By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 2010; 5:01 PM
Like her sister, the celebrated strip tease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, June Havoc began performing as a toddler on the vaudeville circuit. Ms. Havoc went on to a five-decade career on Broadway, notably as a burlesque dancer in the Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart musical "Pal Joey" (1940) and the vivacious star of Cole Porter's 1944 musical "Mexican Hayride." Decades later, she was cast as the cruel orphanage matron Miss Hannigan in the musical "Annie."
If Ms. Havoc, who died March 28 in Fairfield County, Conn., likely at the age of 97, did not reach the same degree of recognition as her less modest sister, she nonetheless achieved an enduring place in popular culture because of the character she inspired in the 1959 Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical "Gypsy." The show, based on her sister's memoir about their tyrannical mother, was a Broadway hit and became a theatrical staple.
Over the years, Ms. Havoc took strong exception to "Gypsy" and wrote three well-received memoirs to make her point. She resented how "Gypsy" made her mother seem abrasive but ultimately good-hearted when, as Ms. Havoc said, her mother was a "man trap," physically threatening and probably emotionally disturbed. Moreover, Ms. Havoc was aghast at how the show appeared to demote her to a secondary character when she was in fact the high-kicking star of the act.
Thrown into show business from age 2, she was billed as "Baby June, the Pocket-sized Pavlova" and earned a small fortune as a child dancing three or four shows a day in seedy theaters across the country. She broke from her mother's grip at 13 and endured years of punishing work on the dance marathon circuit before emerging as an alluring blond stage and screen star in the 1940s.
In addition to her work in "Pal Joey" and "Mexican Hayride," Ms. Havoc won critical raves as the "fallen woman" in "Sadie Thompson" (1944), Vernon Duke and Howard Dietz's musical adaptation of a W. Somerset Maugham story. To moviegoers, Ms. Havoc is best recalled as the secretary ashamed of being Jewish in "Gentleman's Agreement" (1947), starring Gregory Peck as a journalist investigating anti-Semitism.
Ms. Havoc later wrote plays and was a Tony Award-nominated director. In profiles over the years, she was described with a degree of awe: as a resolute and effervescent survivor through nearly nine decades in entertainment. She was inevitably asked her opinion of "Gypsy," which was billed as a "musical fable." She said she had grown "tired of fables."
"Baby June" was born Ellen Evangeline Hovick in the Pacific Northwest, probably on Nov. 8, 1912. Even she was uncertain of the details, as her mother carried five different birth certificates to circumvent a patchwork of child labor laws. Some reference works put the year of her birth as late as 1916 and say she was born either in Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia. It is unclear if she was older or younger than her sister, who was born Rose Louise Hovick and whose year of birth has been reported between from 1911 to 1914.
Their mother, the former Rose Thompson, thrust them onstage as "Mama Rose's Dancing Daughters" after separating from their father, John, a newspaper ad salesman. Ms. Havoc brooked no dissent about who was responsible for the act's success.
"I earned $1,500 dollars a week when I was 6 and I knew exactly how I got the laughs and the applause," she said. "There were nine numbers in our act. I did seven of them."
She lived an exhausting childhood, being dragged from town to town and forced onstage even with chicken pox. Although she had some private tutoring, she relied largely on Gideon Bibles stolen from cheap hotels as her chief English textbook.
Her mother ground through whatever money her daughters earned. Pushed to her limit, Ms. Havoc said she suffered a nervous breakdown at 10 and eloped a few years later with Bobby Reed, a vaudeville performer. The union did not last. To earn enough money to eat, she worked the grueling and sordid Depression-era marathon dance circuit, which she depicted in her critically acclaimed play "Marathon '33."
Ms. Havoc earned a 1964 Tony Award nomination for directing Julie Harris in "Marathon '33" on Broadway. Writing in the New York Times, theater critic Harold Taubman called the show a "tour de force of theatricality." He wrote that "you see the poor devils dance and brawl and cheat and break down, and you get a sense of the promoters who fed on them and of the public that cheered them on, like the gladiators being served to the lions."
Slowly Ms. Havoc began landing more prominent acting jobs that culminated in her breakthrough performance as stripper Gladys Bumps in "Pal Joey." The show was best known for making a star of dancer Gene Kelly, who played the caddish title role and soon became a Hollywood star. But Ms. Havoc, who performed the broadly comic song "That Terrific Rainbow," also was summoned to the film colony.
If Kelly soared onscreen, Ms. Havoc flew at a much lower altitude. She starred in mediocre wartime musicals and other light fare such as "My Sister Eileen" (1942) before making the leap to more dramatic roles in the late 1940s, notably as the self-loathing Elaine Wales in "Gentleman's Agreement."
As her film work dropped off, Ms. Havoc became a television actress. She played Eugene O'Neill's waterfront tramp in "Anna Christie" opposite Richard Burton in a 1952 TV production. She maintained a theater career well into the 1990s, at one point touring as Mrs. Lovett in the Sondheim musical "Sweeney Todd."
Ms. Havoc's second marriage, to Donald S. Gibbs, ended in divorce. Her third husband, radio producer and television director William Spier, died in 1973 after 25 years of marriage. Her only child, April Kent, died in 1998. She had no immediate survivors.
By the 1970s, Ms. Havoc had settled in Connecticut and lived with a manageable menagerie of sheep, fowl, horses and a burro named Bottom. She renovated several pre-Civil War buildings near her home in posh Fairfield County. Mostly, she attracted attention as a fascinating throwback to a half-forgotten era. She spoke of the compelling emotional grip of even her most anxious years.
"Hunger makes anything possible," she told the Times. "To me the marathon was a fair game. I was getting 12 meals every 24 hours, as long as I stayed on my feet. And I'm not sad about my childhood in vaudeville. Why should I be?
"Think how wonderful it was to be a little kid on stage with all that love from the audience. It was a special world. I remember the signs at the theater: 'No hells, no damns, no mention of the deity, and always wear silk stocking all the way up. Keep your act clean, but loud.' That was religion for me."