Book review: 'American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee' by Karen Abbott

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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

Karen Abbott

Random House: 426 pp., $26

Gypsy Rose Lee became the most famous stripper in America with a stylish routine notable less for the striptease than for her witty repartee while she peeled. Her fans included H.L. Mencken; her wisecracks made Walter Winchell's column, though I doubt Winchell printed the one that Karen Abbott takes as an epigraph for the first chapter in her seething biography: "Mother says I'm the most beautiful naked ass — well, I'm not. I'm the smartest."

Gypsy was so smart that she realized a stage performer's fame was transitory and fixed her image just as she wanted it for posterity in a bestselling, critically acclaimed memoir. She was so smart that she turned down $200,000 for the movie rights to her heavily retouched portrait of her life and instead took $4,000 and a percentage of the gross in "Gypsy," the greatest American musical of its day and perennial favorite showcase of Broadway divas.

She was probably smart enough to know in advance that the character immortalized in "Gypsy" wasn't the title role; it was Mama Rose, the stage mother from hell, whose comment about Gypsy's naked posterior doesn't even make the top 10 list of horrifying things she said and did to her daughter, as recorded in Abbott's scarifying text. Mind you, some of the most lurid moments in "American Rose" are based on the kinds of sources your history teacher told you never to trust.

Did Rose really butcher with a hatchet the kitten her soon-to-be-ex-husband gave their daughters instead of the ballet lessons Rose wanted him to pay for? Push a hotel manager out a window to his death? Kill a woman with a shotgun for making a pass at Gypsy? These assertions, carefully footnoted by Abbott, rely on interviews with people who weren't there: In other words, they're hearsay.

Did Gypsy in 1932 actually give her sister — no longer the $2,500-a-week vaudeville headliner "Dainty June" but just another struggling actress — a card for a party featuring live sex acts, saying, "There are a lot of influential people here … if you behave well, and as expected, it'll do you good"? That claim was at least made by someone who was there, although June Havoc hardly qualifies as disinterested, given her bitterness about the way Gypsy rewrote their shared history.

Abbott (author of "Sin in the Second City") needn't have bothered with these sensationally dubious tidbits; they don't add anything essential to the riveting narrative she's fashioned from more reliable material to tell an all-American story of triumphant self-invention shadowed by an inescapable past. The author makes particularly good use of Gypsy's personal papers, which don't necessarily qualify as reliable but do give us a glimpse behind the sophisticated façade she presented the world to reveal someone more conflicted, insecure and vulnerable, right down to her bleeding ulcer and bad teeth.

Rose Louise Hovick (her name until she started stripping) never got over her mother's judgment that she was less talented than her younger sister. This judgment was no blessing for June, burdened with achieving the stardom Rose dreamed of for herself before getting pregnant at 18. June had her first nervous breakdown at 12; at 15, she fled Rose's iron hand to run off and get married. Louise, both tougher and more dutiful, slogged along the dying vaudeville circuit for another two years before declaring that she was "tired of starving" and perfectly willing to take it all off at Kansas City's Gayety Theater for $300 a week, a fortune in 1930.

Rechristened Gypsy Rose Lee, she could peel away everything but that other Rose. "Mother is the love of her life," Abbott tells us. "Theirs is a primal connection that Gypsy is incapable of severing … rotten at its root." She may or may not have killed kittens and hotel managers, but Rose was murderous enough in the vicious letters Abbott reprints, dispatched whenever Gypsy seemed about to wriggle free from her clutches.

A typical missive, self-pitying and menacing in equal portions, threatens to expose "things you made me go through and endure in regards to all your stepping stones to your getting where you were interested in getting at any cost." Astonishing words from someone who shoved a toddler into show business; no wonder Gypsy cultivated irony and self-mockery as her means of dealing with Mother and the world. The wounds were too deep to heal; they could only be covered up.

Abbott's empathetic understanding of a stripper whose greatest gift was concealment is her biography's principal strength. Its weaknesses include an irritatingly fragmented chronology, random switches from past to present tense, and excessive background on subsidiary figures such as the Minsky brothers. All is forgiven when she turns her shrewd, affectionate attention to Gypsy's "elegant, brainy joke of a strip" and the life stratagem underpinning it. At its core, "American Rose" is a haunting portrait of a woman "giving what she has to, keeping all she can," offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her.

Smith, a contributing editor for the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for the Times, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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