American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
Surely if there is one American whose life needs no further exploration, about whom everything is known, that citizen is Miss Gypsy Rose Lee. After all, was Gypsy not her own best creation? Something that she happily and freely shared with us all on television talk shows, in the pages of several books, including her memoir, which became the basis of what is generally considered the finest theatrical musical ever written?
And yet, author Karen Abbott in the book American Rose accomplishes the unlikely. She elbows her way in, hissing just enough new details to get our attention, and then, once she has it, reminds us that the musical in question was billed as “A Musical Fable” and insists that things were not always as they were mythologized.
And then she begins to tell us the real story of Madame Rose, Dainty June and Gypsy Rose Lee. . . .
Let it be noted right up front that the success of American Rose to no small extent is due to Abbott’s talents as a researcher and writer. Her sentences, like a house that’s on fire, give off both heat and light, illuminating not only the life of this most American of immigrant families, but also a time in American history that prepared the way for their entry into fame.
Indeed, this is the rarest of biographies, one in which even the prologue can be savored. Not just because of the ground rules it lays down for reader and writer alike, but also because it is just so very good. Here we unforgettably meet June for the first time, as a tired, bitter old woman. And here, as author Abbott puts it, we begin “to unravel the layers of Gypsy’s mystique.”
Abbott brings a novelist’s eye to a literary form that all too often is lacking in artistry. Consider: “The one thing that the sisters came to agree on, after years of being entrapped by her words and mauled by her will, was their mother, a woman whose every thought and action defied her last, who raised her daughters as if they were two grizzled generals preparing for war—with men, with her, with each other. From year to year, month to month, even moment to moment, neither Louise nor June nor Rose knew the true status of their relationship: the tornado of slights (real or imagined), the remorse (genuine or feigned), and resentment (always authentic, always deep) scythed too fiercely through their paths.”
Scanning this, the reader thinks two thoughts: that this ripe little plum of a paragraph tells him everything he needs to know of the Hovick family dynamic, and that he wishes he had written it himself.
For those joining us late, Gypsy Rose Lee came to fame during the worst years of the Great Depression in the worst form of show business possible: burlesque. She was fond of identifying her profession as “ecdysiast,” which is Upper East Side for “stripper.” And yet, hers was a different form of stripping (at least once she became famous, and, being famous, became mythical) one that in many ways resembled more of a modern stand-up comedy routine than a sexual act. Gypsy became the stripper with a brain, as often photographed with a book as in a bubble bath—and sometimes concurrently with both.
The story that most know through the musical (which, in spite of being a fable, actually is quite accurate, at least in the spirit of the tale it tells) is one of the ultimate stage mother, Madame Rose, and how she, through a sheer relentless act of will, forges a career of sorts in legit vaudeville for her two young daughters, chunky Louise and Dainty June. June—who would go on to a film career as June Havoc—was, everyone agreed, the more talented and beautiful of the two. So much so that, according to Abbott, her very name “June” was taken from her older sister when the blonde beauty was born, leaving the child who had, until that time been called “Ellen June” to make do.
As Abbott puts it, “From then on, the original Ellen June was called Rose Louise, Louise for short—a consolation prize of a name, half borrowed from her mother. It was the first of many times she would become someone else.”
And, indeed, the moment in which she most dramatically becomes “someone else” is the one in which Rose Louise Hovick transforms herself into Gypsy Rose Lee.
The fact that the reader is already well acquainted with the story—the setting, the Gayety Theater in Kansas City, the year, 1930—in no way prepares the reader for the power of the story as Abbott paints it: “And so, here she was, still living with her mother, still a virgin—not even past her first kiss, at that—learning what had taken the place of vaudeville, the only life she’d ever known. She couldn’t yet decide what to make of the lesson.”
The lesson, of course, was one of survival. With the nation in the throes of the Great Depression, women who had once dreamed of careers as actresses (as well as secretaries, nurses, and any number of other things) instead took the money and displayed themselves on the runways of the ever-increasing number of burlesque houses. Where legitimate producers could not fill Broadway houses at $5 a ticket, the owners of burlesque houses like the Minsky Brothers had no trouble filling their houses to overflowing with tickets costing about a fifth that price.
Abbott continues, “It wasn’t just ‘Tessie the Tassel Twirler,’ older and softer and kinder, somehow, than Louise expected, telling her she ‘got a certain class about yourself, in a screwball kind of way. You just got to learn to handle it.’ Nor was it the acts: a showgirl dressed in an octopus costume complete with roving black tentacles . . . another emerging from a seashell, wholly naked save for a strand of faux pearls . . .”
No, Abbott concludes, it was the backstage at that burlesque house that taught the lesson—a backstage that was “another universe altogether, at once spectacular and foul and terrifying, made all the more so by the silent, shameful feeling that she could belong there.”
Abbott puts the words into Tessie’s mouth, whether or not history would agree upon the source: “The quicker you forget what you used to be, the better off you’ll be. Start thinkin’ about what you’re goin’ to be tomorrow—not what you were yesterday.”
And so she did.
Rose Louise, in sitting backstage that day making her first burlesque costume, after a lifetime of sewing vaudeville outfits, was quietly reshaping her mind, her face, her body and her future.
American Rose earns its first subtitle, A Nation Laid Bare, in that it is as much a document of the rise of burlesque, and the culture that winked at it, as it is the story of Gypsy. The book spends as much of its time (sometimes to its detriment) detailing the rise and fall of the Minsky Brothers as it does the story outlined in the second subtitle, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.
Yet American Rose is well worth reading, if only in that it proves once again that truth is so often so much stranger, more awful, and lyrical than any fable, musical, or otherwise. That Madame Rose was so much worse than anyone ever suspected, especially if you were the new pet kitten and she had a hatchet in her hands. And that Gypsy shared with so many show business icons after her the essential gift of reinvention. And that, underneath the wit, the scandals, and the triumphs, her reinvention was based, more than anything else, on a fear that she would, in old age, once again be as poor as she had been as a child—and as much a prisoner of show business as her mother had once made her.
Which brings us back again to the aged June Havoc in the aforementioned prologue: “It took another visit for June, just as private as Gypsy, to share bits of memories she’d never written about or pressed into a scrapbook, memories that defined her life even as they long lay dormant and unspoken. Money was Gypsy’s ‘God,’ and she would do anything to anybody, including June, to make more of it. . . .”
Ah, an American rose, indeed.