Lillian Leitzel, four-foot-nine-inches tall and weighing in at a whopping ninety-eight pounds, acrobat, strong-woman, circus performer for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, was born January 2, 1892, in Breslau, Germany. She died in the hospital February 15, 1931, in Copenhagen, Denmark, two days after falling during a live circus performance.
It’s reported that Lillian Leitzel once performed twenty-seven one-armed pull-ups — which is more (by far) than any professional gymnast or rock-climber, male or female, whom I know (and I know many). These were not dead-hang pull-ups. They were not strict pull-ups. But by any standard imaginable, it is a remarkable and wonderful feat of human ability, and in all the footage I’ve ever seen of her, Lillian Leitzel possessed a vitality and happiness that could not be contained.
I first read about Lillian Leitzel when I was in sixth grade, in an odd little comicbook my father bought me called More Incredible Human Acts — a book, incidentally, that I no longer have and cannot find anywhere.
I’m writing about Lillian Leitzel now because she is one of the ladies I had in mind when I first conceived Dusty May, the main character in my latest novel. I mention this because a number of readers have wondered if Dusty’s strength is plausible and “based on anything in reality.” It is.
Her strength is unquestionably plausible. I’ve witnessed thin-armed female gymnasts cranking out so many pull-ups that I really did think they looked like machines. And Dusty’s balance beam mount (at the beginning of my book) was pulled straight from the gymnast at the 1:06 mark of this video. If you want to see one of the most amazing feats of one-armed strength I know of, watch the girl at the 50 second mark of that same video.
But in many ways, that question — is Dusty May’s strength plausible, or is Kristy Reed, aged 17, running a 3:55 mile plausible? — strikes at the very root of the function and necessity of art as I conceive it.
In creating any artistic work, every artist, whether she or he knows it explicitly or not, is presenting to the world what she or he regards as important or significant. And in liking or disliking that same artistic creation, the viewer (or reader or listener) is also signaling what she or he regards as important or significant.
In this sense, the artist and the audience both reveal their souls: in what they present, how they present it, how they respond.
It’s been said that a true artist doesn’t ever lose sight of reality but rather intensifies it. This is the reason (good) art will often seem more real than reality itself.
The process of artistic creation and communication with the viewer goes something like this:
The artist gets hold of an idea in her mind, which she decides to make real. She finds an abstraction, in other words, that she seeks to turn into concrete form.
When she is successful in her creation, the viewer, in viewing it, works essentially backwards: he sees or reads or hears the particulars she’s selected and pulled together into an integrated whole, and then he incorporates those particulars into his existing body of knowledge. He thereby comes to understand the abstractions the artist has sought to convey.
The act of artistic creation is in this sense deductive — moving from ideas to reality — whereas the act of artistic viewing is inductive, moving from specific concretes to ideas (i.e. abstractions).
Michelangelo was aware that humans can become mangled or maimed, but he regarded these conditions as the exception, and therefore, in his art, through the process of selectivity, he omitted them and instead presented healthy, strong, remarkable-looking figures. This, whether you agree with his esthetic, tells you instantly and infallibly what Michelangelo regarded as existentially (i.e. metaphysically) important. Conversely, the person who presents and responds to sloppy or helpless or confused or lust-crazed or body-bagged figures. And so on.
As art springs from personality, so it is only to personality that it can be revealed.
Wrote Oscar Wilde.
All of which is by way of saying that I deliberately stylized and focused upon my main character’s strength and her determination because the primary function of art is to “select out from the rough material of ordinary existence,” as Oscar Wilde also put it, and to uphold the vision of life that I regard as important, and from which I hope others will draw inspiration and joy.
In fact, I thought of the vibrant Lillian Leitzel long before I’d decided to make Dusty May a dancer.
I also thought of the great trapeze artist Mara Campos, who possessed phenomenal arm strength:
There’s also a young gymnast I once saw named Kikuchi, who performed one of the most amazing planche pushups I’ve ever witnessed. Unfortunately, I cannot find any long-lasting footage of her — but there’s some brief footage at the 3:47 mark of the following video:
There’s also this amazing gymnast, whose name I don’t know:
Planche pushups and true arm-armed pull-ups are, for either sex, the hardest of these sorts of exercises, in my opinion — certainly the most difficult for me.
German ballerina Bianca Passarge didn’t come into my ken until much later.
Everyone knows that humans are capable of depravity and horrible acts and deeds, and everyone knows that humans can be sick. But humans are also capable of great strength and beauty and goodness and joy and self-development, and that, in my opinion, is what life is about.