John Ringling (1866-1936)
John Ringling was born in McGregor, Iowa, on 31 May 1866, the sixth of seven surviving sons and daughter born to August and Marie Salomé (Juliar) Ringling. Five of the brothers joined together and started the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1884.
Although John began his career at 16 performing as a song and dance man, he moved to overseeing the circus route. After he persuaded his brothers to convert the show from wagons to rail in 1890, The New York Times observed, "he became a human encyclopedia on road and local conditions." It was a driving ambition that propelled the Ringling Bros. Circus into a world-class show crossing the country in nearly 100 rail-cars each season.
The acquisition of the Barnum & Bailey show in 1907 made the Ringling brothers a dominant force in the American circus scene. Profits from this boom period of the circus gave Ringling the initial wealth he then invested in rail lines, Western oil, and some 30 other enterprises. He also invested in Madison Square Garden and became a member of the board of directors.
In the 1920s, Ringling joined the Florida land boom, buying and developing land on the Sarasota Keys. He attempted to make Sarasota a fashionable metro-resort to rival those on Florida's popular East Coast.
With his wife, Mable, Ringling began accumulating a collection of Old Master paintings that they displayed in their homes in New York City; Alpine, New Jersey; and Sarasota. In New York's crowded auction rooms, they found a rich source of furnishings, tapestries, and paintings from the homes of wealthy and prominent families. In the 1920s, the Ringlings traveled annually to Europe to locate new circus acts, while also making purchases of art objects.
An imposing figure, John Ringling stood more than six feet tall. In speech, he was soft- spoken and reserved to the point that one journalist wrote, "John Ringling is not your chatty type of man...It is no wonder that he is the least-known element in his minutely publicized business." In dress, he was elegant and preferred tailored English-made suits. He enjoyed fine Cuban cigars and his own private-label whiskey.
With the purchase of the American Circus Corporation in 1929, he was the circus king of America. His reign, however, was short lived. Declining health, over-extended finances, the stock market crash of 1929, and the ensuing Great Depression contributed to Ringling's downfall.
In December 1930, a year after the death of his first wife, John Ringling married Emily H. Buck. It was an ill-fated relationship; their divorce became final in 1936. His final years were further darkened by dissension in business and family affairs, but still, Ringling continued to mark auction catalogues for possible purchases and to plan a circus spectacle entitled "Golden are the Days of Memory." John Ringling died of pneumonia on December 2, 1936, at age 70 in his home on Park Avenue, New York.
Mable Ringling (1875-1929)
Little of a personal nature is known about the woman who was born Armilda Burton and became Mable Ringling, wife of the well-known circus man. She was not a flamboyant woman, and she did not seek the spotlight in either society or show business.
Her origins can be traced to Moons, Ohio, a farm community. Born there on March 14, 1875, she had four sisters and one brother. By the turn of the century, she had moved away from Ohio to earn a living. Various stories exist that describe how she and John Ringling met. She had strong ties with her family, who visited Sarasota often or moved to the area. Dulcie Shueler, Alma Reid, and Mrs. B. C. Workman, her three sisters, all spent a good part of the year here. Her brother, Earl Burton, lived in Tampa.
Like John, she favored purchasing items at auction. At the George J. Gould sale in 1924, Mable was a "conspicuous buyer," almost too conspicuous, purchasing well above the estimated amounts. For example, she purchased a telephone valued at a mere $10 for $75. Many other catalogues in the Ringling Family Papers record her notes to herself on what to buy and where to place it.
Although Mable had a less direct hand in the formation of the Art Museum than her husband or than she did with Cà d'Zan, she was listed on the Art Museum's charter as a Director and the Vice President of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Corporation in 1927.
Mable died on June 8, 1929, at the age of fifty-four. Her marriage to John was one of strong affection and loyalty. The king of the big top did not seek out a flamboyant or wealthy socialite - perhaps because he was not so flamboyant himself in his personal life. Mable found in John someone who delighted in sharing and cultivating her interests in travel, art and culture. They shared a love of things Italian, and Sarasota is fortunate they chose to build here two monuments to their fascination and interests: the Cà d'Zan ("House of John") and The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.
For further information:
• John Ringling ~ Dreamer ~ Builder ~ Collector: Legacy of the Circus King. Sarasota, FL: The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 1996.
• Weeks, David. Ringling: The Florida Years, 1911 - 1936. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1993