The Broadway musical Gypsy immortalized a demure stripper and her overbearing stage-manager mother. Now American Rose (Random House), Karen Abbott’s enthralling biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, reveals why life for the intensely private entertainer rarely came up roses. Louise Hovick was an amateur pushed onto the stage by Mama Rose, a frustrated performer herself. In her late teens, desperate and poor, Louise transformed herself into the coy burlesque dancer Gypsy, whose body language said “Oops! I did it again” as she peeled off each item of clothing. Soon she was a mainstream sensation, a wisecracking autodidact palling around with gangsters and artists, a “Dorothy Parker in a G-string,” as Abbott calls her, who signed her letters The Naked Genius. Abbott intersperses Gypsy’s saga with that of the Minsky brothers, producers who brought burlesque to Broadway in the 1930s. When they hired 20-year-old Gypsy, she was already a master of self-invention, pretending that her dark first year in seedy strip clubs, “stark naked . . . crouching on the runway,” never happened. Even after several failed marriages and an illegitimate son by Otto Preminger, Gypsy remained an American original, someone who may have shed her clothes but never her sense of humor.
Originally published in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of More.