As circus insiders know, there is no longer a Greatest Show on Earth—there are two of them now. The shrewdie heirs of Barnum and the Ringling Bros. double their box office these days by deploying two companies at once. In-house, they are called the Red and the Blue units. Which also means, alas, that there is no longer a Greatest Show-Stopper on Earth either. The Red contender is “Animal Trainer Extraordinaire” Gunther Gebel-Williams; the Blue’s is the breath-defying “Phantom of Balance,” Elvin Bale. But for superlative collectors, there still survives the one and only “World’s Most Glamorous Equestrienne,” Jeanette Williams. Jeanette must qualify, nonpareil—she has married both Gunther and Elvin. Serially, of course.
Jeanette divorced Gunther in 1967, but in the ingrown circus community continued to live in the next trailer (he was raised as her unofficial “stepbrother,” after all), and she rode in the show side by side with his second wife. Finally, after being transferred to the Blue troupe, Jeanette married Elvin in 1972. Her reaction to having wed both of the circus superstars? “It feels good.” Amends second husband Bale, drolly: “She feels just like Jackie Kennedy Onassis—without the money.”
Between them, Elvin and Jeanette are lords of four rings. He dives into a heart-stopping “heel catch” on a single trapeze (without a net) and roars across a high wire on a Harley 350. She puts a dozen Lippizan stallions through a precision team show. But the moment that melts the crowd’s cotton candy comes when Bale whirls through space at 60 mph balanced atop a gigantic wire-and-pipe “Wheel of Death.” For the first time this year, Jeanette conquered her acrophobia to assist him, even if her unsteady hand sometimes gives Elvin the willies. “I start shouting at her, ‘You silly cow! What are you doing?’ ” But Jeanette keeps her cool. “I just smile up at him and say, ‘If you don’t like it, do it yourself or get someone else!’ ” How can he argue? “When I’m doing my act,” he gulps, “my life depends on Jeanette.”
Elvin, 30, and Jeanette, 32, have a combined take-home somewhat in excess of $1,000 a week. It seems paltry considering their extra-high life insurance premiums and the loot banked by other pro athletes. Elvin has fallen twice from the trapeze performing the trick that’s already killed two other performers and that still gives him nightmares. “People like Evel Knievel only do it once in a while,” he observes. “We do it every day.”
But the Bales have known no other than the hazardous life. Jeanette is a third-generation performer whose German parents, Harry and Carola Williams, owned Europe’s famed Circus Williams. Jeanette’s father was killed in a chariot race act when she was 9, and her mother tried to keep her out of the family business by sending her to fancy boarding schools and then putting her into staid office jobs. “But I always wanted to be in the circus,” Jeanette remembers, and she taught herself the dressage riding tricks that eventually put her into the center ring. Gunther Gebel-Williams was also born to the circus and took the hyphenated surname after Jeanette’s father brought him in as an apprentice. “We could never adopt him because his mother was still alive,” she explains, “but he was an equal member of the family in every respect.”
Jeanette married Gunther in 1961 but left him after six years “because he was not a very good husband, and I was young and not that ugly. When Sigrid [his present wife] came along, that was it!” Meanwhile, Gunther had established himself as the world’s foremost trainer, and Ringling Bros. purchased the Circus Williams outright in 1969 to bring his act to the U.S.
Elvin is of British origin and one generation deeper in sawdust even than Jeanette. His father, tiger trainer Trevor Bale, was a Ringling Bros, hit in the 1950s, and his mother hung by her teeth from a trapeze. Elvin cut his own teeth on the trapeze at 5 and the unicycle at 11, while his strict dad taught him the necessity of discipline in their dangerous acts. “When he asked a question I was to jump. He used to beat me with a whip. I was 18 years old before I talked back to him.”
Elvin first met Jeanette at a bowling alley at the circus’s winter quarters in Florida, but “I didn’t look at her because I thought she was Gunther’s wife.” Two years later, after first asking her out, Bale found Gebel-Williams still a factor. “When my mother retired she told Gunther to take care of me, and he still does that,” Jeanette explains. According to Elvin, “When I’d bring Jeanette home from a date, he would be standing there in the door, arms crossed, just like a father.” Elvin and Jeanette are now friendly enough with her ex-husband that after Bale broke his shoulder last winter, Gunther helped them drive their 36-foot travel trailer to Florida exhibition dates.
In the off-season, Elvin and Jeanette and her 7-year-old daughter, Harriet Carolina (nicknamed “Pinky”), live with his parents in Venice, Fla. (Pinky, born after Jeanette’s divorce, has been legally adopted by Elvin.) She attended public school in Venice during the circus tour last year, but Jeanette decided, “I missed her.” So Pinky now travels with her parents, taking correspondence courses. “I want her to get the good education I had,” says Jeanette (who speaks five languages), “but if she wants to go into the circus I won’t discourage her the way my mother discouraged me.” This season, Pinky rides a pony during the grand processional of each performance.
If Pinky does become the family’s fifth generation in the circus, she may have to talk her folks into visiting the Big Top. After risking their necks almost every day of their working lives, Elvin and Jeanette are talking about eventually retiring to a different sort of dicey profession: founding a delicatessen or a restaurant in Florida.