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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee Hardcover – December 28, 2010

3.9 out of 5 stars 247 customer reviews

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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

"American Rose 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

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (December 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400066913
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400066919
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (247 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #150,255 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Karen Abbott's forthcoming book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a true story of four daring (and not entirely scrupulous) Civil War spies who risked everything for their cause. The new book will be published by HarperCollins on September 2, 2014. Abbott's previous books, Sin in the Second City and American Rose, were both New York Times bestsellers. Abbott is a featured contributor to Smithsonian magazine's history blog, Past Imperfect, and also writes for Disunion, the New York Times series about the Civil War. A native of Philadelphia, where she worked as a journalist, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots, Poe and Dexter.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There are so many excellent and thoughtful Amazon reviews of this book that there is little to add. I will just make some comments on the writing and structure - the Eng Lit major stuff. This is a truly first-rate and very disturbing work, very skillfully modulated. It's a horror story of about as psychotic a mother as could be and the devastation she created in her abuse and exploitation of her children. The known murders she committed seem just part of her detachment from anything or anyone outside her anger, viciousness, ambition and just sheer perversion. As a tale of showbiz, poverty and struggle, the tragic triangle of Rose, June and Gypsy is compelling. It's far more, though, the tale of how Gypsy built her invented self and turned her prodigious talent from just getting by to a public persona that was glamorous but fragile; she never escaped the binds of her mother or worked through the fractured relationships with her sister, the child star of the family. The story of her life is complex and enriched by the context of New York post-World War I, vaudeville and burlesque, and the ever-existing links between way out showbiz personalities, crime bosses, and hustlers.

What makes the book work as well as it does is the very fine line Ms Abbott treads in her exposition - stray just a little and it would lose credibility and impact. It doesn't glamorize or trivialize the world of vaudeville. The figures that are usually made larger-than-life or caricatures come across as real - the (in)famous Minsky brothers, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Fanny Brice, Mike Todd, Otto Preminger and many others.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I knew very little about Gypsy Rose Lee before I read this book. I knew she had a talk show in the mid 1960's which I remember seeing, that the musical "Gypsy" was based on her life and that Rosalind Russell played "Mama Rose" and Natalie Wood played "Gypsy". I also knew at one time she had been a stripper because that's what it had in the musical.
I knew Rose Havock (June Havoc's and Gypsy's mom) was a stage mother. I even showed the musical to my sons so they'd realized I wasn't such a horrible mother. But I never knew to what extent "Mama Rose" was a stage mother or how truly twisted she was.
Karen Abbott has written an absolutely fascinating book about the times of burlesque and the depression. She alternates Gypsy's life story with the story of the Minsky brothers, giving details about the economic as well as the moral pulse of society. I found it very difficult to put the book down.
I was stunned at what Gypsy and June went through. What kind of mother names her second daughter the same as the first, already presuming the first, living daughter is a failure? What kind of mother would twist her children's minds by saying the dog died just to get a child to cry on command? And what kind of grandmother would hand her 5 year old grandson a real gun? Rose Havock, that's who. And that's probably one of the nicest things you can say about her.
I was also impressed by the way M's Abbott portrayed the sibling relationship between Gypsy and June. M's Abbott seemed to hit the sibling relationship right on the head between sisters. Her portrayal of Gypsy as an older sister (because she was) is touching but chilling to the bone.
I recommend this book highly to anyone interested in a good biography or anyone interested in thet time period in American history. You won't be able to put it down, it's that good.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
A fascinating book about a stage and screen enigma of the past. Gypsy Rose Lee was an early vaudeville, stage and screen star about which little truth has been written ( not even by Gypsy herself.). At last, this book provides a more in depth and factual account of the well-concealed life of a legend. Gypsy Rose (or - Louise) was born into quite a strange family of extremely odd women who managed to quite promptly evict most men from their lives. As a girl, she and her sister (the actress- June Havoc) were taken on the road by their mother and used to satisfy her cravings for attention and publicity. Lingering memories of sexual abuse, extreme physical abuse (by the mother) and constant exposure to a life that no child should have experienced, produced 2 very unique women. Rose became a striper, although considered to be the lesser talent of the 2 sisters, probably to finally gain the attention that her younger sister, the child star, had stolen from her. The other sister, June, was a child star who turned into a movie actress of lesser caliber.

That the 2 girls even survived their upbringing is a miracle, that they survived their mother, is even more of one. With a mother who seems to have committed 3 murders, while in a furious rage, which possessed her throughout her life - the girls had little hope of ever leading a normal life. Rose grew-up obsessed by money,celebrity and fame, June seems to have grown-up angry and jealous of her older sister. Everyone in the family treated each other horribly, but the 2 girls did survive to become stars.

The book can be quite intense at times, life on the road was hardly the life for growing girls.
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