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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life…

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (2010)

by Karen Abbott

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Rose Louise Hovick grew up performing on the vaudeville stage, overshadowed by her prettier, more talented younger sister June. Her mother Rose was a ruthless manager of the act, the queen of all stage mothers, close to her daughters and controlling of them. When her sister ran away with one of their back-up dancers, Rose Louise became the new star of the show – but it wasn’t until she rechristened herself as Gypsy Rose Lee and started stripping that she shot to fame. As America’s most beloved burlesque performer, Gypsy was a household name, but throughout her life she was tortured by her twisted relationship with her mother and the terror that she might one day return to the wretched poverty of her childhood.

Many years ago, I read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs about her life on the stage, and I loved it. She had a very down-to-earth voice and kept funny stories coming, one right after the next. I’m also a fan of the Sondheim musical Gypsy, which is based on that book. But as time passed, I heard from multiple people that Gypsy’s version of events was very revisionist, and I became curious about what the “real” story was. This is what led me to pick up Karen Abbott’s biography – what would an outsider see in the stories of Gypsy Rose Lee?

Unlike most biographies, which tend to be written in chronological order, Abbott’s book jumps around wildly in time. One chapter might be set in during Gypsy’s childhood in the 1920s and the next in the 1940s when she was at the height of her fame, and then the story might jump back to her adolescence or forward another decade or two. This helter-skelter approach made it difficult to follow the trajectory of Gypsy’s life, and made her story seem twice as chaotic. I couldn’t decide whether this was good or bad; from a literary standpoint, the time jumps supported the frenetic pace of Gypsy’s activities but as a biographical sketch it helped obscure the artist that the book should be bringing into the light.

Abbott claimed that she was the last person to interview June Havoc, Gypsy’s sister, before her death in 2010. She also uncovered several new material sources for the biography. Yet many passages seemed to be little more than paraphrases from Gypsy’s memoirs, especially when colorful stories were needed to spice up the narrative. Ultimately, Gypsy’s true character remains elusive. Where the biography really succeeds is providing the context of Gypsy, introducing the characters in her world. Abbott sketches out the personal history of many of the theater people important to Gypsy’s career, including the Minsky brothers who brought her to the country’s attention, and the men that she had her most significant relationships with.

Most importantly, Abbott delves deep into Gypsy’s family, sharing dark stories of childhood neglect or abuse that Gypsy herself glossed over or ignored. The mother-daughter relationship between Gypsy and Rose is a fascinating, terrible thing – Gypsy loves her mother and seeks her approval even as she hates Rose’s attempts to control and manipulate her. As the years pass, Rose becomes crazier and harder for Gypsy to manage – at one point she runs a lesbian boardinghouse and supposedly shot one of her boarders in a jealous rage, although at the time it was deemed a suicide – but the famous striptease star remains devoted, all the same.

Would I recommend reading this over Gypsy’s own memoirs? I guess it depends what you’re looking for. If you want a good story, entertaining and fun, go with Gypsy’s account. If what you’re after is a more historical account of life in burlesque, a version that focuses less on Gypsy and more on this particular period in American popular culture, go with the Abbott biography. ( )
  makaiju | Jul 27, 2014 |
I already knew the basics about Gypsy Rose Lee before I started American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott. I admire the author for tacking such a difficult subject, as Gypsy Rose Lee spend a lifetime inventing and re-inventing herself. It must have been very hard to separate the real woman from the myth. I did enjoy the book, I learned a little more about Gypsy Rose Lee and a lot about both the vaudeville circuit and burlesque in it’s heyday.

Born as Ellen June Hovick in Seattle, this youngster wasn’t even able to keep her name as her mother decided to bestow this favored choice on the next daughter. Ellen June then became Louise Rose Hovick and spent her growing up years in her sister’s shadow and trying to win her mother’s love. Anyone who has seen the movie Gypsy based on these years will know that the mother, Rose Hovick, was the ultimate stage-mother. The movie actually softened Rose and in real life she was a terror.

That Louise Hovick was able to become the superstar Gypsy Rose Lee had a lot to do with learning from her mother how to grab opportunity and ride it. I am old enough to remember seeing a slightly older Gypsy doing TV commercials in the 1950’s. I also remember her appearing on the TV show What’s My Line. That this complicated, secretive woman was able to pull herself from the seedy world of strip tease and become, at various times in her life, a novelist, an actress, and a television personality makes for a very interesting read. My one quibble with the book is that the timeline of her life jumped around so much that at times it was hard to keep track of exactly when things happened. Overall a fascinating look at a true American celebrity. ( )
  DeltaQueen50 | Oct 18, 2013 |
I really like Karen Abbott's writing style - I previously read [b:Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul|219780|Sin in the Second City Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul|Karen Abbott|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1320448547s/219780.jpg|1410651] and it was similarly fantastic. This was a great overview of vaudeville, burlesque, and the transitions in early 20th-century America. ( )
  liz.mabry | Sep 11, 2013 |
I liked the story and it was well written by Karen Abbott, but the bouncing back and forth between eras was often annoying. Abbott starts in NY in 1940 then goes back to tell of Lee's birth, etc. and continues to bounce back and forth between the chapters for the rest of the book. Otherwise I found the story very well researched and quite fascinating. It covers the physcology factors of a bat shit crazy stage mom who resorted to anything (including murder) to advance her daughters careers. It's actually surprising Lee didn't wind up in an institution given her childhood but in many ways she became her mother. ( )
  zimbawilson | Jul 17, 2013 |
A good overview of the life and times of Gypsy Rose Lee, the culture that "created" her and the personal trials and demons that drove her to succeed. This is not a gossipy "tell-all" biography full of lurid information on celebrity affairs, there are a few brief mentions of such behavior as it relates to other aspects of Gypsy's life but it never devolves into tabloid-like sensationalism.

Ms. Abbott has an interesting way of structuring her books - she did something similar in her book Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul - she begins somewhere in the middle of the timeline of the story she wants to tell (in this case about halfway through Gypsy Rose Lee's life when she was at her Burlesque peak but not yet the iconic figure she would become in her lifetime) then time jumps back to the beginning in the next chapter (Gypsy's birth and hard early years) while in the third chapter the author builds up the backstory of the culture that created the opportunity for the subject to flourish (focusing in this case on the early years of the Minsky brothers and the new style of burlesque they helped cultivate). This cycle that goes back and forth and back every third chapter takes a little getting used to at first but it works pretty well for the most part. The structure of the narrative falls apart a little in later chapters. When the separate timelines start to converge - as when Gypsy joins Minsky's roster of performers and the two narrative lines begin to overlap. It gets a little confusing. Some of the Minsky chapters are very dry reading and slow the momentum of the book.

The best and most fascinating part of the book, by far, is the extensive telling of the early life and career of Mother Rose Hovick's two daughters - Baby June and Rose Louise (who would become Gypsy Rose Lee) - as they traveled across the country (like gypsies) performing anywhere and everywhere in their efforts to fulfill the dreams and ambitions of Mother Rose. The author does a great job of describing the atmosphere of the vaudeville circuit and the performers who worked it during those years.

The actual transformation of little Rose Louise into Gypsy Rose Lee is glossed over somewhat - apparently, like many other performers of the era, Gypsy was a master of creating her own myth, so much so that much of what is and isn't true is hard to establish and there are conflicting stories of some events and no information at all of others. The book doesn't provide much in depth information on Gypsy Rose Lee's more famous years other than her lifelong conflicted relationships with her mother and sister. If a reader doesn't already have at least a vague knowledge of who Gypsy Rose Lee was they might be left wondering why she became so famous and celebrated in her lifetime.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wanted to know more about the vaudeville circuits, the child entertainers who performed on those stages, and the culture of burlesque that developed in the early 20th century.

The book is relatively free of any offensive language or explicit descriptions. ( )
  Mike-L | Apr 30, 2013 |
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But this book is confusing in much more important ways. It keeps on feinting and switching eras, quite jarringly. It often switches focus, dealing better with the “times” of Gypsy Rose Lee (as mentioned in its subtitle) than with the actual life. It relies on Gypsy’s own 1957 memoir, right down to paraphrasing the way she describes stripping off costumes that were fastened with straight pins, which made a plinking sound each time a pin landed in a nearby tuba. How Gypsy managed these pins without drawing blood is one of too many things left to the imagination.
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Genius is not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances. -Jean-Paul Sartre

May your bare ass always me shining. -Eleanor Roosevelt to Gypsy Rose Lee, 1959
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In late spring, across a stretch of former wasteland in Flushing Meadows, Queens, a quarter-million people pay 50 cents each to forget and to dream.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The author of the acclaimed "New York Times" bestseller "Sin in the Second City" returns with the gripping and expansive story of America's coming-of-age--told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered.

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