An interview with Karen Abbott, whose American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare—The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee--is out from Random House.
Why do you think we need another biography of Gypsy Rose Lee?
I don't consider American Rose to be a biography so much as a microcosm of 20th-century America, told through Gypsy's tumultuous life—it’s "Horatio Alger meets Tim Burton." Here's an awkward kid who is born into nothing, receives very little formal education; spends her entire childhood on the road; is marginally cared for by an erratic, volatile mother; and grows up to become a novelist, a playwright, an actress, an activist, a member of New York's literati, and the most famous entertainer of her time. It's the American dream: the struggle, the setbacks, the ferocious drive and relentless self-invention, the ultimate triumph. Gypsy was a true original, and I hope a new generation can appreciate how unique and genuine she was, especially in this age of manufactured celebrity.Who else but Gypsy Rose Lee would receive a telegram from Eleanor Roosevelt--Eleanor Roosevelt!--that said "May your bare ass always be shining"?
The current movie, Burlesque, starring Cher and Christine Aguilera, has been applauded and derided; What would Gypsy Rose Lee think of the film—and what would she think of Cher?!
I think her reaction to the film would reflect that of many modern-day burlesque performers--that the acts in the movie bear little resemblance to those being performed today. Since its inception in the 1900s, burlesque has been a working-class art form, employing base humor to lampoon so-called high culture, and stripping became a vital component of the experience. If burlesque strives to be high culture it ceases to connect with its core audience, and it ceases to be burlesque. Gypsy believed that the character of stripping depended on the performer's attitude. "It's all mental," she once said. "If you think it's vulgar, the audience will think it's vulgar, too. But if you approach your work with a clean, aesthetic viewpoint, the audience senses your attitude." As for Cher, I think Gypsy would've been incredibly jealous of her singing talent--but would never have admitted it.
Did Gypsys have any sense of what was going on in the country, e.g., the Great Depression? How savvy was she outside the burlesque houses?
Gypsy was 18 when the stock market crashed,and I don't think she had any concept of what that meant, or what the repercussions would be. She just knew that vaudeville--the only life she'd ever known--had become extinct, and she was subsisting on sardines and dog food. During her first year in burlesque--a year she never spoke about, when she had likely resorted to prostitution--she experienced the hardships of the Great Depression firsthand. Gypsy soon learned that every stripper needed a gimmick and decided to incorporate her exceptional intelligence into her act, to become the "intellectual stripper." To that end. she read the latest books, magazines, and newspapers voraciously.She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain's Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.
How and why did Gypsy, and burlesque, thrive during the worst economic time in America?
Vaudeville was characterized by sunny optimism, acts that were uplifting,cheerful, and clean. It provided a fanciful, magical escape, but after Black Friday the tone of American entertainment changed almost overnight. Vaudeville's buoyant spirit no longer spoke to the country's mood, but burlesque did, loud and clear. it was a different kind of escape; the performers and the audience were kindred spirits; they were all equally naked. Unemployed men would begin lining up in the afternoons to get into the evening shows. Few could afford to pay high ticket prices for Broadway productions, so the big producers lost business--and girls--to burlesque. Gypsy thrived because she was the first one to blend sex and comedy, to put on as much as she took off. She was a teaser more than a stripper, and audiences responded to that; they wanted her precisely because she was unobtainable.
Gypsy's mother, Rose Hovick, is considered to be the original pushy "stage mother." How did Gypsy cope with Rose, and vice versa?
The letters I discovered in my research reflected a constant whiplash back-and-forth of emotion between the women. Rose would blackmail Gypsy about her early days in burlesque and threaten to reveal her "true nature" to the press, and in the very next letter beg for forgiveness and tell Gypsy how much she loved her. Gypsy knew about all of Rose's secrets, as well—including where the literal bodies were buried. It was a co-dependent relationship that neither one could relinquish.
How did Louise Hovick view the woman she "created," Gypsy Rose Lee, and what did Gypsy think of the "real" Louise?
Gypsy the person had a conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation. She was forever caught between her humble roots and her ambition to be accepted by New York's cultural and literary elite. For all of Gypsy's mental fortitude and steely nerve, she was physically weak and oddly susceptible to illness. Taking just one aspirin could upset her stomach, and she suffered from severe ulcers that made her vomit blood. She adored her creation because it gave her the things she'd always wanted--fame, money, security--but she loathed its limitations, either real or perceived. She lived in an exquisite trap she herself had set.