In mid-September, at the 2019 Circus Fans Association of America convention in Springfield, MA, I had the immense honor to sit and talk with circus legend Jeanette Williams. Daughter of Harry Williams and Carola Althoff, Williams hails from a dynasty of German circus owners and performers. Her contributions to the world-wide circus scene are abundant. After a hugely successful career as an animal purchaser, trainer and presenter, Williams is now the president of Entertainment & Circus Agency, LLC, a company that produces shows and books performers all over the world. At a spry 77, she is witty and bright-eyed. She carries herself with an air of forthrightness and glamour but is approachable and casual from the start. It was a warm evening in Springfield, and the convention attendees were enjoying a refreshing buffet dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Williams and I stole away from the cluster of round tables and chatted for over an hour.
She spoke with a cadence which indicated that she had told her story many times. Her sentences were factual, clipped — the headlines of her life. And indeed, how else could she possibly cover the enormity and depth of her outstanding career in one interview? Her wide bright eyes sometimes drifted, thinking into the past, but most often held mine, unabashedly, while she recounted the particulars of joys and hardships.
Despite being born into a circus family, most of William’s childhood was not spent on the road. “I grew up in Germany. My family started [circus] in the 1700s… My mother comes from a very old circus family by the name of Althoff…. Out of the eight children, there were three very major circuses in Germany…. Mom and Dad got married in 1932, and formed the Circus Williams.”
Her great aunt had married a Jewish man, Mr. Bloomenfeld, and her mother hid the family on the circus lot during WWII. She told me how the Gestapo would come to the circus lot once or twice a day. They had a password, “‘Adolf – or somebody’s name – went fishing.’ And when they heard that, the family knew they had to run into this wagon, which was the pantry. There were double walls in there and they hid in the double walls in case they [the Gestapo] would go in there and get food or something. During the entire war, she hid that entire family. There were two adults and three kids… There was circus for the entire war – it was incredible… You just keep going and do what you need to do and hope for the best.”
Despite being a descendant of famous circus families, Williams didn’t actually have a typical circus childhood. “I grew up in the circus when I was small, but my father got killed in 1951, doing a Roman chariot race… After that, my mother put my brother and myself into a boarding school because it was very hard for her to have two children on the road, and she wanted us to go to school… We were only allowed to come to the circus on vacation. So our life was exactly the other way around. We were not the circus kids with the freedom of the circus, we were really in school.” Williams completed her education but wasn’t allowed to come home to the circus full-time until she had a business license. So for three and a half years, she studied short-hand and bookkeeping— a foreshadowing possibly of the many entrepreneurial ventures she would have later in her career.
Her mother housed a retired dressage trainer and his wife and requested that they train her daughter. “I had a Lipizzan stallion out of the Spanish Riding School, and I was trained on them… I came to the circus already with a horse as a dressage rider. My adopted brother was Gunther Gabel-Williams… Gunther came to the family when he was 11-years old and I was 4. So we really grew up like brother and sister. And that was really cool and okay until when I came out of business school, and he started ‘hanging’ around. My mother said we have a contract to go to Spain in the winter and before we go, you get married. So we got married. I was married to Gunther for eight years, and I’m here to tell you that he was an excellent animal trainer and presenter, but he was a really lousy husband.”
Performing and Living in America
The troupe toured Italy in winters and then back to Germany to combine forces with Spanish performers in the Spanish National Circus. “I was running the office and the payroll and the concession and the kitchen — all this stuff — and we had a very big tent. Our tent seated about 3,800 people, and we always had over a hundred employees and at least eighty horses and tigers and the menagerie with a lot of animals.” Irving Feld, owner of Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey, had his eye on Gunther’s act and made them an offer to perform in America. “To make this decision to go to America was a very hard decision. What do we do with all these people who have been working for over twenty years for us?” They decided to join the American show, and two extended contracts later, Feld offered to buy. “I really didn’t want to sell, but Gunther wanted to sell, my mother wanted to sell. Here the life for Gunther was easier. It wasn’t better, but it was easier. Not to deal with the environments — cold, hot, snow and ice in a tent, traveling on the circus train. And also, Mr. Feld pushed the stardom of Gunther a lot, and I think he liked that idea. My mother was always very tight with the money. I think Mr. Feld was a little more generous in that department.” So they stayed.
A Fresh Start
After eight years of marriage, and despite her Catholic upbringing, Williams had had enough and walked out. With a future boyfriend, she had her daughter, Caroline, with whom she now lives in Sarasota, Florida along with her grandson.
Then she says, “I fell in love with this aerialist — this aerial trapeze artist — and I got married to Elvin Bale. And Mr. Feld saw that there were too many stars on one show, so he separated us and left Gunther as the superstar on the Red show and Elvin Bale as the daredevil on the Blue show. So I took my horses and moved to the other show.” Eventually, Elvin “didn’t want to hang on his heels when he was forty, so we had to find another way of making a living. So we went from Ringling to Japan. I took my cheetahs and brought them to Jack Hanna to Columbus, Ohio and started a very successful cheetah breeding — the largest one in the United States — with my two circus bums.” With her broker’s license for exotic animals, Williams brought the first white lion to Germany and the last African elephants to the United States among other purchases and placements around the globe. “That part of my life was very rewarding. Because ever since I was a young person I was purchasing the animals.”
Williams’ life then, as she described, yo-yoed. She bought property in Venice, Florida and built a restaurant she named the Continental Cafe. After divorcing Bale, she sold the cafe, sold her home and moved to Sarasota. There she co-owned a dress shop, “I called it MTT fashion — My Third Try”. When her business partner declared that, “Either you marry me or you’re out,” she was out. “So then I said, you know what, maybe I go back to what I know best, and I started the agency. I run the novelty agency to find circus performers work all over the world. I’ve been called in judging festivals in Monte-Carlo, in Rome, in Budapest, in China because of the knowledge I have.”
Williams also opened up about the closing of the Ringling show. She said now that Irving Feld had passed and the show had closed, she felt like people could speak openly about their experience with the production. For Williams, it all started to end when the show stopped presenting the elephants in 2016. “You cannot take elephants who’ve never been in the wild and alone and put them in an open space. They’ll kill each other.”
The timing of the 2017 final productions was, in her opinion, “cruel” and “undignified”. “I had twenty, thirty emails every day, Ms. Jeanette can you find me work? Because the last season opened in January and closed in April; European seasons are from March to October and then comes the winter season. There were a lot of people I just couldn’t help.” She sympathized with those with niche expertise who were so suddenly out of a job. “This is like me, now, at my age. What do I do? My expertise is circus. I don’t know where to go. Yeah, I could maybe go as a hostess someplace, but what I know took me most of my life to learn so you get somebody out of a job that doesn’t know anything else– they sit on the street, you know?”
Williams carries on, holding steadfast to her commitment to the performers she works with through her agency. Her dedication to making sure her performers have work and are valued for their skills is rooted in a genuine kindness coupled with a business-minded grit. This commitment is clearly a result of her own experiences.
Talking about her agency and how it can be difficult to find work for performers that stay true to a more traditional style of circus performance prompted a recap of her life. “Today it’s very hard, my business. My specialty is basically horses… I came to America with eighteen in one ring… I raised most of the tigers from the bottle for Gunther so he had the contact he always wanted. I had to do the bird act, not that I wanted to — but I did it. I trained pigeons to fly into a basket. Two dozen. Hated it, but did it. I wanted to become a fashion designer, my mother said no, I had to get a business degree. That’s it. That’s my life. Any questions?”
I could have asked a hundred questions about any one of the fascinating events she had summarized for me, but I felt I had just closed the back cover of an excellent book. One that leaves you completely satisfied but also wanting to keep living in that world a little longer. The conversation glided into shared musings about the world: from nature disappearing to housing developments (Williams, defiant of local laws, feeds the raccoons that live on her property). We spoke about eating well, karma, and natural cures for cancer. There’s something unique about being in the presence of someone who has achieved so much, literally shaped the world we live in and being reminded that they too have simple joys, simple worries. It’s grounding. The night was wearing on. The buffet was closed, the bar was winding down, and the convention attendees were trickling off to bed. As we concluded the interview, I felt grateful that I had the opportunity to bask in the beautiful story of Jeanette Williams’ life – right from the source.
All photos courtesy of Jeannette Williams archive. Feature photo Jeannette Williams Eighteen Liberty horse act