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.

Rose Hovick saw her daughters’ earning potential before they could even walk – Louise won a healthy baby contest shortly after she was born. The girls’ father, Jack Hovick, was a not too successful newspaperman and Rose left him shortly after the birth of her daughters – after an argument about, among other things, the price of June’s ballet class. For a long time, it was assumed that June was the one with the talent: at the age of seven she had a vaudeville act that brought in $1500 a week. Louise couldn’t sing or dance as well as her sister, but when she did wind up on stage doing bit parts she was funny and engaging and producers were soon asking for her as well. June hated the low-paying travelling vaudeville life they had ended up in and eloped when she was 15 with a 21-year-old dancer named Bobby. Rose, who had been reduced to eating dog food and sleeping in the town dump, tried to shoot Bobby with a small automatic. Which didn’t work as the safety had been left on. It was Louise who then took charge of the act and created Rose Louise and the Hollywood Blondes; they usually performed a short musical comedy with a hula number. Booked into a burlesque theatre in Kansas City as the ‘clean’ act to fend off police, Louise was persuaded to fill in for a sick stripper and was a tremendous hit. So next came a proper striptease in Toledo, Ohio, and a new name. It was Gypsy – so-called, it was said, because she was in the habit of reading tea leaves – who arrived on the Lower East Side, her unusually long legs often wearing nothing more than blue light.

For Shteir, Gypsy used the striptease as ‘the representative American act’. Americans, after all, love to reveal themselves, and Gypsy explored the reveal like no one before or, arguably, since. She talked while stripping, which was entirely new, and she was funny. Shteir sees her not as some sort of ur-feminist, but certainly as ‘anticipating Gloria Steinem’ in that ‘Gypsy created a sexy, smart persona to protest both burlesque’s crassness and Puritanism’s mean-spiritedness. She is more Sister Carrie than Carrie Bradshaw.’ But Shteir also believes that what sustained the fascination with Gypsy was the fact that she never, not even once, took it all off.

At the beginning, Shteir writes, Gypsy’s costumes ‘were virginal. In one she stripped to ten yards of lavender net and three bunches of violets sewn on a flesh-coloured leotard. The costume she wore in her second-act number in Toledo was a full-length gown made of red velvet … She would hide behind a hat for the encore, in a teddy or a bodysuit or a one-piece bathing suit with lacing up the side.’ She did grow braver, and more nude, with time, but there was always something – pasties or a feather – in the way. However much she revealed, she kept the important bits hidden: ‘Gypsy not only championed the idea that sex sells, she presented its far-flung possibilities and a casual, indifferent, mischievous striptease. Although we claim – more than ever of late – to crave the star who bares it all, we long for the mystery that Gypsy provided.’ Anyone who saw the famous ‘cellulite’ episode of the Keeping Up with the Kardashians – during which Kim, wearing a small pair of leopard-print underpants, has her butt probed by a big, pulsing piece of machinery while her sisters say things like ‘ooh, meaty’ – would have to agree.

Frankel is less theoretical; concerned, rather, with ‘stripping Gypsy’ of the myths and obfuscations behind which she hid all her life, so that even as she stripped, she remained entirely obscure behind a screen of self-invention. Gypsy, she writes, ‘came to interest me more and I came to like her less.’ Without the performance, she is all ambition and lies; just as without all the marabou fans, she is just a naked lady with a better than average pair of legs.

Frankel’s thoroughness is admirable, considering how difficult Gypsy herself made it to find out the facts of her life. Frankel tells of the dolphin-shaped handles on the basin in Gypsy’s bathroom, the ‘fitful’ sleep she’d have during her period, the layette she once bought for her doorman’s granddaughter. But Stripping Gypsy is mostly a profile of a woman who spent her entire life in some sort of tension, who ‘tried to elevate burlesque even as she planned to leave it’, who suffered from crippling intellectual insecurity even as she said: ‘Mother says I’m not the most beautiful naked ass, well I’m not. I’m the smartest.’ Frankel also describes Gypsy as petty and greedy, billing a CBS camera crew for a floor she’d cracked herself, for example, and regularly stiffing the couturier Charles James, even as she was politically generous and admirable, donating her time and efforts to an endless parade of left-wing causes.

Gypsy’s most famous act was called ‘A Stripteaser’s Education’. In it, she would undress while saying ‘I’m thinking about how much I should give to charity,’ or ‘My favourite subject is art.’ The act ends like this:

I have a Chinchilla, a Newport Villa,
And then I take the last thing off,
And stand there shyly with nothing on at all.
Clutching an old velvet drop, and looking demurely at every man.
Do you believe for a moment, that I am thinking of sex?
Well I certainly AM.

For Shteir, the line is pure comedy: Gypsy is winking at her audience, and they are winking back. Frankel takes it more literally:

Gypsy pretended, as all great strippers do, that stripping for men’s pleasure sexually aroused the stripper herself. The male audience amused by her protestations during her routine that she was not thinking about sex, knew the ‘truth’ so the act made them part of a private joke. At the end, Gypsy reassured them of her availability and interest and affirmed the men’s projection of their own lust onto her … By discussing her inner thoughts, Gypsy seemed to strip her own mind before the audience.

Both books make the depressing point that, icon or not, Gypsy remained a stripper mostly out of desperation. ‘I couldn’t have gone around the world twice like I have playing Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler,’ she once said. Her serious ambitions all came to sad ends. She wanted to be a writer, so she moved for a while to 7 Middagh, a writers’ commune in Brooklyn Heights, where she hung out with Auden and Carson McCullers and posed in a special writer’s outfit (baggy trousers, glasses) for Life magazine. But the book she produced – a thriller called The G-String Murders – was pulp and treated as such, even though it sold spectacularly well:

When asked ‘Who would you like to be?’ Gypsy responded: ‘Elsi Dinsmore or Pearl Buck. Any literary female who is not a butt for jokes like “I hope to be invited to one of Gypsy’s literary tease” or “She has another G-String added to her bow.”’

When one of her three marriages hit the rocks, she explained it was because her husband wanted to go to nightclubs and she wanted to stay at home and read Somerset Maugham.

She wanted to be an artist, too, but when Peggy Guggenheim exhibited Gypsy’s work at her gallery, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko were offended by the company and sought other representation. But of course stripping also sold books: ‘The constant references to stripping in relationship to her writing or artwork frustrated her, but she refused to recognise her own complicity in this way of building her reputation.’ Multiple attempts to move to Hollywood resulted in failure, too. Audiences were not very interested in Gypsy when she was fully dressed. (When Gypsy first went to Hollywood, the LA Daily News headline read: ‘Welcome Wasted – Gypsy Dressed’. )

Towards the end of her life, things became easier. The success of the musical allowed her to tell an interviewer: ‘You may refer to me as an authoress who sometimes strips.’ And anyway, she was now too old to take off her clothes. She became a chat-show host (which failed because she hogged the conversation) and a regular on Hollywood Squares: a mainstream success of sorts. There was nothing scandalous about her striptease in a country whose desire to reveal had taken the shape of a chain of restaurants called Hooters. It was a happy period for Gypsy and it lasted until 1970, when she died of cancer at 59. Or some age close to that.

Neither book resolves the age-old stripper problem, the endless campus debate as to whether stripping is ultimately a degrading or an empowering act. Shteir suggests that by withholding a nipple here and there, Gypsy retained a certain amount of control, but that control had more to do with her mother, now reduced to running a lesbian boarding house where she overcharged for plates of spaghetti and watered-down booze, than with the men who, directly or indirectly, paid for her life.

Frankel, who sees Gypsy through to the end of her life, tells of a time when she was clear in her understanding that most women who take off their shirts for tips aren’t nearly as lucky as she was. ‘Gypsy understood the distinction,’ Frankel writes. Even if she wasn’t always entirely sure on which side she stood. Still, she had quite a nice life, she knew the famous people she wanted to know, she travelled where she wanted to go, she shed few tears over the marriages that didn’t work. Both writers’ accounts of her many failed attempts to go straight make the whole operation seem no better than a consolation prize.