Even by today’s demanding standards, Leona Dare would have been a YouTube sensation. She was strong, she was skilled, and she was a most daring trapeze-aerial artist. Wearing shockingly risqué costumes for her time, Leona Dare soared high above nineteenth-century audiences, dangling from a trapeze and later suspended from a hot-air balloon. She relied solely on her fierce courage, her nerves and jaws of steel and a custom-made mouthpiece. In later performances she suspended a male partner by her bite alone.
Unraveling the tangled details of her life presents a challenge. It seems that facts and Leona Dare made strange companions. Her real name was Susan Adeline Stuart, sometimes spelled Stewart. She was born in 1854 or 1855. She died on May 23 or 24, 1922. Her father was either a Civil War hero or an acrobat. Her mother disappeared in the flurry of the war, was shot at the Alamo or simply abandoned her children. She was married to her mentor, who she later left. She remarried to Mr. Ernest Theodore Grunebaum, a wealthy man from Vienna, before she obtained a legal divorce from husband number one. She took care of that little detail officially then remarried husband number two.
Leona Dare launched her professional life travelling with circuses. Thomas and Stewart Hall, a.k.a. The Brothers Dare, trained her in acrobatics. In 1871, she married Thomas Hall either in New York or New Orleans, although some sources say she married Stewart. Along the way, one or both of the Brothers Dare designed and built a special iron jaw mouthpiece for her. In August 1872 in Indianapolis, she first performed suspended from a hot air balloon while holding her partner in her teeth.
Needless to say, the voluptuous Dare made quite a name (or names) for herself. She was billed as: The Pride of Madrid, Queen of the Antilles, The Comet of 1873 and Mlle. Zoe. She performed across the United States, England, France, Spain, Austria, Romania and Germany. She became one of the highest paid aerialists of her day. Not surprisingly accounts of the actual amount of her payment per performance varies vastly.
She performed with astonishing strength and courage while wearing the skimpiest of outfits. She frequently wore flesh colored body stockings that made her appear nearly nude. Her panties and corsets were trimmed with rows of glittering sequins that sparkled for the audiences so far below. An 1877 poster by Charles Cheret depicts her like a great ancestor of Wonder Woman on a rope wearing a form-fitting stars-and-stripes costume while supporting a male figure.
Following are a few bench marks of her life and career.
Leona dared to leave her marriage and professional partnership with Hall in 1878. In a British Court he sued for the apparatus he had built to aid in her jaws of steel performances. Dare did not attend the hearing, apparently mortified by the bad publicity. Her apparatus was examined in detail by the court to determine its monetary value.
She was in Austria at the time but the judge read her deposition in which she stated that she would not return to him at his request because she did not love him.
“This may be, as Mr. Justice Denman suggested, with truly judicial humor, the result of teaching your wife to fly…
‘Lately, at the Princess’s Theatre, Valencia, Spain, Leona Dare, the American acrobat, was suspended from the roof of the theatre by her feet, and held in her teeth the ropes of a trapeze-bar on which a male acrobat, known as M. George, was performing. During the act Miss Dare was seized with a nervous fit and dropped the trapeze. M. George and the apparatus dropped whirling to the floor. The audience was horror-stricken.
Every one rushed for the doors, and a panic ensued, in which many people were crushed and otherwise injured. Miss Dare clung to the roof, screaming hysterically. She was rescued with difficulty after the excitement had somewhat subsided, and is now confined to her bed from exhaustion following the shock. M. George has since, by cable, been reported dead, and Miss Dare in a precarious condition.’
Leona Dare was now working with Eduard Spelterini, a Swiss balloonist. He would take her, suspended under the basket of his balloon. Some sources say he would go to 5,000 feet while she performed her acrobatics. It was their performances at the Crystal Palace in London in June and July of 1888 that lifted them to world fame.
“Leona Dare made her first appearance…on Whitt Monday when her marvelous balloon ascent (witnessed by over 62,000 people) created the most profound sensation.”
Her headlines in English newspapers no doubt offered a refreshing moment between headlines screaming details of Jack the Ripper’s gruesome murders.
Dare and Spelterini performed across Europe. In mid-1889, she was attacked by a mob of Russian peasants during her descent back to earth.
From Russia they travelled to Bucharest where they performed at the Cismigiu garden on October 8. Journalists went in the balloon with Spelterini on several of the performances.
She was working under a balloon in Paris at the Porte Maillot station. The wind was strong and she was forced to fall deliberately. Her leg was broken in the incident.
Dare continued to work the European circuit until she was roughly 40 years old. She sustained some unfortunate “dental incident” in Germany and returned to the United States. If anyone knows what happened to her famed teeth, we’d love to hear from you.
She eventually ended up with a niece in Spokane Washington where she died at the age of 67 or 68, depending on whose facts you choose to believe. She was buried at Riverside Cemetery in Spokane, Washington under the name Madame Leona Dare.
You can see an original costume and mouthpiece at The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Spokane.
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