HENRY RINGLING NORTH was the last member of a great circus family to be involved in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey circus.
The brother of John Ringling North, the circus's former president, Henry was overshadowed by John's flamboyant showmanship. As vice-president, however, he attended to detail and got things done and the partnership worked well, reaching a peak of perfection when 'The Greatest Show on Earth' had its golden years, 1939 and 1940, under their direction.
Born in Chicago in 1909 to Ida North (nee Ringling) and Henry W. North, a railway worker, Henry Ringling North was educated at Yale University and during the Second World War served in the navy and the Office of Strategic Services. Ida had seven older brothers, five of whom were involved in the circus. Of the five, John Ringling proved to be the master showman, helping build up the circus to gigantic proportions while the Barnum and Bailey circus was touring Europe at the turn of the century and then buying them out his rivals when they returned to the United States.
Ida was left little of John's vast fortune when he died in 1936, with her sons excluded from the will completely. But she outlived her brothers and won the hard battle to gain control of the circus for her sons in 1939. In that first year in control of the circus the brothers featured Gargantua, a large gorilla aptly named after Henry, who discovered that his former owner had called it Buddy, the nickname he himself had been given by his uncle John. Gargantua was given the full hype of the Ringling publicity department, to such an extent that he was to be one of the show's all- time successes.
Much legal wrangling within the family resulted in Robert Ringling, the brothers' cousin, taking control of the circus between 1943 and 1946. The Ringling North brothers, however, took the 'Greatest Show on Earth' to new heights after the war with a galaxy of European stars and updated the spectacle under dark blue canvas, as was seen in Cecil B. de Mille's film The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). Henry wrote an account of the circus, The Circus Kings: our Ringling family story (1960).
Both spent time in Europe talent-hunting, John more than Henry, who had an apartment in Rome. A slender edition of his Uncle Charlie Ringling, Henry was good looking, had an unusual wit and charm and got along with people in and out of the circus business. Ultra-conservative in his politics, he was worried about the United States' rising debt and apparent drift towards socialism with the programmes of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He renounced his US citizenship and journeyed back to his ancestral home, taking up Irish citizenship and also persuading his brother to do the same. In 1960 he purchased Northbrook, a large working farm at Aughrin, County Galaway.
By 1967 the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus had been showing in indoor arenas for over 10 years, Henry's brother John having declared the tenting circus to be a thing of the past. The brothers sold out in that year to Irvin Feld for dollars 8m and Henry was made vice-president. Today there are two units of the circus playing indoor arenas and the greatest title in the history of circus is in safe hands. Henry, a Ringling by another name, died in Switzerland where he had lived since 1976, having moved there from Rome.