A biography of a 1930-40s burlesque artist who amounted to far more than the sum of her parts.
The notion that Gypsy Rose Lee (1911–1970) was a might-have-been seems misguided, but Frankel (Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Mississippi, 1999, etc.) convincingly argues that Lee’s talents could have taken her beyond stardom as a stripper for Minsky’s Burlesque. To be sure, Frankel shows that Lee created a witty act that was “more tease than strip.” But Lee encountered barriers when she tried to step beyond Minsky’s. In the ’30s, she filmed several middling comedies, for which Fox producer Darryl Zanuck, fearful of censors, billed her by her real name, Louise Hovick, lest anyone recognize the lady of burlesque. (Zanuck was particularly “worried about any appearance of nonmarital sexual activity.”) Lee also authored two mysteries, a bestselling biography and a play for Broadway (where she also acted), exhibited her paintings at Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery, followed the opera and read voraciously. However, puritanical Americans never let go of the girl from Minsky’s; a condescending book reviewer labeled Lee “The Jane Austen of the striptease set.” Frankel has less success arguing that Lee revealed more of her body than she did of her psyche. Beneath details of Lee’s tortured relationship with her mother, her failed marriages and her forceful work on behalf of unions, readers will see only a fiercely determined, confidant Lee, not someone hiding her inner life. The author mined published accounts and Lee’s private papers and correspondence, but the bibliography lists not a single personal interview. Words from Lee’s sister (June Havoc), her son (Erik Preminger, who is forthcoming in a recent biography of father Otto) and from surviving co-workers may have brought readers closer to the great entertainer.
Gypsy gets the extra bow she deserved.