I grew up in the waning days of the variety show, and of big, flashy specials. David Copperfield and Doug Henning magic shows, Battle of the Network Stars, that kind of thing. In that atmosphere of glitter and camp, Siegfried and Roy fit right in. I don’t think it occurred to me that they were a couple, and I certainly didn’t wonder if the beautiful tigers they used in their act were happy.
By the time I was a young adult, they seemed hopelessly kitschy, an artifact of 80s excess.But Siegfried and Roy were, underneath it all, real people with real lives.
Roy was born Uwe Ludwig Horn in 1944 in Nordenham, Germany, at the tail end of the Second World War. His early years were difficult, complicated by a divorce and a stepfather whose wartime trauma led to debilitating alcoholism. The bright spots were his friendship with his dog and ‘Aunt Paula and Uncle Emil,’ friends of his mother’s. Emil was founder of the Bremen Zoo, and they gave animal-lover Roy access to wild animals at a young age. He found solace with tigers and other animals, and by the time he left home as a teenager, never to return, he took a cheetah with him.
Your guess is as good as mine as to how Roy snuck a live cheetah onto a cruise ship, but he did, and that’s where he met aspiring magician Siegfried Fischbacher. Siegfried, five years older, had also grown up in a Germany scarred by World War II; his father was still living, but had been imprisoned by the Soviets during their occupation. The two of them began a relationship that only ended with Roy’s death from complications of COVID-19 on May 8. Sometimes they were lovers, sometimes friends, but their bond survived everything – getting fired from that cruise ship, performing on the European nightclub circuit, and worldwide fame. Siegfried and Roy were the top act in Vegas in 2003 when Roy was attacked by one of his tigers, severing his spine and possibly causing a stroke (Roy insisted that the tiger had sensed Roy’s stroke and was acting ‘protective,’ but other trainers disagreed; like much about the attack, there will never be a definitive answer). As Roy was being taken to the hospital, he was asking that no harm came to the cat who’d mauled him.
Roy recovered, and could talk and walk (with assistance) again by 2006. In 2010, Siegfried and Roy retired permanently from show business. Always close-mouthed about their private lives unless it was on their own terms, they lived together at their estate – now modified for handrails after Roy’s injury – until Roy’s death.
In this age of “Tiger King,” everyone sort of accepts that big cat people are eccentric at best (Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue took her own shots at Roy’s white tigers and lions, with good reason) and I can’t make an argument that anyone should follow Roy’s career path. From the perspective of 2020, using wild cats as part of the magic act seems, at best, naive. But Roy managed to pull it off successfully for decades, which is no small feat if you do some quick Googling, and his love for the animals seems to have been absolutely genuine. He supported conservation around the world, particularly in Germany and South Africa. And of course, he and Siegfried created a billion-dollar act that helped transform Vegas into a more family-friendly Sin City, with the kind of act that no one could – or perhaps should – duplicate.
“Today, the world has lost one of the greats of magic, but I have lost my best friend,” Siegfried said yesterday. “From the moment we met, I knew Roy and I, together, would change the world. There could be no Siegfried without Roy, and no Roy without Siegfried.”
To steal a little from Shakespeare, we will probably never see the likes of Roy Horn again.