Lessons from a circus baron...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

They say that the circus is the greatest show on earth.  I remember several from when I was growing up---at the last one I attended, my parents let my brother and I ride the elephants on a loop around the tent.  I don’t know when that was though, it seems far away.  Part of the reason is that I’ve gotten older of course, and part of the reason is that I think there seem to be less and less opportunities to see a circus.

But legends associated with the circus and the traveling families that work in them always seem to be so strong; I always find the stories fascinating.  So when we traveled to Florida a few weeks back, I made sure that we made a stop to see the Ringling mansion and museum in Sarasota.  There is a circus museum there, full of the beautiful train cars from the railway days, and more information about how that particular “greatest show on earth” came to be.  But the estate is so much more than the museum---there is a beautiful Venetian palace that was the winter home of the owners, as well as a magnificent art collection housed in a villa.  While walking around, I couldn’t help but take away a few things from the rich history:

  • If there’s a boom, there’s a bust: The Ringling family ended up owning every traveling circus in the United States.  And the youngest brother bought a tremendous amount of land in Florida.  But eventually economic happenings outside of their control caught up with them in the form of the Great Depression.  If things are going well, by all means enjoy them, but you have to always be mindful of the fact that the good days can always end.  Always make sure you have a reserve and never over-extend.
  • Where you start doesn’t define where you end: The Ringling brothers came from very humble beginnings yet ended up being one of the most powerful families in the business.  The brothers had modest educational beginnings, but the youngest still taught himself about the greatest European art masters.  He started his life in the Midwest but divided his time between New York City and the Sarasota Bay.  All of those show that where you start in life doesn’t necessarily have to define where you end---changes in life are your prerogative to make.
  • Know what to fight for: When economic difficulties caught up with the youngest Ringling, he had to make some very tough decisions.  But in the end, he considered it one of his greatest accomplishments that he was able to hold on to his artwork masterpieces and his home to house them, not for himself, but because he had wanted to will them to the state of Florida.  Those pieces are open to the public today to enjoy, admire and learn from.  He died with only $311.00 in his bank account, but still held on to these pieces, even though he could have sold them for more personal funds.  Sometimes, you have to know what to fight for, even when it makes things harder for you.
  • It’s hard to compete with a lifetime love: John Ringling was married to his wife Mabel for a quarter of a century, and frequently referred to her as the love of her life.  After her death he remarried for a brief time, probably too soon, and the relationship was seemingly doomed from the start.  Perhaps it was his fault, perhaps it was hers, an outsider to any relationship will never fully know.  But you will meet people, who, in their heart are still in love with someone else, regardless of whether that person loves them back or not, and there’s no competing with that.

All my love,