Gypsy Rose Lee

Queen of American Burlesque

By - Jan 10th, 2011 04:00 am
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Images courtesy Random House Publishing.

“If Dorothy Parker and Lady Gaga had a love child,” says author Karen Abbott, “she would’ve been Gypsy Rose.”  This is only a sliver of insight offered by Abbott regarding the subject of her new book, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. Abbott visit Boswell Books on Downer Avenue this evening to read from her biography of the grande dame of American burlesque .

If you’ve never heard of Gypsy Rose Lee, you’re more than likely familiar with her legacy. Light years ahead of her time, the brazen starlet made a name for herself by taking it off to put on a show. Cutting her life down to a chaotic yet complete collection of emotionally-invested vignettes, Abbott uncovers the story of how a second-rate child star rose to capture widespread public attention.

American Rose is Abbott’s second book. Her first, Sin in the Second City tells the tale of two Chicago sisters who operate a brothel. When asked about her penchant for racy subject matter, Abbott paused.

“I don’t know if it’s racy subjects, more about bad women.”

“Bad” meaning women who were unwilling to fit into prescribed cultural roles. “I think they were revolutionary more than bad,” explained Abbott. “Gypsy was 50 years before Madonna, and she understood how to turn performance into desire. I think she was really a pioneer.”

American Rose chronicles Gypsy’s misadventures as part of the microcosm of post-World War I America — when Prohibition, the New York Mafia, and unsavory tastes challenged conventional morals. Topsy-turvy as the times were, Gypsy Rose Lee captured the hearts of her generation many times over as an author and playwright, a talk show host, and of course, as a burlesque performer.

Abbot says she decided to explore the mythos of Gypsy Rose Lee after hearing an old family story  — according to Abbott’s grandmother, a cousin of hers had seen Gypsy perform, and said it took her 15 minutes to peel off one glove.

“My grandmother told me he was so impressed,” recalls Abbot, “that he would have paid again for just 15 more minutes. That’s how good she was.”

Author Karen Abbott

Gypsy, however, wasn’t always a stunning performer. Using firsthand sources as well as archival information, Abbott paints the portrait of the woman who would come to be known as the “Queen of Burlesque.: Raised Rose Louise Hovick (called Louise for short), she was bounced from city to city to fill the role of extra, seamstress, and caretaker-at-large. Ever near the spotlight of her graceful younger sister June,  clumsy Louise longed to be under it.

Years later, Gypsy took her place onstage. In one appearance, she wore a dress made entirely of orchids, and the crowd went mad. Other times, things were not so easy. When arrested for onstage nudity, Gypsy quipped: “I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.”

Between a childhood in the iron grip of an overbearing mother and a broken heart that never mended, the woman who would become the “Queen of Burlesque” blossomed. Part frightened daughter, part intellectual, part slapstick striptease — and 100% her own woman — an American legend was born.

Author Karen Abbott will appear at Boswell Books, 2559 N. Downer Ave., 7 p.m., to read from her book American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. The event is sponsored by the Brew City Bombshells Burlesque Troop. For more information, click here or call 414.332.1181.

Categories: Books, Life & Leisure

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