Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

Battle for the Big Top: P.T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

by Les Standiford


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A New York Times bestselling author writes the untold story of three Golden Age titans and the confrontations, cutthroat business strategies, and eccentric personalities that built the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Millions have sat under the “big top,” watching as trapeze artists glide and clowns entertain, but few know the captivating stories behind the men whose creativity, ingenuity, and determination created one of our country’s most beloved pastimes.

In Battle for the Big Top, New York Times–bestselling author Les Standiford brings to life a remarkable era when three circus kings—James Bailey, P.T. Barnum, and John Ringling—all vied for control of the vastly profitable and influential American Circus. Ultimately, the rivalry of these three men resulted in the creation of an institution that would surpass all intentions and, for 147 years, hold a nation spellbound.
Filled with details of their ever-evolving showmanship, business acumen, and personal magnetism, this Ragtime-like narrative will delight and enchant circus-lovers and anyone fascinated by the American experience.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781541762282
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 06/15/2021
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 120,210
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Les Standiford is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including Last Train to Paradise, Meet You in Hell, and Bringing Adam Home. His book, The Man Who Invented Christmas, was a New York Times 'Editors' Choice' and was made into a feature film starring Christopher Plummer and Dan Stevens in 2018. He is a Professor of English and Founding Director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University and holds a MA and PhD in literature and creative writing from the University of Utah. He attended the US Air Force Academy and Columbia School of Law and is a former screenwriting fellow and graduate of the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He lives in Miami, Florida.


Miami, Florida

Date of Birth:

October 31, 1945

Place of Birth:

Cambridge, Ohio


B.A., Muskingum College; M.A. and Ph.D., University of Utah

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 World on Fire 5

2 Before the Big Top 9

3 The Periodic Table of Circus Elements 13

4 On American Shores 19

5 Pachyderm on the Half Shell 25

6 Readying for Takeoff 33

7 How They Roll 41

8 What's in a Name? 47

9 Growing a Stake 53

10 Clash of the Titans 59

11 A Showman Hits His Stride 65

12 First Tour of Duty 75

13 Museum Master 81

14 General Tom 87

15 Est Arrivé 93

16 Riches to Rags, and Back Again 99

17 The Circus Comes Calling 107

18 Mr. B, Meet Mr. B 117

19 On Massive Shoulders 123

20 The Greatest Show 131

21 Upstarts 135

22 The Coming Men 141

23 Punch and Counterpunch 147

24 Building a Leviathan 153

25 Terms of Success 159

26 The Price of Love 167

27 Last Man Standing 175

28 Patriarch of Paradise 181

29 The Last Race 189

30 After the Ball 195

31 Out of the Ashes 203

32 Rock and Roll to the Rescue 209

33 What Remains 219

Acknowledgments 225

Notes 227

Bibliography 235

Index 241

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