Gypsy Rose Lee will forever be associated with Gypsy, the musical adapted from her own memoir by Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim. But there was so much more to Rose Louise Hovick than her (undeniable) talents as a stripper. Though she mockingly described herself as a “woman of no talents,” she was a memoirist, novelist, stage and film actress, comedienne, art collector and even, for a spell, the host of her own TV variety show. Erika Blair pulls together all of the (G) strings of Gypsy Rose Lee’s life for PKM readers.
The muffled sound of a sequined dress hitting a wooden stage floor. A muted, silvery thud suspended in the air—a specter convening with a crowd’s cigarette smoke and clinking glasses—this vaudevillian séance is led by the sharp-tongued burlesque Queen, Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy Rose Lee became a notorious performer and cultural icon after her memoir, Gypsy, was published in 1957 and adapted into a 1959 Styne-Sondheim-Laurents musical by the same name.
Scenes from the Tony Award-winning revival of Gypsy (2008), starring Patti Lupone:
Author, actress, art collector, stripper, and famed television personality, Gypsy Rose Lee embedded a quick wit and a sly sense of humor into her striptease acts. The interplay of droll comedy and slow-burning seduction set her apart from other burlesque circuit stars at the time. The self-described “woman of no talents” had an unparalleled vigor and grace. Ask any person of a certain age and they will recall Gypsy’s larger than life presence in popular media. To quote the lyrics of Rodgers and Hart’s Rose Lee-inspired song, “Zip! It took intellect to master my art.”
Rose Louise Hovick was born on January 8th, 1911 in Seattle, Washington. Her mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, “Mama Rose,” was notably controlling and abusive, the archetypal stage mom. Mama Rose quickly divorced Rose Louise’s father, a Seattle Times ad man and reporter John Hovick, after the birth of her second daughter—Ellen Evangeline Hovick. Ellen (later known as the actress June Havoc) was plunged into show business by her mother. Propelled by a thirst for spotlight and fame for her two daughters, Mama Rose created a vaudeville act starring an en pointe dancing baby Ellen—now under the moniker Baby June—and a four-year-old Rose Lee singing.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s self-titled memoir mentions this, “June’s talent carried the act. June’s talent and Mother’s courage. Mother wasn’t surprised to find show business competitive….she had expected that and was prepared for it. When we played on the same bill with another kiddie act, things always seemed to go wrong for them…pieces of their wardrobe would be missing. A blonde wig would disappear.”
Rose Louise eventually relocated the family to Hollywood, further promoting the peroxide blonde Baby June’s act, and criticizing Rose Louise’s “lack of talent.” I do not think it’s a stretch to say this bizarre sibling dynamic served as inspiration for the 1962 horror classic, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
A rebellious teenaged June eventually separated from the act by running off with the vaudeville star, Bobby Reed. Much to the chagrin of her domineering mother, Rose Louise decided to try her hand at burlesque. Various accounts claim a rogue dress strap breaking mid-act birthed the star-persona Gypsy Rose Lee. The author of a recent Gypsy autobiography, American Rose, Karen Abbott, claims that Gypsy’s infancy was a calculated move on behalf of Rose Louise.
“A burlesque headliner fell ill—or got herself arrested, depending on the account—and Louise told the manager that she could fill in his missing lead, strip scenes and all…She started speaking to herself in the mirror. She told herself she was pretty, and was going to be a star.”
In 1931, the long-legged brunette moved to New York and joined the Minsky Brothers’ burlesque show. Her quick intellect and slow-paced stripping style quickly garnered a massive fanbase. She’d tell sophisticated jokes while spending upwards of 15 minutes to remove one single glove. When crowds would lustily beg for Gypsy to remove more clothing she famously would tease, “Oh, boys, I couldn’t…I’d catch a cold.”
Gypsy Rose Lee strip routine, from the film Stage Door Canteen (1943):
The 5’8” starlet meticulously designed and created all of her costumes and programming. She allegedly had such long legs that she had to have custom stockings made for her. Ms. Rose Lee also performed in the Ziegfeld Follies and at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
After an attempt at an acting career in the late 1930’s, she produced and starred in Mike Todd’s Star and Garter on Broadway. She often spent downtime at the Brooklyn Heights artist colony, the February House, alongside writers and artists like Carson McCullers, W.H. Auden, George Davis, and Oliver Smith. McCullers and Rose Lee even lived together at the February House for a brief stint in 1940. Gypsy Rose Lee, “charmed her with her magnetic charisma.”
Gypsy Rose Lee authored several best-selling books and articles. She contributed to her writings to the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s and even the New Yorker. Her 1941 debut novel,The G-String Murders, became a bestseller. It chronicles a gumshoe detective (narrated by Gypsy, herself) solving a series of murders in which a burlesque troupe is found strangled by their own G-string thongs. Her third novel published in 1957, Gypsy, recounts the horrors of Mama Rose’s suffocating urge for showbiz fame, and her personal rise to stardom.
The 1959 musical version featured music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Arthur Laurents. Critics often consider it the greatest musical of all-time.
Her career carried on throughout the 1950s and 1960s through television game show and talk show appearances, and Rose Lee hosted her own show, The Gypsy Rose Lee Show, from 1965 to 1968. A regular on programs such as The Dating Game, Hollywood Squares, and The Name’s the Same, cemented Rose Lee’s stature as a pop culture icon and household name.
Gypsy was an avid collector of art, and her personal collection include the likes of Picasso, Bougereau, de Chirico, de Diego, Ernst, and Vertes. She also mothered a son, Erik Lee Preminger, who later wrote his own account of life backstage, Gypsy & Me: At Home and on the Road with Gypsy Rose Lee (1984), later re-issued as My G-String Mother: At Home and Backstage With Gypsy Rose Lee.
Ethel Merman, the greatest “Mama Rose” from Gypsy of them all, appeared on Gypsy Rose Lee’s TV show in 1967:
Gypsy Rose Lee passed away on April 26, 1970, at the age of 59 from lung cancer. Even while sick she would joke with her sister that her cancer diagnosis was, “her present from Mother Rose.” Gypsy Rose Lee’s upturned dark eyes and knowing smirk will forever influence generations of performers, critics, devotees of near-past glamorous times, and those looking to strip away harsh realities of existence and don a few rhinestones. There’s no business like…
“Gypsy the person had a really conflicted, tortured relationship with Gypsy Rose Lee the creation, she was forever caught between her humble roots and her ambition to be accepted by the cultural [and] literary elite. She loved Gypsy Rose Lee because it brought her all these things she wanted — fame, and money, and security — but she also loathed the limitations of her creation. She sort of lived in an exquisite trap that she herself had set.” American Rose: A Thorny Story by Karen Abbott