Jenny Wallenda, matriarch of the famous, sometimes star-crossed aerialist family, died Saturday at her home in Sarasota, Fla. She was 87.
Wallenda had been diagnosed with cancer, her nephew Rick Wallenda said.
Other members of the group known as The Flying Wallendas died in the course of their work. In 1978, Wallenda's father Karl fell 121 feet as he tried to skywalk between buildings in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1962, her cousin Dieter Schepp and her husband Dick Faughnan were killed before her eyes as a seven-person high-wire human pyramid fell three stories onto the concrete floor of a Detroit arena.
Jenny Wallenda was supposed to be part of the act that night at the Shrine Circus, but her cousin Jana insisted on taking her place, sitting in a chair atop the two tiers of six men balanced beneath her.
"Inches from where I stood, the pyramid collapsed," Jenny said in her grandson Nik Wallenda's 2014 memoir, "Balance: A Story of Faith, Family and Life on the Line." "I watched it fall. It was the most horrible moment of my life."
Her cousin Mario was paralyzed for life. Her father cracked his pelvis. The following night, he painfully sneaked out of his hospital bed, changed into his circus outfit, hailed a cab back to the circus, and, to a standing ovation, hobbled across the high wire.
Part of a seven-generation circus dynasty, Jenny Wallenda was born in Germany on Oct. 8, 1927. She spent a few years of her childhood in Sarasota but grew up with her grandparents in Nazi Germany. In Berlin, she became a youth leader: "I had no political feelings," she later recalled. "I was simply a superb athlete, a young lady who did as I was told."
After suffering brutal treatment, including rape, at the hands of invading Soviet soldiers, she reunited with her parents in the U.S., joining the family troupe in 1947.
In 1949, she married Alberto Zoppe, an Italian bareback rider.
Jenny Wallenda also was an accomplished rider, performing on horseback in Cecil B DeMille's 1952 circus film "The Greatest Show on Earth."
She later described Zoppe, with whom she had daughter Delilah and son Tino, as abusive. After their 1954 divorce, she married Dick Faughnan, the tightrope worker who eight years later plunged to his death in Detroit.
Delilah also became an aerialist, eventually filling the chair balanced atop the seven-person pyramid. Tino still walks the high wire, sometimes performing for inmates as part of a prison ministry.
Over the decades, the Wallendas added to their list of daredevil accomplishments. In 2012, Nik Wallenda telephoned his grandmother just after he became the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope.
She was proud as any grandmother would be, but didn't think much of the leather halter that held Nik's balancing pole to his chest.
"That shoulder strap is full of baloney," she told the Sarasota Herald Tribune. "He should have just carried the pole like my father."