A Letter from Author Karen Abbott
My grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once related a tale about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. “She took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove,” the cousin said, “and she was so damned good at it I would’ve gladly given her fifteen more.” This story got me thinking: who was
Gypsy Rose Lee? And how did an awkward girl named Louise Hovick become her? I spent three years researching the answer, research that included connecting with Gypsy’s late sister, the actress June Havoc; I was the last person to interview her.
When I arrived at June’s Connecticut farm I found her lying in bed, her hair done up in pert white pigtails. She was ninety-four years old, give or take, and the legs that once danced on stages across the country were now motionless, two nearly imperceptible bumps tucked beneath crisp white sheets. Her eyes were a bold shade of blue and painfully sensitive to light. She told me the musical Gypsy
distorted her childhood so thoroughly it was as if “I didn’t own me anymore.” She realized her sister was “screwing me out in public,” and that, in the end, there was no stopping either Gypsy
or Gypsy; the play was both her sister’s monument and her best chance for monumental revisionism.
It took another visit for June to share more personal memories: money was Gypsy’s “god,” and she would do anything to anybody, including June, to make more of it. Gypsy did in fact do things, not only to June but also to herself—“terrible” and “awful” and “shocking” things, things beneath her sister’s formidable intellect and keen wit, things that made June believe, to that day, that love (even love fraught with competition and jealousy) never existed between them at all.
I asked and listened, for as much time as June gave me. I asked until her patience wore thin and her eyes watered with the effort to stay open.
“I hope I didn’t upset you today,” I whispered. “That’s not my intention.”
“I know,” June said. Those startling eyes found their focus, settling on mine. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more open about some things… I’m still ashamed for her. I wish they hadn’t happened.”
“Would Gypsy wish the same?” I asked.
“She had no shame.”
A pause, and I said, feebly, “You were a good sister to her.”
A hand tunneled out from the sheet. She coiled long, blade-thin fingers around my wrist.
“I was no sister,” June said. “I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.”
She retracted her hand, gave her eyes permission to close. I kissed her cheek and crept out the bedroom door. I was grateful she let me inside—even on the periphery, even briefly¬—and I suspected she was saving her own questions for the day she reunited with the sister she did profess to love, the one she still called Louise.
Praise for American Rose:
"Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed: uncovering doozies in one chapter about Lee's outrageous life, followed in the next by the less salacious (but always captivating) details about how New York City's Minsky brothers, who played a crucial role in Lee's stardom, built their burlesque empire." —Newsday
"At its core, American Rose
is a haunting portrait of a woman 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can,' offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her." —The Los Angeles Times
is the rare biography that captures the imagination and doesn't let go. It would scare the bejeesus out of Gypsy Rose Lee, and it's guaranteed to enthrall readers." —Book Page
"[Abbott's] portrait of the famed stripper is both darker and more inspiring than the famed stripper's version of her life as filtered by Broadway or Hollywood." —Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Praise for Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City
“A delicious history . . . a lush love letter to the underworld . . . [Abbott] describes the Levee’s characters in such detail that it’s easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Abbott’s] research enables the kind of vivid description à la fellow journalist Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City
that makes what could be a dry historic account an intriguing read.”—The Seattle Times
“[A] satisfyingly lurid tale . . . Change the hemlines, add 100 years, and the book could be filed under current affairs.”—USA Today
“Assiduously researched . . . Even this book’s minutiae . . . make for good storytelling.”—The New York Times
“A colorful history of old Chicago that reads like a novel.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“Lavish . . . an immensely readable book.”—The Wall Street Journal