by Karen Abbott, December 27, 2010 2:45 PM
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 world wars. I discovered that Gypsy was a strutting, bawdy, erudite conundrum, adored by everyone but known by few; Life magazine called her "the only woman with a public body and a private mind, both equally exciting." Here are some of my most intriguing findings about Gypsy's life and times:
- Gypsy was born Rose Louise Hovick, 100 years ago this January, during a snowstorm in West Seattle. She was called Louise for short and had a caul over her face, which she took to mean she had a gift for seeing the future. When she was a kid on the vaudeville circuit, working in her sister's act, she spent her downtime telling fortunes and reading tea leaves. One day she had a vision about a boy in the act — she saw a terrible car accident in which he was decapitated. This vision came true just a few weeks later, and she never read tea leaves again.
- Gypsy's parents divorced when she was three, and her mother, Rose, conditioned her to be wary of men — and also how to use them. "Men," she warned, "will take everything they can get and give as little as possible in return… God cursed them by adding an ornament. Every time they so much as think of a woman, it grows." Later, Rose would date women exclusively, and operate a lesbian boardinghouse in upstate New York. During a party, one of Rose's lovers reportedly made a pass at Gypsy — and ended up with a bullet in her head.
- In Gypsy the musical, Gypsy's success is presented as a part fluke, part the inevitable result of her mother's ruthless drive. But Gypsy herself was just as ambitious and calculating. After the stock market crash, when Gypsy subsisted on dog food and likely resorted to prostitution, she decided she would make a delicate, unclean break from her past, leaving the girl named Louise Hovick behind for good.
- Gypsy the person had a conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. For all of Gypsy's mental fortitude and steely nerve, she was physically weak and oddly susceptible to illness. "The body reacted," Gypsy's sister, June Havoc, told me, "because the soul protested." Taking just one aspirin could upset her stomach, and she suffered from severe ulcers that made her vomit blood. She adored her creation because it gave her the things she'd always wanted — fame, money, security — but she loathed its limitations, either real or perceived. She lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.
- Gypsy was desperate to be taken seriously as a writer and intellectual. She wrote essays for the New Yorker, a play that was produced on Broadway, two novels, and a memoir. While living at an artists' colony in Brooklyn, working on her first novel, Gypsy was rumored to have had a fling with writer Carson McCullers. Each night Gypsy would feed Carson homemade apple strudel and then they'd snuggle in Gypsy's bed. She also became good friends with William Saroyan, even though she was jealous of his talent. "If I have night lunch with a smarty pants like Saroyan," Gypsy once confessed, "I want to spit on my whole damned manuscript."
- If Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret love child, it would've been Gypsy Rose Lee. The woman knew how to make a dramatic entrance. On opening nights at the Met she would arrive in a long black limousine and step out wearing a full-length cape made entirely of orchids. She cultivated this image as a grand dame, but backstage, in her dressing room at Minsky's Burlesque, she invited her fellow performers to come watch her perform some very naughty tricks with her pet monkey.
- During World War II, Gypsy was immensely popular with soldiers. In 1943, she embarked on a tour and performed at 40 army and navy posts throughout the country. Soldiers named a stripped-down model of the Curtiss P-40L fighter aircraft the Gypsy Rose Lee. By the end of the war, 10 regiments had named her their "sweetheart." During the Vietnam War, she entertained troops in southeast Asia. By this time she was in her 50s, and jokingly said she was "sort of like a sexy grandmother."
- Eleanor Roosevelt was one of her biggest fans. On the opening night of Gypsy in 1959, the former First Lady sent Gypsy a telegram that read: "May your bare ass always be shining."
- When Gypsy was diagnosed with lung cancer and began radiation, she looked around at the other patients and told her son, "You know, when I look at all these people I can't bring myself to berate God for giving me such a horrible disease. I've had three wonderful lives, and these poor sons-a-bitches haven't even lived once."
More about Gypsy's three wonderful lives tomorrow...