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Author Archive: "Karen Abbott"

A Nervous Breakdown Set to Music

By far, the most fascinating aspect of researching and writing American Rose was untangling the complicated, intense, sadistic, funny, tragic, and heartbreaking relationship between Gypsy Rose Lee, her mother, Rose, and her sister, June. I spent countless hours at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library (which houses Gypsy's archives) immersed in their correspondence, and often left feeling emotionally drained and physically ill. Rose would send one letter to Gypsy, begging forgiveness for all of her past transgressions, and, in the next, admonish her for being an "unnatural child" and leaving her mother behind; I could see where Rose had broken her pencil from pressing too hard on the paper. In the musical Gypsy, Rose — played on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and, most recently, Patti LuPone — performs a wrenching number called "Rose's Turn" (which theater critic Ben Brantley called "a nervous breakdown set to music"), the lyrics bemoaning the fact that Gypsy archived the success that Rose had always craved; in the end, mother and daughter exit ...


One Night at a Speakeasy…

Irving Wexler was a poor kid from the slums of the Lower East Side, so skilled at filching wallets from pockets it was as if they were covered with wax; hence the nickname "Waxey." He picked "Gordon" as a surname.

Waxey met Arnold Rothstein in the days before Prohibition, working in the garment district as a labor enforcer. As anyone familiar with Roaring Twenties history (or the HBO series Boardwalk Empire) knows, Rothstein was a premiere bootlegger, mastermind behind the rigged 1919 World Series, inspiration for The Great Gatsby's Meyer Wolfsheim, and capable of intimating a murder threat through the slightest quiver of an eyebrow.

Waxey became part of his circle, eventually working alongside fellow gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, and Rothstein became the master of New York City's illegal liquor trade — the largest operation in the country, with an estimated 32,000 speakeasies. At the height of Rothstein's operation, eighty percent of the liquor distilled in Canada found its way to the United States, and the Bahamas' exportation of whiskey increased 425 fold. ...


Pygmalion on 42nd Street

Radio and "talkies" both played a role in vaudeville's demise, but the last, crushing blow was the onset of the Great Depression. Rose Hovick had always reassured her daughters that vaudeville would survive because "there was no substitute for flesh," and the axiom was true — but it applied to burlesque, not vaudeville. Vaudeville, with its sense of sunny, mindless optimism, no longer spoke to the country's mood. Burlesque did, loudly and directly.

The Depression affected female workers to the same degree as men, and thousands of them, out of work and other ideas, applied at burlesque houses across the country: former stenographers and seamstresses and clerks, wives whose husbands had lost their jobs, mothers with children to support, vaudevillians who finally acknowledged the end of the line. Compared to other forms of show business — compared to any business — burlesque enjoyed a low rate of unemployment, and 75% of performers had no stage experience at all. Pretty girls were finally available at burlesque wages, and the supply equaled the demand.

Gypsy never spoke much about 1929, that limbo period after June fled but before she really became Gypsy ...


Reality Television, Old-School Style

One of the most rewarding parts of writing historical nonfiction is finding primary sources , first-hand details, and anecdotes that help illuminate the past. Early on in my research for American Rose, I was fortunate to visit Gypsy Rose Lee's sister, the actress June Havoc, who died in March at the age of 96. She was bedridden, and the legs that had once danced on stages across the country were now motionless, two nearly imperceptible bumps tucked beneath crisp white sheets. But her memories were sharp; talking with her was like being magically transported back to the Roaring Twenties (I've posted some audio clips of our interviews on my website).

June spoke passionately about vaudeville, the premiere form of entertainment during the 1920s, and it struck me that vaudeville was the reality television of that era — the one difference being that, back then, entirely average people had to work hard at being famous. Many vaudevillians possessed talents invented rather than innate, and with relentless practice and a clever marketing scheme they were able to make a fortune. Some ...


A Strutting, Bawdy, Erudite Conundrum

My 92-year-old grandmother, without fail, gives the best gifts : her winning poker strategy, authentic cloche hats, and stories that are always more interesting than fiction. When she told me about a great aunt who vanished in Chicago in 1905, I began researching that city and time period and discovered a world-famous brothel called the Everleigh Club, which became the subject of my first book, Sin in the Second City. Shortly before my publication date, and fishing for a new topic, I asked her about growing up during the Great Depression. She relayed a tale about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform around 1935. "She took a full 15 minutes to peel off a single glove," the cousin reported, "and she was so damn good at it I would've gladly given her 15 more."

So this story got me thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? I spent the next three years researching the answer, research that encompassed not only the Great Depression, but also the Roaring Twenties, prohibition, and two ...


Scandals and Secrets

I'm thoroughly enjoying the brouhaha over the "D.C. Madam" — the Everleigh sisters' clients were much more savvy and discreet! — and it brings to mind another fascinating (albeit totally unrelated) political sex scandal from a century ago.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a New York City politician by the name of Murray Hall rose through the ranks of Tammany. He was a member of the prestigious Iroquois Club and a personal friend of State Senator Barney Martin. He was a celebrated bon vivant, a womanizer and a brawler. He was the Captain of his election district and held court in an office on Sixth Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets, where colleagues would often stop by after hours to share cigars and whiskey. He had been married twice and was raising a lovely young daughter.

In January 1901, when Murray Hall died, it was discovered he was also a woman.

Hall's fellow Tammany brothers were shocked at their friend's true gender. They marveled that she was able to "pass" so successfully for more than twenty-five years.
"Why he had several run-ins when he and I were opposing Captains," one acquaintance ...


Mr. Chicago

I'm a gambling girl by nature, but for the first time yesterday I was thrilled to lose a bet. Rick Kogan, a Chicago Tribune reporter, local legend, and very dear friend, bet me that I would hit the New York Times bestseller list. If he won, I'd have to fly him down to Atlanta and treat him to an all-expenses-paid visit to the city. If I won, he'd do the same for me in Chicago. I agreed, and told him he'd had one too many bourbons.

Yesterday afternoon, my cell phone rang, and I literally tripped over a mound of shoes to get to it (I'm also an incurable slob). My editor's name was on the caller I.D. Lying on my hotel room floor, dripping wet in my towel, I heard her say two words: number seventeen. The first person I called when we hung up was Rick Kogan.

I first met Rick in January. If you're going to write about Chicago, Rick Kogan is the man to know. He's synonymous with the city, as ubiquitous as the rattle of the El and the scent of deep dish pizza, and if you respect Chicago's stories ...


One More Chicago Story

My mother-in-law, Sandy, passed the heirlooms to me one at a time: Antique china. A mink stole from Marshall Field's. A flawless emerald cut diamond engagement ring that looked exactly like my own, but several carats larger — a coincidence neither I nor my husband was aware of when he proposed. Sandy had no use for them, but her mother wouldn't have wanted such treasures wrapped in boxes, wasted and unseen. Pretty things belonged to her mother in a way Sandy, an adopted daughter, never had.

Martha Purnell had always been her own prettiest thing, and she collected the artifacts of her beauty as if its value, too, would appreciate over time. Every mention of her name in the society pages of the Chicago Tribune was clipped and pressed between plastic pages. "Representative Beauty" of Northwestern University. Chicago's Summer Queen of 1936, sent as a special envoy to the Texas Centennial celebration. A letter from Universal Studios seeking pictures of Martha "in a bathing suit... one that would show your figure to its best advantage."

The papers printed news of her engagement to an insurance executive, detailed the showers at her Glenview mansion, and showcased ...


City of Big Stories

A few of my favorite Chicago tales:

My friend Roberta (see yesterday's blog) took me to a great neighborhood pizza-and-beer joint called Pizano's at State and Chestnut Streets. The far wall is a painting, a la the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, featuring the likenesses of Sammy Davis Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, the two brothers who own the place, Roy and Lou, and Jerry Seinfeld, who, strangely, is holding a cigarette. Roberta and I were enjoying our "refreshing summer beverage" (the actual name of their most popular drink) and we waved the bartender over.

Why, we asked, is Jerry Seinfeld the focal point of a mural dedicated to dead Rat Packers?

Look closer at Seinfeld, he said. Can you tell who it used to be?

I squinted. No hints of anyone else. Based on context, though, I guessed Dean Martin. Wrong.

After Frank Sinatra died in 1998, the bartender explained, a few regulars started a death pool. This, of course, made the brothers Roy and Lou nervous, since they were the only two people left among the living. Roy and Lou at once commissioned a painter to transform James Dean into Jerry Seinfeld, rationalizing that ...


Big Pimping

During the three years I spent researching Sin in the Second City, I spent most of my time wearing ratty jeans and a baseball hat, hunkered down in the dark corners of libraries, sifting through musty old archives. I became so immersed in the material that I would rarely break for lunch, and instead crouched in a bathroom stall and gnawed ferally on a cereal bar and rushed back to my seat so I didn't lose my train of thought. I became a bit of a recluse; most of the people I talked to happened to be dead (fortunately, one doesn't have to be alive in order to be interesting). Which is all to say that the hermit mindset is conducive to research, but promotion — not so much...

I flew into Chicago last Thursday, the day after a launch party at the Museum of Sex in New York. My friends, Fales and Roberta, picked me up at the airport and announced that we "have some work to do." I was pretty beat from the festivities — all I wanted to do was curl up

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