Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Lillian Leitzel
(Jan. 2, 1892 - Feb. 15, 1931)

Alfredo Codona
(Oct. 7, 1893 - July 30, 1937)

Jan. 11, 2010 -- One of the most striking and hauntingly beautiful memorial statues in the Los Angeles area -- a winged, wavy-haired angel swooping down to embrace a beautiful woman -- marks the graves of two circus aerialists, Lillian Leitzel and Alfredo Codona, who were at the top of their profession and celebrated around the world in the early part of the 20th century, but are all but forgotten today. The story of their lives is woven with deep tragedy, and ends with a horrifying murder-suicide.

Alfredo Codona was born into a circus family in Mexico. His father, Eduardo, owned and operated a small circus in the southern part of the country, and several members of the family performed as aerialists. His mother, Hortense Buislay Codona, was a trapeze artist and member of the well-known Buislay family of circus performers. Alfredo joined the family business before his first birthday, with his father balancing him on his hand as the opening act. Alfredo's brother, Abelardo (known as Lalo), and sister, Victoria, were also featured in the act. The Codona family toured throughout Mexico, South America, Cuba and Australia before joining the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1917. By this time, father Eduardo had retired, and the family act become Alfredo, Lalo and Victoria -- "The Flying Codonas." Also in 1917, Alfredo married his first wife, Clara Curtain of Ohio, another circus aerialist. When Victoria quit the act in 1921, she was replaced by an Australian aerialist named Vera Bruce in "The Flying Codonas."

The Codonas performed a "flying trapeze" act, which involves two trapezes, as opposed to a "swinging trapeze" act, which involves only one. In the flying trapeze act, one performer -- the "flier" -- holds the trapeze bar and jumps off a high platform. After swinging back and forth and gaining sufficient speed and momentum, the flier releases the bar at the far end of the swing, and is caught by another performer -- "the catcher" -- who is swinging on a second trapeze, usually with his legs wrapped around the trapeze bar and ropes, leaving his hands free for the catch.

In the Codonas' act, Alfredo and Vera were the fliers, and Lalo was the catcher. An experienced flier can perform turns or somersaults in the air between the trapezes. A truly skilled flier can perform a double somersault in the air before the catch. Alfredo was the only flier who regularly performed a triple somersault.

By the time the Flying Codonas joined the Ringling Bros. Circus, Lillian Leitzel was already a star. She was promoted on circus posters as "The Queen of the Air" and "The World's Most Marvelous Lady Gymnast." Leitzel was best known for a feat called the one-arm plange, or swing-over, in which she would perform a nearly vertical rotation while hanging from a ring by only one arm.

The German-born Leitzel also came from a circus family. Her mother and two aunts were famous throughout Europe with their trapeze act known as the Leamy Ladies; her grandmother, Julia Pelikan, was still swinging from the trapeze at the age of 84; and her uncle, Adolph Pelikan, was a popular circus clown.

Although Leitzel received an extensive education in Germany, at schools in Breslau and Berlin -- she was fluent in six languages and was a talented pianist -- she built a trapeze bar in her backyard and spent her free time practicing the tricks she saw her mother and aunts perform. The 4-foot-9, 95-pound Leitzel eventually joined her mother's act, and she first visited the United States in 1908, appearing with the Barnum & Bailey show in New York City.

The Leamy Ladies returned to the United States again in 1911, as a featured act with Barnum & Bailey, but when they went home to Europe at the end of their tour, Leitzel stayed behind, and became a popular performer on the vaudeville circuit.

In 1914, Leitzel joined the Ringling Bros. Circus and, by the time the circus merged with Barnum & Bailey five years later to become "The Greatest Show on Earth," Leitzel was the undisputed star. When Leitzel was announced by the ringmaster, all the lights in the three-ring tent would be turned off, except for a single spotlight on her. She was the only performer in the circus who did her act alone.

The highlight of her act came when Leitzel would grab a padded rope loop attached to a swivel, and would repeatedly throw herself over the loop. While she was swinging high over their heads, the audience would keep count of her rotations. Her record was 249 revolutions, which is an incredible feat, considering that each time Leitzel would complete a swing-over, her shoulder became partially dislocated, then snap back into place. Once asked why she would put herself through such a difficult and painful routine, Leitzel gave a prophetic response: "I'd rather be a racehorse and last a minute than be a plow horse and last forever."

Outside the circus tent, Leitzel had a reputation as a temperamental prima donna, unpredictable and demanding. She was known to curse or slap circus employees, and she was the first circus performer to travel in her own private Pullman rail car, complete with a baby grand piano.

Gradually, Codona's professional reputation grew to match Leitzel's. Codona was a handsome, stylish and graceful performer known for his daring triple somersault. Although he wasn't the first aerialist to perform the triple somersault, he was the first to include it as a regular part of his act. Codona and Leitzel became known as "The King and Queen of the Air" and "The Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford of the Circus," and soon became linked both on stage and off. Codona divorced Clara and married Leitzel on July 20, 1928, between performances in Chicago.

Codona and Leitzel shared similar explosive temperaments and powerful egos, and their tumultuous marriage featured numerous arguments, public shouting matches, breakups and reconciliations. In addition to their combustible personalities, Codona and Leitzel were also both tireless performers. Both craved the spotlight and the attention they received, and they often scheduled performances during their winter breaks from the circus. Usually, Codona and Leitzel performed together in the off-season. Codona regularly checked Leitzel's rigging and equipment before each of her performances, and sometimes even stood beneath the rings, ready to catch her if she should she fall. Leitzel always worked without a net.

In the winter of 1931, however, they were performing separately -- Leitzel was at the Valencia Theatre in Copenhagen, and Codona was performing with Lalo and Vera Bruce at the Winter Garten in Berlin. On Feb. 13, 1931, one of the brass connections on Lietzel's ropes broke, and she fell 45 feet to a concrete floor, suffering a concussion and spinal injuries. Codona rushed to Copenhagen, but Leitzel insisted that her injuries weren't serious, and she urged Codona to return to Berlin to finish his engagement. Two days after she fell, and a few hours after Codona left her side, Leitzel's condition worsened and she died. She was 39 years old.

Codona was devastated by Leitzel's death. He built the 17-foot-tall memorial to her at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, with this epitaph: "In everlasting memory of my beloved Leitzel Codona -- Erected by her devoted husband Alfredo Codona." (Interestingly, Leitzel never used the name "Leitzel Codona," either personally or professionally. She was always just "Leitzel.")

At first glance, it appears that the statue, titled "Reunion," represents an angel embracing Leitzel and taking her to heaven. But if the figure of the woman on the statue is supposed to represent Leitzel, the handsome, wavy-haired angel looks amazingly like Codona, based on the small photograph of him on his grave marker. Perhaps the angel is not really an angel at all, and the statue is merely a representation of Codona's love for Leitzel, with the wings as a symbol of his life as an aerialist.

Just below the woman's feet on the statue are carved two small rings -- the same type of rings Leitzel used in her famous swing-over routine. One of the rings is firmly attached to a rope, but above the other ring, the rope is broken.

Soon after Leitzel's death, Codona returned to performing. Codona, Lalo and Bruce appeared in a short film titled "Swing High" (1931), which was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Short Subject. Codona also performed most of the aerial stunts for the early "Tarzan" films starring Johnny Weissmuller, including "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1932) and "Tarzan and His Mate" (1934). Codona married Bruce on Sept. 18, 1932.

But Codona had also become more daring and reckless as a performer, and was taking more chances on the trapeze. When he was seriously injured in a fall at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1933, doctors told him that torn ligaments in his shoulder would prevent him from ever performing again, and he was permanently "grounded" as a circus performer. (He was still able, however, to perform basic trapeze swings, and still able to perform in the "Tarzan" films.)

Vera, however, continued to perform. Codona sometimes accompanied her on the circus trips, working either as her manager, or as the equestrian director. The situation must have been extremely difficult for Codona. First, the love of his life dies in a tragic fall. Then, an injury ends the career he has had -- literally -- for his entire life. At 40, Codona was forced to give up the only life he had ever known, and watch from the ground as his wife took the spotlight that used to be pointed at him. Still mourning Leitzel's death, and now faced with the end of his own career, Codona's marriage started to crumble.

In 1937, Codona was working at a garage in Long Beach, Calif., when Bruce filed for divorce on grounds of cruelty. Codona did not contest the divorce, which was granted on July 1. While the couple was in Bruce's attorney's office, along with Bruce's mother, Anna, on July 30 to discuss the division of household property, Codona asked to speak to his ex-wife in private. The attorney walked out of the room, but Bruce's mother refused to leave.

After the attorney left, Codona lit a cigarette for Bruce, then locked the door and said, "Vera, this is all you've left for me to do." As he spoke, he pulled a pistol from his coat pocket, shot his ex-wife four times in the head, chest and stomach, then shot himself once in the head as her horrified mother watched. Codona died at the scene, and Bruce died the next day at Seaside Hospital in Long Beach.

After the shooting, Codona's family found a suicide note containing his last request -- to be buried beside Leitzel. "I have no home," Codona wrote. "I have no wife to love me. I am going back to Leitzel, the only woman who ever loved me."

In many of the newspaper articles after the shooting, Bruce was described as Codona's second wife, after Leitzel, with no mention of his earlier 10-year marriage to Clara.

Immediately after the shooting, Lalo Codona decided to quit the circus. But he was performing again less than four months later, with the Cirque Medrano in Paris, with two younger performers. Lalo injured his shoulder during an afternoon practice session in early November 1937, but he decided that the injury wasn't severe enough to stop him from performing that evening.

During the performance, the flier performed a double somersault and Lalo caught him, but the catch aggravated Lalo's earlier injury. He lost his grip on the bar with his knees, and dropped to the net below, with one arm curled underneath him. Doctors told Lalo he has suffered a dislocated shoulder blade and, like Alfredo four years earlier, he was permanently "grounded." In newspaper articles at the time, Lalo mentioned the "jinx" that he believed was following his family.

On one side of Codona's grave is a large marker over the grave of his brother, Lalo Codona (1895-1951), and on the other side is a small marker over the grave of his sister, Victoria Codona Adolph (1891-1983). Behind the angel statue are the graves of Codona's parents, Eduardo (1859-1934) and Hortensia (1869-1931); his sister, Hortense Ferrante (1900-1987); Hortense's husband, Charles Ferrante (1898-1976); and their daughter, Marguerite Ferrante (1930-2000).

A few yards behind and to the right of the magnificent memorial built by Codona for Leitzel is a small marker, set apart from the others. It marks the grave of Clara Codona (1896-1972), Alfredo's first wife. Vera Bruce (1905-1937) is buried at Calvary Cemetery in East Los Angeles, with the epitaph, "Peace at Last."

Lillian Leitzel was the first person inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame, in Peru, Ind., in 1958. Alfredo Codona was inducted in 1961.

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