Ringling's second marriage a "Three Ring Circus"

Herald Tribune Feb.9, 2014. By Jeff Lahurd

SARASOTA - On Dec. 19, 1930, in the office of Jersey City Mayor Frank “Boss” Hague, John Ringling and Emily Haag Buck said their “I do's” and tied the nuptial knot.

John, who was 64, had lost his first wife, and love of his life, Mable, the year before. He was also suffering from cash flow problems brought on by the Great Depression.

The much younger Emily (she was in her early 40s), a lovely lady with a wavy bob, bright eyes and a ready smile who lived at the tony Barclay Hotel in New York, met “Mr. John” in Amsterdam on the Fourth of July.

When she returned to New York they courted, and in November of that year the unlikely couple decided they would marry. It proved not to be a match made in heaven.

The comely Emily, who enjoyed throwing cocktail parties at home and the night life among the swells in clubs from New York to Miami and Palm Beach, was undoubtedly impressed with the trappings of the circus kings wealth: a showplace bay front mansion, Park Avenue apartment, Rolls Royces, private rail car, yacht, world renown circus, an enviable art collection housed in his own art museum and the friendship of rich and powerful men.

For his part, Ringling was probably taken by the Emily's sophisticated looks, intelligence, sparkling personality — and she also had plenty of cash on hand; an enviable commodity as the Depression wore on.

Four days before the ceremony, John felt close enough to Emily to borrow $50,000 with a promise to pay it back in three months. She felt comfortable enough to loan it to him. If that was a clue as to what lay ahead for Emily, she missed it. Shortly before their wedding he proffered her a document to sign renouncing her dower rights. He said she signed on the dotted line and tore it up later; she said she tore it up but had never signed it.

“He said, she said” would be the recurrent theme of their forthcoming divorce.

After the brief ceremony the duo returned to New York and shortly thereafter left for sunny Sarasota, the city John helped to build, promote and put on the map. When they arrived, the Herald ran a picture of Emily along with a caption about the marriage and noted that Mrs. Charles Ringling, widow of John's brother, held a reception in the happy couples honor. The paper called it the most brilliant party of the season, complete with an orchestra that played into the night and attended by the Who's Who of local society.

Even with family members, Ringling kept his business dealings close, trusting in his own judgment. Emily's inquiries and even offers to help were offensive to him. Questions were harassments. Her life style of having friends in for cocktails and the disruption of his preferred quiet solitude rankled him, and, too, her sister and nephew lived at Ca d'Zan, Ringling's peaceful retreat.

In July 1933, Ringling prepared his first divorce suit against Emily and it took her by surprise. She was served papers while shopping at the Kress 5 & 10 store on Main Street. She asked the server, “Why, who could be serving me?” And he said, “I believe it is from your husband.” She replied, “My husband? There must be some mistake. You must mean Mrs. Charles Ringling.”

At a later court action she stressed that there had been no talk of divorce in the Ringling household. “It was a complete shock to me.”

As she and her sister were packing their bags to leave, Emily recounted that Ringling came into her room and beseeched her to stay. “Don't be so foolish, why don't you just stay here?” He said she begged him on bended knee to let her stay.

Stay she did, recounting in testimony that she was “hounded” by him to extend the $50,000 loan and to sign away her dower rights to the John & Mable Ringling Museum. If she would do that, he would withdraw the divorce.

During this time of domestic tumult, Ringling was suffering first from a bad leg infection and later with thrombosis. He was also being double-crossed by friends, turned out of the circus, and unsure of the loyalty of some of his family. Depending on whom you believed, Emily was trying to put him into an early grave with constant badgering, name calling, bickering and meddling, or, as she saw it, just trying to protect her husband from creditors, offer sound advice and soothe his troubled life.

Seemingly clueless as to what was about to befall her, Emily in a letter to Ringling two days prior to Valentine's Day, 1934, when he was in Sarasota and she in New York, wrote longingly and lovingly to him: “I wish I was with you darling. Dearest, don't worry about a thing take it easy...Oh dearest you can't imagine how lonesome I am for you sweet dear. I love you. I love you until my dying day.”

Her profession of love notwithstanding, more matrimonial strife was close at hand, and the sweet tone of her letter was the polar opposite of Ringling's characterization of Emily as a cold-hearted hellion whose behavior was literally killing him.

He re-filed the divorce action in March of 1934, citing “mental cruelty” and “ungovernable temper.” He was represented by Henry L. Williford and James Kirk and testified at some length about the unconscionable treatment he received from Emily while he was convalescing. Question regarding an alleged assault on him by Emily: “Did she hit you a pretty hard blow?” Answer: “Very hard for a woman.” Question: “It didn't hurt you in any way did it?” Answer: “It felt like (Primo) Carnera for a minute or (Joe) Louis — it hurt, yes.”

Emily had her own story to tell, and it was the polar opposite of Mr. John's version of events. The conflicting testimony was played up in the nation's press, his life at home characterized as a Three Ring Circus, with Emily a “Tigress.” In the end, he was granted his divorce, reportedly the most expensive in the history of Florida up to that time. Much of Emily's fortune also went to attorneys fees.

John passed away in December of 1936 and remembered Emily in his will with a bequest of $1.

More disappointment lay ahead. According to a newspaper account in the Milwaukee Sentinel, in 1948 Emily was engaged to the wealthy Harold Kittinger. His will promised “my beloved fiancé” one half of his $5 million estate. Unfortunately, Kittinger died while on a trip and the will had been changed to bequesting 1,000 shares in his company to “my dear friend.”

What happened to the lovely lady with the bright smile? According to Gene Plowden's “Those Amazing Ringlings and their Circus,” she went on to marry one of the attorneys who represented her in the divorce, but beyond that she seems to have been lost to local history.

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