Book Review: ‘American Rose’

2 REV Gypsy Rose Lee & William Rhinelander
John Phillips/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

New York mogul William Rhinelander Stewart plucks a $10 star from Gypsy Rose Lee’s nude netting  during a 1941 war relief fundraiser at the Astor Hotel.

A fascinating resurrection of Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque performer who captivated the nation and inspired the musical “Gypsy.”

On her deathbed in 1954, the psychotic Rose Thompson Hovick told her two daughters: “This isn’t the end. Wherever you go, as long as either of you lives, I’ll be right there.” And she added, “When you get your own private kick in the ass, just remember: It’s a present from me to you.”

The daughters — Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque artist, and June Havoc, the actress  — thought it was finally over, and they buried Hovick, symbolically, in an unmarked grave. True to form, she promptly rose out of it. Today, the daughters aren’t remembered as much more than footnotes in the gimcrack history of the American stage and screen. But Mama Rose — by way of Gypsy, the 1959 musical taken from Gypsy Rose Lee’s 1957 memoir — goes on belting out her poison as one of the most indelible characters in the American theater.

As for the once-celebrated Gypsy (in 1941, she outpolled Eleanor Roosevelt as the most popular woman in America), Karen Abbott’s American Rose does a fascinating job of resurrecting her. She grew up in the shadow of her twinkling little sister, the singing and dancing Baby June, a vaudeville star until, at 17, she fled her overwhelming mother and eloped with a teenage co-star. June had been the act, more or less. Gypsy, she said years later in one of the reciprocal mutilations each sister would let rip until her death, “could do anything onstage that didn’t involve actual talent.”

That stain of talentlessness runs through these pages vividly, like a sore nerve. But something beyond luck — and her mother’s maniacal drive — turned Gypsy into the toast of New York. As Abbott relates, “She could take a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove, and such was her hold over the audience that they would gladly have granted her fifteen more.” Part of it was her crack timing. Part of it was the pins. “A zipper,” she declared, “is cheap and vulgar.” She put her costumes together with straight pins, which she would pull out one by one and plink into the tuba. The audience always  adored it.

She was famous for brains, and her shows attracted the likes of Edmund Wilson and H.L. Mencken, who coined the term “ecdysiast” for her. She once shared a house with W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten and Carson McCullers, who was in love with her. She was in love with thuggish producer Michael Todd (later Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband), who broke Gypsy’s heart when he dumped her for Joan Blondell. When he died in a 1958 plane crash, Gypsy locked herself in her room and wept for three days. Blondell said, “I hope the son of a bitch screamed the whole way down.”

It isn’t easy to pinpoint the truth about a subject the author sums up as “long legs, glossy dark hair, more ambition than talent and a penchant for reimagining her past.” But the outlines are bold enough, and Abbott’s gaudy writing is perfect for the material. Narrating the death of Billy Minsky, the producer who brought Gypsy to Broadway, she writes, “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.” For some American stories, that would be over the top, but burlesque was all about going just far enough, and Abbott knows how exactly far to go in this entertaining, intelligent portrait.              

By Karen Abbott
Random House
448 pages, $26