If you’re a fan of the 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy, you’re aware of the complex relationship between striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee and her steamroller of a stage mother. But the revelation of Karen Abbott’s addictive new biography, American Rose — A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, is that the musical — and the 1962 film adaptation starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood — whitewashed the family’s dysfunction, omitting the most violent and perverse details.
After a turbulent career, Gypsy Rose Lee (1911–1970) died of lung cancer at age 59. By then she had chronicled her life in a 1957 memoir, which formed the basis of the relatively dark and sophisticated Broadway show. Abbott, author of the best-selling Sin in the Second City (2007), describes Gypsy’s autobiography as containing “nuggets of truth … tempered throughout by invention and fantasy.” Abbott says she fact-checked Gypsy’s claims. She also gained access to two people who knew the entertainer intimately: her sister, actress June Havoc (1912–2010), and her son (by movie director Otto Preminger), Erik Lee Preminger. Neither seems to have liked Gypsy all that much, but it's Mama Rose who (still) emerges as the villain.
Havoc's relationship with her older sister, known variously as Ellen June, Rose Louise and Louise, was fraught from childhood with difficulties. While Havoc starred as "Baby June," the dancing and singing sensation of the family's long-running vaudeville act, Louise was relegated to sewing costumes backstage and playing the occasional bit part. Less often allies than competitors for their mother's tyrannical affections, June and Louise remained wary of each other as adults.
As for Mama Rose, Abbott characterizes her as "by turns tender and pathetic and terrifying," but we see precious little of the tenderness. Rose Thompson Hovick is depicted as both crazy and criminal, guilty of child abuse (physical as well as psychological), stealing from her daughters and — according to Abbott — as many as three homicides. Mama Rose threw a hotel manager out a window, then successfully claimed self-defense. She allegedly shot a hobo she considered menacing. And she may have been involved in the shooting death (eventually ruled a suicide) of a 29-year-old woman who had been living with her.
Is it any wonder that Rose's progeny were emotionally unstable? Though each daughter tried to break free, neither could entirely escape their mad mother's incessant demands for money and attention. June left as a teenager, stealing away to marry a dancer from the act and embark on a punishing round of Depression-era dance marathons. After years of penury, she found success on Broadway, where she played the blackmailing chorus girl Gladys Bumps in the original 1940 production of Pal Joey. Moving on to Hollywood, June landed featured roles in such popular films as My Sister Eileen (1942) and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947).
After June left, Louise kept the family act going even as radio and the raunchier sensibility of burlesque pushed vaudeville offstage. By the early 1930s, with no other options, she was stripping, evolving into her persona of Gypsy Rose Lee. (Abbott was unable to pin down precisely when Gypsy adopted that famous stage name.) Erik Preminger alludes to a sordid first year of burlesque involving "rough girls, gangsters, prostitution."
But Gypsy would eventually become the queen of burlesque, inventing an act that was sly, funny and seductive. Her career was boosted by the burlesque impresario Billy Minsky and such underworld figures as Waxey Gordon, one of her lovers. Yet at the height of her fame she also socialized with W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers and Salvador Dalí.
Abbott portrays Gypsy, like her mother, as a manipulator of men, willing to trade sex (and even marry) to get what she wanted. She had three failed marriages, but according to Abbott, her greatest love was the somewhat unscrupulous showman Mike Todd, a married man whom Gypsy took up with around 1940. "I like my men on the monster side," Gypsy once told a friend — a tidy explanation for an indulgent romantic career.
Abbott suggests that Gypsy was fundamentally unknowable — the central paradox of her life (and a daunting obstacle to any biographer, even one as diligent as Abbott). She became a celebrity by wittily doffing her clothes — fastened only by straight pins — but she held tight to her emotional privacy. That reticence doesn't stop Abbott from guessing at Gypsy's thoughts, blurring the line between biography and fiction. In another literary affectation, American Rose toggles repeatedly between Gypsy's childhood and her emergence as a burlesque star. This initially intriguing narrative strategy grows cumbersome, disrupting the book's momentum and sometimes confusing the reader.
Through it all, Abbott maintains that Gypsy never really escaped the evidently sociopathic Rose. "Theirs is a primal connection that Gypsy is incapable of severing," she insists, resorting to a novelistic present tense. The two women are "keepers of each other's secrets, hoarders of a devastating currency they couldn't afford to trade."
Beyond pathography, this is biography as a slow-motion car crash. Still, it's all but impossible to look away — even if the wreckage often seems to consist of smoke and mirrors.
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, is a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.