Synopses & Reviews
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, glamor, 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.
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.) " Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved."
"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.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright PWyxz LLC)
"A fast-paced, funny, flavorful reckoning with a unique American icon." Kirkus Reviews
"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
In American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Time of Gypsy Rose Lee
, Karen Abbott claims 'Gypsy Rose Lee is a brand before branding exists,' intending praise. She means the Seattle-born stripper who rose to fame in the 1930s was ahead of her times in her ability to cultivate a public image and attain fame. The child called Louise Hovick desperately craved attention, first from her unscrupulous stage mother and then from as big an audience as she could find. As Lee she secured it, both during her lifetime and via 'Gypsy,' the musical based on her revisionist memoir.
John G. Rodwan Jr., The Oregonian
(Read the entire Oregonian review
About 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.
Reading Group Guide
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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”?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?