The True Love Story of a Gypsy Acrobat and a Dallas Lawyer
Fanny was an eighth-generation circus performer from France, who never thought she’d settle in a place like Dallas. But then she met Mark.
When Fanny Kerwich came to Dallas in 2000, it didn’t occur to her that it might be someplace where she would settle down. Settling down anywhere sounded ridiculous to her. Fanny was a 30-year-old circus acrobat. She was French and a Gypsy. And Dallas was just another city in a two-year tour.
Fanny was touring with Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a one-ring boutique circus presented in a more intimate European style than the big circuses that normally tour the United States. Kaleidoscape took place inside a tent, with the audience seated on red velvet sofas only a few feet from the performers. Fanny did a clown act, playing a frumpy cleaning woman who’d wander in and out of the show at seemingly inopportune moments. In the end, she’d transform, through a combination of magic, applause, and the audience’s love, into a beautiful, graceful acrobat. Corny as it sounded, the audience always ate it up.
After each night’s two-and-a-half-hour show, Fanny and her single colleagues usually went out to find a Deep Ellum nightclub where they could kick back for a few hours. When she went out by herself, Fanny turned heads. She had long, blond hair; a striking, almost leonine face; and a beyond-buff athletic figure. But when she was out with her friends—acrobats, jugglers, and a trio of Moroccan strongmen called the Golden Statues—wherever the bar or the city, people would swarm on them, wanting to talk, dance, and have a drink. At the end of the night, back at the hotel, Fanny and her friends would perform a little ritual before going off to bed. One of them would call out, “Cards!” And they’d hand in all the business cards they’d gotten from people that night. They would go through the cards and, one by one, try to remember the guy who’d given it to them. Then they’d toss it in the trash and he’d be forgotten. Besides putting an end to the night with an easy laugh, it was also a way of reinforcing who they were and acknowledging the wall that separates circus people from outsiders. To read the full article, click here
Fanny Kerwich was also a big part of the inspiration behind the fictional Flying Magical Loerber Brothers in my novel Germania (first published by Simon & Schuster in 2008, now also available on Kindle here). Fanny helped me understand how the mind of an aerialist works when performing. She's there when the Magical Loerber Brothers do one of their last routines at Berlin's Admiralspalast, even as the Nazis are taking over:
First they tossed Manni up high into the air, and as he was coming down, Sebastian jumped to the far side of the springboard. Manni came down onto the other end, propelling Sebastian high into the air to the first trapeze. Then Ziggy boosted Franzi up onto his shoulders, Franzi jumped down onto the springboard, launching Manni upwards where he was caught by Sebastian, who swung him around and around before flying him off to the other trapeze. Manni spun around several times on the second trapeze before coming down onto the springboard, sending Ziggy upward. Then Sebastian and Franzi flew around and around before Sebastian flew off to the second trapeze, leaving Franzi to catch Ziggy.
It worked like an assembly line: every summersault, every spin calculated precisely, so that downward was causing upward, momentum causing momentum, and the velocity and force always increasing. In its exactitude, each brother found his own mind and body melding with the others until they were four separate parts of a single whole.
Flying from one trapeze to the next, the thought of Frau Lachmann languishing in the closet briefly flashed through Franzi’s mind. Coming down, he told himself he needed to do something about it. But by the time he hit the springboard and began flying back upward, he had already forgotten about it.
Fanny also inspired me to write this part, where Albert Speer, after a number of juggling lessons from Manni Loerber, decides to finally face off Hitler:
But Speer had changed. He was a different person now and Hitler’s power over him wasn’t what it had been. He’d learned to see things differently. He now saw things from the perspective of a juggler.
Through my conversations with Fanny, I also learned about the magic of circus and the way the performers and audience experience it together. This is the scene that perhaps illustrates it best:
Ziggy and Manni agreed to be interviewed. For ten minutes they stood together on the porch recalling stories of mishaps and emergency improvisations, and the backstage pranks which Sebastian specialized in. Of their time back together they said little, beyond that, though it was brief, it had been an extremely happy time, making them feel as if they’d never been apart.
While they were talking, the people in the street began swaying and humming bits of song; Call of the Enchanted Isles, From Monday On, My Little Green Cactus. The crowd was like an ocean, observed Ziggy, with its own energy and mood and common rhythm and the waves of grief sharing the space with those of happy memory.
“So you’re going to be playing it on Radio Flensburg?” asked Ziggy when they’d finished.
“Well yes, but it’s also already been sold to Radio Atlantik. We’re just putting the segment together. We’ve got a Brit in the studio to record the English-language text.”
The radio reporter was wrapping up his microphone cables when a man stood up on the hood of a parked car and the crowd fell quiet as a clear plaintive sound poured out into the evening air. Ziggy couldn’t imagine how anyone could play Harlem Rhapsody on a bugle, but he played it, sweet and sad, exactly like he remembered it.
The reporter quickly unrolled his cables again, switched on the machine and held out his microphone to capture the song. He watched the flickering green light on the instrument panel and smiled. “This is going to be so good,” he said.