John's will, tlieir right to 
do so was not finally settled until July 22, 1947. Meanwhile, 
throughout the years most of the claims against the estate had 
been settled very advantageously to it. As I have said, the 
federal government's tax claim for $13,500,000 was settled in 
1946 for $850,000. 

However, as some suits were settled new ones cropped up. 
About 1945 the state of Florida suddenly sued the executors 
and trustees on the ground that the museimi and pictures 
were not being properly cared for. John proposed the idea 
to his fellow trustees, Randolph Wadsworth and myself, that 
we give it outright to the state, who would then be responsible 
for it. We agreed and wrote to Governor Caldwell of Florida 
making tlie offer. He referred our letter to former Governor 
Frank Carleton, who was prosecuting the suit against us. 
Carleton wrote us, "I am glad you have reached tliis con- 


elusion. I am sure it is to the best interests of all." He suggested 
February 9, 1946, would be a good day for the transfer. 

The proposal was an obvious solution of the problems. The 
state officials did not wake up to the disadvantages until the 
deed was done. 

John was taking no chances on their changing their minds. 
He set the presentation up in a blaze of publicity, and on 
the appointed day he and Mother and I formally and with 
lots of pictures gave Florida tlie museum, Ca' d'Zan, and the 
stock of the Rembrandt Corporation, which owned the 

Thus Florida now owned the whole works, but as yet there 
was no trust fund to maintain it. The officials suddenly 
realized that they had assumed a heavy financial responsi- 
bility. It made them awfully anxious to get the estate settled. 

This was still a b'emendously complex holding, consisting 
of the circus stock, oil wells ( about depleted ) , Florida real 
estate, a part interest in Al Ringling's theater in Baraboo, 
Wisconsin, and a great many odds and ends. If the normal 
administrative procedures were followed, all assets would 
have to be liquidated piece by piece, all pending litigation 
would have to be consummated, and, after a final accounting 
and payment of all legacies, the residue— if any— would be 
turned over to tlie trustees to be administered for the state of 

A few days after the presentation ceremony John was called 
to a meeting with Governor Caldwell at Tampa. The governor 
was decidedly unhappy. John describes him as "impatient, 
gruflf, and annoyed." He realized that the estate still owed a 
great deal of money, including some $960,000 to John and 
our mother for statutory executors' fees, and claims of New- 
man and Bisco for legal fees of $640,000. 

They discussed ways of winding it up quickly. The more 
the governor heard about the complicated holdings, the less 


hopeful he became of a quick settlement. Finally he said, 
'%Vhy don't you fellows buy out the state of Florida and wind 
it up yourselves?" 

John kept a poker face, but I am sure there were sparks in 
his eyes. This was his chance to get that circus stock. 

It had not been possible for the estate to pay legal fees 
during the course of the prolonged htigation, so the next step 
was a meeting between Jolm and Leonard Bisco and the 
latter's partner, Sydney Newman. As a result of this discussion, 
it was agreed that if the residuary estate was purchased from 
the state of Florida, the lawyers would share in the purchase 
on a 40-60 per cent basis. 

Then began the long, delicate negotiations with tlie 
Florida oflRcials. The museum and the works of art— assessed 
at $15,000,000— were the greater part of the estate. What re- 
mained after the settlements so far made was valued as fol- 

Sarasota real estate 


Oklahoma oil interests 


300 shiires of circus stock 


Theaters in Wisconsin and 





Against this were estate liabilities of about $2,000,000, leaving 
a dubious net worth of approximately $1,400,000. I say 
"dubious" because at that time it was doubtful if the assessed 
valuation, which was higher than the depressed values of the 
time, could be realized if the holdings were sold. 

John's first offer to Governor Caldwell was to give the state 
$500,000 clear and assume all obligations of the estate. 
Robert got into the act and bid $550,000. Both ofiFers were 
turned down by the Florida officials. The negotiations con- 
tinued from March 1946 to October 1947. The state jibbed 
and jibed, and John's syndicate, which consisted of Mother, 


John, and Newman and Bisco, kept up a steady pressure. 
There were oJffers and counteroffers, as state officials whirled 
like weathercocks under the shifting winds of public opinion 
and local political pressures. Various outside interests tried 
to muscle in. 

Finally, on August 19, 1947, John and Bisco went to Florida 
for a showdown meeting with Governor Caldwell and his 
cabinet. The weather that day was hot and humid, but in 
the cabinet room the atmosphere was icy. Hostility was 
written on all but a few faces. Governor Caldwell looked im- 
placable. He immediately suggested that the session be 

John, thinking fast, said, "I believe it is customary for the 
press to be present at cabinet meetings in Florida. We have 
nothing to hide. We are going to make a fair offer. I think 
the press should stay." 

The press stayed. 

John and Leonard Bisco then made a series of alternative 
proposals. Each one was buffeted around the table getting 
nowhere. It was evident that the officials did not want to 
make any agreement. To force their hands, John said in a 
very stagy whisper to Bisco, "Find out how much they will 
take." He said it four times, loud enough for the governor to 
hear, loud enough for the reporters to hear. Thus prodded, 
Caldwell proposed that he and his cabinet withdraw to confer 
in private on a price. 

After twenty minutes or so they marched back into the 
room and took their places at the table. Somewhat trium- 
phantly, Governor Caldwell announced, "Gentlemen, we have 
decided on a figure. We will accept $1,250,000." 

Bisco shot to his feet as though stung by a bee. "We can't 
do it!" he said. 

John hauled him dov^ni. "We've got to," he whispered 
fiercely. "It's our last chance." 


"There isn't that much cash," Bisco said. 

"We'll raise it," John countered. "Tell them we accept." 

Reluctantly Bisco stood up. "Governor and gentlemen," he 
said, "Mr. North and I accept your proposition." 

From then on things moved rapidly. The Florida press had 
given our offer great publicity. The tone of their comment 
was that the governor had made a fine deal for his state. 
Warmed by their approval, Caldwell became enthusiastic. De- 
tails as to how the fund was to be set up and when the install- 
ments were to be paid into it were quickly ironed out. The 
final contract provided that $500,000 would be paid into the 
state fund within ninety days of signing; and that the remain- 
ing $750,000 was to be a mortgage against the assets of the 
estate payable over a period of five years. The contract was 
signed on October 8, 1947. 

Now all that remained to be done was to find the money. 
By this time some of the assets had been sold, so there was 
$200,000 in cash. That left $300,000 to be raised, of which, 
according to the 60-40 deal witli Newman and Bisco, John 
and Mother had to raise 60 per cent, or $180,000. 

Remember that all this time John had also been involved 
in the negotiations with Aunt Edith, Robert, and the Haleys 
over the circus stock. That deal went through almost simul- 
taneously, and he had to get the money to finance that 
purchase as well. Nobody but a rampant optimist would have 
dreamed of trying. No one but a supersalesman could possi- 
bly have pulled it off. 

John's next move was to talk with Newman and Bisco about 
the circus stock. While tliey were willing to let John have the 
voting rights without any payment, he wanted to own the 
stock. "I've got to have it all," John said. 

"If you want it tliat much you'll have to buy our forty 


per cent interest in it or assign other assets," Newman said. 

"What do you consider it worth?" he asked. 

Newman answered that the 300 shares were worth $500,- 
000, which was the release value in the Florida agreement. 
John said it was worth no more than $450,000. This was in 
accordance with the facts. After arguing for a while, John 
said, "All right, we'll toss a coin to see if it's $400,000 or 

They tossed and he lost. 

This was the one serious blunder my brother made in all 
these very intricate negotiations. He was so emotionally in- 
volved in securing control of the circus that his customary 
shrewdness completely deserted him. He was, in fact, a sucker 
for the circus. Since the valuation of $500,000 forced him to 
pay $200,000 instead of $160,000 for Newman and Bisco's 40 
per cent share, that little coin flying through the air cost him 

An agreement was then made between the lawyers and 
John giving him an irrevocable option to buy their share of 
tlie circus stock and an irrevocable proxy to vote it meanwhile. 

Somehow John and Mother and I and Arthur Concello 
raised the money to complete these transactions. How it was 
done is too involved a story to tell here, and is beside the 
point in a book about our circus. It's enough to say that we 
mortgaged everything we had, including our immortal souls. 

However, it was worth it. Due to an era of gieat prosperity, 
John's good judgment, and a lot of luck, the properties 
acquired from Uncle John's estate have increased enormously 
in value. Most important of all, John at last owned a control- 
ling interest in the circus. And peace descended upon our 
embattled family— for a while. 



As soon as Jolin was definitely assured of control of the circus 
he and I set about modernizing it further. Though its gross 
earnings were climbing due to increased prices for seats, ex- 
penses were going up at a much higher rate. We would not 
try to counteract tliis by cheapening the show. The only 


answer was greater efficiency. For a while this policy was 
effective, but in an inflationary era it was like building sand 
forts against a flood tide. 

In the 1948 Circus Magazine I wrote, "Ten years ago we 
thought we had done quite a job of modernization. When I 
look back now and see what has been accomplished it appears 
to have been only a beginning. . . ." 

Of course, from 1946 on all our canvas was flameproof. 
Then Ai'tliur Concello brought to the circus a portable steel 
grandstand, which is generally considered the greatest inno- 
vation in circus techniques since Barnum put the show on 
rails. This invention, which we used for the first time in 1948, 
consisted of big dual-wheeled trucks which looked like stain- 
less-steel van trailers. When we came onto a lot tlie Big Top 
went up first with its sides bare. Jeeps backed the trucks into 
it at uniform intervals around its perimeter. Theii" machinery 
began to grind, and great steel wings carrying upholstered 
seats and bleachers rose up and spread gently out until they 
almost touched those of the tiucks on either side. The pitch of 
the grandstand was supported by the main frame of the trucks 
and sixteen tubular-steel wing jacks. These were adjusted 
to inequalities of the ground and the decks dovetailed to f onn 
a single steel-floored structure broken only by spaces for exits. 
Steel safety stairways were part of the package. 

The twenty-seven units for a grandstand to seat ten thou- 
sand people cost us $250,000. Never was money better spent. 
I have described the laborious business of building a wooden 
grandstand every day. That took over four hours and dozens 
of hands. The new grandstand could be erected in fifty-five 
minutes by comparatively few workers. As a fringe benefit, 
the enclosed part of the trucks could then be used as dressing 

Concello's innovations did not stop with the new grand- 
stand. He designed aluminum side poles and quarter poles— 


the latter weighed 50 per cent less than the 675 pounds of the 
wooden quarter poles— and he persuaded the Aluminum 
Company of America to design a machine that would extrude 
them. The only reason the main poles were not made of the 
same light metal was that the Aluminum Company was not 
able to devise a method of maldng a pole sixty-seven and one 
half feet long, 

Another change in which Concello had a hand was using 
steel cables and a winch on the main falls for hoisting the 
bail rings, instead of the inch-and-one-half manila rope we 
had always used. Before this it took fifteen men to handle 
their i5oo-pound weight dry. When wet, they were almost 
twice as heavy. 

Other improvements of this period were a light, easily 
assembled steel-mesh cage for the animal acts, and the new 
method of bringing the cats into the arena in small individual 
cages which were then hooked together to form a chute which 
did not obstruct any exit. 

We increased efiiciency in many less noticeable ways. In 
the cookhouse, which still served over four thousand meals a 
day, we put all the mechanization of a big hotel, steam kettles, 
dishwashers, and so fortli. We devised improvements in load- 
ing and unloading the trains and dozens of other smaller 
things, which for a time enabled technology to keep pace 
with inflation. 

In fact, 1948 was our best postwar year. Our somewhat 
overenthusiastic press agent Frank Braden wrote: 

"Spectacular has been the Big Show's 1948 season- 
spectacular in its triumphant coast-to-coast tour, ... its 
phenomenal grosses, and in its never-to-be-forgotten perform- 

"The Madison Square Garden engagement was out of the 
cosmic dream books. Enough people were turned away during 
that epochal run to fill the Yale Bowl tlmce over. In Boston, 


. . . Washington, Baltimore, turnaways reigned. The Mid- 
west was equally profitable. . . . The take-off for the first big 
railroad zooms— Kansas City to Denver and more stampede 
business . . . Spokane, Seattle and Portland. . . . 

"Like a river of platinum, the four long railroad trains, 
silver-enameled and stream-lined in Ringling Red, swept 
majestically down from tlie high North to San Francisco. In 
the Cow Palace we had an all-time record intake in seven 
performances there, with thousands turned away each night. 
. . . [And so on and so on around the whole big country.] 

"'Twas a long, hard season, a glorious season, but if you 
don't think it was a tough one, you weren't with it. 

"But, Brother, will it stand out long after all of us are gone 
as the One for the BIG PLUSH BOOK, the Master Ledger. 

"Here are the top reasons why: 

"John Ringling North produced for 1948, the greatest, the 
finest circus perfoiinance ever seen on land or sea. His policies 
were Big Show, Big Business, Geared for Glory and for Gold. 

"Arthur Concello's expert management . . . Henry Ring- 
ling North ... a tower of strength while his brother was in 
Europe engaging attractions . . . Frank McClosky ever 
poised to meet crises and go to town like a bat out of heU 
. . . Pat Valdo . . . wise and funny. . . . 

"There are so many good men who should be mentioned 
here. Big Executives and big agents, too, and the guys who 
moved Big Bertha, put her up and down, advertised her, rail- 
roaded her; and cherished her welfare above their own." 

Thus Frank Braden, a man we paid to write for us and a 
good friend; so, of course, traditionally exaggerated and 
overly fulsome. Nevertheless, it does give a reasonably accu- 
rate description of that wonderful year in which John intro- 
duced for tlie first time in America such famous stars as Unus, 
"Upside-down gravity-defying, equilibristic Wonder of the 
World"; tlie great juggler Francis Brunn; Cucciola, the midget 


equestrian clown; and nine other new imports from Europe 
and the Orient in addition to our grand old stand-bys. 

The charming opening spec "'Twas the Night Before 
Christmas" featured "Santa Claus and His Merry Artisans" 
and "The Noel Gnomes' Night Out," while one of the pro- 
duction numbers was the "Monte Carlo Ballet" with sixty girls 
whirling on spin riggings, "Roulette Revolves in Rhythmic 
Flights"; and the finale, "The Circus Ball," in which the stag 
line consisted of high-hatted dancing elephants supported by 
"enchanting debutantes and Careening Clowns." 

As Braden implied, I had the train for three months that 
summer; and I thoroughly enjoyed it. For all its modernization 
and Broadway production numbers this was still the old 
circus that I loved. Many friends whom I had known since 
boyhood were still with it; and all those wonderful new 
people had joined us. 

Of these, Unus, whom my brother found working in a night 
club in Barcelona in 1946, was perhaps the most astounding. 
He was originally a Viennese named Franz Furtner, who took 
the name Unus from the Latin for the number "one." I think 
that his hand-balancing act was one of the greatest of its kind 
the world will ever know. He always wore wliite gloves when 
working, but for the finale of his act he would take them oflF 
and exhibit his bare hands to the audience to show there was 
no gimmick. Then he would put them back on, and getting 
on top of a huge electric-light bulb, made especially for liim 
by General Electric, he would balance himself on his index 
finger with his feet straight up in the air. 

We never knew whether he applied some sort of brace by 
sleight of hand when he put the gloves back on, but as Aunt 
Edith, who adored watching Unus, said, "Even if he has got 
a gimmick, it's a whale of an act." 

We still had Bill Heyer and his horses widi the show, and 

"geared for glory and for gold" 349 

John brought over Roberto de Vasconeallos, a former 
Portuguese bullfighter who was also a superb horseman. Both 
these men tramed their own horses, not only for dressage but 
also liberty horses. They would work as many as sixteen liberty 
horses at one time. Another great horse trainer, who is still 
with us, was Polish Charlie Moroski. His real name was im- 
possible— Czeslan Mroczkowski. 

Liberty horses are very difficult animals to train; in some 
respects more difficult than elephants or cats. It takes great 
patience, skill, and an intimate knowledge of horses: a horse 
is not terribly bright, and at the same time he is big, so much 
bigger than a man that you cannot place him as you would 
a dog. You cannot use fear, as with the larger wild animals, 
for if you punish a horse too much you'll break his spirit and 
thereby ruin a good performer. So you have to do it just right. 

First you must make him ring-wise. Then you train him 
singly to do simple tricks. After that you make your horses 
perform two at a time, then three, four, and five together, 
building it up to as many as sixteen, all performing in unison. 
The patience required for that sort of training is unbelievable. 
I love horses myself and I have often watched Heyer, and 
Roberto, and Moroski working up an act. It is a wonder to me 
that they did not lose their minds long before the horses 
acquired a similitude of sense. 

Then there were the clowns. I have always loved clowns. 
There is nothing unique about that; I think almost everybody 
does. I suppose the most famous one we ever had was sad- 
faced Emmett Kelly, the incarnation of the tramp in all of 
us, who succeeded in combining the techniques of the great 
European clowns with the American walk-around style. This 
was very difficult to do. The classic clowns of Europe, wear- 
ing their traditional costumes, are often fine musicians and 
jugglers as well. The great ones, as typified by the Frataluii 


Brothers and the late Crock, also use a great deal of dialogue 
and work to the whole audience for as much as fifteen minutes 
or even half an hour. 

But such as these have seldom succeeded in America. On 
several occasions John has imported fine European clowns. 
They were wonderful performers, but they got lost in the vast 
spaces of our three-ring arenas and their talents were wasted 
on our audiences, who were not used to having their attention 
commanded for so long a time. They prefer the walk-around 
type of clowning with laughs based on quick sight gags and 
comic properties such as three-foot cigars, water-spouting 
hats, and wired-on pursuing skunks. 

That Kelly was able to estabHsh something of the European 
clown's rapport with his audience was a tribute to his great- 
ness. Otto Greibling, who works for us now, is one of the great 
European clowns who succeeded in adapting liimself to 
American techniques. 

Every year we used to have some amateur clowns with the 
show. Since the run-of-the-mill, walk-around type of clown- 
ing requires no great experience, you can dress a person up in 
an absurd costume and other clowns can show him how to 
put on a white face. We have had many friends throughout 
the years who lead perfectly normal lives most of the time, 
but have an overpowering urge to join the circus. These 
people take their vacations by working for us as clowns. To 
live the ordinary life of a clown is part of their enjoyment. 

I remember a man called Harper Joy, a vice-president of 
one of the big banks in Spokane, who joined the circus every 
fall for the ten days or two weeks of his vacation. Joe Ward, 
a rich building contractor from Texas spent his vacations 
clowning for many years. 

The best and most serious of our temporary clowns was 
Bill Ballantine. I met him in Clown Alley and learned that he 
was an artist who had decided that he loved the circus. He 


joined it for his own amusement and in the expectation of 
getting background material for his art. He was with us for 
several seasons, at the same time doing his art work success- 
fully on the side. In later years he also worked at his regular 
profession for the cii^cus. He did some very good display work 
for the menagerie and redesigned the side shows for us one 

Bill Ballantine went even further in his affair with the 
circus. He fell in love with one of our circus girls. He married 
her and so far they have produced five httle circus faus. I 
have hardly spoken of one great traditional adjunct of 
the circus— the side shows. They appeal to the barbaric side 
of human nature, which enjoys looking at the distortions of 
the human form. A few of those we had with the show at one 
time or another included: 

Fredia Bushnick, The Armless Wonder 

Mr. and Mrs. Fischer, Giants 

Miss Musette, The Legless Marvel 

Lorina, Sword Swallower 

Major Mite and Family of Midgets 

Ima Sight, Fat Girl 

Cliko, Wild Man from Borneo 

Iko and Eko, Ambassadors from Mars 

When you knew them as well as I did, these freaks, or 
"strange people," as Bamum billed them in England in 
deference to British susceptibilities, were neither freakish nor 
strange, but nice ordinary people with extraordinary phy- 
siques. Many of them became close friends of mine. I have 
spoken of my long friendship with Cliko. Iko and Eko were 
weird-looking albino Negroes from Richmond, Virginia. Their 
skins were a glistening white, much whiter than white folks, 
and their hair looked like lamb's wool. 

I always felt sorry for the giants, who were apt to be un- 
happy and unhealthy— they seldom lived very long. Robert 


Wadlow was the tallest man on record— nearly nine feet— but 
the poor fellow could hardly walk. My fayorite giant was Jack 
Earl, who stood' eight feet tliree in his cowboy boots. Jack, 
whose real name was Jacob Erlich, was a nice Jewish boy 
from El Paso, Texas. He happened to walk onto the lot there 
one day and Clyde Ingalls said, "Come oyer here, boy. I want 
to talk to you." 

"Yes, suh," said Jack. 

"Now stand up against that side wall." 

Clyde got a tape measure and checked what he thought 
he saw. Then he said, "Boy, how'd you like to be a giant?" 

"I reckon I am one already." 

"Yes, but how would you like to work at being one for us? 
There's good money in it." 

That is how we got our second-tallest giant. Jack worked 
for us for many years. He was quite a clever sculptor and 
used to take lessons at the art school Uncle John had founded 
in Sarasota. Like so many of his kind, he died in his early 

Midgets, or the "little people," as they prefer to be called, 
are usually healthy and gay. They must not be confused witli 
dwarfs, who are misshapen in some way. The little people are 
perfectly formed, often highly intelligent human beings who 
just stopped growing. The smallest one we eyer had was 
Major Mite, who we claimed measured only thirty-one inches 
in height— though tliat may haye been slirinking things a bit. 
Unlike most of his colleagues, Major Mite had a wretched 
disposition. Great big men were frightened by his towering 

Quite different was my close friend Harry Earle. Most 
midgets have perfectly normal brothers and sisters, but the 
Earles, who were known professionally as the Doll Family, 
were an exception. They were four delightful little people- 
though they had several regular-sized brotliers and sisters. 

"geabed for glory and for gold 353 

In addition to Harry, there was Gracie and Tiny ( the smallest ) 
and Daisy, who was very pretty. Daisy grew quite a bit in 
her twenties, after most people stop, so she became quite a 
big midget. 

Harry was the most talented member of the family. He was 
an excellent actor and in wintertime made a number of 
pictures in Hollywood, including a part with Lon Chaney in 
The Hunchback of Notre Dame. 

I think the greatest side-show attraction we ever had was 
back in the days when Uncle John was running the show and 
I was serving my apprenticeship. It was the Ubangis, or Big 
Lips. Uncle John rented these ladies, who wore wooden disks 
as big as dinner plates in their lips, from their tribal chief 
and brought them to America in 1931. They came out of 
the Congo to civilization with absolutely no preparation. They 
were miserably lonely and unhappy and did not even get paid 
—the chief took all. The poor things were always cold. One 
time they built a fire to keep themselves warm in their rail- 
way car and set it afire. In fact, they behaved like naughty 

When they ate they took the disks out of their lips, so they 
hung down like great fleshy awnings over their mouths. They 
lifted the awning with one hand and poked food in with the 

But we had some gay experiences with these ladies. When 
anything annoyed tliem they shed the few clothes they wore. 
One time in Boston they were up on their platform in the 
menagerie when something made them mad. They took off 
all their clothes and ran through the crowds stark naked with 
some of us dashing after them with blankets in an endeavor 
to salvage Boston's well-known propriety. 

The youngest and prettiest was Princess Camala. Perhaps 
she was not the prettiest by Ubangi standards, for her lips 


were not as large as those of the others. She took a liking to 
me because I talked a little primitive French with her. I used 
to bring her insignificant little presents from the ten-cent store 
—glass beads and lengths of copper wire, which she liked to 
wind around her arm. My most successful present was a 
child's straw hat with a rubber band to hold it on, a toy 
umbrella, and dark glasses with wliite rims. She insisted on 
wearing the whole works in the spec that evening so that 
everyone could see her finery. 

Naturally this did not please Uncle John and I caught 
hell. But the Princess was so enchanted that she tried to se- 
duce me. Much as I hated to hm-t her feelings, I had not the 
stomach for it. But we were friends. 

If I have neglected many of my good friends among the 
workers, it is not for lack of affection on my part or lack of 
picturesque qualities on theirs. I could write another whole 
book about them— Waxy Panzer, our wonderful old harness 
maker, who went blind and still made the best harness ever; 
Mike Kerry, who painted the wagons and was a specialist on 
sunburst wheels; Captain Curtis, our great boss canvasman; 
dozens and dozens more whom I hold close in my memory. 

The reason I knew all our people so well and had such a 
warm feeling for them was that I was their foster father. The 
circus was a paternalistic institution— it had to be. For most of 
the performers and workers were, by the necessities of their 
way of life, homeless, rootless people. In joy or trouble they 
had no one to confide in or turn to for help except the circus 
management. Keeping them happy was one of my jobs. I 
helped them with quantities of good advice, small loans from 
tlie red wagon, and big hospital bills. Sometimes I lectured 
a perfoiTner's rambunctious child; or congratulated one who 
had gotten into college; or arranged a quick marriage for a 


girl who had gotten into trouble. The fact that they trusted 
me and confided in me made me love them. It was, as I said, 
just one of my many jobs with the ciicus. But it was the most 
important and the most rewarding. 

Of all the strange and wonderful people whom I knew in 
the circus at one time or another, one of the most extraordinary 
did not belong there at all. He was Cecil B. De Mille, who 
produced the film called The Greatest Show on Eaiih. 

For a long time John had been talking with David Selznick 
about a circus picture, and contracts were actually signed 
for it. However, Selznick had difficulty financing it, and in 
1948 he told John that it was only fair to release him from 
the contract though he still hoped to do it some day. 

Word of this got around Hollywood, and while we were 
in the Garden that spring De Mille approached us. Contract 
negotiations took a long time, but they were finally signed. 
De Mille joined the show on the road in the summer of 1949. 
He had quite an entourage with him, including his woman 
Friday, Miss Gladys Rosson, who was secretary-treasurer of 
Cecil B. De Mille Productions; Fred Frank, a top screen 
writer; and C.B.'s freckle-faced, wide-eyed granddaughter, 
Cecilia De Mille Calvin, aged thirteen. What fun we had 
showing her our wonderful world and reliving our own youth- 
ful rides on the circus trainl 

C.B., short and stocky, big nose, white hair, red face, always 
dressed in a white open-collar shirt, gray riding breeches, and 
field boots, which were the uniform of his profession back in 
the silent days. But that was the only thing uniform about 
him. He was indefatigable and unpredictable. At every show, 
every afternoon and every night, he mingled with the cii'cus 
crowds as they poured in, listening and making notes. While 
the show was on he was running around the Big Top, followed 
breathlessly by Miss Rosson and Fred Frank, squinting 


through his finder to study camera angles, giving suggestions 
to Frank, dictating to Miss Rosson, and scribbUng notes for 
his own use. 

At Madison, Wisconsin, on August 12, his sixty-eighth 
birtliday, he had himself hoisted in a bosun's chair to the very 
peak of the Big Top, where he remained for more than an 
hour, swaying gently as he peered down on the aerial and 
high-wire acts. He was like a kid seeing the circus for the first 
time in his delight. 

And what a companion he was at our little dinners in the 
Jomar! Every place we stopped reminded him of stories of 
the time at the turn of tlie century when he had trouped over 
this same ground in a Shakespearean road company. When we 
played Bemidji, Minnesota, he addressed the chamber of com- 
merce and they made us all honorary members of the Paul 
Bunyan Association. 

He could stay with us for only two weeks, but we welcomed 
him back when we got to California and he was just as ener- 
getic. His genius, in part at least, really was "tlie capacity for 
taking infinite pains." 

Meanwhile his writers had been busy on the screenplay. 
C.B. wanted a thrilling, Hollywood-type plot set against the 
bizarre, exciting background of the circus world. And that, of 
course, is what he got. We can hardly quarrel with his judg- 
ment as far as the popularity of the picture is concerned. 

After the writing came the shooting, much of it in Sarasota. 
We had a fine time with it that winter of 1949-50. Mother, 
who was nearing eighty, enjoyed it as much as any of us. 
They came to Sarasota with a tremendous crew, including, of 
course, the stars Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde, who were 
fliers in the picture. We devoted all of our facihties to De 
Mille, putting up the Big Top and staging the show day after 
day, while the city of Sarasota co-operated entliusiastically, 


permitting us to put on the great circus parade in the grand 
old manner. 

De Mille could be very different on the set from the gre- 
garious, socially lovable man we knew. He stalked about fol- 
lowed by his special chair boy, who carried a high-cushioned 
stool, wliich could also be turned on its side to make a low, 
comfortable seat. C.B. used it for leaning or sitting and since, 
like Queen Victoria, he never looked back when he sat, the 
poor boy had to be nimble and quick to decide whether he 
wanted the high stool, low stool, or leaning stool. He never 
missed. But I shudder to think of his fate had he guessed 
wrong and allowed that Very Important Bottom to crash to 

I remember watching De Mille's technique in getting the 
best out of his actors. As a director he was as deliberately 
schizophrenic as JekyU and Hyde, changing in a flash from a 
soft-spoken gentleman to an absolute demon. I first saw his 
Hyde with an actor who was playing one of the daring fliers. 
In the first scene, where the actor had to get up on the tra- 
peze, he did so with all the agility of one of Pallenberg's bears 
and sat looking utterly miserable although tlie net was rigged 
only a few feet below him. De Mille yelled at him, "Act! Act! 
Don't just sit up there looking scared to death." 

In a resigned way, the actor said, "But Mr. De Mille, I am 
an actor, not a circus performer." 

To which De Mille shouted back, "That's a matter of opin- 

I am convinced that the great director was deliberately 
needling him as a good horseman uses spurs to bring out his 
stud's mettle. He wanted to enrage the man to the frenzy of 
determination to show De Mille that he was an actor, a circus 
performer, and as daring as any young man who ever rode 
a flying trapeze. As a result, the actor eventually turned in a 
truly fine performance. 


Betty Hutton was another matter. It was not a question of 
spurring her on, but of holding her back, keeping her from 
taking unnecessary risks. Tony Concello taught her the ropes, 
literally speaking. Betty insisted on learning really to fly. Tony 
put a "mechanic"— a safety belt like a child's harness— on her 
and taught her some of the simpler tricks. Betty got so she 
could perform tlie crossover, flying from the swinging bar to 
the hands of the catcher, and back to the pedestal, and did it 
in the picture with no mechanic. De Mille was consistently 
gentle with her and she, too, turned in a great performance. 

Of course, the stars of the show had doubles for the more 
difiicult feats. Fay Alexander flew for Cornel Wilde and per- 
formed one really hair-raising stunt. This was in the scene 
where the Great Sebastian falls to the ground performing 
without a net. Concello set the stage by having a bulldozer 
dig a tremendously deep pit in the center ring. The net was 
slung in it and a light surface covering was spread with saw- 
dust to seem part of the floor. Fay performed his tremendous 
flying feats. Then came the final fatal miss and he plunged 
headlong to apparently solid earth. Even tliough the net was 
there, it had to be beautifully timed and executed. 

Other mechanical tricks were used to give the public thrills 
without risking the stars' precious necks. In one scene an 
elephant was supposed to almost step on Gloria Graliame's 
head, a thing no elephant would knowingly do. To avoid risk- 
ing a valuable property, De Mille had liis people build a me- 
chanical replica of an elephant's foot, and in tlie close-up you 
saw Gloria's pretty nose a scant millimeter from destruction. 

C.B. also demanded an exciting scene of a circus train 
wreck. This was accomplished by tiick photography witli 
model trains. But to add verisimilitude to the scene of car- 
nage, he bought some old coaches from the Southern Pacific 
Railroad and painted them like ciicus cars. Then a huge crane 


lifted them high in the air and dropped them on the tracks 
with a most gratifying crash. 

The last location shooting was done under the real Big Top 
while the circus was making its scheduled dates in Philadel- 
phia and Washington in 1950. The big crew of technicians 
and the uncertainties of filming an actual performance made 
it a very expensive process. But there is no substitute for 
reality. The live audiences, tire sense of excitement, and the 
solidity of the background gave the picture the final touch 
of authenticity. 

The Greatest Show on Earth was a tremendously successful 
picture. It grossed over $20,000,000, and the end is not yet in 
sight. For a while this figure made it the second-greatest 
money-making picture of all time, surpassed only by Gone 
with the Wind. Then The Robe and Around the World passed 
it, but it is still in fourth place. The circus received over 
$1,300,000 in royalties. The money came just when we needed 
it most. You might almost say tliat The Greatest Show on 
Earth saved The Greatest Show on Earth. 



The end was written plain in our ledgers for years before it 
came. But we were deliberately blind. Nineteen forty-eight 
was the last of the really good times. Then the tide began to 
ebb; slowly at first, then flowing out fast. The highest-attend- 
ance year had been 1942, though our gross in 1948 was higher 


due to increased prices for admission. But inflation was flood- 
ing in and we were gradually drowning in a sea of increased 

In the Garden we could take in $80,000 in two sellout per- 
formances; and on the road we could take in $50,000 in the 
later days, when our prices had gone up. But we could have 
$4000 days, too, when it rained or you had a bad lot someplace 
which people could not get to conveniently. And big day or 
small, our expenses were the same. They rose to over $25,000 
a day. 

The cost of every phase of our operation was going up. 
Naturally labor costs increased with social security and with- 
holding taxes to pay. But this was not all. The cost of food for 
our 4000 meals a day— 2000 pounds of meat, 1500 loaves of 
bread, 2800 eggs, 5000 pancakes, 1000 quarts of milk— had 
doubled. The price we paid the railroads for hauling our four 
long trains had tripled, from about $180,000 in 1941 to 
$580,000 in 1955. 

But it was not only a question of money. We could no 
longer get the right kind of men to head our departments. The 
secret of the smooth functioning of the intricate circus opera- 
tion was that it was completely departmentalized— trains and 
loading, canvas, cookhouse, tractors, seats, menagerie, side 
shows, red wagon, and so forth. The boss of each department 
was absolute in his sphere; all he had to think about was get- 
ting his section on the lot and running on time. 

Our old-time bosses could be trusted to do it, because they 
were as dedicated to their jobs as we were. Even when they 
were drunk they managed to do it. As Braden said, tliey put 
the welfare of the circus above their own. 

One of my boyhood heroes was Happy Jack Snellen, who 
had been boss canvasman with Barnum & Bailey way back in 
the nineties, and then for us. He was promoted to lot superin- 
tendent witli the job of getting the circus on difficult lots. 


Sometimes he had to do fantastic pieces of engineering, such 
as building a bridge over busy streets because the menagerie 
was on one side and the Big Top on the other. Happy had no 
formal education— he had been with the circus since he was 
a boy— but he was certainly a genius. The only thing he 
needed to figure out complicated problems of engineering 
were some numbers, secret formulae, that he kept written in 
the sweatband of his hat— he had the same hat for years. It 
was his equivalent of the modern slide rule. 

Happy had some delightful whimsicalities. I can see him 
now, sitting at the staff table in the cookhouse putting away 
a platter of boiled cabbage. He always said the same thing, 
"I love cabbage— but it repeats." 

He died of cancer of the throat, and we certainly missed 

Jimmy Whalen— the Whale— succeeded Snellen as boss 
canvasman. He was short and stocky with a white wahus mus- 
tache, and he had a voice you could hear from one end of 
the Big Top to the other. How he drove those gangs with iti 
Jimmy was completely responsible and will go down in circus 
history as one of the great boss canvasmen of all time. Captain 
Curtis, who succeeded him, was also a fine boss. 

These, and men like them, were the irreplaceable char- 
acters around the circus. It is often said that no one is 
indispensable for anything in this world, but I am afraid those 
old-time bosses were indispensable to the operation of the 
railroad show. For as they died off in the later years of the 
road operation, there were no young men coming along to 
take their places. 

We had personal losses in our family, too, in that time I 
think of as the twilight years. Robert was the first to go, and 
though we had had our differences, Bob had many lovable 
qualities. So we sincerely missed him and sorrowed at his pass- 


In November of 1950 our mother suffered a massive stroke 
from which she never recovered. Until that moment she had 
been as keen and gay as ever, ready to play bridge all day 
and poker all night. The circus was her first love, and there 
was nothing she enjoyed more than the exciting conferences 
at Bird Key as Anderson and White and Max Weldy and 
John and I planned the new show, with the whole floor of the 
big hall covered with designs for production numbers and 

Aunt Edith was the last of the older generation to go. 
Though I have spoken harshly of my aunt Edith at times, it 
was only for the factual aspects of tliis record. In my heart I 
loved her dearly. She had a ti^emendous strength of character. 
What she did not choose to believe she would not, in the face 
of whatever proof. An example: When Mother had her stroke, 
my sister Salome called on Aunt Edith in her pink marl^le 
palace. In the course of their talk Sally asked her about cer- 
tain of our mother's symptoms. Aunt Edith, whose husband 
had had two strokes and died of them and whose son had 
had two strokes and died of tliem, replied, "I would not know 
about that. You see, we never had anytliing like tliat in our 
branch of the family." 

An indomitable lady indeedl 

In those years of diminishing returns, the only thing that 
did not diminish was the show itself. We kept it going in 
its full glory, cost what it might; for we knew that any let- 
down of quality, or even quantity, would be the end. 

In every other way we tried to combat our failing finances. 
In 1949 John gambled on taking a one-ring European-style 
version of the circus to Havana. It was a considerable success, 
which we repeated for several years. This helped to defray 
the cost of maintaining Winter Quarters when little money 
was coming in. 


To save expense Max Weldy set up his own costume factory 
in Sarasota. Much of the work was done in people's own 
homes. Sewing on sequins for the circus became a very fash- 
ionable occupation, which many of the grandes dames of 
Sarasota practiced to earn pin money or gifts for their favorite 
charities. We also began to build our own floats for the spec. 
In this way we saved several hundred thousand dollars a year. 

We also engaged engineers to survey the show for complete 
mechanization. They came up with a plan which would have 
required a capital investment of $2,000,000. Where could we 
get that kind of money? Though the last of the Hartford-fire 
claims had been paid off, that $4,000,000 plus had drained 
our treasury. We had no reserves. In any event, the engineers' 
plan would have saved $500,000 a year, and by 1955 we 
were losing $1,000,000. We grossed $5,000,000 and it cost 
$6,000,000 to run the show. In the great days our uncles had 
made a net profit of $1,000,000 on a gross of about $2,700,000. 

The losses were made up in part by the royalties from De 
Mille's pictm^e. We plowed $1,300,000 of them back into the 

At the close of the 1953 season Arthur Concello and John 
came to what fortunately proved to be only a temporary part- 
ing of their ways. On John's return from his annual European 
talent hunt Artie faced him with at least a quasi ultimatum- 
he insisted on drastically cutting the 1954 presentation of the 
circus to a fifty-car operation. John agreed with him that some 
reduction in overhead was timely and in order, but he felt 
that to reduce the size and splendor of The Greatest Show on 
Earth to such an extent would not be commensurate with its 
title; nor would it be keeping faith with oiu" public. He talked 
with Arthur as he had previously about the day when there 
would be enough adequate buildings in the country for con- 
tinuous operations of the Big Show, but until such a time he 
was determined to carry on with our time-honored annual 


boast of "bigger and better than ever." They didn't agree and 
Artie left. 

We put Concello's assistant, Frank McClosky, in as general 
manager. He was an able man for the physical movement of 
the show, getting it up and taking it down. But he lacked 
Concello's spark and his firm discipline. Things ran raggedly 
in 1954. We lost money, of course. 

In the winter of 1955-56 I went before the eastern rail- 
roads and told them our sad tale of diminishing returns and 
increasing expenses. They listened very patiently to me; they 
were certainly sympathetic, because they were more or less in 
the same fix tliemselves. After several weeks of discussions 
they agreed to a reduction of almost 25 per cent in our rates, 
but they made it clear to me that they were doing it not on a 
basis of good business, but from their emotional involvement 
with the circus, with whom they had done business for so 
many years. The southern raihoads followed suit. 

In return they demanded and got some things they wanted, 
too. One of them was a promise from the circus that widiin 
two years we would move the show in two sections instead of 
three. In deference to the railroads' problems we had aheady 
cut the trains from four to three, making each one heavier. 
That did not give us the time needed for tlie staggered opera- 
tion of setting up the show. I did not see how it was possible 
to handle the peculiar logistics of our movements in two sec- 
tions—not and keep the circus as big as it had always been. 
And if you started reducing it from what the people ex- 
pected, you would be cheating them, because it would no 
longer be The Greatest Show on Earth. 

The western railroads refused even to give us a personal 
audience. Because of their own problems of increased com- 
petition and costs, the railroads were unable to move us right. 
All our efficiencv and streamlining enabled us to get the circus 
off the lot, down to tlie yards, and loaded onto the trains 


much earlier than in the old days. But sometimes it would sit 
in the yards for hours and hours, sometimes all night long, 
ready and waiting to be moved; and we would get to the next 
town late. The circus could not meet its overhead on one per- 
formance a day, so we would give tlie matinee anyhow. But 
more and more often in the last two years, instead of starting 
at two-fifteen, the matinee would begin at four-thnty. Tliis 
meant inconvenience and exliaustion for tlie performers with 
no time to rest or eat between shows; and annoyance to our 

They had been faitliful to us for a long time. The circus had 
survived wars and depressions because people needed enter- 
tainment even m those trying times, especially in trying times. 
It had survived the movies and the talkies and the radio. But 
television— which hit all the amusement industries, and all 
professional sports except horse racing— had an effect on us, 

In spite of everything, we started the season of 1955 with a 
bang. On the opening night in tlie Garden, Marilyn Monroe 
led off in tlie spec riding a pink elephant. The publicity was 
tremendous and we played in New York to a turnaway busi- 
ness. That pulled us through the season. 

My friend Michael Burke joined us as general manager in 
1955. He was a thin, dark, vibrant blade of an Irishman who 
had been my buddy in the cloak-and-dagger days witli the 
OSS. He was a wonderful man to have beside you in a tight 
spot, and a good pubhc relations man; but I am afraid he was 
not circus-wise enough for the job. 

So we came to 1956, and our moment of truth. 

We had as fine a show as ever that vear. Unus was with us, 
and that magnificent horseman Captain Alexander Konyot 
had returned; the Nocks Trio from Switzerland did terrific 
acrobatics and chilUng crossovers on sixty-foot-long masts 


that swayed like palm trees in a hurricane. John brought in 
fourteen new acts from Europe, and we had many old favor- 
ites, the Loyal-Repenski equestrians, the Flying Palacios, and 
Pinito del Oro reading a newspaper while standing on her 
head on a free-flying trapeze with no net imder her. We also 
had two hundred tons of "Ponderous, Performing Pachy- 

In Madison Square Garden we made a substantial profit 
after all expenses. By July 15, midway in the season, we had 
lost it all and close to a miUion dollars besides. 

On that day, while I was in Europe, I received a cable from 
John telling me he had decided to close the show. Though 
long expected, it was a grievous piece of news. I thought and 
thought, as I often had before, about what had gone wrong 
and if it was we who had failed. There were the obvious 
things, such as the cost of labor and its inefficiency, the cost of 
transportation and everything else. Even so, we could have 
kept going a while longer if we could have filled the Big Top 
every day. 

The cii'cus, as a railroad show, was a vestige of the past 
which we had been fighting to keep ahve. Gone were the days 
when the Shuberts owned a hundred theaters all around 
America and filled them every night; when the Keith- 
Orpheum Circuit operated in half a thousand cities. You 
could see all those things on television now. 

Certain as I was that the American people still loved the 
circus, they never endowed it like that other grand relic of 
the past, the Metropolitan Opera. Nor would they any longer 
fill our tents. Yet when we played in coliseums, the Garden, 
Boston, St. Louis, and San Francisco's Cow Palace, we turned 
them away. Yes, they still loved the circus. 

Then I realized the final basic reason why the road show 
had to go; why the people no longer came to see it. They 
simply could not get there. It took a fifteen-acre lot to hold 


the forty-one tents in which the circus lived and showed. And 
you needed another big lot to park three thousand cars. With 
suburbs ringing every city in America from three to thirty 
miles in depth, where on earth could you still find a fifteen- 
acre lot that could be reached by public transportation or 
even conveniently by automobile? The answer was: virtually 
nowhere. Thus we had been gradually pushed farther and 
farther from the urban centers until we were practically pitch- 
ing our tents in the sticks. It was not the American people 
who were forsaking us. We had forsaken them. Tlie tliought 
gave me passing comfort. 

The truth of this proposition had been dramatically dem- 
onstrated to me one time when our manager went to Pitts- 
burgh the day the show closed. He told a taxi driver to take 
him to the circus. He did not know where it was. It took him 
nearly an hour to find it. If our own manager could not find 
tlie circus, how could the pubHc? 

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the night of July 16, 1956, 
the show went on as scheduled at 8: 15 p.m. In their radiantly 
beautiful costumes the whole company, about seven hmidred 
strong with fifty elephants and all our beautiful horses, 
paraded around the arena in the opening spec while the band 
gave out furiously with John's gay, brassy tunes. Then came 
the clowns and children's high-pitched screams of laughter 
and their fathers' deep guffaws. Everybody gave a little extra 
that night— fliers flying more daringly than ever the daring 
young man; equestrians performing with tlie exquisite grace 
of smiling desperation; tlie laughing girls in tlie aerial ballet; 
elephants doing their stuS^, old Modoc in her ponderous 
waltz; jugglers insanely versatile; Pinito del Ora serenely 
standing on her head flying in great arcs over the audience; 
and the crashing, tliumping magnificent brassy band min- 
gling with the yells of defight and awe and fear of ten thou- 


sand children of all ages. It was almost just as it had always 
been since ever so long ago. Al and Alf T., Otto and Charles 
and John would have recognized it and felt at home. 

All just as it had always been, except at the end, the grand 
finale with almost the entire company in the arena. The band 
played "Auld Lang Syne." Daring young aerialists and the 
funny old clowns began to cry. Pretty girls streaked their 
mascara. The Loyolas buried their faces in theii' horses' necks 
and roustabouts and razorbacks crowded around the exits and 
barricades were embarrassedly wiping at their faces. 

But John, standing alone in his box, was thinking not of the 
past but of the future. He had done all he could, and more. 
He had made his decision and bravely put it behind liim. 
While emotions ran rampant in the arena his mind was al- 
ready busy planning the circus of tomorrow. 

At 11: 15 P.M., July 16, 1956, we struck the Big Top for the 
last time. 



John brought the show back to Winter Quarters to be dis- 
banded. Despite his courage in making the decision to aban- 
don the Big Top and his confident announcement that "the 
circus will be in Madison Square Garden next year," he was 
badly shattered. 


The last night of the Big Top his feeling had been almost 
one of relief that the long, hopeless fight was done. But now 
that the excitement was over, he was left with a great empti- 
ness. The mainspring of his life seemed broken. For the next 
few weeks, while he listlessly attended to the melancholy de- 
tails of the great dispersion of performers and workers, he was 
almost in a state of shock. He retracted himself into his shell, 
the Jomar, and saw hardly anyone. 

Gradually his enormous vitality surged up. He began to 
make tentative plans, and as he did so his natural optimism 
and imagination took fire. 

The first clear sign of his recovery appeared one night when 
he entered the Plaza Restaurant— the 21 Club of Sarasota. 
Arthur Concello, who was sitting at a table, said to him, 
"I'm sorry the circus had to be closed, John." 

"Sit with me, Artie," John repHed. "Let's talk about it." 

When they were seated at a corner table John said, "You 
were right, Artie. We couldn't swing it. We'll have to do a 
modern setup. Play the cohseums. We can keep the old girl 
ahve if we do it. I want you with me, Artie." 

Concello thought it over. He was amusing himself by dab- 
bling in real estate in Sarasota with no financial worries. Why 
take up the exhausting grind again? "I don't know, John . . ." 
he said. 

Enthusiasm was crackling out of John as though he'd never 
known defeat. "It's a challenge," he said. "If it's a challenge, 
it will be fun. Let's do iti" 

Concello was still dubious. They talked until 2 p.m. the 
following afternoon, with John doing most of the talking, out- 
lining ideas, making glittering, optimistic plans. He saw 
Arthur beginning to catch fire and shpped liim the cHncher. "I 
want to do it with you. Art," he said. "If you won't come along 
I'U seU out." 


Perhaps he really would have, though I doubt it. But he 
convinced Concello. "All right," Arthur said, "111 go along. 
But what about the capital well need?" 

"I'll arrange the financing," John said confidently. 

They were both crazy by any standards but their own up- 
side-down, sentimental logic. As I have said, Concello was 
very comfortably fixed— whether he was happy doing nothing 
in particular is another matter. John was a comparatively rich 
man. All the assets he had bought from Uncle John's estate 
were beginning really to pay ofi^. The oil wells were spouting 
again; and the fantastic rise in Florida real estate had made 
the islands in the bay worth millions. He had nothing to gain 
financially, and a great deal to lose, by keeping the circus 

For the past two years the credit of the circus had been 
zero. Nobody would lend the corporation a dime. But they 
would still lend money to John Ringling North on his personal 
notes. He had signed them in the amount of several hundred 
thousand dollars to keep the show from going under. In addi- 
tion, the Forty-niners, as the minority stockholders were 
called, because they owned 49 per cent of the stock, were 
getting restless and threatening a mismanagement suit. In the 
face of all that, he went out and borrowed $286,000 more to 
put the new show together. Later he put up $400,000 more of 
his own money. Like Uncle Jolm, he was a splendid gambler. 

Meanwhile ConceUo was planning tlie physical side of the 
show and reorganizing it to fit the new conditions, working 
like a small demon. He designed an entirely new type of aerial 
rigging, which did not depend on tent masts or girders to 
hold it up. It was to be used in ball parks and outdoor stadia 
and could be assembled and interlocked on the ground and 
hoisted aloft by a single-cable action. Portions of it were also 


used in coliseums, where it could be raised to the ceiling in 
one operation, saving many man-hours. 

When it was first set up at Winter Quarters, Fay Alexander, 
a fine young flier, started up the ladder to test the safety net. 
"No, you don't," said Artie. 

He ran up tlie ropes like a monkey in a business suit, swung 
high and far on the flying bar, and sailed oflF it into tlie net. 
He bounced beautifully with nickels, dimes, quarters, ciga- 
rette lighter, and oddities showering out of his pockets. The 
net was safe. 

We were all busy planning the logistics of the new opera- 
tion. Here is the way it worked. We figured we were in five 
different businesses: the railroad business, moving 67,000 tons 
of equipment, animals, and people 20,000 miles a year; the 
restaurant business, sei^ving at least 900,000 meals a year; the 
hotel business, providing sleeping accommodations for 1300 
people for eight months; the construction business, building 
an amphitheater and a tented town every day or so; and show 
business. The only one tliat brought in any money was show 
business. The rest had to go. 

Our first premise was that the show must still be the great- 
est on earth. The only tilings we cut out were the side shows 
and the menagerie, but not the performing animals. The 
menagerie had been anachronistic for a long time. Gone were 
the days when people gaped in wonder at a polar bear— tliere 
were so many animals in zoos and moving pictures and TV 
shows that people were sated by the sight of them. We 
loaned the menagerie to the Providence ( Rliode Island ) Zoo 
and borrowed it back once a year for Madison Square Garden. 

As we planned our moves, and as they are done today: 
instead of the great eighty-car train, we use tliree-system 
baggage cars, in which the elephants and some other trained 
animals ride. The circus does not even own the cars any more, 
but leases them from tlie railroads. The physical equipment 


of the show— rigging, properties, and costumes— moves in ten 
big trailer trucks. The performers get travel allowances and 
they go places under their own steam. They live and eat in 
restaurants and hotels of their choice. Some use planes, trains, 
or buses, but a great many have their own cars and trailers. 
The smaller trained animals, including the cats, travel much 
more comfortably in motor vans than they ever did by rail. 
Thus we chiseled our overhead dovvoi from $25,000 a day 
to less than $10,000, and om: labor force from 800 to 100 men, 
while still holding to John's edict: "No expense will be 
spared to give a performance as lavish and spectacular as 
imagination and money can make it." 

Now we were in a position to earn profits if we could hold 
our public, but this was fogged by doubt. For one thing, there 
had been a tremendous outpouring of lamentations in the 
press when we closed the tent show. It almost amounted to a 
period of public moiuning for the passing of a beloved na- 
tional institution, a httle like that for a President who dies in 
office. We were up against the task of convincing people that 
the circus was still very much ahve and undiminished in 
splendor and excitement. 

This was very difficult to do, and we were not entirely suc- 
cessful. Even three years later people were still talking as 
though the circus were dead and my brother and I had mur- 
dered it, though by then it was the liveliest corpse in history. 
Even those who realized that the show was going on felt un- 
easily that it could never be the same indoors. In a nostalgic 
sense they were right. On the other hand, we had not started 
a new or unprecedented operation, but had, in fact, gone back 
to an earlier time. The Aztecs had watched a sort of circus 
inside the Halls of Montezuma. The first real American circus 
was put on by John Bill Ricketts in a specially constructed 
amphitheater in Philadelphia in 1793. He made so much 


money that he built another amphitheater for his show in 
New York. Many of the famous European circuses have al- 
ways played indoors. 

The wagon shows and, later, the great raihoad shows were 
an interim thing to meet the special circumstances of a pio- 
neering era. Changing conditions made the Big Top as in- 
capable of survival as the dinosaur, which, indeed, it resem- 
bled in its ponderous giantism. We had simply gone back to 
the good older days of circus tradition. But it was hard to 
convince people of that. 

For another thing, we had great difficulty routing the circus 
the first two years indoors ( 1957-58 ) . The cities had been 
building their own Big Tops, so to speak. Nearly one hundred 
and fifty urban centers in the United States and Canada had 
amphitheaters large enough to house the show, but some of 
them were booked a year or two in advance for the dates we 
needed. This resulted in our making uneconomic jumps back 
and forth across the country, and playing fill-in dates in ball 
parks, which were always in danger of being rained out. Tliis 
was a situation which would clear up as soon as we could 
start making bookings two or three years ahead, but it made 
tliose first years indoors very difficult. 

The final trouble was caused by the Forty-niners. In 1957, 
led by Charles Ringling's daughter, Hester Sanford, and her 
son by a previous marriage, Stuart Lancaster, some of them 
sued John, Concello, and me for $20,000,000 for mismanage- 
ment of the circus. A curious example of Cousin Hester's 
mental processes occurred just after they started suit. At a 
party in Sarasota she rushed up to my sister Salome and, after 
greeting her aftectionately, asked, "And how is dear Johnny?" 

"What do you mean 'dear Jolmny'?" Sally asked. "You're 
suino; him for twentv million dollars." 

"That's only business," Hester said gaily. "I still love him 


As I pointed out in the statement I wrote for our lawyers: 

"John Ringhng North's determined courage in the face of 
adversity has enabled him to pilot his beloved circus through 
many harried years. . . . When he took over the active presi- 
dency in 1937, . . . the circus was run down physically and 
depleted financially. Five years later . . . the Ringling stock- 
holders, otlier than himself, had received approximately 
$250,000 in salaries, expenses and dividends. The corporation 
had paid all its debts and established a cash reserve of 
$1,400,000. It was tlien [1943] that he was voted out of man- 
agement control. 

"When he regained control in 1947 he was faced by the 
enormous debt incurred during the Hartford Fiie, ... a 
debt that was finally liquidated under his management. . . ." 

I then described the manner in which John had stream- 
hned tlie show and combated die innumerable difficulties of 
which I have told, adding, "When the financial situation be- 
came serious in August, 1955, John made the personal sacrifice 
of cancelling his annual salary. . . . 

"Practically all my brother's waking hours, all of his 
strenuous business life and great creative effort have been de- 
voted to the service of the cii^cus. It is under his management 
now, not because he sued for it, but because he won tlie cir- 
cus; and not in the comts or at Las Vegas, but by gambling 
his courage, his energies, liis experience of forty years, his love 
of our great enterprise and his personal fortune to achieve 
the success which has made his name a proud one, synony- 
mous with the Circus on two continents." 

In my own defense I stated that I had served the circus 
off and on for over tliirty years, at salaries ranging from $17.50 
a week to $20,000 a year— for one year, 1942. Speaking of that 
strenuous year, I said: "Though as vice-president and assist- 
ant to the president I was responsible for many executive 
duties, including the Press Department and almost all of the 


executive correspondence, I worked daily at roustabouts' 
tasks. I was on the lot helping set up in the mornings and I 
followed the pole wagon [last wagon] off the lot at night. I 
helped guy out and tear down; folded chairs and loaded 
them; carried bibles, planks, stringers, and jacks; helped to 
set up poles and quarter poles; rolled canvas, shook, pushed 
and folded canvas in rain storms, snow storms, sand storms 
and tornados. . . . 

"I knew the name of every performer and hundreds of 
working men, and I lent them thousands of dollars over the 
years and was seldom repaid except in the most precious way, 
by their loyalty and respect— a loyalty that enabled me to 
stave off numerous strikes. . . ." 

I added that, since my return to the circus after the war in 
1947, I had never been paid more than $6200 a year, which 
did not seem a great amount. 

Though the mismanagement suit seemed hopeless— and 
became more so when the new indoor circus planned 
by John eventually began to make profits— the threat of it and 
then the actual suit, in which they asked for a receiver, 
caused us great inconvenience. The Forty-niners not only 
made refinancing the circus difficult but they stopped us from 
selling all our railway cars, tractors, and other machinery at 
Winter Quarters which were no longer needed for the show. 
We wanted to sell tliem to raise additional capital. For tliree 
years they stood on the sidmgs, rusting and melancholy, 
doing no one any good. 

When we came into Madison Square Garden in the spring 
of 1957, the circus was $1,300,000 in debt. But no one in our 
audiences could have sensed any diminution of its greatness. 
There were such stanch old favorites as the Loyal equestrians, 
our famous clowns, the Flying Alexanders, and Harold Al- 
zana, whom I regard as the most daiing high-whe artist of 


them all; and many of our famous animal acrobatic and 
juggling acts. 

Our new producers, Richard and Edith Barstow, had pro- 
vided, and Max Weldy had costumed, a lavish and beautiful 
spec and production numbers that included "Carnival in 
Venice," "The Coronation of Mother Goose," and the "En- 
chanting Ethereal Extravaganza Cherry Blossom Time," an 
aerial ballet featuring Galla Dawn standing on her head on a 
high trapeze wliile spinning hoops on both arms and both legs. 
Somehow John had found time to write the charming music 
which accompanied them, including the hit tune "Those 
Maracas from Caracas." 

In addition, he introduced from Europe Hugo's unique 
combination of a trained elephant, zebra, and llama; "Miss 
Elabeth" in "A Desperate Dive from the Top of the Arena"; 
Sciplini's chimps, who were very funny natural comedians; 
and a number of other performers never seen in America be- 
fore. In short, a show that justified our cherished superlative. 

In New York the public gave us a thundering vote of con- 
fidence, expressed not in written ballots, but in those beauti- 
ful green engravings exquisitely etched in the United States 
Mint. The gross in the Garden was the second-largest up to 
that time. 

Armed with these figures, John went confidently to the di- 
rectors' meeting in June 1957. It turned out to be another of 
those unliappy family fracases where, after hearing the good 
news that the "Old Girl" had survived her drastic operation 
and was, so to speak, doing a financial mambo, our cousins 
grimly announced that they were going ahead with the mis- 
management suit. In other words, tlie patient had recovered 
but, according to them, the operation was a failure. 

Tlie 1957 season was encouraging, but it was not all smootli 
sailing. Those dates we had been forced to make in open 


stadia were quite frequently rained out. What happened 
when they were is shown by the figures for our engagement 
in Syracuse, New York: 

Income $ 1,618.00 

E.xpenses $20,868.00 

The bruit about the mismanagement suit was no help, 
either. It caused our creditors to press us heavily and made 
the establishment of new credit extremely difficult. As Arthur 
Concello puts it, "We twist, we turn, we keep the creditors 
happy, paying a little to this one, a little to that. I manage 
to keep peace with the unions. We get through the season." 

We did, indeed, get tlirough the season with a small oper- 
ating profit, which was extraordinary, considering the short 
time we had to make bookings, due to which the show was 
idle some 40 days out of a i34-day season, and rained out on 
many others. 

In 1958 tlie tour included an invasion of Mexico Citv, 
where our charming Latin-American neighbors received it 
with acclamation. Let Arthur also state, in his concise, cocky 
way, the good news of that year: 

"We operate in '58 and it works out considerably better. 
AU trade bills paid. So we open on March 4, 1959, at Char- 
lotte, North Carolina, and we don't owe anybody except om- 
lawyers and the family so much as one little piece of copper 
with Lincohi's head on it." 

The $20,000,000 suit of the Forty-niners was dropped. The 
year looked bright ahead and bright it was, 

John opened the new show in Charlotte, as Arthur said. 
Until 1958 we had always opened in the Garden to our biggest 
and most critical audience. It was like opening a plav cold on 
Broadway, which, as everyone knows, is a verv dangerous 
thing to do. But with four months in Winter Quarters to pre- 
pare and two or three weeks of rehearsals in New York, it was 
not too difficult. At tliat tlie show often ran four hours on 


opening night, which, however much one may love it, is too 
damned much circus. We would cut and prune and condense 
as we went along until the running time came down to rea- 
sonable limits. 

However, the new indoor season— weather no object— of 
eleven months left little time for rehearsing the new show and 
it seemed wise to shake it down, hke most plays, on the road. 

So John brought it into the Garden with a polished per- 
formance. Among the production numbers was a new aerial 
ballet. Max Weldy dreamed it up and suggested it to John. 
Speaking in his heavy European accent, he said, "This year 
we should have parrots performing on the web." 

"Parrots 1" said John blankly. 

"Parrots," Max enthusiastically repeated. "With very sexy 
short little pants." 

Finally it penetrated John's bewilderment. Max meant 
pirates, of course. 

The "parrot" ballet was a great success, as was the entire 
new show directed by Concello and staged by Margaret 
Smith. With the elbow room granted by increasing profits, 
John was able to introduce splendid new features, including 
the Stevenson Troupe from Ireland, who were not only fine 
equestrians but had a whole pack of enchantingly gay little 
dogs who so clearly enjoyed performing their clever tricks 
that the audience seemed to be laughing not at tliem but 
with them. 

Alzana's dangerous acrobatics on the high wire were par- 
ticularly dramatic that opening night. Only a few days be- 
fore, he had been struck by a car on the New Jersey Turnpike 
and had been seriously injured. In spite of this he insisted on 
performing his act. With the lights dimmed and a single spot 
focused upon him, he limped painfully to tlie slanting wire 
leading upward at an angle of forty-five degrees to tlie upper 
heights of the arena, the same wii'e from wliich he had fallen 


two years ago. Slowly, breathlessly, he walked up it with no 
pole or aid to balance. Once on the heights, he performed with 
his customary brilliance and apparent ease, and tiien made 
the perilous descent on the other side. When he touched 
ground there was a great whoosh as ten thousand people let 
out their breath at once. Then they burst into tremendous 
applause. It was a display of courage and loyalty seldom if 
ever equaled in the whole history of Ringling Brotliers. 

In addition to the new acts I have mentioned and our old 
favorites, John introduced seventeen acts never seen in 
America before. The show ended with a bang— the crash of 
Zacchini's cannon as it hm'led his two beautiful daughters in 
a great parabola across the entiie arena into the safety net. 

The box office was a bang, too. At Madison Square Garden 
the show made the record gross of approximately $2,000,000. 
Now we ended the season with a near-record gross at a 
handsome profit. 

It seemed that the American people still loved the "Old 
Girl," after all. 

I enjoyed tliis triumphant season only vicariously. In May 
1958 I had resigned as vice-president of Ringling Brothers- 
Bamum & Bailey Combined Shows. You may wonder how, 
loving it so much, I could bring myself to leave our circus. 
In a very real sense it had left me. 

Though I believe I had performed the executive functions 
of my job adequately, tliey were something tliat any good 
man could do. My unique value to the circus had been my 
standing in loco parentis to our performers and workers. To 
have a member of the Ringling family there to whom they 
could turn in trouble, anger, or joy meant a great deal to 
them, and their confidence and friendship meant as much to 

I have told how I interceded for the workingmen with the 


bosses and how I arranged loans for all our people in financial 
difficulties from the red wagon, and lent them my own money 
as well. Of course, you did not charge any interest, and all 
this made our people feel that the circus was not just a big, 
cold, impersonal organization, but a family affair which had 
their interests at heart. That feeling is what kept the circus 
going through all the years and vicissitudes. 

But in the last days of the Big Top and in the new setup, 
these paternalistic activities were not possible any more. The 
Hartford-fire claims, excess-profits taxes, workmen's compen- 
sation and social security, and God knows what besides, left 
us too tliin a margin. Our people still thought the circus could 
do everything, but there just was not enough money. 

In the final years of the Big Top I tried to help them as I 
always had, partly because I wanted to so much and partly 
because I believed that it was what kept the circus going. My 
brother's managers would say, "Christ, that Buddy's trying 
to do things like it was in the good old days!" 

That was the only way I knew how to do things. I listened 
to all the sad stories and tried to dispense justice and charity. 
I did the best I could, but the combination of changing cir- 
cumstances was too much for me. When I finally realized that 
it had become impossible I lost a lot of my enthusiasm for 
devoting my life to the circus. 

That was more or less the reason I resigned, that and the 
fact that in the new setup, with people scattered in hotels all 
over town, my particular function had become obsolete. 

As I have shown, the circus is a terribly demanding mis- 
tress, whose service precludes her people's living a normal 
life. Nowadays it continues for eleven months a year, and the 
twelfth month of putting the new show together is the most 
frantic of all. So after thirtv vears in her service I felt tliat I 
should have an opportunity to live as other people do, for a 
while at least. 


But my resignation does not mean that I have forsaken my 
love or lost my faith in her. I still scout new acts fx)r my 
brother and help him in every way I can. Nor does it mean 
that I will not go back to her if she needs me. 

As to her future, it appears brighter than ever before in my 
time. With the operation on a sensible budget, and bigger and 
better amphitheaters being built all over the Americas— and 
in Europe, too— the circus seems assured of solvency for the 
foreseeable future. Perhaps the economics of inflation will 
catch up with her again, but not for a long while. 

And working in her favor is what the statisticians call the 
population explosion. All those babies of the future, whose 
millions only Univac can reckon, hurrying on to the scene to 
become Httle circus fans who in the years ahead will tlirill to 
laugh at and love The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Our circus has traveled a long road from gaslit Baraboo to 
the atomic glare of today. It was a difficult and dangerous 
road, as you have seen, filled with joy and great achievements, 
too. Indeed, it was as varied and full of interest and wonder 
as life itself. I am proud and grateful to have been aboard the 
train for part of the way. 


7 ^ / • -^ 
t '4 


• r 

.^ \ 




kw^xxsx Rungeling (Ringting) m. Marie Salome JuUar 


Born in Ostheim.near 
Colmar, Alsace-Lorraine 



I 1 \ \ \ 

Albert (Al) August Otto Alfred (Alft) Charles 

1652-1916 ]S5^'\901 1857-1^1/ 1863-1919 1864'1926 

married married 
Delia Andrews Edith Conwail 





P Aubrey Black 



- Robert 



Hester - 



Virginia Sullivan louis Lancaster 

^^mcs Charles p 


Stuart Charles 


Irene Bauernfein 

Charles E, 5anford 


3 1262 04101 6683 

Nicholas 3uUar married Helena Etling 


f ^"**^will^^ 




iblc Burton 




diity Haag 


Henry Ida 

1865-1918 187V1950 

Henry W North 


ohn Ringling North Henry Ringling North -■ 




me Donelly 

'waine Au55ey 


Ada Thornburgh 

3ohn Ringling North II 

Elizaberh Palmer Barnuml 

Salome — 


Roy Stratton