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Kate Sandwina was definitely hot stuff. At least she was to the male members of the vaudeville audiences that flocked to see her. She was billed as "Germany's Herculean Venus," as strong as
she was beautiful. She reportedly possessed "the most perfect female figure" and was said to drive men wild when she performed on stage in her skimpy costume.
Sandwina came from a family of circus performers. Her father, Philip Brumbach, billed himself as "The Strongest Man in the World," and her mother was also a strength athlete. Kate was born in Germany in 1884, the daughter of traveling strength performers. By the age of two she was participating in the family act first as a child acrobat and trapeze artist and later as a weightlifter and wrestler. It was the only life she knew, and her performances ceased only with her death in 1952.
When she matured, Kate fell in love with a handsome young acrobat named Max Heymann. They were an unlikely couple: Max stood 5' 5" tall, while his Junoesque fiancee towered over him by more than a foot. Even so they made a perfect pair: Max was clever and ambitious, and Kate was good-looking and powerful. Nevertheless, Papa Brumbach did not approve, so the two lovers were forced to elope.
The newlyweds soon devised a brilliant strength and balancing act. Adapting the name of the famous strongman, Eugene Sandow, they decided to call themselves "The Two Sandwinas." All might have proceeded smoothly if World War I hadn't demolished their well-laid plans. Max was called up to serve in the kaiser's army, and Kate was left on her own.
Being deserted by half of her act might have daunted even the finest performer, but not Katie. She found some furs, a tiara and some jewelry and returned to the stage as "Katherine the Great." She played the theaters of central Europe throughout the war years, creating a name for herself as well as a modest fortune. When her husband came home from the trenches, he had some changes in mind but had the good sense to stay out of the act and leave center stage to his more talented wife.
Max's organizing skills were immediately apparent. Katherine the Great was finished, and in her place was "Sandwina, the Female Hercules." In this act Kate clattered on stage in a Roman chariot wearing a skimpy, tightly fitting gladiator's costume. Leaping adroitly from the chariot, Sandwina juggled cannon balls, broke horseshoes, twisted iron bars and broke chains. The climax of the act came when she supported a bridge on her ample bosom, over which marched more than a dozen people dressed as Roman soldiers.
It was not long before agents for Barnum & Bailey Circus tempted Sandwina to come to America. Here she lived and performed until her retirement in 1941. By then she had raised a family and become an American institution. One of her sons, Ted, had followed in his mother's athletic steps and become a professional boxer.
After her retirement, Kate, Max and Ted opened a bar and grill in Queens, where the entire family performed on Saturday nights. Though advanced in age, Kate was still able to bend iron bars, lift heavy barbells and support her husband with an ease that showed she still possessed great strength.
Despite her strength, however, Kate was shy, feminine and soft-spoken. Whenever she was off stage, she preferred to let her diminutive husband do the talking while she remained in the background.
Sandwina was always different from the other stage Amazons who thronged the variety theaters 70 or so years ago, for in addition to being unquestionably the strongest woman of her time, she was also considered one of the prettiest. Though it might seem odd to modern connoisseurs of the female form, Katie was always thought of as a long-stemmed beauty with noble features, sensuous body and queenly bearing. But no matter how much our ideals of beauty may change, we should continue to honor first-class athletes. Katie Sandwina was certainly one of these.