This is none other than Jules Leotard, who on this day in 1859 performed the first flying trapeze act in Paris, thus revolutionizing the circus. His act lasted twelve minutes in which he turned a somersault in mid-air and jumped from one trapeze to another. A pile of mattresses served as a safety net.
Although he’s not wearing it here, the leotard, which he invented, is named after him. Not a whole lot is known about his life; he was born in Toulouse, France, around 1839, the son of a gymnastics instructor, and as a baby was calmed by being hung upside down. Although his father wanted him to enter the law, young Jules ran away to the circus. He made his debut at the Alhambra Music Hall, London, in 1861, and his New York debut in 1868. He died in 1870 in Spain of smallpox or cholera.
Inspired by Carolyn’s Googlebooks adventures, I went searching for references to Jules Leotard, and found this from Chambers’ 1891 Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts:
Jules Leotard was a splendid specimen of manly beauty—a perfect figure united to a strikingly handsome face, always grave and reposeful.
The story of the great gymnast’s career has seldom been told. A native of Toulouse, in the south of France, young Leotard passed many of his earliest years in the beautiful city of the sunny south. His father kept a swimming-bath, having several skylights that were opened and closed by long ropea. It was young Leotard’s office to open and shut these skylights, and he was in the habit of swinging from one rope to the other, doing so with so much grace and skill as to attract much attention from the visitors to the establishment. His first public appearance was as an amateur at the Municipal Fete. It so happened that among the people who witnessed the performance was the director of the Cirque d’Iimperatrice at Paris. This gentleman was astonished at the skill and grace of the young athlete, and also at the novelty of the performance; and the next morning he made his way to the Leotard swimming baths and had an interview with the father. A few days hence and Jules Leotard set out for Paris. On his arrival in the gay city he was taken to a theatrical costumier, and a gay doublet of crimson velvet and gold spangles was fitted over the snow-white tights he had brought from the country.
“Take it off!” he said to the costumier. “I am not going to play the clown.”
“Take it off ! mon petit, the beautiful doublet ? See how well you look in it—grand, magnificent, superb!”
“Think you so? I’ll never wear spangles like a harlequin.”
“Ah ! mon Dieu ! Eh bien ! mon petit, what is it, then, you will wear? You must have a doublet of some kind.”
“Have you any black velvet?”
A roll of plain black velvet was produced, and out of this material was made the young aspirant’s doublet. And subsequently M. Leotard always wore the simple and elegant dress of a black velvet doublet over snow-white tights ; a dress that served admirably to display the magnificent form of the gymnast. The debut of the young athlete in the Paris arena was a veritable triumph, which was renewed on his first appearance in London. The flying trapeze became the rage, and a whole host of flying trapezists appeared at the music halls, none of whom, however, had the skill and marvellous ease of the master.
And yes, Leotard inspired the song The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze, recorded by, among others, Bruce Springsteen.
I think this nineteenth century circus illustration explains why female trapeze acts were so popular.
Have you ever fancied running away to the circus or flying through the air with the greatest of ease, which you can learn to do at Trapeze School in Washington DC or other major cities?
Do you think that facing up to a physical fear–like flinging yourself into the air on a trapeze–will help you overcome other fears? Have you ever done anything like that?
And do you think Manhaunch will ever replace the popular Mantitty on romance covers?