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The Untalented Gypsy Rose Lee

Published: 1/8/2011
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Gypsy Rose Lee in 1937 (AP Photo)

Burlesque entertainer, actress and writer Gypsy Rose Lee was born 100 years ago today. Dismissed as "untalented" by her own mother, she remains a source of inspiration four decades after her death.

Rose Louise Hovick was born Jan. 8, 1911 in Seattle to a teenage mother fresh out of a convent. Louise (as she was then called) got an early start in show business, appearing alongside her younger sister June as a vaudeville act. It was soon evident that "Baby June" was the more naturally talented performer of the two, and Louise was from a young age relegated to the background while June, even before she could speak, was pushed into the limelight by their ambitious mother, Rose. The family relocated to Hollywood and the act was renamed "Dainty June, the Hollywood Baby, and Her Newsboys." Rose also pushed her young progeny into film – if a director needed tears for a shot in a silent two reeler, mother Rose would tell June that the family dog had died. Her overbearing determination to see her young daughters have successful stage careers soon led to a divorce from her husband.

Beginning in their teenage years, Louise and June were responsible for supporting the family with their act. They travelled the country, playing cheap vaudeville theatres, living out of suitcases and avoiding formal education altogether. But when June was 13 (or possibly 15 or 16 – mother Rose had five different birth certificates for June and routinely shaved years off her true age), she broke up the act by briefly eloping with fellow vaudevillian Bobby Reed.

Louise was unable to sustain the act on her own. Aged 17, stranded in Kansas City without a booking, she was approached by an agent about appearing on a burlesque stage (the scheduled stripper had landed in prison). Over her mother's objections (or because of her mother's insistence – accounts vary), Louise took the job.

Thus was born Gypsy Rose Lee.

Not long after, she made her New York debut on April 1, 1931, at Minsky's famous 42nd Street theatre The Republic, the first to feature burlesque on Broadway. Comedians like Abbott & Costello, Phil Silvers, Red Buttons and Rag Ragland rounded out the bill, but the star attraction were the striptease artists, who, during the height of the Depression, made between $700 and $2,000 a week. Gypsy Rose Lee would play 12 weeks straight at The Republic, setting a record for the theatre. Her arrest during one of the many police raids on Minsky's theatres only heightened the public's awareness of burlesque's rising star.

Many were at a loss to explain why she, of all the pretty girls losing clothing onstage, became such an attraction. As a 1942 Life magazine article in noted, "She shows less than Margie Hart, is less suggestive than Ann Corio, less 'hot' than Georgia Sothern. She scorns the use of either bumps or grinds, fundamental gyrations of a burlesque routine… her routine for years has been a slow strip which she accompanies with a smart patter song." Her smart patter may have been just as big an asset as her slow reveal – in those days, women made up nearly half of the typical striptease audience – and she became famous for her sophisticated onstage wit and casual banter.

Gypsy Rose Lee was involved with every aspect of her act, making up her own song lyrics and designing her own clothes, and an armchair psychologist might conclude that her perfectionism was driven by being labeled the 'untalented one' so early in her youth. Her sister had by then gone on to a successful career in Hollywood as June Havoc, and the two of them maintained a sibling rivalry throughout their lives, though they remained closely bound by the shared experience of growing up in showbiz under a domineering, manipulative mother.

In 1937 Gypsy Rose Lee's notoriety earned her a Hollywood contract with Daryl Zanuck's Fox Studio, but church groups and the Legion of Decency complained so loudly that the Hays Office forced her to drop her burlesque name and revert to her given name of Louise Hovick. Her skills didn't translate particularly well to the silver screen, and she was soon back on the burlesque stage, though she would occasionally appear in films for the rest of her career.

Though her charms may not have won over cinemagoers, her humor and life experiences helped her win over readers as she embarked on an unlikely third career as a writer. In 1941 her novel The G-String Murders, became publishing's best-selling mystery since Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. She published another mystery, Mother Finds A Body in 1942, but her best known work today remains 1957's Gypsy: A Memoir.

Prior to its publishing, she'd already sold autobiographical snippets to The New Yorker, Harper's Bazaar, Mademoiselle and Collier's, but now freed from fear of libel suits by her mother's death, Gypsy Rose Lee turned a harsh light on her upbringing, using the book to paint Rose as the mother of all stage mothers. The memoir was adapted into the hugely successful Broadway musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable, with the mother Rose character being played over the years by Ethel Merman, Tyne Daly and Bernadette Peters. Rosalind Russell and Bette Midler have played in her film and TV productions. Gypsy Rose Lee was played by Natalie Wood in the 1962 film.

Gypsy would provide its author a steady income for the rest of her life, but it would also lead to estrangement from June, who took issue with her portrayal and that of her mother in the stage production (her reservations were muffled with a cash payout). Her personal relationships never less than chaotic, Gypsy was married and divorced three times and had a son out of wedlock by film director Otto Preminger. Named Erik Lee, he would be the only constant man in her life and would later pen his own memoir, My G-String Mother, chronicling his experience working as her stage manager beginning when he was only 8.

In her later years, Gypsy Rose Lee appeared on television, hosted her own radio show and entertained troops in Vietnam during USO tours. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, she reconciled with her sister, joking that the disease was their mother's revenge. She died April 26, 1970.

In 1942 Life magazine wrote, "It is safe to assume no culture but our own could fashion such a unique national character as Gypsy Rose Lee. She cannot sing, dance or act but she earns more on the stage than Helen Hayes or Katherine Cornell."

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