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

3.8 out of 5 stars 269 customer reviews

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Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal
The bestselling author of "Encyclopedia an Ordinary Life" returns with a literary experience that is unprecedented, unforgettable, and explosively human. Hardcover | Kindle book
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Amazon.com Review

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

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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: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (269 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #751,331 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Peter G. Keen on December 16, 2010
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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This is the most frustrating book (IIRC) I've ever read. It was no doubt difficult for the author (Karen Abbott) to get close to the facts of Louise Horvick's (aka GRL/Gypsy) life since so much was invented either by Gypsy or her mother. But the author needlessly makes it more frustrating by not presenting Gypsy's life and times sequentially but, instead, presents Gypsy (and those important to her) in many jumbled time periods through 38 short chapters that consistently alternate the time periods they cover.

For example:
Ch.10: NYC, 1917-20
Ch 11: Chicago 1941
Ch 12: Vaudeville Circuit, 1920-24
Ch. 13: NYC 1942.

Her organization results in many topsy-turvy descriptions, e.g., the divorce from a later husband occurs in a chapter preceding her marriage to an earlier one. Too many chapters (& paragraphs, IMO) intrude with the Minsky brothers buying burlesque houses without contributing much to the story--unless you're interested in real estate deals in NYC. (Minskys' also had a burlesque theater in nearby NJ which served many NYC customers but that one's never mentioned--very disappointing to a close friend who did a strip-dance act there in the 1950s, before she became a social worker.)

And Abott sometimes inappropriately interchanges present and past tense verbs.

The resulting book is a bit like an Impressionist painting--a collage of small dabs of color which blur to form images rather than presenting well-defined characters. This seems to be deliberate: maybe the author's (& editor's?) decision to put readers through some of what she went through in researching the material?

There are other misses: GRL (& sister June) were obviously much twisted by their mother, Momma Rose.
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