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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee Hardcover – December 28, 2010
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2010, hardcover edition, Random House, NY. 425 pages. Vintage photos throughout. Here is a brilliant, carefully written biography of a unique woman who emerged from the Roaring 20's and became a bawdy, famous stripper (Gypsy Rose Lee), who later was successful in theatres, clubs, and Hollywood. Her sister, actress June Havoc, is here, along with Houdini, F.D.R., Fanny Brice, and a few gangsters. An oustanding book. "... history the way it ought to be written."
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Rose Hovick, mother of Gypsy and her sister, actress June Havoc, was a relentless and demanding mother who spent her time pushing her daughters onto the vaudeville stage. First it was the prodigy June, the youngest, who received all Hovick’s attention because of her beauty and dancing ability. June’s flame went out and she descended into the world of marathon dancing. Her time in the spotlight would come later. Rose was forced to turn her attention to Gypsy, known as Louise at the time, the less attractive of her girls, often referred to by June as the clumsy fat sister. Louise was both socially and physically awkward in her early years but learned to be desirable, majestic, and entertaining as Gypsy, the stripper, emerged.
Abbott explores the relationship of this dysfunctional threesome that alternated between intense dislike and strong dependency depending on the mood of the day. Louise (Gypsy) could never disengage herself from her mother’s suffocating milieu while June only showed up when she felt gloomy or needed help.
The cast of characters is large and marvelously presented. There are gangsters, politicians, fellow strippers, actors, comedians, NYC denizens, and, of course, the dirty old men who slouch in grimy theatre seats hoping to see some “skin.” Abbott brings them to life with her deft and amusing descriptions. Gypsy, no angel, is drawn into a world of alcohol, drugs, furtive sex, hard times, and lack of self-control. She perseveres, makes a lot of money, buys a fine house, supports her mother, writes books, and becomes the subject of movies and a Broadway play. Of course, when the novelty of burlesque wanes, so do her fortunes.
I’ve found Abbott to be a remarkable chronicler of history. Her research is relentless, her grasp of dialogue from the past is strong, and her sense of story is well organized. There are many flashbacks in this book, sometimes a distraction in lesser hands, but the author handles them adroitly. Great well-written history about a celebrity who epitomizes survival.
Schuyler T Wallace
Author of TIN LIZARD TALES
As for Gypsy herself, given her horrific childhood -- the book makes the case that Mama Rose was no mere stage mother, but rather a sociopath who may have committed three (or more) murders -- it's amazing that both Gypsy and June emerged as functional as they managed to be. While certainly flawed, she emerges as a unique and charming figure, who was in so many ways ahead of her time.
There are gangsters. Rothstein, Capone, Lucky Luciano, all seem to have had some connection to Gypsy Rose Lee. Or maybe they were just in the audience.
There is the history of the Minsky brothers. They are not gangsters, but they are thorns in the side of government as they explore the limits of what they can explore and get past the government censors. Folks who love to irritate the government will like these parts.
There are segments of fascinating history like that of the World’s Fair during WWII. The exhibits of many nations, like the nations themselves, were downsized. The invention of nylon stockings, displayed at the Fair would have later importance at the end of the war.
For psychology students, the Havoc family was a definition of dysfunctional, from “Big Lady”, through momma Rose, the relationship between Louise and June, the complete irrelevance of all men through several generations, and possible cannibalism on the part of earlier female ancestors.
The pandemic of influenza circa 1918 is described. Just when we thought we were the most afflicted generation with AIDS, Ebola, and Zika, it is informative to know what our grandparents (literally) faced, without the filter of the internet and CNN.
Here we have the life and death of Gypsy Rose Lee. Also the life and death of Vaudeville, Burlesque, and the celebrities who inhabited the entertainment world. Tricks are revealed. How did the man turn molten lava into coins? Some reputations may be tarnished. Did Joan Blondell really say that about her husband just after his death? She probably did, as this is a well- researched book with an extensive bibliography.
This can be a disturbing read in some parts, but for me it was mostly fun.