A Record of Reading

We Are Clowns

All archives are incomplete, but especially this one. There are few extant letters between John and Mable Ringling and in what remains of the personal library there are 50 books inscribed by “John Ringling,” but not a single book inscribed or otherwise attributed to Mable. During her lifetime, Mable gave only one public interview. We do know that she was a member of the Sarasota Ladies Club which helped to finance local garden beautifications as well as a public library and her luncheons and dinner parties were notable events in Sarasota.

By all accounts, John Ringling too, was a private person. Yet he began his career in one of the most extroverted of professions, that of the clown. His copy of The Autobiography of a Clown (New York Moffat, Yard 1910) would suggest that the contrast between the production of spectacle he engaged in, first as a clown, and later as the owner of the Ringling Brothers Circus, and his desire for privacy, continued to occupy his thoughts. In the dedication, Isaac Marcosson dedicates the book to “the children who love the clowns” and the text is accompanied by a forward written by Alfred Ringling, John’s older brother, who describes the subject of the book, Jules Turnour, as a man “with a cleaner, higher aim,” suggesting that the profession of clown needed to be explicated to the public. As Marcosson explains, the life of a clown was a nomadic life, “bound to a city of tents that rose with the dawn and slipped away into the night” (x).

An archive can be thought of as a place of control, of things locked up, bound, hidden, and preserved. An archive is sacred space. It is that which is never seen. Although her books have vanished, we do know that Mable Ringling owned “Congo,” a gorilla retired from the circus, which she, as Linda McKee writes, “kept in a wooden hut near Ca d’Zan.” The gorilla was both neighbor and friend. Mable also owned four miniature dobermans, which, by contrast, roamed freely on the property. What relationship did Mable, John, and the rest of the family establish with the gorilla? In the library there is a 1926 psychological monograph on animal intelligence titled The Mind of a Gorilla. The book is inscribed to John Ringling by one Robert Yerkes, a professor at Yale University. Oral histories tell us that the Ringling nieces and nephews frequently unlocked Congo’s hut. The effects of Congo’s freedom are visible today in New College’s Cook Hall, the former family home of Hester Ringling. Such oral histories and physical evidence indicate that the relationship between Congo and the Ringlings was a familiar and domestic one.

–Margaret Konkol

Works consulted

McKee, Linda. “The Library: The education of a Connoisseur,” John Ringling: Dreamer, Builder, Collector–– Legacy of the Circus King. Ed. Mark Ormond. Sarasota, FL: John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1996.

Weeks, David C. Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911-1936. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993.

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