A circus tale: From Russia, to America, with love

Nina and Lily help Jack Drury’s mother build her Long Island flower garden. (Photo provided)

The Tale of the Tail Post-WWII was a pretty good time period in America, but there were still plenty of things to scare a kid. Alfred Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, Communism, polio and nuclear annihilation immediately come to mind. One thing I wasn’t afraid of was dogs because my brother, three sisters, and I grew up in a house full of big friendly Newfoundland dogs.

My mom’s love of Newfoundlands, and my dad’s enthusiastic support, provided numerous doggy adventures. There were always eight or more of the friendly 150-pound behemoths around our 6-acre rural Long Island homestead, and it wasn’t unusual to also have a couple of litters of puppies in whelping boxes in the kitchen.

My parents traveled the dog show circuit throughout the Northeast and three or four of the Drury kids were always in tow. If a kid growing up hanging out in a gym is a gym rat, then we were dog-show rats.

My father was the classic Long Island Railroad commuter reading the New York Times on his way into the city. One day an ad for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus caught his eye. It featured a beautiful female trapeze artist and by her side was a Newfie. My parents couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet a fellow Newfie owner, so they contacted the circus and got the name of the performer. Then, before we knew it, we met Nina Karpova. Nina was born in Russia and escaped during the Russian Revolution. After World War II, she escaped East Germany to the West. In 1953, Nina, her daughter Lily and their Newfoundland came to visit us.

Nina had a trapeze act with a fixed (non swinging) trapeze. Two men held cables to keep it from swinging. She had special boots that attached to the trapeze. When the audience least expected it, she’d let go, swinging forward, and became a human pinwheel. It was a real crowd pleaser. She was to perform on the “Big Top,” a popular TV show which ran from 1950 through 1957. I remember sitting in front of the TV on Saturday waiting for her act to be introduced, but it never happened and we didn’t learn why until later that day.

During rehearsal, a man held one of the cables at the wrong angle and when Nina started swinging she hit the cable, causing her boots to disengage from the trapeze and she fell 40 feet to a cement floor. Miraculously, she didn’t break a bone. She and Lily stayed at our house that night. When I saw her shuffle out of the bedroom the next morning, she was bruised from head to toe.

Nina’s daughter, Lily, had an impressive tumbling routine that she eventually turned into a nightclub act. After her mother retired, Lily traveled the world performing in nightclubs.

Lily also had an equestrian act. She had a wonderful horse, Kasback, that performed a form of dressage in which he executed complex maneuvers in response to imperceptible commands communicated through slight shifting in Lily’s weight, pressure exerted by her knees and legs, and her handling of the reins.

Kasback was a gorgeous horse nearly 17 hands tall with a glossy dark nut-brown coat and a delightfully braided mane. The piece de resistance was his tail. It was a perfectly coiffed 5-foot-long tail that he proudly brandished as he strode through his routine.

Kasback traveled in a railroad car with some of the wild animals on the circus’ train and once rode next to a camel. Camels can be cantankerous critters. You want proof? An aggravated camel bit off its owner’s head in India a few years back after the owner left the camel out in the sun for hours without water.

The animal lifted the owner by the neck and threw him on the ground, chewed the body and severed the head. You don’t want to mess with Camels. In hindsight I guess we shouldn’t have been surprised when a camel ate all but 6 inches of Kasback’s previously alluring tail, a mere hors d’oeuvre. C’est dommage.

During the mid-1950s, whenever Nina and Lily were in the Northeast with a circus, we’d visit them or they’d spend a few nights with us. I’m not sure how many times they visited but it was enough that my father, at Nina’s request, bought 50 feet of 2-inch manila rope to hang high up in a tree so she could practice climbing it. Her athleticism left a tremendous impression on me as I watched this beautiful blond woman climb hand over hand up the rope, her legs outstretched horizontally.

When Nina’s Newfoundland died she asked my parents where she might find a taxidermist to mount it. Though my parents found it a bit shocking, they found one. But alas, the taxidermist’s building burned down and the dog hide was lost.

After a few visits, Nina asked my parents for help regarding a sticky legal situation. Nina and Lily wanted to quit the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were told they couldn’t because they owed the circus too much money. It turns out that Ringling Brothers had a form of indentured servitude. They paid the performers but charged them for transporting their equipment from the train station to the performance venue. They also charged for transporting the performers themselves. Because artists were charged numerous fees of this type, it was almost impossible to quit the circus. Nina understood this so she hauled her own equipment and walked to the venues. She kept track of how much money she was saving and when she knew they didn’t owe Ringling Brothers anything, they quit. Ringling Brothers didn’t believe them and wouldn’t release them from their contract. My parents found them a well-known New York City lawyer who, with one threatening letter, got them released.

From then on Nina and Lily worked for a variety of circuses throughout North America in the summer and South America in the winter. The last time we saw them in the U.S. was around 1960, but we kept in touch.

I saw Nina the last time in 1972. I’d just graduated from college and traveled around Europe for three months. I landed in Hamburg where Nina and Lily lived. Lily was on the nightclub circuit in Asia. I had a wonderful visit with Nina, but one thing stood out.

Nina had a cute little house with a loft that I slept in. The morning after my arrival, I woke up, jet lagged and disoriented. I rolled over and felt a tanned animal skin I had been sleeping on.

Was it a deer? No, it was too big and the color was wrong.

Was it a bear or a moose? No, the coat was too thin.

Was it a zebra or other exotic animal? No, the color pattern was wrong.

I looked it over carefully but couldn’t figure it out. I ran my hands up and down the dark brown hide and since there was no head, there was no help from that quarter.

Then I ran both hands down the back of the animal and suddenly something clicked. I saw and felt the animal’s tail. Or should I say I felt the lack of tail. Where there had been 5 feet of lustrous hair, now there was only 6 inches. No doubt, only one animal on this planet-heck in this solar system-was this big, with a tail that small.

That’s right, you guessed it. I’d been sleeping on the mortal remains of Kasback.


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