• Crown Publishing

It would be pretty hard to screw up a biography of Leitzel, the great circus aerialist. But the first time Dean Jensen tried writing Queen of the Air, 30 years ago, he did.

Leitzel, also known as Lillian Leitzel, was the world’s biggest circus celebrity back in the 1910s and ’20s, when circus performers still were celebrities. (Apologies to fans of Siegfried and Roy.) Her claim to fame was her rope act: she would dangle from a loop attached to a rope high above the audience, and then she would flip her entire body over her head. She did this by dislocating her shoulder; if there wasn’t music playing, you could hear a click as it slipped in and out of its socket. At every performance—and the circus had two shows every day—she would do more than 100 flips at one time.