Following up her critically acclaimed debut, Sin in the Second City (2007), Karen Abbott delivers American Rose, a firecracker biography about the queen of burlesque Gypsy Rose Lee. By delving directly into the dark and bawdy heart of vaudeville, then burlesque, Abbott fleshes out a dynamic, ambitious woman who single-handedly titillated audiences worldwide.
Did the brothels in Sin in the Second City lead to the burlesque of American Rose?
I may have a fascination with bad women in history! My grandmother told me her cousin saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. He said she took 15 minutes to peel off a single glove and was so damned good at it, he would gladly have given her 15 more. It made me wonder what it was about her that was so captivating.
Why do you think Gypsy made the pivotal switch from vaudeville to burlesque?
Historically, Gypsy has been portrayed as this awkward kid who became an accidental success. I think Gypsy was actually much more driven and calculated, and not in a negative sense. When she was a kid, she doodled money over and over again in her notebook. She wanted to grow up to be rich and to be somebody. I also think she knew vaudeville was dead. She saw her opportunity and she seized it.
I love the picture of Gypsy backstage with a 100-pound typewriter on her lap.
That photo encapsulates all of the contradictions she was. She grew up with no education, an unstable mother, she never went to the dentist, she ate on a dollar a day, and she grew up to be a novelist, a playwright, an essayist for the New Yorker, a member of New York’s literati and the most popular entertainer of her time.
What was with the monkeys in her act?
The monkey antics, her witticisms, wearing a full-length cape made out of orchids to the Met were all part of the delicate balance Gypsy achieved between the high-brow and low-brow of burlesque. It’s an art form that requires skill and immense amounts of practice and talent, yet you still have to appeal to the cheap seats in the back. If Dorothy Parker and Lady Gaga had a secret love child, it would have been Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy’s relationship with her sister, June (also a vaudeville performer before becoming a marathon dancer and actress), and mother, Rose, appears dysfunctional, to put it mildly.
Gypsy’s family is probably one of the things that fascinated me the most. These women were so fiercely dependent on one another yet also so tortured and damaged by each other, and each of them broke free in their own respective way to varying degrees of success or heartache.
Do you think Gypsy was happy?
There was a very clean distinction between Gypsy the person and Gypsy Rose Lee the creation, and I think she had a very conflicted relationship with her creation. She adored the creation because it gave her the things she always wanted—fame, money and security. But she loathed its limitations, real or perceived. She lived in this exquisite trap that she herself had set. I think she struggled with that until the day she died.
How do you think Gypsy would have felt about turning 100 in January?
She’d be really pleased about Gypsy birthday parties happening across the country on Jan. 8. I think it would thrill her that a whole generation of girls is carrying on her sassy mantle and letting people know what real burlesque was about and how the master did it.
American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
Random House / Dec. 28, 2010 / 9781400066919 / $26.00