Lee Stath shares a look inside the Big Top and the world of the flying trapeze in his book She Flies Through The Air. It is a love story about the Hill Country resident’s life with his wife, Mary, of the Flying Mari-Lees. Photo by Phil Houseal
She Flies Through The Air
by Phil Houseal
At one time or another, hasn’t every kid dreamed of running off and joining the circus?
Lee Stath did it. Only he was 25 years old, a Navy veteran with a Muscle Beach body and a Trinity University brain, and he had never even seen a circus.
But he had seen Mary.
She was a “lithe little blonde” who had grown up in the circus, flying through the air with the greatest of ease. She captured the imagination of this young Texan and took him along on a fairytale adventure.
Stath is now retired and living in the Hill Country. He decided to write a book about his life with Mary. It’s called She Flies Through The Air.
“I felt compelled to write about our life,” he told me over a cup of strong coffee at his kitchen table. “What a waste not to have told someone about it.”
In his book, Stath lets us peek inside the tent at the world of the flying trapeze. It’s a personal tale that Stath–who considers himself “somewhat of a recluse”–is a bit reticent to share.
“I’m not social,” he explained. “As I grow older, I enjoy my solitude. Mary and I were together for 60 years, and we were sufficient for each other. We excluded everybody else.”
Yet they performed for kings, potentates, and Hollywood stars. As the Flying Mari-Lees, they traveled the world and acquired fame and fortune. And everywhere they appeared, everyone wanted Mary.
“God, she was good,” he said in reverence. “And I don’t mean just beautiful. Every show, all the time, all the directors fell in love with her. We were always invited to the big events with all the celebrities. John Wayne once told her she was wasting her time on the trapeze; he could make her a movie star. She wouldn’t listen to them.”
They didn’t need the money. They earned top dollar for the day, at one time reaching his goal of making as much as W.C. Fields earned.
Stath is now 88. He still golfs and rides his green custom-built Desperado motorcycle. He lifts weights three times a week, working to keep his upper body strength that allowed him to catch and hold 150-pound flyers whose weight quadrupled at the bottom of a swing. The last time he went to his doctors, they told him he was so healthy that “it looks like we are going to have to take a stick and kill you, Lee.”
But he doesn’t delude himself. He told of struggling recently to twist the cap off a small liquor bottle.
“I couldn’t open it,” he said. “Finally I asked the lady next to me, can you open this? Easy, she said, and did it.” He held up his hands, hands that used to catch the finest acrobats in the circus, but now were gnarled knuckles with fingers bent at unnatural angles. “These hands used to be invincible. And I couldn’t open my own whiskey.” He looked up. “But I could still drink it.”
But Stath has no regrets, except one.
“When Mary was dying,” he said, stirring his coffee. “I didn’t know she was dying.”
His eyes teared up as he looked over my shoulder at something I couldn’t see.
“I kept saying things like ‘let’s get up,’ ‘let’s go for a walk,’ and ‘eat, eat, eat.’ She’d had a stroke, and I was not sympathetic,” he confessed. “She was in hospice, and I said, let’s go home. I brought her here, and was grateful for that chance to care for her. She took care of me for 60 years, and she cared for me well. She fed me through tough times, and by God there were tough times.”
He looks back on his storybook life with wonder, still. You get the feeling he still barely believes it all happened.
“We traveled the world; it was like having a paid vacation. To have a profession where you are happy and look forward to it, what a blessing! I could not possibly have dreamed of such a life in my youth.”