In 1940, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee had been voted the most popular woman in America. According to Karen Abbott’ s new biography of the infamous burlesque star, American Rose , Lee boasted that “her own billboard is ‘larger than Stalin’s.” Lee’s outsize posturing (on stage and off) hid the vicious reality of her upbringing, the sanitized outlines of which are well known, thanks to the hit musical Gypsy . Though Lee was notoriously squirrelly when it came to her past, the parts about Gypsy’s bleak pre-fame days are the strongest in the book. Gypsy-originally Louise Hovick-and her sister June were born to a mentally ill stage mother from hell named Rose. Originally, June was pushed forward as a Vaudeville star, and chunky Louise was left behind in the background. That all changed when June started to rebel against Rose, and Louise started taking her clothes off-becoming Gypsy in the process.
The dynamic among the three women-the daughters who loved Rose fiercely though they also despised her; Rose playing June and Louise off each other; June and Louise’s fraught, often cruel relationship that would last long after Rose’s death-is mesmerizing. When Abbott tries to tell the aged June that she was a good sister to Louise, June said, “I was no sister. … I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.” Less strong are the sections about other burlesque and vaudeville personalities that Gypsy interacted with, like the Minksy brothers who owned the theaters she stripped in. Another downside: The book jumps around chronologically, and the narrative becomes difficult to follow. First it’s 1940, then it’s 1912, and the transitions are jagged and confusing. Still, if you enjoyed Abbott’s first book about old-timey vices, Sin and the Second City , which was about turn-of-the-century brothel owners in Chicago, you will probably also like this sexy, engaging read. (Side note: You’ll probably also enjoy this spoof of a famous Gypsy strip routine that Abbott ginned up as part of her publicity for this book. Not safe for work, unless you work with Cher and Xtina ).