Bookish Birthday: Gypsy Rose Lee

9th Jan 2013

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee, also known as Louise Hovick, was born in Seattle on January 9th 1911.

Her parents divorced in 1916, and she was raised by her stage-struck mother, Rose Hovick.

The family took to the road when Rose chose her younger daughter, June Havoc, as the baby-faced star of a vaudeville act.

Chubby, dark-haired Louise tagged along, disguising herself as a boy onstage. Though she had little formal education, Louise loved to read.

‘My books had already broken the bottom of the trunk that June and I shared for our toys,’ she recalled.

While visiting a Detroit bookstore, Louise listened, enthralled, to customers discussing literature. The store’s owner, George Davis, recommended that she buy a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

When vaudeville’s popularity waned, and June left the act, seventeen year-old Louise – by then a statuesque beauty – tried her luck as a striptease artist. By the 1930s, ‘Gypsy Rose Lee’ was the toast of New York.

Gypsy paid her dues on Broadway, but found her niche during a long stint in a burlesque theatre. She never appeared entirely nude, and her witticisms soon became as renowned as her physical attributes.

Her first act was called ‘Illusion’, but over time she developed her most famous routine, ‘A Stripteaser’s Education.’ ‘Gypsy Rose Lee is a classic paradox: an intellectual strip-teaser,’ a (male) columnist quipped.

Nonetheless, Gypsy was proud of her working-class origins and supported liberal causes, such as the anti-fascist rebels in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1940, George Davis – now literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar – invited Gypsy to join an artists’ commune in Brooklyn. The tenants of the ‘February House’ included the English poet, W.H. Auden,and novelist Carson McCullers.

With Davis’s encouragement, Gypsy wrote a mystery novel, The G-String Murders, which became a best-seller upon publication in 1941. She left the house to perform in Chicago, and completed a second novel, Mother Finds a Body.

In 1943, The G-String Murders was filmed as Lady of Burlesque, with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role. Gypsy’s own fortunes in Hollywood were less than stellar, and such was her notoriety that for a brief period, she reverted to her former name.

She tried her hand at a play, The Naked Genius, later filmed as Doll Face. But after America went to war, and burlesque was banned by New York’s Mayor LaGuardia, Gypsy busied herself with entertaining the troops.

She married three times, and had long affairs with impresario Mike Todd and film director Otto Preminger. After the war ended, Gypsy returned to her roots and toured in a carnival.

In 1949, Gypsy became editor of the performer’s union newsletter. One of the few women nominated to the board, she was labelled a ‘Red’ – a charge she angrily denied.

Unlike many burlesque artists, Gypsy’s career surpassed the fading of her looks. In 1957, she published her memoir, Gypsy. An instant sensation, Gypsy’s autobiography became a Broadway musical, and a 1962 movie in which she was, rather simplistically, portrayed as a victim, forced to strip by her mother.

By the late 1950s, Gypsy had settled in a Beverly Hills mansion with a menagerie of pets. She endorsed a range of products – from dog-food to vodka – and hosted a TV talk-show. On April 26, 1970, she died of lung cancer.

Gypsy was revived on Broadway in 2003, and latter-day burlesque queen Dita Von Teese cites her as an influence. Gypsy’s son, Erik Lee Preminger, has published his own memoir, while Gypsy’s life has inspired a new generation of biographers, including Rachel Shteir, Noralee Frankel and Karen Abbott.

Tara Hanks