Gypsy: A Memoir, A Musical, A Myth

Gypsy Rose Lee is widely, and rightly, celebrated as one of the mothers of modern burlesque. I suppose you could stay that she tamed it, in a way - her blend of sexuality and humor made the art of the strip tease something that men and women alike could enjoy, moving it from the furthest edge of obscenity (to much of the public, anyway) to something risque, but safe.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I have some Old Hollywood biographies on my reading list. I've read Myrna Loy's autobiography (which was interesting, although there's no way that she was that freaking saintly), and a bio of Jean Harlow (same), so I didn't expect Gypsy: A Memoir to do much for me. To my surprise, it was incredibly engaging. Gypsy has a wry and witty voice that is a pleasure to read, and her life is a truly fascinating and unusual one.

To hear her tell it, her childhood was chaotic but lovely. Her mother, Mama Rose, took Gypsy (then known simply as Louise) and her younger sister, June, on the road in search of Vaudeville stardom. Surprisingly enough for a story like this, they found it - June was a genuine star, headlining the Orpheum Circuit and making up to $1,500 a week (which is something like $18,000 in today's money, which is pretty staggering).

But vaudeville was dying, although Mama Rose didn't want to admit it. Eschewing education, doctors, and dentists, she kept the girls on the road and endured the diminishing returns. Chaffing under her mother's thumb, June finally eloped with a boy from their act, and Rose turned her attention to her eldest, determined to find stardom for her as well.

Luck, chance, and pure stubbornness came together when the new act was booked into a burlesque theater by mistake. When the headliner was arrested, Louise saw her chance, taking over her skits and her strips to the rapturous adoration of the audiences. Over the years her act grew, and Louise became the Gypsy that we know and love today.

Gypsy's memoir was published in 1957, and a couple of years later it became the popular musical of the same name. A few years after that, it was turned into a movie starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose and Natalie Wood as Gypsy, which I decided to watch after finishing the book.

What was fascinating about the movie was how they took what was just subtext in the book - Rose's domineering personality - and made it the focus. Suddenly, Gypsy isn't the star of the movie, Rose is. Rosalind Russell plays her so well that she's as fascinating as she is repellant. She's a fast talker, quick with a lie, an insult, or a compliment; devious yet charming; motherly, yet totally blind (or indifferent) to her children's needs.

It's that last bit that, I think, make her such a memorable character. The most affecting scenes are the ones where her daughters are offered the things that they really want, only to be denied them by her short-sightedness. June gets a big time audition and impresses an important producer, who wants to give her the training that she needs to transform from a child star to a real actress. But Mama Rose doesn't want to give up control of June and refuses, taking the girls back on the road.

Louise, more than anything, wants a normal life and home, and before she starts stripping, it's tantalizingly close. The act is failing, they're out of money, and their manager, Herbert, is in love with Rose and ready to settle down. When Rose overhears the stage manager at the burlesque house talking about how they're down a dancer, she doesn't think twice about pushing Louise out on stage. While we know that Louise grows to love burlesque, becomes the "Queen of Burlesque," it's a hard scene to watch. She seems so subdued, even broken, watching her youthful dreams disappear.

The end of the movie is ambivalent about the relationship between Rose and Gypsy. They finally have a fight, Gypsy declaring her independence and asking Rose to let her go, and asking her what all of it for if not this kind of success. And Rose, in one of the most memorable numbers of the movie, finally admits that she did it for herself, not her children. The two women reconcile, and the movie ends with them stepping offstage, hand in hand.

Gypsy and her sister, June (who became the well known actress June Havoc), both waited until after Rose had died to publish their memoirs because they were worried about Rose suing them.

That came as kind of a surprise to me - I haven't read either of June's autobiographies yet, although I may in the future, but in Gypsy, at least, Mama Rose is controlling and neglectful of the girls' needs, but not outright abusive. Both of her children went on to be talented and successful women, and in the memoir Gypsy makes it sound like she loved her life on the road. From interviews that June did at the end of her life, though, it's clear that life was much harder than Gypsy made it seem.

Rose had the classic abusers' MO, switching off between affection and cruelty at the drop of a hat. In both the movie and the memoir, when June runs off with a boy from the act, Rose accepts the situation and immediately shifts her ambitions to Louise. In real life, she had the boy arrested and tried to kill him, failing only because the gun wouldn't fire. After they were grown and had found success, Rose would blackmail and harass the sisters, regularly demanding money or favors. Apparently she even murdered a woman, which was hushed up because of Gypsy's fame.

Gypsy mythologized her own story as well, adapting it to suit the... well, innocent image she cultivated. "Gypsy Rose Lee," the character, didn't spring forth full formed the moment that Louise stepped out onto the burlesque stage. The first year was rough and often degrading; a young stripper in that era (or in any era, frankly) just didn't have the leverage to "make them beg for more... and then don't give it to them!" And of course some of the relationships she plays down in her memoir weren't quite as innocent as she made them seem - Waxey Gordon, a noted gangster, certainly didn't dole out favors to her just to get a smile in return.

None of this detracts from Gypsy's accomplishments. I love burlesque - I've even done a little bit myself! - and the art form as we know it today might not even exist if not for her paving the way. In the end, she wrote the life that she wanted to live, and I have nothing but respect for that.