Friday, February 4, 2011

by Karen Abbott

She was born with the name Ellen June but then when her sister was born, a few years later, the names were switched. When Mama Rose laid eyes on her newest child with those big, beautiful blue eyes and curls in abundance, she named her June (she would always be a baby in her mother's eyes). The eldest daughter would be named Rose Louise.
The two girls spent their childhood performing on the stage doing vaudeville. Baby June could do everything: sing, dance, act. Louise was the complete opposite. (She was creative, though, and made all of the costumes.)
Rose wanted everything for her children. She worked them to the bone (mostly June). Her tantrums with directors, producers and the like became legendary. With her daughters, she could either be loving or a raving lunatic. Eventually, June had a nervous breakdown (at the age of twelve) and two years later, she left the act and eloped.
Attention is now drawn to Louise. She didn't have any talent, wasn't terribly attractive, was overweight, but she did have long legs and the gift of gab. All Rose cared about was making money so she scouted around for someplace that would make her daughter a star. Vaudeville was pretty much dead and the only other option was burlesque. Enter "Gypsy Rose Lee."
What an amazing story! It took author Karen Abbott three years to write (one of her interviews was with Louise's sister June Havoc two years before she died).
All I ever knew about Gypsy Rose Lee was the musical that I saw as a child with Ethel Merman playing the mother's role. (The show was based on Gypsy's memoir and most of that stuff was invented.) A young girl with no talent reinvented herself to become the biggest star that America had ever seen. She hid behind this persona and it totally enveloped her.
The book captures the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age, vaudeville, the Great Depression, the seedier side of life, and a whole cast of characters: Fanny Brice, Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, et al.
Running parallel to this cultural history, Abbott delves into the four Minsky brothers who brought burlesque to the people.
Spectacular pictures are scattered throughout the book and takes you back to that era.
It was quite a life and the writing transports you there. Meticulous research and nuanced details makes for an exciting read.
Highly recommended.