Here she is, boys! – “American Rose: The life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” by Karen Abbott
Karen Abbott’s 2007 novel, “Sin in the Second City” was a sizzling look at prostitution in jazz-age Chicago. The story of sister brothel owners Minna and Ada Everleigh and their Everleigh club, it was a fascinating history of America’s jacked up relationship with sex – we’re fascinated, yet repelled by it, and yet it’s a part of everyday adult life.
Following up that fantastic book, Karen Abbott (smart lady she is) stuck to the same basic idea.
“American Rose,” her newest book, is the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, arguably the biggest star of the 1920s. More than just a stripper, she became iconic for tackling American sensibilities about sex, while simultaneously dealing with a family life that was more outrageous than anything that can be put onstage.
In the musical “Gypsy,” the story of the connected lives of Gypsy, her sister June, and their mother Rose is told in such a way that cheery songs frequently interrupt scenes and people’s actions are nearly always excusable. Though there’s family drama, it’s almost all okay in the end. The musical bears the subtitle,”A Musical Fable.”
Now, after reading Abbott’s wonderful book, I understand the need for the addition of a subtitle at all.
This lady’s life was not a joyride interrupted by bursts of song.
In reality, Gypsy’s transition from awkward Vaudeville circuit second banana to world-renowned sex symbol was a lot harder than two acts and some dance routines.
It all begins with a name. At her birth, Gypsy was named Ellen June Hovick. Soon after, when her little sister was born, her mother changed her name to Rose Louise Hovick. No joke. The notorious Madam Rose was a force to be reckoned with, and her actions affected her two daughters until the day they both died. June was a natural talent, and she was pushed forward into the spotlight, while the more awkward and intellectual Louise played secondary roles. Eventually, June would run off to get married to one of the dancing boys in the act, but after years of working on the marathon circuit would establish herself as a serious actress. With only Louise left, Rose struggled to fit her less-talented daughter into the role of a singing/dancing star, to no avail.
As legend goes, one night while Rose and Louise’s crumbling act was playing in a burlesque house, one of the featured performers wasn’t able to appear, and Louise stepped up to the plate and did her first strip routine. Once she realized she liked it, and had a knack for it, she was off to the races. Of course, that might not be the true story…
Abbott’s book takes the sparkle off the legend of Mama Rose and her daughters, first of all by telling the truth. Though the focus is kept on Gypsy, Rose and June are given generous chunks of attention. Abbott was even able to speak with June before her death. Rose, in particular, comes off in a harsher light than she’s previously been portrayed now that all the glitter and showbiz legend has been stripped away. Among Rose’s crimes include the decapitation of a cat, the shooting of a cow, pushing a hotel manager from a window, the attempted murder of June’s new groom, hitting a maid with a frying pan, tons of petty theft, and she may have also shot a woman in the head, though that’s never been proven. Basically, she was an unpleasant and diabolical person. It’s pretty hard to consider Rose endearing.
When Gypsy Rose Lee – the stripper – emerged, she became a near-instant sensation. Among her friends and admirers were Fanny Brice and Carson McCullers, in addition to an array of gangsters. Not only was she sexy, she was a smart cookie. Gypsy wrote novels, plays, and was an all-around smartypants (and book nerd, too!) This side of the story is rarely told, and Abbott is smart to recognize the interesting paradox between a stripper being an intellectual.
Into all this family drama, Abbott also ties in the story of the Minksy brothers and the rise of their entertainment empire. Abbott, always a history buff, uses a lot of the politics happening at the time to show what a strange world it must have been to be in burlesque in the twenties. The Minksys were accused of corrupting America’s morals, when in reality burlesque wasn’t really doing anything we in modern times would look at as that unusual.
“American Rose” hits stores on December 28th, 2010. Fascinating, enlightening, and a little twisted, it’s an awesome read. Check it out. (And thanks, Random House, for letting me read it ahead of time.) There’s so much more goodness in this book than I could fit in one review.
In closing, check out an abbreviated version of Gypsy Rose Lee’s routine, from the movie Stage Door Canteen.
(Yes, this is the real Gypsy Rose Lee.)