Sunday, March 30, 2014

American Rose A Nation Laid Bare The Life And Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott

I’ve been a classic movie fan long before Turner Classic Movies came along, and one of my favorites has always been the musical Gypsy, based on the life of burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. Biographical and historical films are notorious for taking great liberties with their subjects, so I always wondered just how much of the story was true, but somehow never got around to finding out. When I happened across this book I knew that time had arrived.

This book is not just the story of Gypsy Rose Lee, and how she became America’s most famous stripper, strutting across the stage, blending the bawdy and erudite, it’s also the story of burlesque, which is fascinating in itself. This is very much a story of guts and glamour, strained relationships, and the struggle for survival in the highly competitive theatrical world.

Gypsy, whose real name was Rose Louise, and her sister June, had the stage mother from Hell. Madame Rose, as she liked to be called, was a ruthless bisexual determined to see both her daughters become stars. Dainty blonde June was a natural born ballerina, a pint-sized Pavlova, despite her mother forcing her into toe shoes at too early an age against the advice of her dancing teacher, while Rose Louise, with her brunette hair cut in a Dutch boy bob was a tomboy, clumsy and seemingly devoid of talent. She became part of her sister’s act, playing one of the boys, and even a dancing cow, as Dainty June and her Newsboys toured the vaudeville circuit. Adorable June even landed a few roles in silent movies, including a part in a Harold Lloyd comedy short. But times were changing, radio and the movies were taking audiences away from vaudeville, and the girls were growing up. June rebelled by marrying one of the boys in her act and running away, leaving her sister behind to become the focus of their mother’s ambitious attentions. A new act was created—Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes, to spotlight the brunette Louise, but bookings were few and far between and the applause lackluster as vaudeville was in its dying throes. When they were accidentally booked into a burlesque house by mistake, Madame Rose decided to make the best of things and one night when the star of the show was absent she pushed her daughter to fill in and a new star was born—Gypsy Rose Lee.

As America entered the Great Depression, even Broadway was struggling to fill theatre seats, but the cheap entertainment of burlesque thrived.  Soon Gypsy was starring at Minsky’s, New York’s most famous and prestigious house of burlesque. She was finally the star of the family and her sister, the talented June, was struggling to make ends meet, competing in marathon dances and scrounging for legitimate roles.

Always self-conscious about her lack of formal education, Gypsy read voraciously. She was intelligent and expert at coining clever quips to pronounce as she stripped. She tried her hand at writing. Her works included a mystery novel, a play, and the best-selling memoir that inspired the popular musical starring Natalie Wood as Gypsy and Rosalind Russell as a superb rendition of her big-mouthed and ballsy mother, Rose. But even though she bared her body, Gypsy never bared her soul, even with her lovers, which included gangsters and famous directors; she always kept her real self to herself. She even made a bid for Hollywood stardom, but never rose above being a novelty act.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written and engrossing. And the author had the good fortune to be able to talk to Gypsy sister, June Haver, before she died, and interview Gypsy’s only son, Erik Preminger. The only issue I had with it is the way its structured, it skips around instead of sticking to a cradle to the grave chronology, which I would have preferred; this was a little distracting and as I read it at a time when I had to sometimes put it down for a day or two, it was a bit difficult to pick up the thread when I was able to resume reading again. That aside, this is a great example of good, attention grabbing, and keeping, non-fiction.

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