John and Mabel Ringling

A SHOWMAN AND HIS SOCIALITE

IN THE EARLY 1900’s, JOHN AND MABLE RINGLING WERE THE PARAGONS OF HIGH SOCIETY AND EVERYTHING TO THEIR NAME DRIPPED WITH LUXURY.

HE WAS A BOATER HAT-WEARING SHOWMAN WHO GRACED THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE FOR HIS TRAV­ELING CIRCUS MONOPOLY.  She was a style icon, a connois­seur of exotic furnishings and a lover of visual art. Together, John and Mable Ringling were the darlings of the Edwardian Age and the royal couple of the Roaring ’20s.

Many society people saw them as disreputable circus folk with little taste in what constituted good living.  John and Mable Ringling labored to distance themselves from their humble pasts, to uphold their presents with dignity and to become two of the most noted trendsetters of the 2oth century. “They certainly led the good life, with all the accoutrements of luxury. But John was born poor and he wanted to show that he was more than just a circus guy,” says Jeff LaHurd, a Sarasota Florida author and historian. “Someone in his line of work may not have been as highly regard­ed as another captain of industry. He had to set himself apart.”

FROM RURAL TO REGAL

As a boy in McGregor, Iowa, John Nicholas Ringling was the fifth son of seven children born to German immigrants. In 1907, alongside his entrepreneurial brothers, John created the “Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows,” which burgeoned to the most successful circus in its class. John’s investments in railroads, oil, steel and land, coupled with his circus fortune, earned him Time’s title as “one of the wealthiest men in America” in 1925. He was worth$2oo million at the time. Manhattan was one of John’s primary stomping grounds, and he occupied an apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City. By serving on the board at Madison Square Gardens and cavorting with J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor and President Calvin Coolidge, John became abreast of the must-haves of the era. “He hobnobbed with people of very refined tastes, and his closest friends were politicians and entertainers,” says Ron McCarty, keeper of the Ca d’Zan at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. “He was always moving in wealthy circles.”

A CIRCUS KING AND HIS QUEEN Mable Burton, a soft-spoken, fashionable woman from meager beginnings, became John’s bride in t9o5. “She was said to have been a kind, elegant woman, but very strong, with a great deal of taste,” says Maureen Thomas-Zaremba, associate curator of education for the Ringling Museum. “She was active in the com­munity and gave lots of parties for women’s groups.”  With her husband, Mable traveled Europe avidly by railcar, scoping out sideshow acts for the circus empire. When they visited Sarasota-at the advice of John’s brother, Charles-the couple became entranced by the shoreline. They moved to the area in 1912. In 1925, they built the Venetian-Gothic mansion on the bay, the Ca d’Zan (or “House of John”) for $1.5 million. Designed by architect Dwight Baum, the exterior was sheathed with mosaics, stained-glass windows, glazed tiles and cast stone, and rose bushes were planted in the gardens.

The Ringlings owned a $50,000 organ that could be played manually or electronically and kept boxes of cov­eted cigars and the finest whiskeys, even during Prohibition. They adorned their home with Tiffany ster­ling silver, genoise velvet fabrics and Jules Allard furni­ture. The Calvinator, an electric refrigerator, was one of their newfangled devices in a decade when most people were still using iceboxes. They installed an in-ground mar­ble pool -half-saltwater, half-chlorine-for the benefit of their health. What intrigues me most about their style is that they carved out their own particular niche;” Thomas Zaremba says. “Mable had a definite style of her own. She was very confident in her taste and left that imprint on her home. It was luxurious without being overwhelming:”

The Ringlings’ summer home was a too-acre estate in New Jersey on the Hudson River, in a neighborhood known as “millionaire’s row.” The Ca d’Zan became a winter retreat. While in Sarasota, John developed Bird Key and St. Armands Circle and owned a hotel and stretches of real estate.

The Ringlings took a vested interest in art, and as rookies, enlisted Munich art dealer Julius Bohler to oversee their purchases. John appreciated the 17th century Baroque period, even though it was not in vogue at the time, and Bohler selected pieces for his client to buy at discounted prices. “The collection is known for being one of the five best collections of Baroque art outside of Rome;’ McCarty says. “It had a lot to do with Ringling’s taste as a collector. He was a showman, and the drama and spectacle in Baroque art appealed to him.”

Gilded Age architectural artifacts from Astor’s Fifth Avenue mansion (post ­Titanic sinking) added to John’s collection of work by Peter Paul Rubens, Titian. Velazquez and EI Greco. In 1928, he acquired 2,800 Creek, Cypriot, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, and later, stocked up on American, Dutch, German, Italian and Flemish paintings.

Inspired by Morgan. Isabella Stewart Gardner and Henry Clay Frick, John dreamt of con­structinghis own museum to house his wares. In 1927, he commissioned New York archi­tect John Phillips to design a building resembling an Italian palace, and the museum opened its doors four years later. It became the largest art museum south of New York’s Metropolitan museum of Art in 1931, and that same year, Ringling School of Art and Design was established.

Mable died in 1929 at age 54, and the Great Depression ground John’s art collecting to a halt. Creditors attempted to overtake his circus, so John bequeathed his wealth to the state. When he died in 1936, John left his museum, mansion, possessions and $1.2 mil­lion in cash to the citizens of Florida. “The Ringlings have left a tremendous legacy for us.”  Zaremba says. “What we have is very unique and incredibly luxurious.”