American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
by Karen Abbott
Reviewed by John G. Rodwan Jr.
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.
Abbott depicts Rose Thompson Hovick (aka Mother) as driven, abusive and manipulative, traits Lee inherited. Louise and her younger sister, June, never saw toothbrushes, let alone dentists. (An admiring bootlegger paid to replace the adult Lee's rotten teeth.) While Louise had a modicum of formal education, June never did. When their days on the vaudeville circuit ended, they sometimes subsisted on sardines and dog food. Traditionally, vaudevillians looked down on burlesque, but economic hard times drove the teenage Louise to strip teasing. But she never revealed all: "She is a strutting bawdy, erudite conundrum, belonging to everyone but known by none." She may have exposed her body, but she kept her true, mysterious self safe, Abbott insists. Lee considered her act comedy, and Abbott agrees, calling her routine an "elegant, brainy joke of a strip."
Aware that Lee invented multiple versions of her own story, Abbott vacillates between speculation and certainty. Lee may have engaged in prostitution at the start of her burlesque career and had a sexual relationship with novelist Carson McCullers, but Abbott can't say for sure. Yet she doesn't hesitate to pinpoint moments that would shape people's lives or to generalize broadly about historical developments like World War I, Prohibition and the Great Depression. "Mores were discarded and manners dismissed at every level of society," she says of the mid-1920s. If Lee transcended her times in certain respects, then she also reflected them in others.
Abbott puts chronology in a blender, so scenes from the height of Lee's fame mingle with episodes from her hardscrabble childhood. Abbott mixes in stories about the Minsky brothers, New York City theater operators who guided Lee to celebrity. Abbott's time-shifting method permits her to juxtapose the past Lee sought to escape with the persona she created, but it also results in peculiar narrative jumps. She describes Lee's second unhappy marriage long before her first unhappy marriage, for instance, and mentions the third husband only in passing.
Gypsy Rose Lee may not have been a great talent or a stunning beauty, as her admiring biographer concedes, but she did thoroughly master one art: the art of self-promotion. When she found a gimmick that worked she stuck with it. Abbott, who previously chronicled Chicago brothel owners in Sin in the Second City, says Lee could take 15 minutes to remove a glove and so entrance her audience that they'd have given her a half hour.
American Rose, in contrast, moves at an agreeably faster pace.