Sunday, May 18, 2014

Intrepid Women: Bird Millman, Bewitching High Wire Artiste

Sunday, May 18, 2014
Isabella reporting,

One of our recent Friday Videos featuring an unidentified woman dancing along a precariously high-wire far above the streets of an equally unidentified city. Our astute Nerdy History readers were quickly able to spot the buildings in the background and identify the city as New York. Some readers also thought the video was a clever fake, filmed before a backdrop, but thanks to one – Elise Daniel – we now know that the film was very likely real, and the name of the high-wire artist in the sky: Bird Millman O'Day.

Or maybe not. Read on!

A hundred years ago, we all would have recognized her. Bird Millman (1890-1940) was one of the most celebrated performers of her time, a favorite of circus audiences around the world. Born Jennadean Engleman in Canon City, CO, she began her career as a precocious child performer, and worked her way up from small-town traveling circuses to the big-time vaudeville circuit, playing to packed houses in around America.

In 1913, she signed with the Barnum & Bailey Circus, right, and became a center-ring performer and major attraction, both with Barnum & Bailey and with the Ringling Brothers. In the off-season, she continued to play on Broadway as a featured star in the Ziegfeld Follies and Frolics, and toured Europe as well, where she famously gave a command performance for Kaiser Wilheim II.

"Every girl aught to walk a tightrope," Bird declared to the Milwaukee News in 1913. "It develops a rare set of muscles and self-confidence and teaches one how to walk properly on the street."

She was famous not only for her daring, but for making her performances look graceful and deceptively easy, with a light-hearted personality that charmed audiences. She was compared to a dainty bird (which gave her her theatrical nickname) and a fairy, and while most female circus performers wore provocatively close-fitting and skimpy (for the time!) costumes, hers featuring flowing, feather-trimmed skirts that made her look even more ethereal.

Sadly, while her public persona was that of a merry sprite, her private life was not as carefree. Her first two marriages were short-lived and ended in divorce. Her third marriage to Joseph Francis O'Day sounds like a Jazz Age match in a short story by F.Scott Fitzgerald: the high-wire dancer and the Harvard-educated millionaire. Bird happily retired from performing, determined to make this marriage work.

But O'Day lost his entire fortune - and Bird's - in the stock market crash of 1929. He died shortly afterwards, and the devastated and now-destitute Bird returned to Colorado to live with family. Her health deteriorated, and she died in great pain from uterine cancer in 1940, shortly before her fiftieth birthday.

Learning all this, however, only raises more questions about the silent film clip. British Pathe, which owns the film, has it catalogued as 1931 - which would have been years after Bird retired from performing.

However, soon after the U.S. entered World War One in 1917, Bird had indeed made a special patriotic performance in New York to help raise support for the war effort and for a Liberty Loan drive. She danced along a high-wire strung twenty-five stories over the Broadway where she was a star, and, according the newspaper reports, drew crowds and stopped traffic. I wonder if this performance is the one shown in the film. In one scene, she is shown with the Woolworth Building (the tall, angular skyscraper, identified by reader Thane Floreth) in the background, a scene that is also depicted on the cover of Popular Mechanics magazine.

But if this film features a performer as well-known as Bird, then why wasn't she identified on the caption-cards? Was it old footage, recycled in 1931, and was her fame already so diminished that the filmmaker didn't bother to identify her? Or was this a recreation of Bird's famous feat by an unknown performer and using camera trickery? As another reader, Karen Anne, pointed out, no one on the ground is looking up - which would hardly be the case for the original well-publicized stunt.

So, readers: what do you think?

Top left: Bird Millman, c. 1905, Cannon City Historical Society.
Top right: Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, c. 1915.
Lower left: Autographed publicity photograph of Bird Millman, c. 1920, The Blondin Memorial Trust.
Lower right: Cover, Popular Mechanics magazine, July, 1917.


Jill Sardella said...

I'm so glad someone was able to identify her and I also believe it's Bird Millman featured in the video (same umbrella and signature dress under the sweater along with similar body type and posture). After checking out some pictures of her on Google, other people believe the same. At least two people on Pinterest have the video identified as Millman in Chicago, 1922. Here's a great list of early female daredevils, including Millman (video noted as being taken in New York).
As for the people below not looking up, I think they are too far away from her to even have been aware of her performance (based on the angle of the camera).

Myrtle Bank said...

It's definitely her.. go to this link and look under photographs:

This appears to have taken place around July 1924 in new York, according to New York published qaurterly magazine "Playboy" (no. 9), and there appears to be an article about her on page 3.

So absolutely real; making the moment where she momentarily lost her balance even more nerve-wracking!

Anonymous said...

At about 1:50 you can see in the background the famous clothing shop of Rogers Peet company at 258 Broadway in nyc.


Anonymous said...

My grandfather was a barker for barnum and bailey circus. he lived in Bridgeport ct where pt barnum had his mansion. people commonly saw jumbo the elephant picking up logs and carrying them around on his estate. I think Tom thumb was also from my dads hometown-or lived there to be near mr. Barnum
- where tom thumb florist is a local reminder. there is also iranistan ave. A connection to the name of barnum's mansion? It was torn down to make way for i-95 the modern day highway? As a kid, my grandmother took us to the barnum museum -there also is a barnum ave. We saw the "mermaid" which we thought was ugly and creepy as a kid.

August said...

I've been researching Bird and her family for the last 20 years, and I think this tribute to her is touching and tasteful. In the shadows of Bird's life was her dear friend Dixie Willson, the sister of "Music Man" Meredith. Dixie wrote several books inspired by their friendship. Find "Plays by August Mergelman" for an extensive history of Bird's life.

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