Karen Abbott on Gypsy Rose Lee: A Thorny Story Laid Bare In a new biography, the author of Sin in the Second City peels back the veil of glamor surrounding the most famous stripper since Salome — Gypsy Rose Lee.
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Gypsy: For An 'American Rose,' A Thorny Story

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Gypsy: For An 'American Rose,' A Thorny Story

Gypsy: For An 'American Rose,' A Thorny Story

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(Soundbite of song, "Let Me Entertain You")

Ms. NATALIE WOOD (Actor): (Singing) Let me entertain you.

SIMON: To say that Gypsy Rose Lee was a stripper is a bit like calling Frank Sinatra a saloon singer. Yes, but - she was the most popular theatrical entertainer of her time, famed as much for her wit as her shtick. Yes, she slipped off certain articles of clothing. But you'd see just as much flesh in a Doris Day movie, and Gypsy Rose Lee flung gloves or ribbons into the audience, but always left her admirers wanting more.

(Soundbite of recording)

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. GYPSY ROSE LEE (Burlesque Entertainer): That's all there is. There isn't any more.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Do it like you did when you did in (unintelligible).

Ms. LEE: Oh boys, I couldn't. I'd catch cold.

SIMON: Karen Abbott has written a book about this extraordinary entertainer. Her book is: "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee."

Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. KAREN ABBOTT (Author): Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Give us a sense of what it was like to watch Gypsy Rose Lee perform on stage.

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, Gypsy was one of a kind. I mean when you saw her, you had never seen anything like her before and you never would again. One of my grandmother's cousins saw Gypsy perform and he said that Gypsy took a full 15 minutes to peel off a single glove.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ABBOTT: And that she was so damn good at it that he gladly would have given her 15 more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ABBOTT: Anyone who could make peeling a glove that enticing, I need to know more about this woman, and luckily, she just continued to fascinate me.

SIMON: Well, part of it - I mentioned shtick. Part of it was the patter that she kept up while she entertained.

Ms. ABBOTT: Yeah, that's true. She became known as the intellectual stripper.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. LEE: Have you the faintest idea about the private life of an exotic dancer? Well, up until a few years ago, it was New York's second largest industry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LEE: Now, a fan dancer's education requires years of concentration and for the sake of explanation, take a look at me.

Ms. ABBOTT: Her great accomplishment I think, with her stripping was the idea of blending sex and comedy, and she was the only one to really latch on to that. And, of course, she started drawing big names. I mean H.L. Mencken is the one who coined the word ecdysiast in her in her honor. She became, you know, good friends with many New York literati and became an author herself. So it was sort of the idea that here's a stripper who puts on more than she takes off and uses her wit to entice people, and the idea of turning performance into desire. She really understood that people wanted most what they'll never have.

SIMON: Between her mother, Rose, and her sister, Baby June, who later became known, of course, by the name June Havoc, the actress, Gypsy Rose Lee, or Louise, as she was born, grew up in just about the most famously dysfunctional family of all time - the Hovick family of Seattle. Bring us inside that family, if you could.

Ms. ABBOTT: Oh, you know, Scott, it was the most interesting and the most wrenching part of the research. I would spend hours in Lincoln Center looking through their archives and these letters back and forth to each other, and it was so volatile and erratic. And in one note Rose would be telling Gypsy how much she loved her and please forgive her for the awful past. Then the next note she would be threatening to blackmail her for all the dark and secret things she'd done before she became famous.

Growing up, I mean it was - those girls were abused in a way. They didn't have any schooling. They were not brought to doctors or dentists. Their mother pitted them against one another and taught them to trust no one but her, especially men. There was a whole theme of distrust of men running through that family. And, of course, the mother, she was not well, as June Havoc says very frankly now, she was mentally ill, and today there would be help for.

SIMON: How did Louise Hovick, almost in the space of an afternoon, in the way you tell it, reinvent herself as Gypsy Rose Lee?

Ms. ABBOTT: You know, I love that. Gypsy was nothing if not calculating. She was at a theater and the main lead had gotten, either gotten sick or had been arrested. There's a little discrepancy about that story. Can I quote myself really quick here?

SIMON: Yeah, of course you can.

Ms. ABBOTT: She told the manager that she could fill in for his missing lead, strip scenes and all, and then she sat down before her dressing room mirror and met her creation for the very first time. And she started speaking to herself in the mirror and she told herself she was pretty and she was going to be a star.

And Gypsy the person had a really conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. She was forever caught between her humble roots and her ambition to be accepted by the cultural literary elite. She loved Gypsy Rose Lee because it brought her all of these things that she wanted, fame and money and security, but she also (unintelligible) the limitations of her creation. She sort of lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gypsy")

Ms. WOOD: (as Gypsy Rose Lee) Oh mama, look at me now. I'm a star. Look. Look how I live. Look at my friends. Look where I'm going. I'm not staying in burlesque. I'm moving, maybe up, maybe down, but wherever it is, I'm enjoying it.

SIMON: By the way, we're speaking with Karen Abbott. Her new book, "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee."

Help us appreciate how big Gypsy Rose Lee was.

Ms. ABBOTT: Gypsy, you know, at one time was called the most popular entertainer in the world. She was more popular than Eleanor Roosevelt. During the World's Fair they took a poll and she beat Eleanor Roosevelt in that poll.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. ABBOTT: Life magazine called her - she was the only person in the world with a public body and a private mind, both equally exciting. And her greatest trick was sort of it belonged to everyone without anyone truly knowing her. It was a masterful magician's trick she had. Of course, during World War II she was the favorite of the soldiers. They actually named a fighter jet - a stripped-down fighter jet - the Gypsy Rose Lee. And 10 regiments selected her as their sweetheart. So her popularity just, it was widespread, and she somehow touched everybody in a certain way.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: The musical "Gypsy," of course, was drawn from her own memoir. To what degree was that story that we see on stage these days and that we know from songs, to what degree was it Gypsy Rose Lee's invention and to what degree was it invented by Art Laurents, the playwright?

Ms. ABBOTT: I don't think that the play adheres much to the real story. It adheres partly to the story Gypsy tells in her memoir. But the story that she tells in her memoir is sort of a sunnier, more optimistic version than what really happened in real life. I mean on the stage her mother Rose is this sort of erratic but kindly and just ambitious, but not - certainly not homicidal woman who just really wanted to have the best for her daughters and celebrate their talents.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gypsy")

Ms. ROSALIND RUSSELL (Actor): (as Mama Rose) (Singing) I had a dream. I dreamed it for you, June. It wasn't for me, Herbie. And if it wasn't for me, just where would you be, Miss Gypsy Rose Lee?

Ms. ABBOTT: In real life, you know, their mother was not somebody who had their best interests at heart all the time. And I think Gypsy's way of coping with the reality of her mother and with the reality of life was to make it a joke, as she did with many things. And she just made her mother a punchline, and that was the way that she could get her mother across. Otherwise, she said, no one would believe her. She didn't think anyone would actually believe the real story, so she made her mother a joke.

And Arthur Laurents' part in it, he - I think he adhered pretty closely to the memoir.

SIMON: When Gypsy Rose Lee would sometimes refer to herself as a prude, was she just trying to be funny?

Ms. ABBOTT: I think she was a bit of a prude, I mean deep down. And I say that because she had a very complicated relationship with sex. She didn't consider herself to really be a sexual person, but yet here she is being held up as a sex object. She was a prude, in the sense that she did not want to expose herself - and that's both literally and figuratively.

When she was on stage during her performance, she would never turn around. She did not want to see, anyone to see her from the back side. And she also had a very complicated costume arrangement and she didn't want people to see her tricks and how she kept everything together and how she removed everything so smoothly. It was prudery, but it was also private. She was a very private person.

SIMON: She wrote all the time too, didn't she?

Ms. ABBOTT: She did. She was a voracious reader and a voracious writer. She, in fact, joined the writers' colony in Brooklyn for a time and she worked there with George Davis and W. H. Auden and Carson McCullers, who she became very good friends with. And while Gypsy was there she was working on her first novel, called "The G-String Murders," which drew, you know, of course, much from her burlesque background.

SIMON: Yeah.

Ms. ABBOTT: I mean it was a bestseller, and you know, wrote several essays for The New Yorker and sort of cemented her status as a member of the literati.

SIMON: You know, Karen, I don't know what moves me to say this, but even separated as we are by decades, I found myself reading this book and - and falling hard for Gypsy Rose Lee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ABBOTT: That's interesting. I always wonder what people's reactions are going to be to her. You know, my feelings toward her changed as I wrote the book. I felt sorry for her. I admired her. I was terrified of her. I wanted to be her friend. I never wanted to see her - run into her anywhere. You know, it just sort of was all over the place, so it's interesting that you say that.

SIMON: Well, you read the book and you realize she was, although a sex object, she was really nobody's sex object. She was - she created herself.

Ms. ABBOTT: Yeah. She was very much her own creation and I hope that comes across. You know, especially in this age of manufactured celebrity, here's somebody who's just a true original. Who else but Gypsy Rose Lee would get a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt that said: May your bare ass always be shining.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ABBOTT: So I thought, you know, that perfectly exemplified Gypsy as highbrow and lowbrow. I mean here's Eleanor Roosevelt actually sending a telegram to someone that says that. I thought that was fantastic.

SIMON: Well, Karen, very good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Ms. ABBOTT: Thanks so much, Scott. I had a great time.

SIMON: Karen Abbott, her new book, "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee."

(Soundbite of song, "You Gotta Have A Gimmick")

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) If you wanna grind it, wait till you refined it.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) If you wanna thump it, bump it with a trumpet.

Unidentified Women: (Singing) So get yourself a gimmick and you too, can be a star.

SIMON: Let us entertain you. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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