A story as good as the photo.
Some photos are so captivating, they can instantly evoke a full experience. I see this photo, and I can feel the cool metal grandstands. I can smell the faint smoke of firecrackers and firey hoops. I can hear the cacophony of pipe organs and crowds and trumpeting elephants. I can feel with perfect clarity the wonder, the awe, and the electrifying suspense that must have surrounded a 19th century traveling circus. The evocative subject of this photo was Therese Renz, and her story is even more incredible than the picture.
Born Therese Stark in Brussels Belgium in 1858, she was the daughter of two illustrious performers in their own right: Her mother was Lina Wunderlich, a circus equestrian, and her father Wilhelm Stark, a famed ringmaster. Her father left the family in her youth, and Lina pined for her daughter to pursue a more stable life outside the circus, but Therese was determined to write her own destiny. At 13, she left home to get an extensive and elite training with the Wulff Circus in Switzerland, and she made her official debut on the 10 of April, 1873, at the age of 15.
The acts she performed varied here and there throughout her life, incorporating the talents of different horses and animals as they came to her, but the performance incorporated extreme skill. A variation on high level dressage was the main event, what most people associate today with the Spanish Riding School in Austria: Levades, Courbettes, Croupades, and Caprioles. The horses would also perform the “Spanish Walk”, various dancing and bowing tricks, and her most famous trick of jumping rope on horseback. Since women could not be members of illustrious riding schools or cavalries, it is likely that in the 19th century, Therese’s life as a circus performer was the pinnacle of equestrian glory that a woman could achieve.
Eventually she was hired on with the Circus Renz, a revered German troupe founded by Ernst Renz, who was a significant showman and performance dressage icon in his own right. She fell in love with his nephew, Robert Renz, and the two were married. The two had a son, Hugo, and continued the circus life with gusto, traveling with the Renz Circus and the Herzog Circus at various times across Europe and the United States. Numerous stories of her trick horses and graceful abilities appear in newspapers around the world, and Therese is enveloped in the joys of horses, family and fame for a time.
But the blissful period in Therese’s life would not last. In quick succession in the early 1900s, Therese’s husband died, and money became harder to come by. Soon after, her mother took ill and died on Therese’s birthday, and she lamented that she could not be at her mother’s bedside because she had a performance. Then in 1913, her son died young and tragically of a heart condition.
According to an interview she gave near the end of her career, she said he was fit, athletic, and strong; “built like a young God,” she said. But his heart had an unknown condition, and he abruptly died. The Circus life went from being a family affair to a tragically lonely solo performance, and Therese shared with surprising honesty to being heartbroken and lost in this period.
She considered retiring from public life, but the busy and familiar surroundings of her first love of the circus called to her. Moreover, it was her only means of supporting herself in fragile times in Europe. With complete determination,Therese started her own traveling equestrian show in Belgium that included ponies, great danes, zebras, and even two elephants.
Just as Therese was getting back to business, World War I would disrupt her comeback and leave her penniless, begging on the streets not for her own food, but anything people could spare to keep her two beloved elephants alive. After one died of starvation, she sold the second, her prized elephant “Dicky”, to another circus just to prevent him from suffering the same fate. Therese would yet again be starting over.
When the war ended in 1918, Therese was 60 years old, but that wasn’t going to stop her. She joined a troupe in Vienna in 1923, and continued performing well into her seventies on a mare named “Last Rose”, a fitting final partner. Therese – the sort of woman you think will never give in to the strangling fingers of death – died in 1938. She is buried in Berlin beside her husband from whom she’d been separated the better part of four decades.
In an interview she gave near the end of her life to a French women’s journal, the interviewer addresses Therese frankly about her tumultuous life.
“If you had the opportunity to live your life again, knowing all you know, all the joys and all the anguish that await you, would you choose as you had chosen before?”
Therese slowly sat up, looked one second at her horses – and probably beyond them to the adventurous parade that had been this life – then she looked at me. This little woman suddenly seemed surprisingly large, with a beautiful new face of energy, pride, and passion.
“Before God I swear, knowing all the trouble, all the grief, but also the infinite joys that were my destiny, I would not like to change one line of my life story. Regret, you see, even one regret, is worse than bankruptcy.”
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Many thanks to Kresten Snow for his assistance translating German documents, and Sara Ellington for her assistance in translating French documents! Your gifted minds brought an exceptional woman back to life.