Jenny Wallenda, Matriarch Of 'Flying Wallendas' Circus Family, Dies NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with high-wire acrobat Nik Wallenda about his grandmother Jenny Wallenda and her life in the family circus troupe, the "Flying Wallendas." She died Saturday at the age of 87.
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Jenny Wallenda, Matriarch Of 'Flying Wallendas' Circus Family, Dies

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Jenny Wallenda, Matriarch Of 'Flying Wallendas' Circus Family, Dies

Jenny Wallenda, Matriarch Of 'Flying Wallendas' Circus Family, Dies

Jenny Wallenda, Matriarch Of 'Flying Wallendas' Circus Family, Dies

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/397891085/397891086" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with high-wire acrobat Nik Wallenda about his grandmother Jenny Wallenda and her life in the family circus troupe, the "Flying Wallendas." She died Saturday at the age of 87.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It could truly be said that Jenny Wallenda lived life without a net. Wallenda was a high-wire performer for decades, taking part in stunts like the seven-person human pyramid. Her fellow acrobats were also her family, and they're still known today as The Flying Wallendas.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Jenny Wallenda was 87 when she died on Saturday. Her life was not all high-flying glamour. She lived in Nazi Germany, and during the war she was drafted to work as a Hitler Youth instructor. Decades later, she lost her husband and then her father. Both died after falls from the high-wire.

CORNISH: I spoke earlier today with her grandson Nik Wallenda. He remembers a strong woman who never gave up.

NIK WALLENDA: She was an amazing performer, an amazing aerialist, of course an amazing wire-walker, which definitely runs in the family. She taught me a lot in life. She was a very strong woman, did many, many different amazing feats, including one of her - one of her trademarks was hanging by her teeth under a bicycle on a wire. She had a bit of a rough life early on, but she also had a good life and passed away asleep in her bed, which I think all of us, if we had it our way, that's the way that we would go.

CORNISH: You mention her having a rough life growing up, and I understand that during World War II, she was drafted into compulsory service in Hitler Youth as a fitness instructor. Can you tell us about her time during the war?

WALLENDA: She was. She was a Youth instructor. And of course, she was very physical and physically fit, and I think that's what they drafted her into that position. And for everything that she'd been through - she'd been raped by a soldier at one point. Then later on in life, 1962, she was in Detroit, Mich., when that pyramid - her family's famous seven-person pyramid came to a collapse. And she was on the platform as her husband tumbled to the ground and lost his life. But again, very, very strong, driven woman, and showed me what strength really was and what the power of the mind can do.

CORNISH: As you mentioned, she lost her husband in 1962 to a fall, right? And of course, her father Karl Wallenda died from a high-wire fall in 1978, and other family members have been severely injured. What, if any, kind of concerns or doubts or even regret did she ever express about the family business?

WALLENDA: You know, there was a point when that seven fell, she said she wouldn't walk the wire again. But then, of course, within six months, she was back on the wire. So, you know, I think when those things happen - that traumatic experience, of course - we all hate the wire.

CORNISH: You know, after these tragedies - losing her husband, losing her dad - why do you think she did go back to the work - go back on the wire, as you say?

WALLENDA: It is hard to describe to somebody that wasn't raised and literally born into the industry. You know, my mom was six months pregnant with me and walking the wire still. So I was walking the wire longer than I've been alive and my grandmother had walked the wire since she was a small child. And it is not a career. It's not an occupation, but it's life. My great-grandfather Karl Wallenda said life is on the wire, and everything else is just waiting.

And I truly believe her challenge was staying off of that wire, even though she was bitter towards - if it makes any sense - towards that wire itself because of the loss of her husband, the loss of her father. It still was something from within. It still was a passion that she couldn't give up.

CORNISH: Nik Wallenda, he's the grandson of Jenny Wallenda. Thank you so much for speaking to us about her.

WALLENDA: Thank you very much for having me on.

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