by Karen Abbott, December 31, 2010 9:39 AM
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 the stage together, arm-in-arm. Not so in real life.
In the book, I write of Rose's and Gypsy's bond:
Theirs is a primal connection that Gypsy is incapable of severing, parallel to love and just as deep but rotten at its root. It is a swooning, funhouse version of love, love concerned with appearances rather than intent, love both deprived and depraved, love that has to glimpse its distorted reflection in the mirror in order to exist at all.
Here are excerpts from the best (and worst) of their letters:
Rose to Gypsy, circa 1945:
Dear Louise, I was so grateful today to be able to talk to you. I am so sorry for anything I have done to make you feel like you do about me. Now if I can do anything in the world to make you feel different about me I will be so glad and happy to do it. I need you and June to see now and then to make me feel like there is something for me to live for. I haven't a soul in the world to look to for happiness but you girls, and I have been trying so hard to do what is right in every way I can think of… Please Louise listen to your real self and forgive and forget everything that has separated us. Believe what I am writing and give me that one big chance again to make good in your heart. If you won't have me, Louise, I will be all alone.
Rose to Gypsy, August 23, 1945:
Dear Louise, I have waited to hear from you dear but no call. I sent you a telegram, maybe you didn't get it... I am going to give you back to God, Louise, for him to manage you and I. He will untangle this whole unhappy affair I know. In the mean time I am going to know that you will and must love me...
Lots of love, Mother
Rose to Gypsy ("Louise"), October 28, 1950:
Dear Louise, I am writing to tell you I feel sorry for you, dear... It is difficult for me to believe that you could be so heartless and cruel to anyone and above all your own mother... Two daughters living in mansions, with everything and I can't get decent medical care from either one… God Louise it seems almost impossible that you girls could be so heartless... I wonder if you really are a communist Louise? God alone will surely punish you for your treatment to me…
Love to you, Mother
Rose to Gypsy, April 30, 1951:
Dear Gypsy, you know, I have never before in my life felt like I do now... Living on One Hundred Dollars a month... Asking, pleading, begging to you in every form has been of no avail. I am satisfied now and know in my heart that you are absolutely heartless and unnatural, incapable of a feeling God gives. I thought every daughter gave some feeling for her mother. Now that I think back there is nothing in my life that should make either of you feel like you do. You made money your god and goal and that is all you ever cared about... Now the time has come that I feel in all justice to my very soul to let the outside world just know what kind of girls I brought into this world... My life with you two girls was anything but a happy one. Things you made me go through and endure in regards to all your stepping stones, to your getting where you were interested in getting — at any cost — must now be told to your faithful public that do not know you at all... You are wicked, selfish, cruel, unnatural and you must be made to realize the day must come for reckoning. With God's help, your punishment will come to you...I was your slave and colored maid for years and years... Now I must give you your lesson like a mother should a child...You may have your papers, as you say, bribed to tell your stories but there is a way — and I intend to use it as soon as I am able. There is nothing of your life I don't intend to tell of the part I had to play with it. And after all was over and you got what you wanted, you flung me away and did not want to bother with me. I had had my youth. I pity you.
[signed] Your Mother
Gypsy to Rose, May 4, 1951:
Dear Mother, a registered letter addressed to me, supposedly from you, arrived in New York and was forwarded to me here in Toronto... It is inconceivable that you would even think of sending such a letter after the recent visit I had with you at the hospital, all on such a friendly level and after the letter you sent me the other day which expressed nothing but gratitude and confidence... Mother, you own three houses, at least five acres of land, a good car and a paid up annuity, which gives you an income of over a hundred a month that I know of, plus whatever else you have... And now comes the letter of the 30th. As I said before, I cannot believe you sent it except for the resemblance that it has to so many of your previous letters and threats. This letter, as the others, is in the nature of blackmail, and I am sick and tired of such threats. There is nothing about my life which cannot be made entirely public... If you did not write or send the letter, I will some day show it to you.
Yours, [signed] Gypsy
Telegram from Gypsy to Rose, undated:
Mrs. Rose E. Hovick
I have no desire to repeat last year's scenes which are too fresh in my memory STOP your so-called loneliness is of your own choice STOP if you want to go Seattle go direct STOP we just don't see eye to eye and that is final.
Gypsy to June, 1952:
Dear June: I hate like hell to have to write you this letter... it's so awful. Mother has cancer of the rectum... they've been giving her blood transfusions and have already postponed the operation. Some drunken lesbian is causing a lot of trouble with the newspapers... But even if she were a total stranger she's in great pain and with an operation like this the chances are fifty fifty... Between the newspapers, the drunken bitch, and the general horror of it all I'm almost out of my mind. Please let me hear from you as soon as you can make it.
Eighteen years later, when Gypsy was dying of cancer, the tumor pulsing beneath her skin like a second deadly heart, she turned to her sister and said, "Isn't this terrible, June?"
"Just ridiculously terrible," June answered. It was all she could think to say.
"This is a present," Gypsy added, "from Mother."