Dressed in Blue Light

Amy Larocca

  • Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee by Noralee Frankel
    Oxford, 300 pp, £12.99, June 2009, ISBN 978 0 19 536803 1
  • Gypsy: The Art of the Tease by Rachel Shteir
    Yale, 222 pp, £12.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 300 12040 0

If Gypsy Rose Lee had been born about 60 years later than she was, she would most probably have had a reality show, something like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, which is about three Los Angeles sisters whose sex tapes have a curious habit of ‘leaking’ onto the internet. Their mother, Kris, is their manager and when Kris is not calling her pornographer friend in prison, she can usually be found encouraging her daughters to take their clothes off in front of men, or, most recently, arranging the telecast of one daughter’s wedding to a basketball player she’d known for exactly one month.

But Gypsy Lee wasn’t born in 1983; she was born much earlier. No one knows exactly when. She usually said 1914, but this is cloudy and easily disproved. There’s a strong case – a birth certificate – to be made for 1911, but in any event, she was born weighing 12 pounds during a blizzard in a house in Seattle with no roof and immediately washed with a handful of snow. (Unless, of course, she wasn’t.) What isn’t up for debate is that she was born to a tyrannical mother, Rose, who was desperate to escape the mundanity of her life and saw her two outgoing, talented-enough daughters as a ticket to some other, less boring world.

Most of what is known in popular culture about Gypsy comes from the musical that Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents made out of her 1957 memoirs, and most of that is about the original momager, Rose Hovick. It’s a showbiz story about a hard-driving mother and the daughters she drives away. It’s still performed all the time, endlessly reducing grown men to sobbing matri-rage – particularly when Patti LuPone is involved.

Both Stripping Gypsy by Noralee Frankel and Gypsy: The Art of the Tease by Rachel Shteir struggle, much like their subject, to escape Rose’s heavy shadow – ‘the musical’s premise that the only moving force in Gypsy’s rise to fame was her mother is an illusion that needs to be stripped,’ Frankel writes. They are important because they are the first books about Gypsy not written by members of the family: June Hovick and Gypsy’s only son, Erik Preminger, the result of a fling with Otto Preminger, have both written detailed – if heavily biased – versions of Gypsy’s life, concerned largely with the settling of scores. Franklin and Shteir are without such agendas and are, particularly in Frankel’s case, far more interested in digging out some sort of ‘true’ version of Gypsy’s life from the scrim of half-truths, whole lies and punchlines.

It was Rose who took Gypsy – or Louise, as she was called then – and her younger, more beautiful daughter, June, on the road, trussed them up and taught them to sing. But from there it’s Gypsy’s story, that of a lonely stripper who wants nothing so much as to be admired for her mind, but is unable to resist the independence, stability and, maybe most of all, the attention that came with taking off her top.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in