By Lily Burana
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 13, 2009
The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee
By Noralee Frankel
Oxford Univ. 300 pp. $27.95
The Art of the Tease
By Rachel Shteir
Yale Univ. 222 pp. $24
America has but one single-name stripping legend: Gypsy. As camp as Cher, as taboo-breaking as Madonna and as popular in her time as Britney is today, Gypsy Rose Lee set a unique standard as the only bump-and-grinder who hit the Hollywood big time. Two new books, each by a female academic, chronicle the rise and immortalization of this most unusual superstar.
Born Rose Louise Hovick in 1911 (though author Rachel Shteir says Hovick's birth documents may have been altered, and she could have been born in 1908), Louise, as she was called in her youth, was a vagabond vaudevillian child pushed in front of the footlights, along with her younger, prettier sister, June, by their overbearing mother, known to all as Mama Rose. A tall and handsome child, Louise played second fiddle to June but found her starring moment, as later celebrated in the musical "Gypsy," when the lead girl in a burlesque show fell ill and the theater manager begged Louise to take her place. Louise shed her inhibitions -- and a few pieces of clothing -- and her legend started taking shape in the shadows of that seamy theater.
What set Gypsy Rose Lee apart from her burlesque contemporaries was her willingness to cheekily intellectualize her act. This lent her shows a comedic zing that implied a permissive, even progressive attitude and broadened her audience. Thanks to her nudge-wink delivery, everyone -- highbrow or low -- was in on the con. Here is a lyric from her famous 1936 act "A Stripteaser's Education": "Now the things that go on, in a strip-teaser's mind/Would give you no end of surprise,/But if you are psychologically inclined,/There is more to see than meets the eye."
Both Shteir and Noralee Frankel admire Gypsy's theatrical instinct. "In Gypsy's most written about and enduring striptease from this era," Shteir writes, "she wears a polka-dotted blouse and long, black taffeta skirt as though she were a Sunday School teacher circa 1890. Gypsy ended this number in a distinctly un-schoolteacher way, flashing polka-dotted bows on her breasts. The number, which lasted for a record-breaking ten minutes, included an encore in which Gypsy, peeping from behind the stage curtain, dangled her garter in front of the audience in the way a man might dangle a bone in front of a dog. Gypsy inverted the peep show -- she was peeping at the peepers."
Sans footnotes and stitched together with a light and clear narrative line, Shteir's "Gypsy" is the more accessible of these two books, but that is by no means a slight against Frankel's well-researched "Stripping Gypsy." With both books, you find yourself turning pages quickly and yelling out factoids to beleaguered friends and family in the other room: "Hey! Did you know Gypsy was once a spokeswoman for a fur coat company?" "Did you know that Gypsy was on 'Hollywood Squares?' "
It is simply impossible to read these books and not fall in love with Gypsy's tenacity, wit and confounding, beguiling, oh-so-American mix of self-mythology and self-awareness. Ultimately, she doesn't personify seduction or scandal so much as good old Yankee ingenuity. After her first career as a stripteaser, Gypsy became a memoirist, a novelist and playwright, a talk-show host, a pitchwoman and even, in her 50s, a dedicated entertainer with the USO. Gypsy, she of the silk stockings and elbow grease, always found a way to churn ahead. In this age of contrived "American Idol" populism, her hardworking, autodidactic naughty-girl pose seems downright sincere.
Even today, there is no equivalent to Gypsy's trajectory from the gutter to the stars. The inspiring survival story of Gypsy Rose Lee belies F. Scott Fitzgerald's claim that there are no second acts in American life. At their cores, these two enjoyable books admirably document the enduring lesson of Gypsy Rose Lee's life: Beauty may fade, but pluck is forever.
Burana is the author of "I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles" and the stripper memoir "Strip City."