June Havoc dies at 97; child vaudeville star and sister of Gypsy Rose Lee

June Havoc was the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee. Their family story was portrayed in "Gypsy."

June Havoc, an actress and former child vaudeville star whose early life with her sister -- future burlesque stripper Gypsy Rose Lee -- and their ambitious stage mother was portrayed in the hit Broadway musical “Gypsy,” has died. She was 97.

Havoc died Sunday of natural causes at her home in Stamford, Conn., said her caregiver, Tana Sibilio.

“Gypsy,” the “musical fable” based on Lee’s memoir, opened on Broadway in 1959. It starred Ethel Merman as the overbearing stage mother, Mama Rose.

Although Havoc acknowledged the greatness of “Gypsy” as a musical, she always complained that it painted a misleading picture of her mother and distorted her own story.

“I cherish and am extremely proud of my childhood,” she told New York’s Newsday in 1995. “If you’d been a child -- a phenomenon, really -- someone who earned fifteen-hundred dollars a week on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, who was a headliner with all the applause and laughter and raised in that glorious vaudeville family, and then see yourself portrayed as a no-talent, whining nothing, well, it hurts terribly.”

Havoc told her side in two memoirs, “Early Havoc” and “More Havoc,” as well as a one-woman show, “An Unexpected Evening With June Havoc.” She was born Nov. 8, 1912. Some biographical sources say she was born in Seattle. But, according to Sibilio, “Miss Havoc always said she was born in Vancouver.”

Had her older sister “shown any evidence of some talent that could be used as Mother’s escape from an unhappy marriage, as her passport to life, I would never have been born because Mother would have taken her off to Hollywood at the age of 2,” Havoc said in a 1998 interview with the New York Times.

Instead, when she was 2, the blond and blue-eyed June went on stage, where she was billed as the “Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World.” She was soon appearing in short silent films.

By 7, she was a vaudeville star performing on the same stages as Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker.

Baby June, “the most adorable little creature in captivity,” read the caption on one vintage photograph.

“I loved being her,” Havoc told the New York Times in 1992. “I loved vaudeville.”

But during the 1920s, she knew the days of vaudeville were nearing an end.

“Instead of preparing for the next step, which is what I was so anxious to do at the age of 12, Mother just kept me in the same act, with the same material, the same everything,” she told the Hartford Courant in 1995. “So I just finally rebelled. I had to get out of there and go on with my life.”

As a teenager, Havoc married one of the boys in her act. During the Depression, she entered dance marathons to survive.

As June’s fame as a performer dimmed, her sister’s fame as a burlesque stripper grew.

In a 1981 interview with United Press International, Havoc recalled that her mother once introduced them to a gangster by saying, “I am the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee. And this is my baby. She used to be somebody.”

In 1940, however, Havoc gained notice playing showgirl Gladys Bumps in the hit musical comedy “Pal Joey.”

That led her to Hollywood, where she appeared in films such as “Four Jacks and a Jill,” “My Sister Eileen” and “Gentleman’s Agreement.” She later made guest appearances on TV and starred in the short-lived 1964 series “The June Havoc Show.”

Havoc used her 1930s experience in dance marathons to write and direct the 1963 Broadway play “Marathon ’33,” which starred Julie Harris. It received three Tony Award nominations, including one for best director, but closed after 48 performances.

Havoc’s Broadway acting credits include taking over the role of Miss Hannigan in the musical “Annie” in 1982.

Havoc’s first two marriages ended in divorce. Her third husband, producer-director-writer William Spier, died in 1973. Her daughter, April, died in 1998. She had no immediate surviving family members.