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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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For those interested in “naughty” books, what could be better than a book about a striptease artist? Now that we have gone past the “prurient interest” stuff, let’s look at what else this book is about.

There are gangsters. Rothstein, Capone, Lucky Luciano, all seem to have had some connection to Gypsy Rose Lee. Or maybe they were just in the audience.

There is the history of the Minsky brothers. They are not gangsters, but they are thorns in the side of government as they explore the limits of what they can explore and get past the government censors. Folks who love to irritate the government will like these parts.

There are segments of fascinating history like that of the World’s Fair during WWII. The exhibits of many nations, like the nations themselves, were downsized. The invention of nylon stockings, displayed at the Fair would have later importance at the end of the war.

For psychology students, the Havoc family was a definition of dysfunctional, from “Big Lady”, through momma Rose, the relationship between Louise and June, the complete irrelevance of all men through several generations, and possible cannibalism on the part of earlier female ancestors.

The pandemic of influenza circa 1918 is described. Just when we thought we were the most afflicted generation with AIDS, Ebola, and Zika, it is informative to know what our grandparents (literally) faced, without the filter of the internet and CNN.

Here we have the life and death of Gypsy Rose Lee. Also the life and death of Vaudeville, Burlesque, and the celebrities who inhabited the entertainment world. Tricks are revealed. How did the man turn molten lava into coins? Some reputations may be tarnished. Did Joan Blondell really say that about her husband just after his death? She probably did, as this is a well- researched book with an extensive bibliography.

This can be a disturbing read in some parts, but for me it was mostly fun. ( )
  ajarn7086 | Feb 27, 2016 |
This book was very informative, but not to be recommended for all age groups ( )
  sammymowheeler | Jan 19, 2016 |
This book was very informative, but not to be recommended for all age groups ( )
  sammymowheeler | Jan 19, 2016 |
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 |
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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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Karen Abbott is a LibraryThing Author, an author who lists their personal library on LibraryThing.

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