Books and Talks

Life Is a Strip Tease

Why a new biography of Gypsy Rose Lee is just like Gypsy’s act.

By Eric Scigliano January 1, 2011

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott (Random House, $26)

What a ripe subject Gypsy Rose Lee must have seemed—the unsinkable survivor of an itinerant vaudeville childhood and a stage mother from hell, who despite a flat chest and even skimpier stage talents used burlesque as a vehicle and wit and attitude as engines to fashion a kind of stardom unknown before but reprised since. Madonna avant la lettre. Lady Gaga’s spiritual godmother. And, as it happens, Seattle’s most famous daughter.

How little Rose Louise Hovick from West Seattle, the daughter of a Seattle Times ad salesman and a stage mom from hell, transformed herself into Gypsy Rose Lee is a bittersweet Horatio Alger tale for the roaring ’20s, hard-scrabble ’30s, hard-charging ’40s, and sexual pre-revolution ’50s. And though she surfed more than influenced these eras, her career offers a promising lens on them—even when, as here, burlesque was tamed for Hollywood:

Author Karen Abbott strains for sweep and significance. She paints a panorama of vice, gangsterism, high society, and Tammany politics in New York—a Gotham echo of her previous book, Sin in the Second City—and describes so many outlandish vaudeville acts that they run together like a nickelodeon loop. She even builds a third narrative on the Minsky brothers, New York’s colorful burlesque impresarios, though Gypsy only worked about a year for them. The first two narrative recount Gypsy’s life, sort of, in two alternating threads: one, in present tense, from its career-high midpoint, the other, from the beginning, in past. How cinematic.

This elaborate contrivance makes for much scene-setting, some confusion, and little illumination. Abbott stitches and weaves artfully. But her historical material is half-digested and often just distracting—notably the parallel Minsky saga. Is it another would-have-been book shoehorned into this one? {% display:image for:post image:2 align:right height:300 %}

Abbott muddies the essential story even more, the love-hate triangle between Louise/Gypsy, her monstrous mother, and her more gifted (and maltreated) kid sister, the actress June Havoc, who hoed an even harder row to build a distinguished stage and screen career. Perhaps Abbott puffs and gussies up this tale so much because she knows how oft it’s been told—recently in two other sounder but more pedestrian biographies, most famously by the two sisters themselves, and in the hit musical and movie based on Gypsy’s version.

June and Gypsy were mean storytellers, but both were partial and Gypsy at least was scarcely reliable. Abbott lifts reconstructed dialogue wholesale* from these highly partial memoirs, with no sources indicated save in vague endnotes. And with little evident attempt to sift fact and fiction, though she protests much on that point: “Anything that appears in quotation marks, dialogue or otherwise, comes from a book, archival collection, article," etc. You can trust it, it was in a book! She reports hearsay—notably one third-hand tall tale about Mom fatally defenestrating a hotel manager—as fact. She also fails to inspire confidence on subjects I happen to know something about. Young Louise’s traveling menagerie couldn’t have included a “poisonous horned toad”; horned-toad lizards aren’t poisonous. A self-defense plea is not an “alibi,” and if it’s upheld the killing’s not “murder.” Litigants usually seek writs of mandamus, not “stays, writs, mandamuses.” And she skips lightly or entirely over important aspects of Gypsy’s life—her sexuality, her political activism, the talk show that was her happiest achievement.

“When I occasionally slip inside Gypsy’s head, I do so using the most careful consideration of my research,” Abbott’s also avows in her introduction . In fact she persistently presumes to reveal not just Gypsy’s but others’ deepest thoughts and feelings, but never achieves a coherent, consistent portrait of any of them. Her sharpest insights seem borrowed from a 2003 Vanity Fair article by Laura Jacobs, apparently with permission; Abbot thanks Jacobs for sharing her files and notes.

But hollow as American Rose is behind its razzle dazzle, it’s an apt homage to Gypsy Lee Rose in one sense. As one patron said of Gypsy’s act, “It’s more tease than strip.”

Karen Abbott reads from American Rose February 3 at Elliott Bay Books.

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