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

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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 ...

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

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Overview

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Imaginative and engaging, Abbott's biography of the celebrated stripper, who died in 1970 at age 59, also proves a well-informed look at the evolution of musical theater in the early 20th century. Abbott (Sin in the Second City) was able to interview Gypsy Rose Lee's 94-year-old sister, June Havoc, shortly before she died in 2010. Lee and her sister grew up under their indomitable stage mother, Rose, whom Lee wrote about in a memoir that became the Broadway hit Gypsy in 1959. Abbott shares some fresh, intimate details as she develops two parallel narrative strands: the hand-to-mouth early years when Rose was plying the city-to-city vaudeville circuit with her child acts featuring her talented daughter, June, and the more gawky, reliable Louise; and the steady success of the Minsky brothers on the Lower East Side of New York City as they invested in a string of vaudeville theaters that gradually morphed into wildly successful burlesque houses. When June ran away (at age 13 to get married), Rose reinvented Louise as her last vestige of hope—and thus Gypsy Rose Lee made "her delicate, unclean break from the past." Soon, the long-legged, tease-talking Gypsy was warming up for her next careers—Hollywood and Broadway. Abbott's work, cutting fluidly between decades and recreating dialogue, captures this dizzying, sullying, transformative era in America. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Praise for American Rose:

"Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed: uncovering doozies in one chapter about Lee's outrageous life, followed in the next by the less salacious (but always captivating) details about how New York City's Minsky brothers, who played a crucial role in Lee's stardom, built their burlesque empire." —Newsday

"At its core, American Rose is a haunting portrait of a woman 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can,' offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her." —The Los Angeles Times

"American Rose is the rare biography that captures the imagination and doesn't let go. It would scare the bejeesus out of Gypsy Rose Lee, and it's guaranteed to enthrall readers." —Book Page

"[Abbott's] portrait of the famed stripper is both darker and more inspiring than the famed stripper's version of her life as filtered by Broadway or Hollywood." —Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Praise for Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City

 
“A delicious history . . . a lush love letter to the underworld . . . [Abbott] describes the Levee’s characters in such detail that it’s easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“[Abbott’s] research enables the kind of vivid description à la fellow journalist Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City that makes what could be a dry historic account an intriguing read.”—The Seattle Times
 
“[A] satisfyingly lurid tale . . . Change the hemlines, add 100 years, and the book could be filed under current affairs.”—USA Today
 
“Assiduously researched . . . Even this book’s minutiae . . . make for good storytelling.”—The New York Times

“A colorful history of old Chicago that reads like a novel.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
 
“Lavish . . . an immensely readable book.”—The Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
Abbott (Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul) follows the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, best known for revolutionizing 1930s burlesque. Abbott realistically depicts details, including some that were skewed in Lee's 1957 memoir and the musical that followed. The insightful narrative is helped by interviews with Lee's sister, actress June Havoc, and her son, Erik. The book is strongest when it presents details about Lee's humanity outside the persona she created—her thriftiness and her whims and what she endured during her rise to fame. Direct quotes and rarely seen photos lead the reader into a time and place long forgotten. Verdict Abbott does well to provide new glimpses into Lee's life, particularly of her notorious mother. The narrative is sometimes bogged down with unrelated content, and the chronology is somewhat hard to follow, but the beautifully crafted descriptions will appeal to a wide variety of readers. Recommended, especially where there has been interest in Noralee Frankel's Stripping Gypsy and Rachel Shteir's Gypsy.—Karen McCoy, Fort Lewis Coll. Lib., Durango, CO
Kirkus Reviews

Abbott (Sins in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul, 2008) presents a rollicking account of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911–1970), the legendary striptease artist who titillated legions and battled her monstrous stage mother Rose, a gorgon of a woman who would make Medea blanche.

Lee endured a childhood of ghastly deprivation, criss-crossing the country in various Vaudeville acts featuring her younger, cuter and more talented sister June. Stocky and boyish, Louise, as she was known, developed a keen mind and sly sense of humor, armor against the psychological abuse doled out by Mama Rose, who, convinced of her younger daughter's star potential, favored June unconscionably, treating Louise as an afterthought at best. After June suffered a breakdown and left the act, Rose focused her attention on the elder girl, who, through sheer force of will, transformed herself into a national sex symbol and revolutionized the art of burlesque. Mama Rose is the tale's most compelling character, a con artist, thief and probable murderer who emotionally dominated and manipulated her daughters with apparent relish, a Dickensian harridan who in her declining years watched pornographic movies to unwind, chuckling at the "funny" bits. Abbott writes in a propulsive, witty style, jumping back and forth in chronology and limning a vivid portrait of Lee's milieu, lovingly rendering the Tammany Hall politicians, gangsters, Algonquin Round Table habitués and theatrical promoters that constituted Lee's world. Running concurrently with Lee's story is that of the Minsky brothers, whose burlesque house became a New York institution and served as the setting for the introduction of Gypsy Rose Lee, the teasing, intellectual beauty with the razor-sharp instinct for what to reveal and what to hide. Lee's success—she would publish novels, act in films and write an autobiography that would serve as inspiration for one of Broadway's most enduring triumphs—was sweet, but Mama Rose, long after her death, would haunt her daring daughter to the grave.

A fast-paced, funny, flavorful reckoning with a unique American icon.

Janet Maslin
If American Rose does not excel at biographical explanation, it does have a penchant for ornate writing. Some of this befits the gaudiness of the world that Ms. Abbott’s book evokes, but some is just plain overwrought, particularly when it comes to deathbed scenes. As she writes about one figure’s demise: “Quiet crept in, stealthy, taking its time, turning down the volume and unfurling the curtain, lowering it by inches, until the velvet hem teased the floor and the darkness seized his eyes.” If there is such a thing as death by show business, this is what it’s like.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
Abbott's (www.karenabbott.net) follow-up to the national best seller Sin in the Second City (2007)—available from Tantor Audio—is a thorough and lively account of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, an American icon from the Roaring Twenties until her death in 1970. A symbol of sexual tantalization, Lee experienced great depths of misery while maintaining an unusually ambitious workload; her relationships with her mother and sister were complicated by competition and disapproval. Abbott draws on exclusive interviews and never-before-published materials to give readers/listeners a true sense of Lee's life. Actress Bernadette Dunne (see Behind the Mike, LJ 5/15/09) gives even the bawdiest bits a dignified reading. Anyone interested in pop culture and celebrity bios will appreciate this title, which has garnered strong praise from fellow authors Kathryn Stockett and Rebecca Skloot. [The Random hc was recommended "especially where there has been interest in Noralee Frankel's Stripping Gypsy and Rachel Shteir's Gypsy," LJ Xpress Reviews, 12/3/10.—Ed.]—Pam Kingsbury, Univ. of North Alabama, Florence
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400066919
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/2010
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.70 (w) x 11.14 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots who do a mean Ethel Merman. Visit her online at www.karenabbott.net. 
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Everybody thinks it's all so easy. Sure. Mother says I'm the most beautiful naked ass-well, I'm not. I'm the smartest. -Gypsy Rose Lee

 
New York World's Fair, 1940
 
In late spring, across a stretch of former wasteland in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a quarter-million people pay 50 cents each to forget and to dream. In the last decade they lost jobs and homes and now they face bleaker losses in the years to come: fathers and sons and husbands, a fragile faith that the worst has passed, the hope that America will never again be called to save the world. They come by boat and train and trolley and bus, hitchhike across four states in as many days, engagement rings tucked deep inside pockets along with every dollar they own. Not one inch of the fair's1,216 acres betrays its inglorious past as a dump, Gatsby's valley of ashes come to life, where towering heaps of debris meandered in an ironic skyline. Instead, beyond the gates, a "World of Tomorrow" beckons, offering flamboyant distractions and bewitching sleight of hand, a glimpse of fantasy without the promise that it will ever come to pass.

They have never seen anything like the Trylon, its gaunt steel ribs stretching seven hundred feet high, carrying bodies skyward on the largest escalator in the world. They chase salty scoops of Romanian caviar with swigs of aged Italian Barolo. On one soft spring day they admire Joe DiMaggio as he accepts the Golden Laurel of Sport Award. At the Aquacade exhibition they watch comely "aqua belles" perform intricate, synchronized routines, the water kept extra cold so as to stimulate goose flesh and nipples. They hear Mayor Fiorello La Guardia boom with optimistic predictions: "We will be dedicating a fair to the hope of the people of the world. The contrast must be striking to everyone. While other countries are in the twilight of an unhappy age, we are approaching the dawn of a new day." The Westinghouse Time Capsule, to remain sealed until a.d. 6939, contains fragments of their lives: microfilm of Gone with the Wind, a kewpie doll, samples of asbestos, a dollar in change. At night, when fireworks begin, they fall silent watching the colors crisscross overhead, hot tails branding the sky, imprinting a patchwork of lovely scars.

They wait in lines for hours to glimpse a reality that seems both distant and distinctly possible. Revolving chairs equipped with individual loudspeakers transport them through General Motors' Futurama exhibit, a vast model of America in 1960, where radio-controlled cars never veer off course on fourteen-lane highways and "undesirable slum areas" are wiped out. They witness a robot named Elektro issue commands to his mechanical dog, Sparko. They marvel at an array of new inventions: the fax machine, nylon stockings, a 12-foot-long electric shaver. One thousand of themwatch the fair's opening ceremonies on NBC's experimental station, W2XBS."Sooner than you realize it," advertisements for the telecast predict, "television will play a vital part in the life of the average American."
But this World of Tomorrow can't obscure the dangers of the world of today, despite the fair committee's efforts. The new officials logan, "Peace and Freedom," is absurdly incongruous with the hourly war bulletins that blare over the public address system. Visitors who brave the foreign section find only a melancholy museum of things past. The Netherlands building is dark and vacant, the Danish exhibit downsized into smaller quarters. Poland, Norway, and Finland still have a presence, but fly their flags at half-mast and display grim galleries that show photographs of demolished historical buildings and list names of the distinguished dead. The Soviet Pavilion is razed and replaced by a space called the "American Common," complete with "I Am an American Day." Fairgoers line up at the Belgium Pavilion when that nation falls to Germany, as if waiting to pay their respects at a wake. They wish this slim wedge of time between troubles past and future could pause indefinitely, but understand that New York is capable of everything but standing still.

On May 20, thousands of them-a crowd larger than the turnout for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie combined-find temporary solace at the Hall of Music, where they wait to see Gypsy Rose Lee in her World's Fair debut. A forty-foot-tall billboard flaunting her image looms above the entrance, those skyscraper legs and swerving hips a respite from the hard lines and stark angles of this futuristic fantasy. She wears an expression both impish and imperious, a baited half smile that summons them closer yet suggests they'll never arrive.
Inside her dressing room, Gypsy reclines on a chaise lounge and holds a glass of brandy in shaking hands. The smoky-sweet scent of knockwurst drifts over from her hot plate, but her appetite is gone. She can hear them, the dull thrum of their expectations, the drumbeat chants of her name. Gypsy Rose Lee, voted the most popular woman in America, outpolling even Eleanor Roosevelt. Gypsy Rose Lee, who boasts that her own billboard is "larger than Stalin's." Gypsy Rose Lee, the only woman in the world, according to Life magazine, "with a public body and a private mind, bothequally exciting." Gypsy Rose Lee, whose best talent-whose only talent-is becoming whatever America needs at any given time. Gypsy Rose Lee, who, at the moment, is as mysterious to herself as she is to the gathering strangers outside.

She sips her brandy, lights a Murad cigarette. The voices beyond these four tight walls grow louder still, but can't overtake her thoughts. At age twenty-nine, she stands, precisely and precariously, on her own personal midway, cluttered with roaring secrets from her past and muted fears for her future, an equal number of years ahead in her life as behind. A half-dozen scrapbooks are fat with clippings from vaudeville and burlesque, her first marriage and Hollywood career, her political activism and opening nights; a half-dozen more, blank and empty, wait for her to fill the pages. Not a day passes without her retelling, if just to her own ears, the densely woven and tightly knotted story of her own legend, and not a day passes when she doesn't wonder how its final line will read.
She senses that the next chapter might begin with Michael Todd, the man who said he'd give his right ball to hire her, who granted her the Stalin-sized billboard and a second chance with New York. Earlier that afternoon, he banged on her dressing room door, and she took her time letting him in.

"What's the matter in there?" he asked, pushing his way inside. "Can't you read?" He pointed his cigar toward a sign on the notice board: no cooking backstage.

"Of course I can read. It saves money," Gypsy said in that inimitable voice. She's worked for years on that voice, scrubbing the Seattle out of it, ironing it smooth, tolling her words like bells: "rare" became rar-er-a. It is both charming and affected and, she neither raised a decibel or compressed to a whisper, positively terrifying. It makes babies cry and one of her dogs urinate in fear.

"On your salary," Mike responded, "I can't afford to have you stinking up the theater."

Gypsy invited him to try her knockwurst, and he sat down across from her. She smiled at his singular philosophy about money and success: "I've been broke but I've never been poor," he told her. "Being poor is a state of mind. Being broke is only a temporary situation." She noted his graceful, fluid movements, strangely at odds with his features: rectangular, filet-thick hands dead-ending into tubular fingers, a head that sat atop a brick of a neck. He nearly licked the plate, and afterward ripped down the sign.

A cheapskate, Gypsy thinks, but not a hypocrite. Just like her, on both counts. She suspects they'll work well together now and in the future, since they both understand that ambition comes first and money matters most.
She sets her brandy down on her vanity, making room amid a Roget's Thesaurus, millipede-sized pairs of false eyelashes, an ashtray, a type writer. Whenever she's not performing she plans to work on her novel, a murder mystery set in an old burlesque theater; the book counts as one bold step into her blank and waiting future. She's told favored members of the press about her literary ambitions, confessing that she's lousy at punctuation due to her limited schooling and sharing her theories about storytelling. "I don't like poison darts emerging from the middle of the Belgian Congo," she says, "and I think there is no sense having people killed before the reader is acquainted with them."

She doesn't mention that she has a few authentic, true-life murders in her past, or that the person responsible has recently resurfaced, sending a terse, cryptic note that concludes: "I hope you are well and very happy."
Which, coming from Mother, signals another gauntlet thrown.

The four syllables of her name thrash inside her ears. It's time, now, and she makes her body comply. One last review in the full-length mirror, a slow turn that captures every angle and inch. She knows the crowd outside doesn't care who she plans to be. They want the Gypsy Rose Lee they already know, the one whose act has remained unchanged for nearly ten years; they delight in the absence of surprise. They'll look for her trademark outfit: the Victorian hoop skirt, the Gibson Girl coif, the plume hat slouching over one winking eye, the size 10? brocade heels, the bow that makes an exotic gift of her long, pale neck. They'll wait for the slow roll of stocking over knee, strain to glimpse a patch of shoulder. They'll beg for more and will be secretly pleased when she refuses. She knows that what she hides is as much of a reward as what she deigns to reveal.

The curtain yields and admits her to the other side. She senses the spotlight darting and chasing, feels it pin her into place. Voices circle one last time and collapse into silence, waiting.
"Have you the faintest idea of the private life of a stripteaser?" she begins, caught between her personal, unwritten World of Tomorrow, and deeper and deeper yesterdays.
 
 
Chapter Two
 
Do unto others before they do you. -Rose Thompson Hovick
 
Seattle, Washington, 1910s
 
No matter what Rose Hovick tried-hurling herself down flights of stairs, jabbing herself in the stomach, refusing food for days, sitting in scalding water-the baby, her second, would not go still inside her. A preternaturally stubborn little thing, which she should have taken as a sign. She wanted a boy, even though men did not last long in her house. Her first child, Ellen June, was a chubby brunette, twelve pounds at birth, tearing her mother on her way out. The house had no running water, and the attending midwife washed the baby clean with snow. A caul had covered her face, which meant she had a gift for seeing the future as clearly as the past. But she was clumsy, too, and by age three already diluting Rose's dreams.

Ellen June's new sibling arrived early and when it was most inconvenient for Rose, during a trip to Vancouver, but the baby was instantly forgiven-even for being a girl. This second daughter had a sprig of bright yellow hair and blue eyes with dark circles etched beneath them, as if she were already weary, and her head seemed tiny enough to fit into a teacup. She could spin perfect circles on her toes before she could talk, and Rose decided that since the girl had refused to be destroyed, she might consent to being created. Rose would give the baby everything-even things not rightfully hers to give-including her older daughter's name, the first and favorite name. From then on the original Ellen June was called Rose Louise, Louise for short-a consolation prize of a name, half borrowed from her mother. It was the first of many times she would become someone else. In the beginning the family lived in a bungalow on West Frontenac Street in Seattle, built of crooked wooden slats and a sloping shingled roof, squat as a bulldog, four rooms that felt like one, the kind of dank, dreary home that looked inviting only in a rainstorm. A porch jutted from the front, supported by columns where Rose could string wet laundry, had she been that kind of housewife. The place had a single grace note: the tiny square of Puget Sound visible from one window.

No matter where Louise or Ellen June (nicknamed "June") hid, their mother's voice could find them. "Her low tones were musical," June said, but "her fury was like the booming of a cannon." Rose had married John "Jack" Hovick in 1910 at age eighteen, one month pregnant with Louise, and by 1913, when her dainty baby June was born, she had already left and returned to her husband half a dozen times. She vowed to memorize his offenses, real or imagined, so that when the day came she could recite her lines in just one take.

Rose got her chance in the summer of 1914, when she placed her hand on a Bible in a King County courtroom, a box of tissues by her side. Your Honor, she began, her husband, Jack Hovick, forced her and their daughters to live in an apartment on Seattle's Rainier Beach that was "damp and full of knot holes"-unacceptable, especially for a woman suffering from the grippe and weak lungs. Their next apartment was no better, what with its "bad reputation" and tenants of questionable character. She and her husband separated, reconciled, separated again. Rose so feared for her and her daughters' safety that she had applied for a restraining order against Jack, and nailed shut the door and every window. He had threatened to steal Louise and June, never to bring them back. "If I could only get the kids," he'd said, "it is all I would want."

She wept for a moment at the horror of the memory. The courtroom quieted, waiting for her to compose herself.
Once, Rose continued, Jack broke through the glass, trashed all the furniture, and stole the bedrails, leaving her to sleep on the floor. He also "struck and choked" his wife and once beat Louise "almost insensible, slapped and kicked her and put her in a dark closet on account of some trivial matter."

Her husband made $100 a month as an advertising agent for The Seattle Sun yet refused, during all of their married life, to buy Rose even one hat or a dress suit or "any underwear to speak of." He never gave her money to spend on herself or for "any purpose whatever"-including private dance lessons for Louise and June, although she omitted this last grievance from her public testimony. Rose would use the girls not to escape a life she'd never wanted, but instead to access one that had always stood just out of her reach.

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Table of Contents

Author's Note xv

Chapter 1 New York World's Fair, 1940 3

Chapter 2 Seattle, Washington, 1910s 9

Chapter 3 New York City, Late Spring 1912 21

Chapter 4 New York City, Fall 1940 31

Chapter 5 Hollywood, California, 1916 35

Chapter 6 Paris, France, Summer 1916 45

Chapter 7 Brooklyn, New York, Fall 1940 53

Chapter 8 Seattle, Washington, and on the Vaudeville Circuit, 1917-1920 57

Chapter 9 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 1940 69

Chapter 10 New York City, 1917-1920 73

Chapter 11 Chicago, Illinois, 1941 81

Chapter 12 On the Vaudeville Circuit, 1920-1924 85

Chapter 13 New York City, 1942 107

Chapter 14 New York City, 1920-1924 111

Chapter 15 Gypsy's Country Home, Highland Mills, New York, August 1942 121

Chapter 16 On the Vaudeville Circuit; 1925-1928 127

Chapter 17 Highland Mills and New York City, 1942-1943 145

Chapter 18 New York City, 1925-1928 149

Chapter 19 On and Off the Set of the Naked Genius, 1943 161

Chapter 20 On the Vaudeville and Burlesque Circuits, 1928-1930 165

Chapter 21 New York City, 1943 176

Chapter 22 New York City, 1928-1930 181

Chapter 23 Hollywood and New York City, 1944 188

Chapter 24 On the Burlesque Circuit, 1930-1931 193

Chapter 25 New York City, 1930-1931 207

Chapter 26 England, 1952 217

Chapter 27 New York City, 1931-1932 223

Chapter 28 New York City, 1931-1932 246

Chapter 29 New York City and Nyack, New York, Winter 1953-1954 257

Chapter 30 New York City, 1932-1936 264

Chapter 31 New York City, 1932-1936 283

Chapter 32 New York City, 1956-1959 291

Chapter 33 Hollywood and New York City, 1937-1940 295

Chapter 34 New York City, 1958-1959 311

Chapter 35 New York City, 1969 317

Chapter 36 Los Angeles, California, 1969-1970 331

Chapter 37 New York World's Fair, 1940 343

Acknowledgments 351

Notes and Sources 355

Bibliography 391

Index 399

Illustration Credits 421

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Interviews & Essays

Finding Gypsy

By 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.


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Reading Group Guide

1.

  1. Karen Abbott has said in interviews that she structured American Rose like a striptease: revealing a bit, retreating, then revealing more, moving back and forth through time, until the entire narrative is revealed. Did you think this was the most effective and entertaining way to tell a sweeping story like Gypsy’s? Did you find the book more challenging because of the structure?
  2. Gypsy’s mother, Rose Hovick, is widely considered the original “Stage Mother,” desperate to achieve fame and fortune through her children, at any cost. Do you think her actions were at all justified? Did you sympathize with her at any point? What modern-day mothers might you compare to Rose?
  3. The Minsky brothers considered burlesque to be a viable art form, as culturally important as other American inventions like baseball or jazz. Do you agree that there’s a difference between burlesque and what goes on inside strip clubs? Where you do personally draw the line between art and pornography? The line between promoting female performers and exploiting them?
  4. Gypsy’s rise to fame coincided with the worst economic time in American history. Why did burlesque thrive during the Great Depression? Would you have gone as far as Gypsy did to survive? Do you know any stories about your own family’s circumstances during the Great Depression?
  5. What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like American Rose that can’t be from a novel? In what ways does the book read like a novel?
  6. One of the overarching themes in American Rose is the question of identity: Rose tampers with her daughters’ names and ages; the Minsky patriarch changes his name to escape Russia; Gypsy sheds “Louise Hovick” when she becomes a star. How did these incidents affect each character and inform the way they lived their lives?
  7. Abbott has called vaudeville “the reality TV of the 1920s.” Would you agree with this assessment? Which act in described in the book would you most like to see? If you had been in vaudeville, what would’ve been your “talent”?
  8. The Minsky brothers griped that the showgirls working for “legitimate” Broadway producers such as Florenz Ziegfeld showed just as much skin as Minskys’ stripteasers, yet critics and law enforcement treated them differently: Ziegfeld shows were “art” while Minsky shows were “indecent.” Why do you think there was such a disparity in the way they were viewed? Did you agree with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s decision to shut the Minskys down, or do you think the brothers were victims of censorship?
  9. American Rose explores the idea of sibling rivalry. How did Rose’s treatment of her daughters influence their interactions and relationship? Do you think the sisters were fair to one another? Who did you sympathize with more?
  10. Abbott makes a clear distinction between the girl who was born Louise Hovick and the woman who became Gypsy Rose Lee. How did Gypsy the person view Gypsy Rose Lee, the creation? What did Gypsy like about her creation, and what did she struggle with? How did one affect the other? Do you think Gypsy was ultimately proud of what she’d become?
  11. Gypsy’s story begins at the turn of the 20th century and ends in 1970, unfolding simultaneously with several major events in American history. How did Gypsy affect the times, and how did they affect her? Abbott has called Gypsy “the secret love child of Dorothy Parker and Lady Gaga.” What current personalities would you compare to Gypsy Rose Lee? Why has she captured American’s imagination for so long?
  12. Gypsy obviously had a very complicated relationship with her mother. Do you believe they loved each other? Do you believe either of them was capable of love at all? June called Rose “a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.” Do you think Rose Hovick was merely eccentric, or was she mentally ill?
  13. What was your personal opinion of Gypsy? Did you like her? Find her intimidating? Admire her? Did your feelings toward her shift along the way?
 
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 78 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(24)

4 Star

(22)

3 Star

(11)

2 Star

(7)

1 Star

(14)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 78 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 28, 2010

    Just Because You Can, Doesn't Mean You Should

    What did Gypsy Rose Lee ever do to Karen Abbott? The author drives home the message that Miss Lee had no talent. That her heroine could captivate an audience for decades, write two best sellers, appear on Broadway, in films, television, nightclubs, entertain our troupes in Viet Nam and single-handedly raised her son in a time when most middle-class women worked only in their homes, apparently is not proof enough of Gypsy's abilities. The most creative of writing exhibited in this book occurs when Ms. Abbott has Gypsy's mother, Rose, powder her face and clutch a wad of tissues in her fist in 1918. Rose must have been a magician since facial tissues originated in 1924. Didn't anyone check the "research"? The obscene quote included at the beginning of Chapter 23 is attributed to Otto Preminger. When one looks it up in the Notes and Sources section, one discovers that it is no more than hearsay told to the author by a former employee of Mr. Preminger (whom Abbot interviewed in 2008 about Mr. Preminger's relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee in 1944). This is the shabbiest of reporting. Much of the information in this work was derived from interviews with the 94 year-old June Havoc, Gypsy's sister. After more than 40 years, could June's memories be somewhat clouded or less than accurate? They certainly are at odds with the numerous letters Miss Lee received from her sister and mother written over decades that are now housed in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Was the chapter scrambling of time periods done to obscure how much had come from Gypsy, Early Havoc , More Havoc and Gypsy & Me? Without these sources and the Minsky pages this would have been a slim volume indeed. Given the choice I would rather read the originals again.

    13 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2011

    Very Disappointed-not recommended

    I couldn't wait for this book to come out as it was my choice for our little book club but was sadly disappointed in it. It does not go into any real depth about Gypsy and that was what I was hoping for. It also goes into too much details about side characters. At times I felt more detail about them rather than Gypsy. I was not alone in my feelings as the other 3 individuals said very similar things. I would not recommend this book.

    6 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 7, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Only A Must Read Cuz I Paid For It

    I started reading this book in the store on my Nook. The first few chapters were okay and I thought the book would get better as I kept reading it. The book didn't get better. Too many flashback episides with no real depth into Rose's character. Should have called this book Mama Rose since she was the nost interesting and complex character in the book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 4, 2011

    Riveting and Sad

    I enjoyed this biography for the most part, though it included a little more about the Minsky family history than I was looking for. Also, despite the author having talked quite a bit to June Havoc, I didn't always get a handle on how the two sisters felt toward one another. Still, the book gave much better insight into the thoroughly dysfuncational family of Rose, Gypsy and June. The Broadway show Gypsy, and its many performances across the country in smaller, local theaters creates such a whimsical picture of a tough, but still lovable mother, Rose, and the harsh realities of the person she really was shows through in this book. After reading about the (possible?) murder of Ginny Augustin, I couldn't help but wonder how this forgotten woman's family must feel about the often lighthearted legend that surrounds Gypsy Rose Lee.

    4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2011

    a good read

    book so different than the story on Broadway or movie. I thought the sisters never communicated and that Gypsy never took it it all off.
    Gives you a good look at a very disfunctional family.
    It is a very interesting history of the Minzky Brothers and their input to the "business."
    I enjoyed it very much.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 4, 2011

    Amazing!

    We all think we know Gypsy, June, and Mama Rose from the film GYPSY, but we're all wrong. This fantastic book is full of history & life, love & lust, hate & revenge. It brings to life one of the worlds most famous, and infamous, women, takes off her g-string and pasties, leaving her standing bare in front of us, revealing her more than the Minsky's did, and we love her even more. I have adored Karen Abbotts' work since I first read Sin in the Second City. Her works intertwine history with storytelling, revealing the real persona of each character, without ever diminishing them. AMERICAN ROSE is a brilliant look at not only Gypsy, but the Minsky brothers, and the history of burlesque. You could not tell one story without the other, and Karen Abbott does just that.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 30, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    LET HER ENTERTAIN YOU ONE MORE TIME

    You've undoubtedly heard the buzz about Barbra Streisand doing a remake of the film Gypsy -some comments are positive, some negative, and others ho-hum. What is not at all ho-hum and very positive is AMERICAN ROSE read by the very talented Bernadette Dunne and penned by NY Times best-selling author Karen Abbott (Sin in the Second City).

    With a wealth of stage experience (The Kennedy Center, The Washington Shakespeare Company, etc) Dunne delivers a masterful voice performance bringing to life the characters with whom many of us are familiar - Gypsy, sister June and, of course, the indomitable Mama Rose. Dunne easily segues between characters, clearly delineating each as the story unfolds.

    Abbott begins AMERICAN ROSE in 1940 when Gypsy was about to perform at the World's Fair, surely a landmark in her career. We learn that landmark was earned by Gypsy herself who excelled at self-promotion and skillful at creating the public persona she wanted the world to see. She was also a mistress of illusion or as Abbott puts it "....she knows that what she hides is as much of a reward as what she deigns to reveal."

    After the World's Fair the author takes us back in time to 1910 Seattle shortly before Gypsy was born (dates are a bit hazy as Mama Rose (Rose Hovick) didn't mind forging a few documents re her daughters' ages). Following Gypsy's early stage training we meet some fascinating men who were in and out of her life - Billy Minsky, Mike Todd.

    Much of what is found in AMERICAN ROSE may well be remembered from the hit musical Gypsy. Nonetheless Abbott is apt at supplying details that could not have been included in the Broadway stage presentation and comparing Gypsy's days with that time in America. Give a listen - let Gypsy entertain you.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    An excellent story and, better yet, a wonderful read

    Most all books have only two ingredients: a story and the words chosen to tell that story. For sniffing out a narrative to mine for interest, anyone with the time and inclination for the research would find a barrel for a shooting gallery and big fat fish for targets in the life story of the most famous striptease artist of all time, Gypsy Rose Lee. So all that's left to distinguish a writer in the telling of Gypsy's tale are the words.

    And this is where Karen Abbott soars.

    This book takes a story that was always going to be fascinating and bawdy and fraught, and makes it lyrical. To bolster Gypsy's nimble sidestepping of her own quantifiability, Ms. Abbott nails in place a richly textured backdrop of the wane of vaudeville, the rise and fall of burlesque, The Great Depression, and the American home front in and after World War II. With her excellent words, facts become patterns and the feel of an era is transformed into the color we recognize in our own lives, but seem to relegate to sepia when we dial back the time machine. The effect is that, from here on out, no pale dry history of this time in America will cut it.

    No, I take it back. The times of Gypsy are not nailed in this book, they're pinned, as surely and elegantly as one of Gypsy's skirts. And as in a striptease, what's revealed in the folds of this vibrant garment, are the reasons behind what we know of Gypsy Rose Lee and the whys of what we cannot know.

    In choosing a non-linear format, Ms. Abbott offers a natural feel to the way we learn about Gypsy: a personal, intimate conversation; the organic way we discover a friend or a rival, or sometimes even an enemy - a story here, a rumor there, one anecdote crossing decades to a related point that explains what came before or where it all wound up.

    The combination of Karen Abbott's skills as a writer and the endlessly riveting trials and triumphs of a national icon, makes 'American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee', a easy addition to the must-read list.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2013

    EF

    Woo.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 3, 2013

    A good study of New York 1930 - 1956.

    The book is realy three stories: Gypsy's, the Minsky family, the history of burleque. Unfortunatly it jumps around.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 28, 2013

    Disjointed

    I think there might have been a good story here, but the jumping back and forth between decades was distracting. I do not understand why an author employs that technique.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2013

    Johnna

    Hey savannah sorry my dad found out that i was chatting and got mad! :-( so wats up.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2013

    WASTE OF MONEY!!

    This is the first time that I have purchased a book that I wanted to ask B & Noble for a refund. This book deals more with the Minsky brothers than the great Gypsy Rose Lee. She deserved better. This author should be ashamed!!!!!! No stars because it sucks!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    great read

    good book; lots of back and forth to keep you on you toes.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 27, 2011

    must read

    beautifully written. i didnt want it to end

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2013

    Interesting......

    This book shatter the glamorized life of Gypsy Rose Lee that was portrayed by the musical. Odds are, it was as realistic a tale as we will ever get of the life and struggles of a truly dysfunctional family.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2013

    Sydney

    I dont need to

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2013

    For the love history

    Karen Abbott is a great storyteller who is re-inventing the biography.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2013

    Boarder

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2013

    Steel room

    Here.

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