Kristy Cambron, author of The Ringmaster’s Wife, joins us to talk about an older generation of fandom participants and the nostalgia of circus life.
About ‘The Ringmaster’s Wife
In turn-of-the-century America, a young girl dreams of a world that stretches beyond the confines of a quiet life on the family farm. With little more than her wit and a cigar box of treasures to call her own, Mable steps away from all she knows, seeking the limitless marvels of the Chicago World’s Fair. There, a chance encounter triggers her destiny — a life with a famed showman by the name of John Ringling.
A quarter of a century later, Lady Rosamund Easling of Yorkshire, England, boards a ship to America as a last adventure before her life is planned out for her. There, the twenties are roaring, and the rich and famous gather at opulent, Gatsby-esque parties in the grandest ballrooms the country has to offer. The Jazz Age has arrived, and with it, the golden era of the American circus, whose queen is none other than the enigmatic Mable Ringling.
When Rosamund’s path crosses with Mable’s and the Ringlings’ glittering world, she makes the life-altering decision to leave behind a comfortable future of estates and propriety, instead choosing the nomadic life of a trick rider in the Ringling Brothers’ circus.
When fandom goes vintage by Kristy Cambron
You may not always see us, but we’re out there: the parents and professionals by day who geek out over vintage fandom by night.
We’re the former ’80s and ’90s kids you’ll find first in line at the revival house theater for a silent film festival. We aren’t ashamed to fall under the enchanted spell of childhood fairy tales (we are, after all, live-tweeting during episodes of Once Upon a Time and buying up all the YA fairy tale re-imaginings we can find, reminded as we are of the Disney movies that colored our own memories of youth). We still read Marvel comics, binge-watch classic TV on Netflix, and yes — we’re at an age when we can proudly venture out to a modern Cirque du Soleil show, because the circus is permissible now that we have children of our own.
Long before names like Cary, Clark and Audrey could stand alone (without the necessity of Grant, Gable or Hepburn to accompany them), vintage fandom burst onto the American scene with names like Garbo and Chaplin, Valentino and Houdini.
Celebrities emerged from vaudeville stages and crisscrossed the country on circus trains. And it wasn’t just the costumes of high-flying trapeze artists that glittered in the early 1920s and ’30s. Many ‘fangirls’ of the day were reading novels about lavish Gatsby parties, dancing the Charleston to music blasting from a wireless, and watching Hollywood starlets emerge from the rise of the “talkie.” In a world without trending hashtags or social media status updates, circus stars such as Tom Thumb, Jumbo and Emmett Kelly managed to become household names.
It’s this gilded world-within-a-world that fully captured me in childhood — and hasn’t let me go since.
The nostalgia of circus life — a menagerie of the exotic and the extraordinary — opened this fangirl’s eyes the first time I saw Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 blockbuster The Greatest Show on Earth. Film stars such as Betty Hutton, Charlton Heston, James Stewart, Cornel Wilde and Gloria Grahame introduced me to this bygone world that’s become an odyssey of vintage exploration ever since.
Imagine stepping into the ring where some of the world’s most celebrated entertainers performed. Where those names would rise to became larger than life, and the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus became one of America’s greatest living legacies.
Fandom just doesn’t get any better than that!
The young girl who loved those vintage stories grew up to become a historical fiction author. And now, diving head-first into research to share that world through Mable Ringling’s eyes in The Ringmaster’s Wife (HarperCollins, June 7 2016) — this fangirl’s ultimate dream has come true.
To really understand who the Ringlings were and how deeply they loved the circus life, I packed up my research team (a.k.a. husband and young sons) and headed off for the epicenter of what remains of that glittering world: the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, FL.
We spent days touring the grounds and museum, gliding through the vast rooms and peeking in every whimsical corner of the Ringlings’ Gilded Age mansion, the Ca’ d’Zan. We pulled open the heavy door and stepped into a Prohibition-era wine vault. We turned a circle or two on the mezzanine of a marble outdoor dance floor, feeling the history of Flapper parties that had once been alive all around. We walked through a custom Pullman train car, stopped to appreciate the scores of paintings and art collected over decades of the Ringlings’ travels, and in the process, fell more deeply in love with this bygone world.
Vaudeville closed up with the emergence of the cinema in the late 1920s. While the circus lives on to this day, the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey circus performed its last show under the canvas Big Top in the late 1950s. So, for us vintage fans, that magical world exists now only in the books, film and the art that history left behind.
You’re not likely to find us live-tweeting during a trapeze act in a modern circus arena.
You’ll miss us at social gatherings from time to time because we’re caught up in our living rooms with a glass of wine and a classic film noir on the TV.
And you just might think that we’re extinct because vintage fandom has never been a hashtag you’ve seen #trending on social media.
But we’re here. Alive and well. Reading books like Water for Elephants and The Night Circus. Quietly making vintage-inspired dramas like Downton Abbey a worldwide sensation. And remembering our own childhood dreams through the wide-eyed gazes of our children and grandchildren. We’re looking back, seeing how the stories of yesterday imprinted so much that they contributed to who we’ve become without even noticing.
They’ve made us vintage-loving trailblazers in the fandom world — and that is something few high-flying performers can boast, even from the center ring.
About the author
Kristy Cambron is the author of The Ringmaster’s Wife, named to Publishers Weekly Spring 2016 Religion & Spirituality TOP 10 and set for release on June 7, 2016 from Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins. A Once Upon a Time fangirl with a background in art and design, Kristy fancies life as a vintage-inspired storyteller. Her novels have been named to Library Journal Reviews’ Best Books and RT Reviewers’ Choice Awards Best lists, and received a 2015 INSPY Awards nomination for best debut novel.
She lives in Indiana with her husband and three sons, where she can probably be bribed with a coconut mocha latte and a good read.