Angela Korens Leggett has lived in circus wagons, a Soviet prison, a forest and a castle. More than once, she’s grabbed some sleep on top of a big xylophone. Now ensconsed in a home surrounded by a garden of glass, she is sharing the story of her life.
“It wasn’t until two years ago that I finally gave myself permission to write my story. I realized it is part of history,” Legget said during an interview Monday.
She published her autobiography, “Amazing Life at What Price?” this year.
“It was a relief,” she said. “It’s off my chest.”
Leggett worked with an assistant, Terry Foster, for over a year. Relying on her memory and clippings of an autobiographical newspaper column she wrote while living in Idaho, she retold her life story, starting with her birth in 1945 in Yugoslavia.
She was the daughter of Hungarian performers Alexander and Julia Konya, who tap-danced on a big xylophone Alexander created. The two separated in 1946 when Julia fell in love with a circus owner.
“The only possessions Mama and Papa had was me and my sister and of course, the xylophone,” Legget wrote in “Amazing Life.”
Julia and her eldest daughter went one way and Leggett went another with her Papa and the woman he was having an affair with, Vera. Leggett was just a year old; she grew up believing Vera was her mother.
Alexander, Vera and little Angela became entertainers, traveling Hungary to dance on the xylophone. To her papa, show business was everything. To her mama, Alexander Korens was everything. Little was left for Angela.
She writes bluntly about the realities of her life on the road — bathing and doing laundry in a lake, stealing food from orchards and at almost 5 years old, getting molested by a drummer in a circus. Shy and isolated, she never said a word about it to her parents.
In 1951, Leggett writes, the family was banned from performing in Hungary because of their Western costumes and tap-dance routines. Alexander Korens acquired a donkey and began planning to sneak his wife, daughter and xylophone across the border to Slovakia.
Leggett remembers her mama waking her on Christmas Eve. “We’re going to a better place,” she told the 6-year-old.
“Outside, my papa, the donkey and the wagon with the xylophone on it were waiting for us,” she wrote.
“There was no room on the wagon for Mama and me to sit. It was a very cold and dark night as we walked by the side of the wagon into the unknown.”
On the border, the donkey stopped moving. She remembers pushing the wagon while her papa whispered in the animal’s ear, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Then there was light.”
Floodlights and the sound of machine guns surrounded them. They dropped to the ground and were arrested. “Fear set in as we watched the jeep with my papa drive away into the darkness,” she wrote.
She later learned her father was taken to a prison hospital with a burst pancreas. She and Vera woke up in prison in Miskolz, Hungary.
After enduring interrogations and starvation, she was suddenly released to a couple on a nearby farm, where she was to care for their baby while the wages went to the prison guards.
“The first night the baby’s papa cornered me in the barn and raped me,” she wrote.
Leggett ran away into the woods.
She doesn’t know exactly how long she lived in the forest, but believes it was only a few days. Rescued by a postmaster in a nearby village, she lived with them until her parents were released from prison.
In sometimes spare, matter-of-fact prose, Leggett writes of her life as a child in Hungary as the Koren Trio tried to get bookings to perform on their xylophone. A perfectionist, Alexander Koren kept them practicing and poured his money into perfecting the act. At age 11, just before the Hungarian Revolution and its deadly battles between rebels and pro-Soviet forces, the family finally got visas and were taken in as refugees in Sweden.
Entranced with the indoor bathrooms, electricity and her first teddy bear, she went to school regularly and wasn’t allowed to work because she was still a child. She loved it. Her father was devastated. As soon as she was 14, they hit the road, traveling across Europe in circuses. They took their act to Australia, Japan and finally the United States.
From San Francisco they moved to Hollywood, ultimately buying a small castle built on Melrose Avenue by a World War II soldier for the German woman he’d fallen in love with. His love turned out to be unrequited, and the Korens moved in, Alexander improving and renovating the home with battlements, waterfalls and a bridge.
Atop their xylophone, the family performed with the Osmonds, the Lennon sisters and Myron Floren from “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Leggett was miserable.
“When I became a teenager and came to this country, I began questioning the way I was brought up,” she said.
“Yes, I acknowledge my father was very passionate about show business. Yes, I acknowledge he abused me in the sense that I didn’t have a childhood. I never was a child. I never felt like a child.”
As a young woman in Hollywood, she was moderately successful, working as a stunt woman in films. In “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” she stood in for Elizabeth Taylor in a scene where she is choked by Richard Burton.
She was also a regular on the “casting couch,” like most women in entertainment of that era. By that time the survivor of several sexual assaults, she thought it was simply what women could expect.
“There were absolutely no regulations, no movement. No one ever opened their mouth,” she recalls. “And I’m sure it happened to males too. We talked about it but we didn’t dare do anything about it.”
Looking back now in the era of the Me Too movement, she hopes things are changing. “I’m glad because I can see the movie business not being as male dominated as it was.”
Legget writes about her final bow from show business through marriage, and her subsequent divorce. She openly remembers her second abusive marriage and the alcoholism she struggled with.
In pages brimming with photographs, “Amazing Life” captures the adventures of a woman who lived in historical times and learned to survive on her own terms.
“Maybe that’s the one thing I really inherited from my father, the one thing I’m a perfectionist at: surviving,” she said.
Today, she has found peace in her Yucca Mesa home. The surrounding land is her ever-changing work of art, an installation of glass pieces and wire art where squirrels frolick, watched carefully by her two tiny senior dogs. Also in the yard: the third incarnation of the famous xylophone. Leggett doesn’t dance on it anymore, but she does sit on it to watch the sunsets.
She travels across the world to visit the friends she made in her nomadic life, and the family she’s found — including her birth mother (whom she found in Australia) and her half-siblings, along with her stepmother, Vera, who is still alive and now in her 90s. On her Facebook page, photos of visits with friends and family are peppered with older shots of her performances in Hollywood and Hong Kong.
“I’m at peace with myself now. I no longer search to be wanted,” she said, seated in front of her sun room. “I know who I am. I don’t need anyone’s approval.”
She says she got braver as she got older.
“I will try anything and everything. Because of my harsh life, I don’t let anything stop me from living another day.”