by Karen Abbott
Rose Louise Hovick grew up performing on the vaudeville stage, overshadowed by her prettier, more talented younger sister June. Her mother Rose was a ruthless manager of the act, the queen of all stage mothers, close to her daughters and controlling of them. When her sister ran away with one of their back-up dancers, Rose Louise became the new star of the show – but it wasn’t until she rechristened herself as Gypsy Rose Lee and started stripping that she shot to fame. As America’s most beloved burlesque performer, Gypsy was a household name, but throughout her life she was tortured by her twisted relationship with her mother and the terror that she might one day return to the wretched poverty of her childhood.
Many years ago, I read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs about her life on the stage, and I loved it. She had a very down-to-earth voice and kept funny stories coming, one right after the next. I’m also a fan of the Sondheim musical Gypsy, which is based on that book. But as time passed, I heard from multiple people that Gypsy’s version of events was very revisionist, and I became curious about what the “real” story was. This is what led me to pick up Karen Abbott’s biography – what would an outsider see in the stories of Gypsy Rose Lee?
Unlike most biographies, which tend to be written in chronological order, Abbott’s book jumps around wildly in time. One chapter might be set in during Gypsy’s childhood in the 1920s and the next in the 1940s when she was at the height of her fame, and then the story might jump back to her adolescence or forward another decade or two. This helter-skelter approach made it difficult to follow the trajectory of Gypsy’s life, and made her story seem twice as chaotic. I couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad; from a literary standpoint, the time jumps supported the frenetic pace of Gypsy’s activities but as a biographical sketch it helped obscure the artist that the book should be bringing into the light.
Abbott claimed that she was the last person to interview June Havoc, Gypsy’s sister, before her death in 2010. She also uncovered several new material sources for the biography. Yet many passages seemed to be little more than paraphrases from Gypsy’s memoirs, especially when colorful stories were needed to spice up the narrative. Ultimately, Gypsy’s true character remains elusive. Where the biography really succeeds is providing the context of Gypsy, introducing the characters in her world. Abbott sketches out the personal history of many of the theater people important to Gypsy’s career, including the Minsky brothers who brought her to the country’s attention, and the men that she had her most significant relationships with.
Most importantly, Abbott delves deep into Gypsy’s family, sharing dark stories of childhood neglect or abuse that Gypsy herself glossed over or ignored. The mother-daughter relationship between Gypsy and Rose is a fascinating, terrible thing – Gypsy loves her mother and seeks her approval even as she hates Rose’s attempts to control and manipulate her. As the years pass, Rose becomes crazier and harder for Gypsy to manage – at one point she runs a lesbian boardinghouse and supposedly shot one of her boarders in a jealous rage, although at the time it was deemed a suicide – but the famous striptease star remains devoted, all the same.
Would I recommend reading this over Gypsy’s own memoirs? I guess it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a good story, entertaining and fun, go with Gypsy’s account. If what you’re after is a more historical account of life in burlesque, a version that focuses less on Gypsy and more on this particular period in American popular culture, go with the Abbott biography.
4 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
2012: Fashionista Piranha on vacation until June 9th
2011: The Daughter of Siena by Marina Fiorato
2010: Asian Pacific American Book Lot Winner
2009: The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory