American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

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9780307877093: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

With the critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City, bestselling author Karen Abbott “pioneered sizzle history” (USA Today). Now she returns with the gripping and expansive story of America’s coming-of-age—told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered.

America in the Roaring Twenties. Vaudeville was king. Talking pictures were only a distant flicker. Speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways; money flowed fast and free. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from grim reality and excite them in new, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.

With her superb narrative skills and eye for compelling detail, Karen Abbott brings to vivid life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intensely dramatic triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who seduced men and women alike and literally killed to get her daughters on the stage.

American Rose chronicles their story, as well as the story of the four scrappy and savvy showbiz brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque. Modeling their shows after the glitzy, daring reviews staged in the theaters of Paris, the Minsky brothers relied on grit, determination, and a few tricks that fell just outside the law—and they would shape, and ultimately transform, the landscape of American entertainment.

With a supporting cast of such Jazz- and Depression-era heavyweights as Lucky Luciano, Harry Houdini, FDR, and Fanny Brice, Karen Abbott weaves a rich narrative of a woman who defied all odds to become a legend—and whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.
From the Hardcover edition.

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Review:

A Letter from Author Karen Abbott

My grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once related a tale about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. “She took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove,” the cousin said, “and she was so damned good at it I would’ve gladly given her fifteen more.” This story got me thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? And how did an awkward girl named Louise Hovick become her? I spent three years researching the answer, research that included connecting with Gypsy’s late sister, the actress June Havoc; I was the last person to interview her.

When I arrived at June’s Connecticut farm I found her lying in bed, her hair done up in pert white pigtails. She was ninety-four years old, give or take, and the legs that once danced on stages across the country were now motionless, two nearly imperceptible bumps tucked beneath crisp white sheets. Her eyes were a bold shade of blue and painfully sensitive to light. She told me the musical Gypsy distorted her childhood so thoroughly it was as if “I didn’t own me anymore.” She realized her sister was “screwing me out in public,” and that, in the end, there was no stopping either Gypsy or Gypsy; the play was both her sister’s monument and her best chance for monumental revisionism.

It took another visit for June to share more personal memories: money was Gypsy’s “god,” and she would do anything to anybody, including June, to make more of it. Gypsy did in fact do things, not only to June but also to herself—“terrible” and “awful” and “shocking” things, things beneath her sister’s formidable intellect and keen wit, things that made June believe, to that day, that love (even love fraught with competition and jealousy) never existed between them at all.

I asked and listened, for as much time as June gave me. I asked until her patience wore thin and her eyes watered with the effort to stay open.

“I hope I didn’t upset you today,” I whispered. “That’s not my intention.”

“I know,” June said. Those startling eyes found their focus, settling on mine. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more open about some things... I’m still ashamed for her. I wish they hadn’t happened.”

“Would Gypsy wish the same?” I asked.

“She had no shame.”

A pause, and I said, feebly, “You were a good sister to her.”

A hand tunneled out from the sheet. She coiled long, blade-thin fingers around my wrist.

“I was no sister,” June said. “I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.”

She retracted her hand, gave her eyes permission to close. I kissed her cheek and crept out the bedroom door. I was grateful she let me inside—even on the periphery, even briefly¬—and I suspected she was saving her own questions for the day she reunited with the sister she did profess to love, the one she still called Louise.

From the Author:

The Monday Interview with Karen AbbottJan 03, 2011 - Publishers WeeklyAn interview with Karen Abbott, whose American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare--The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee--is out from Random House.PW: Why do you think we need another biography of Gypsy Rose Lee?KA: I don't consider American Rose to be a biography so much as a microcosm of 20th-century America, told through Gypsy's tumultuous life--it's "Horatio Alger meets Tim Burton." Here's an awkward kid who is born into nothing, receives very little formal education; spends her entire childhood on the road; is marginally cared for by an erratic, volatile mother; and grows up to become a novelist, a playwright, an actress, an activist, a member of New York's literati, and the most famous entertainer of her time. It's the American dream: the struggle, the setbacks, the ferocious drive and relentless self-invention, the ultimate triumph. Gypsy was a true original, and I hope a new generation can appreciate how unique and genuine she was, especially in this age of manufactured celebrity.Who else but Gypsy Rose Lee would receive a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt--Eleanor Roosevelt!--that said "May your bare ass always be shining"?PW: The current movie, Burlesque, starring Cher and Christine Aguilera, has been applauded and derided; What would Gypsy Rose Lee think of the film--and what would she think of Cher?!KA: I think her reaction to the film would reflect that of many modern-day burlesque performers--that the acts in the movie bear little resemblance to those being performed today. Since its inception in the 1900s, burlesque has been a working-class art form, employing base humor to lampoon so-called high culture, and stripping became a vital component of the experience. If burlesque strives to be high culture it ceases to connect with its core audience, and it ceases to be burlesque. Gypsy believed that the character of stripping depended on the performer's attitude. "It's all mental," she once said. "If you think it's vulgar, the audience will think it's vulgar, too. But if you approach your work with a clean, aesthetic viewpoint, the audience senses your attitude." As for Cher, I think Gypsy would've been incredibly jealous of her singing talent--but would never have admitted it.PW: Did Gypsy have any sense of what was going on in the country, e.g., the Great Depression? How savvy was she outside the burlesque houses?KA: Gypsy was 18 when the stock market crashed,and I don't think she had any concept of what that meant, or what the repercussions would be. She just knew that vaudeville--the only life she'd ever known--had become extinct, and she was subsisting on sardines and dog food. During her first year in burlesque--a year she never spoke about, when she had likely resorted to prostitution--she experienced the hardships of the Great Depression firsthand. Gypsy soon learned that every stripper needed a gimmick and decided to incorporate her exceptional intelligence into her act, to become the "intellectual stripper." To that end. she read the latest books, magazines, and newspapers voraciously.She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain's Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.PW: How and why did Gypsy, and burlesque, thrive during the worst economic time in America?KA: Vaudeville was characterized by sunny optimism, acts that were uplifting,cheerful, and clean. It provided a fanciful, magical escape, but after Black Friday the tone of American entertainment changed almost overnight. Vaudeville's buoyant spirit no longer spoke to the country's mood, but burlesque did, loud and clear. it was a different kind of escape; the performers and the audience were kindred spirits; they were all equally naked. Unemployed men would begin lining up in the afternoons to get into the evening shows. Few could afford to pay high ticket prices for Broadway productions, so the big producers lost business--and girls--to burlesque. Gypsy thrived because she was the first one to blend sex and comedy, to put on as much as she took off. She was a teaser more than a stripper, and audiences responded to that; they wanted her precisely because she was unobtainable.PW: Gypsy's mother, Rose Hovick, is considered to be the original pushy "stage mother." How did Gypsy cope with Rose, and vice versa?KA: The letters I discovered in my research reflected a constant whiplash back-and-forth of emotion between the women. Rose would blackmail Gypsy about her early days in burlesque and threaten to reveal her "true nature" to the press, and in the very next letter beg for forgiveness and tell Gypsy how much she loved her. Gypsy knew about all of Rose's secrets, as well--including where the literal bodies were buried. It was a co-dependent relationship that neither one could relinquish.PW: How did Louise Hovick view the woman she "created," Gypsy Rose Lee, and what did Gypsy think of the "real" Louise?KA: Gypsy the person had a conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. She was forever caught between her humble roots and her ambition to be accepted by New York's cultural and literary elite. For all of Gypsy's mental fortitude and steely nerve, she was physically weak and oddly susceptible to illness. Taking just one aspirin could upset her stomach, and she suffered from severe ulcers that made her vomit blood. She adored her creation because it gave her the things she'd always wanted--fame, money, security--but she loathed its limitations, either real or perceived. She lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.

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