Sarasotans should be grateful enough to Mable Ringling for her contributions to the museum of art she and her husband, circus king John Ringling, created back in the 1920s. But we have much more we can honor this impressive woman for.
Born in 1875 in a farming community in Ohio, Mable, like John, rose from humble beginnings to soar to the top of a dazzling world of art and high society. There are differing rumors of how the couple met, but Mable was 30 when they married in 1905, so she had probably already proven herself as an independent person even before she hitched her wagon to John’s star.
The Ringlings purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in small-town Sarasota in 1911 and began spending winters here while also enjoying homes in New York City and New Jersey. Both were fond of travel, venturing from museums to auction houses to galleries to acquire the Old World paintings, tapestries and sculptures that suited their collecting passions. No place captured their affections more than Venice, Italy, which Mable used as a model when they commissioned architect Dwight James Baum to design their lavish home along Sarasota Bay, Ca’ d’Zan.
From all accounts, Mable oversaw every detail of the building, from the mixing of terra cotta to the glazing of tiles, and, perhaps most especially, the plantings that formed her Rose Garden (still in bloom today as one of the oldest public gardens in the South). Once the mansion was completed, she also took on the role of hostess for Great Gatsby-esque parties welcoming guests such as New York Governor Al Smith, comedian Will Rogers, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Orchestras played from the couple’s yacht docked by the terrace, and musicales and garden parties were regularly on the entertainment schedule.
But although she mingled among the elite, Mable was also known for her kindness to children (although she had none of her own, she played the role of fairy godmother to locals and extended family members), her community spirit (she was a director of the Sarasota Woman’s Club) and her love of the pets that roamed the Ringling home and grounds. In everything they did, from collecting to real estate interests, she was a true partner to the larger-than-life John—and he must have been devastated to lose her when she died of diabetes and Addison’s disease in 1929 at only 54 years of age.
While her name is forever tied to the Ringling museum, it’s also fitting that in 2014, a 1930s-era fountain in Luke Wood Park, dedicated in her honor by members of the Garden Club she once headed, was restored after years of neglect. Like her Rose Garden, it’s a more personal reminder of a woman whose impact here was huge.