February 2, 2011 2:06:00 PM
In 1959 came to Broadway one of the best musicals ever, "Gypsy: A Musical Fable." It was indeed a fable, a musicalized version of the memoir by Gypsy Rose Lee, a memoir which was itself highly fictional. Gypsy had become the most famous stripper in the world. She was careful what she revealed onstage and in her memoir, because her upbringing had been a horror story. In "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee" (Random House), Karen Abbott has done her best to fill in the missing bits. It had to be a tough assignment; not only was Gypsy closed-mouthed about details of her life, the story is often distressing.
Abbot has chosen a cinematic, nonchronological style that lurches back and forth between Gypsy''s horrendous upbringing, her successes on the runway and in print, and her failures in most other spheres. It''s a good reflection of a fragmented self. There will always be the film of "Gypsy" and repeated revivals, but they barely hint at how difficult the life was. Abbott''s book is a great reminder of how tenacious and willful Gypsy had to be throughout her life to make a creation out of herself that the entertainment world is never going to forget.
Gypsy had no father to speak of; her life was all her mother''s, and most of Abbott''s book concentrates on the long-lasting nurturing destruction of the mother-daughter relationship. Gypsy''s real name was Rose Louise Hovick; she ditched it when she started stripping, but never got rid of Rose in the name or Rose the mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, the stage mother from hell. Gypsy and her younger sister, June Havoc, were Rose Louise and Baby June on the vaudeville circuit. Rose was able easily to see talent within June, who could toe-dance at the age of two and a half. Rose refused to see Louise as anything but an also-ran, an addition to supplement June''s act. Louise would feel this neglect all her life.
The three of them had a hardscrabble existence traveling on vaudeville circuits, with Rose pushing the children, pushing stagehands, pushing unpaid boys to pep up the act, and literally pushing a hotel manager out of a window and killing him. She got away with a claim of self-defense, and may well have been involved in one or two other murders, but she got no convictions. June had a breakdown at age twelve due probably to simple overwork, upon which Rose insisted she get right back up on stage. There is nothing good to be said about Rose; she was greedy, mean, demanding, and amoral. June fled at age 15 and got married; she was to try the marathon dance circuit before becoming an actress in her own right. Abbott was able to interview June for this book before her recent death.
Louise was left to endure alone Rose''s tyranny, but she was tough. Rose continued to boost Louise along the vaudeville circuit, but radio and the movies were killing vaudeville. In 1930, the 19-year-old Louise and her mother were running out of options. They were in Kansas City, booked at the Gayety Theater. Rose was glad to get the booking, but dismayed when she saw a sign advertising "Burlesque" outside the theater. Like any respectable vaudevillian, she felt herself (and her daughter) above burlesque, and said she''d rather starve first. Louise said, "I''m tired of starving to death. That''s all we''ve been doing for years ... There is no more vaudeville."
As Gypsy Rose Lee, at $300 a week, a fine salary for the time, she was perfectly willing to go into Burlesque, and she performed in a style no one had seen before. She came on stage and performed like an intelligent, stylish lady who hadn''t expected to wind up there, and was even more surprised to be losing one garment after another in front of a crowd of strangers.
She liked to think of the performances as comedy rather than sexual spectacle, but her increasing nakedness made her jokes funnier, and her jokes increased her sexiness. She would peek out from the curtains toward the end of the performance and purr, "Darlings, please don''t ask me to take off any more. I''ll catch cold. No, please, I''m embarrassed. No, honestly, I can''t. I''m almost shivering now."
The crowds loved the protests, and of course she gave in to the audience enthusiasm just before all the lights went out and the act ended. She was adept at handling publicity. After she was once arrested for an indecent performance, she made a quip which became famous: "I wasn''t naked. I was completely covered by a blue spotlight." And then in an acknowledgement of the biggest influence in her life, she added, "Just ask my mother, who is always with me."
She became a household name, and the more famous she became, the less she had to do any striptease. It was abundantly clear that this was not just a bimbo on the runway; she turned her talents to other arenas. Her peripatetic early life had prevented any formal education, but she loved reading, and wrote a couple of mystery novels, as well as a play and several articles for The New Yorker. She had parties at which friends like Carson McCullers, Peggy Guggenheim, Clare Boothe Luce and Max Ernst might attend.
Gypsy had her problems with men, with three unsatisfactory marriages and a torch for Mike Todd who would go on to marry Elizabeth Taylor instead. Ironically, the great sex symbol seems not to have had much of an interest in sex, but she used it for a career, for protection, and for power. When at age 33 she decided she wanted to have a child, she was looking for a sire that was "the toughest, meanest son of a bitch that I can find, somebody who''s ruthless, and my child will rule the world." She thus slept with Otto Preminger exactly one time, and made him promise never to have anything to do with the son thus produced. When he grew up, Erik wanted to know why she would not tell him who his father was. "Because it''s none of your business," she replied.
Abbott''s account of Gypsy''s life is full of this sort of anecdote, and gives as close a portrait of the subject as we are likely to get, given that Gypsy always knew how much to reveal and was careful how she showed it. The book is valuable also, however, because of its pictures of vaudeville and burlesque, especially its portrait of the career of Billy Minsky. Minsky and his brothers had New York music halls which introduced (from Paris) the runway for strippers. In the audience you might find the nattily-dressed quipster Mayor Jimmy Walker or bohemians or gangsters. Besides Gypsy, there are other burlesque performers profiled here, including the Minsky discovery Mademoiselle Fifi, his star import from France. Business owners around his burlesque house got perfumed letters supposedly from the mademoiselle herself, and the crowds thronged to see her, little suspecting that she was actually the daughter of a cop from Pennsylvania. It was Minsky who brought Gypsy to New York and made her a star. There are funny and risqué tales aplenty here, but the portrait of the relationship between Gypsy and her mother is frightening and sad. Abbott enables us to wonder with admiration at the titanic self-control that enabled Gypsy to make herself not merely into a star but into a historic entertainment phenomenon.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.