Bad Behavior

Three Ring Circus – John Ringling’s Tumultuous Love Life

ringling-art-museum-artIn the last post we met the Ringling brothers and visited John Ringling’s Venetian mansion in Florida (today the pictures are of the museum on the same estate where John and his wife built a museum to house their extensive Old Masters art collection).

But it was John’s love life that has earned itself a post of its own.

ringling-art-museum-corridor-fountainJohn Ringling’s first wife, Mable Burton Ringling, was born Armilda Burton in a small farming town in Ohio. Single and working a factory job, she quit to head to the big city of Chicago looking for adventure and better marriage prospects.

And she found one: John Nicholas Ringling of the Ringling Bros. Circus.

Mable poses for a full length portrait in spotted furs, a fur hat and a flowing dress.


Beyond this, Mable’s early life is a bit mysterious. Just the way she wanted it. Intensely private she gave only one interview her entire life.

John’s brother Alfred shed a little more on Mable’s past in his memoir when he wrote that Mable was a dancer for their circus. However they met, John and Mable wed in 1905. She was 30 years old. John was 39.

ringling-art-museum-crossesMable kept her mysteriousness intact by continually whittling age off her passport at each transatlantic journey.

While the couple spent some 25 years traveling across Europe acquiring circus acts, they were much more interested in collecting art.

After wintering in Florida for years, John and Mable decided to build their own house there. They turned to their favorite inspirations in Europe, particularly Venice.

ringling-art-museum-doorMable oversaw every aspect of construction herself with her infamous oilskin portfolio filled with postcards, sketches and photos for inspiration always kept close at hand. Modern day Pinterest, I suppose 😉

Mable wanted her house to be pure Venetian complete with a marble terrace and steps leading down into the sea (she got her wish, see photos of the house in the first Ringling post here). The house inspired her and she took to wearing Parisian couture daily and hosting fancy parties, social functions and philanthropic events.

ringling-art-museum-foyerAs John’s intense interest in the circus began to fade, it transferred to art collection. The two went on buying sprees at the best auction houses. Soon they held one of the most impressive private collections of Old Masters work. But they didn’t intend to keep it private.

They constructed and housed their impressive collection in the beautiful pink marble museum on the grounds of their summer estate. You can still see it today (go see it, it’s incredible!!). Mable was listed in the original charter as one of the museum’s directors.

ringling-art-museum-gardenMable died in the summer of 1929 from complications of Addison’s disease and diabetes. She was 53 years old. John would never fully recover. Maybe he thought a second marriage would help but it would only prove disastrous.

Mable had been the love of his life but the Great Depression combined with his brother’s deaths (as mentioned in our first Ringling post) left John in a great depression of a more emotional nature.

ringling-art-museum-marble-columnsEnter the younger Emily, who was in her early 40’s to his 64-years. They met on the Fourth of July in Amsterdam at a party for Americans and she caught his eye with her bright eyes, warm smile and stylish, confident appearance. She was elegant and full of energy.

When they returned to New York they spent more and more time together. Emily loved to host cocktail parties and travel along the coast hobnobbing with high society in fancy nightclubs from New York to Miami.

John Ringling wears a hat and leans on a cane standing next to Emily. Both are stern faced.

John and Emily just after their wedding, source.

John Ringling’s vast wealth, his mansion on the water, his New York apartment, private cars, yachts and art collection made it seem like a match made in heaven.

Emily wasn’t a gold digger. She had plenty of her own cash inherited from her husband, something that was surely appealing to the cash strapped men of the Depression, including John himself who was in dire financial straits.

ringling-art-museum-painting-redIn November of that year, they set a wedding date. Just before the big day John asked Emily to borrow $50,000. He promised to pay it back within three months.

Emily loaned him the money. Then John presented her with papers renouncing her dower rights (the interest a person has in property owned by their spouse). Emily claimed she tore it up and never signed it. John said she signed it and then tore it up much later.

ringling-art-museum-pink-marbleDespite this, in December of 1930, John Ringling and Emily Haag Buck married in the office of Jersey City Mayor, Frank “Boss” Hague.

After the wedding ceremony, the couple left the North for Florida. Charles Ringling’s widow held a reception for Emily which the local papers deemed the “most brilliant party of the season complete with an orchestra that played into the night” and attended by the best of society. Little did they know their small wedding was heading towards a big divorce.

Their lifestyles immediately clashed. He disliked her questions about his work day, viewing them as intrusive instead of caring. He detested her need for parties and friends too, preferring solitude. It didn’t help when Emily’s sister and nephew moved into Ca’ d’Zan too.

In the summer of 1933 John surprised Emily with a divorce suit. She was served the papers publicly while shopping at a store on Main Street. Shocked, later in court she said that there had never been any talk of divorce between the two.


Nevertheless, she returned to Ca’ d’Zan to pack her bags. So did her sister. While they were packing John returned home and pleaded with her to stay and make it work.

Emily agreed but said John began to pressure her to extend the $50,000 loan she’d given him and to sign her dower rights away to the John & Mable Ringling Museum. If she did that he promised to withdraw the divorce.


In the middle of this upheaval, John’s health was suffering. He contracted a leg infection and then thrombosis. At work, as the sole surviving Ringling brother and at the end of his power, he was being double-crossed by former business partners and hounded by creditors.

For the moment they patched things up enough to temporarily continue the marriage.


Two days before Valentine’s Day in 1934 Emily, in New York, wrote a letter to John who was in Florida: “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.”

The letter was a stark contrast to John’s portrayal of her in court as a heartless badgering nag attempting to send him to an early grave.


He refiled for divorce the next month citing “mental cruelty and ungovernable temper.” He testified that Emily had assaulted him as he convalesced from his illnesses:

Lawyer: “Did she hit you a pretty hard blow?”
John: “Very hard for a woman.”
Lawyer: “It didn’t hurt you in any way did it?”
John: “It felt like (Primo) Carnera for a minute or (Joe) Louis — it hurt, yes.”


Emily recounted a completely different marriage and denied any physical abuse. This time the divorce went through and while it was one of the most expensive splits in the state of Florida at the time, Emily’s own fortune was eaten up by attorney fees.

When John died in 1936 he left Emily $1.


Emily’s bad luck didn’t run out there. By 1948 she’d announced her engagement to a chain store tycoon named Harold Kittinger.

He died suddenly while on a trip and his will did not leave his “beloved fiancé” half of his $5 million estate as promised. Instead he’d changed it to “my dear friend” and 1,000 shares in his company.

In the end, Emily married one of the divorce attorneys who’d represented her against John and she quietly disappeared to history.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10