I didn’t realize Karen Abbott had a new book out until late last month. Abbott is the best selling author of one of my favorite books from a couple years back, Sin in the Second City so I was excited when I discovered she wrote American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.
I confess when I started reading the book I knew very little about Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy, the most famous striptease artist, was born Ellen June Hovick in 1911 in Seattle. She was later renamed Rose Louise when her younger sister was born and given the name Ellen June because it was a prettier name and June was a beautiful baby. Yes, her mother actually took her name away and gave it to her younger sister.
Louise’s mother Rose Hovick was the original stage mother. She divorced the girls’ father (boy did he ever dodge a bullet) and supported her family by taking the girls on the vaudeville circuit. Louise was cast as a supporting player to “Baby June” and later “Dainty” June’s act. (What kind of mother forces her toddler to dance on her toes?)
After years of hard work June was frustrated and escaped the act by eloping with another performer at the age of 15 and becoming a marathon dancer. Rose was devastated by June’s actions. Rose then threw herself into managing Louise’s career. Abbott spends a lot of time devoted to the codependent relationship Louise/Gypsy had with her mother. As vaudeville was dying Rose was getting Louise jobs in grim and grimmer theaters. Things were getting bleak. Louise learned that she could make more money in burlesque. Rose balked at first but realized that their well being depended on getting work. So Louise became Gypsy Rose Lee, a witty strip tease artist. She was different from other stripteasers as she emphasized the tease and use her sharp sense of humor during her performances. And the rest is history.
I found the descriptions of the relationships between the women, Gypsy, June, and Rose, to be fascinating. They loved each other but they had a warped way of showing it. They caused each other grief and pain. Gypsy’s relationship with her son was also intriguing. He didn’t know who his father was until he was much older and she didn’t seem to think it was important. He traveled with her and was present back stage and saw things a small boy probably should never saw.
The book also contains a history of vaudeville and burlesque, focusing on the Minksy brothers who opened up theaters which were an affordable alternative for theater goers. I found the tales of raids and the threats of losing their license to operate interesting but I’m not sure how much they lent to understanding Gypsy.
I picked up the book mainly because Abbott is an incredible storyteller and I knew I would be in for some adventurous tales. In the end I wasn’t disappointed though I don’t know that I learned that much more about Gypsy. The book is well researched and she clearly loves her subject. But I found it missing something.
My biggest complaint about this book is the order which I found more than a little distracting. In Chapter One it’s the World’s Fair in 1940, Chapter Two it’s Seattle in 1910. There was a lot of jumping around and it didn’t feel like a flash back which lent to the story. Instead it felt very disjointed.
That being said, this book was a good read. I would recommend it to anyone who likes reading a story about strong women, complicated relationships or who just enjoys biographies.