Abbott (Sins in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, 2008) presents a rollicking account of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911–1970), the legendary striptease artist who titillated legions and battled her monstrous stage mother Rose, a gorgon of a woman who would make Medea blanche.
Lee endured a childhood of ghastly deprivation, criss-crossing the country in various Vaudeville acts featuring her younger, cuter and more talented sister June. Stocky and boyish, Louise, as she was known, developed a keen mind and sly sense of humor, armor against the psychological abuse doled out by Mama Rose, who, convinced of her younger daughter’s star potential, favored June unconscionably, treating Louise as an afterthought at best. After June suffered a breakdown and left the act, Rose focused her attention on the elder girl, who, through sheer force of will, transformed herself into a national sex symbol and revolutionized the art of burlesque. Mama Rose is the tale’s most compelling character, a con artist, thief and probable murderer who emotionally dominated and manipulated her daughters with apparent relish, a Dickensian harridan who in her declining years watched pornographic movies to unwind, chuckling at the “funny” bits. Abbott writes in a propulsive, witty style, jumping back and forth in chronology and limning a vivid portrait of Lee’s milieu, lovingly rendering the Tammany Hall politicians, gangsters, Algonquin Round Table habitués and theatrical promoters that constituted Lee’s world. Running concurrently with Lee’s story is that of the Minsky brothers, whose burlesque house became a New York institution and served as the setting for the introduction of Gypsy Rose Lee, the teasing, intellectual beauty with the razor-sharp instinct for what to reveal and what to hide. Lee’s success—she would publish novels, act in films and write an autobiography that would serve as inspiration for one of Broadway’s most enduring triumphs—was sweet, but Mama Rose, long after her death, would haunt her daring daughter to the grave.
A fast-paced, funny, flavorful reckoning with a unique American icon.