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Who the Hell is Lili St. Cyr?

Stripping Gypsy

By Noralee Frankel
Oxford University Press

Gypsy: The Art of the Tease

By Rachel Shteir
Yale University Press

   

Without the sterling efforts of four Jewish guys (three of them gay) exactly 50 years ago, it seems unlikely that either of these two books would garner much attention; perhaps they wouldn’t even have been written. Gypsy Rose Lee is one of those cultural asterisks—think Sophie Tucker, Arthur Godfrey, and any of a number of current boldfacers who were household names in their day, but who have lapsed into obscurity. Despite her ubiquity over three decades, in every medium save opera, Lee the entertainer has for all intents and purposes been given the hook by history.

But not the show that bears her name and purports to tell her story. In 1959, writer Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, and director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, fresh from their very hot and very influential West Side Story, decided to reteam to musicalize Gypsy, the bestselling memoir of a burlesque queen. (West Side Story’s composer, the classically trained Leonard Bernstein, was replaced by the far more appropriate and brassier Jule Styne.)

The show’s success, however, had far less to do with the title character, than with the results of Laurents’ idea that the most interesting person in Gypsy’s story was not Gypsy, but Rose, the ball-busting stage mother who brazenly pushed her daughters to stardom to compensate for her own failed ambitions. With Ethel Merman, Broadway’s biggest star, as Rose, supported by a canny book and a superb score, Gypsy had a healthy run in New York and a grabbed a place as a contender for the best musical ever written. (But let’s not get into that here; fisticuffs may follow.)

Its subsequent incarnations have attracted the crème de la crème of musical monstre sacrés (for the film, Rosalind Russell; for the TV version, Bette Midler; for the Broadway revivals, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti Lupone, all of whom have their theater queen champion. (Again, not here. There will be blood.)

Few of the show’s fans likely care about how well Gypsy accurately represents the facts of Lee’s life. Laurents, et al, subtitled the show “A Musical Fable,” largely to avoid lawsuits, particularly from Lee’s sister, the actress June Havoc, who at first withheld her permission to let the show proceed. Lee herself claimed at the time of her autobiography’s publication that she could scarcely separate fact from fiction as she wrote it.

But while the outline of the show is accurate in its depiction of a brutal but loving mother so desperately eager to spawn a star that she risks losing the love of everyone in her life, the details are by necessity far richer and far more sordid.

 

Ethel Merman (image from Musicals101)

Gypsy Rose Lee, née Louise Hovick, was born around 1911 (or perhaps as early as 1908, as Rachel Shteir reports in her new biography Gypsy: The Art of the Tease, from Yale University Press) to a stagestruck mother and a newspaper reporter, who divorced when she was 5. Rose thrust both Louise and the younger June onstage at an unconscionably young age, determined beyond reason that they would become famous. June actually had a modicum of talent and even appeared in bit parts in Hollywood films, while Louise stated in Seattle with Rose’s father. She joined the act when she was seven and June’s decreasing infantile appeal forced Rose to add more performers to the act.

Life on the road was rough. They often lived in hovels on the road, eating dog food to survive. The vaudeville circuit was dying on the vine, and when June found an opportunity to flee by elopement, she took it.

Now her mother’s sole potential moneymaker, Louise started to strip under the name Gypsy Rose Lee. Whether it was a reluctant decision, as Laurents would have it, or Lee’s Hail Mary pass to save her non-career, is a matter of conjecture. Shteir asks the question: “Was she an exhibitionist or a patsy? How much of the striptease was the result of Gypsy’s desire to strip, and how much of it was the result of her mother’s urging? It is impossible to know.”

Either way, she took to it like a duck to … molting. Using her own sly wit and natural intelligence (more of that later), not to mention a slender if not particularly busty body, she climbed the heights of burlesque.

Artistically, those heights were not so great. A curious amalgam of low comedy and sexual titillation, burlesque found a home in both seedy dives and respectable theaters throughout the 1920s and 1930s—at one time during the Depression there were five burlesque houses on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues—until public pressure and changing tastes forced them into oblivion. Production values were often impressive, and stars with a following could command surprisingly high salaries.

None more so than Lee, who became a star for the Minsky’s chain, the pinnacle of strip houses. An understanding of what made her so popular requires perhaps the stark contrast of her peers, who were much more overtly sexual and rarely spoke as they shed. “Talking as she stripped,” writes Noralee Frankel in her competing biography from Oxford University Press, Stripping Gypsy, “Gypsy conveyed humor and intelligence as well as sexuality…. Witty patter worked for Gypsy. It emphasized her brains and her gift for comedy.” It’s this element of her performance that differentiated her from rivals like Lili St. Cyr, Ann Corio, and Sally Rand, all of whom have been reduced to trivia.

Lee also denuded the striptease of guilt for the viewer. “Ordinary strippers seemed bored and sad,” Frankel writes, “and left their audiences feeling sordid. Gypsy left her audiences happy.” Indeed, the whole experience was a send-up; she found most of her peers without talent save for their body parts. Lee’s figure was never voluptuous and there’s no record of her ever baring a breast, but she outshone them all, pleasing everyone but the most lascivious of audience members who felt cheated by her discretion.

None of her live performances have been preserved on film, but the movie 1943 Stage Door Canteen, filmed 14 years after her first professional strip, gives a hint of her coy eroticism, her emphasis on the “tease”, and the sophistication of her references (she mentions Cezanne and Lady Windermere’s Fan). But she exposes less than Mother Teresa in a blizzard. The comparative intellectualism of her shows attracted the attention of many writers, including Henry Miller and Carl Van Doren, who dubbed her “a princess who takes off her pants.”

Gypsy Rose Lee from Stage Door Canteen

By the mid-1930s, with burlesque fading, the princess needed another kingdom. Heading to Hollywood and thinking her plain-Jane given name Louise Hovick would give her a bit of respectability, she bombed in several films whose Hays Code sensibility prevented her from exploiting her sexuality. For the rest of her career, Lee alternated between trying to rise above the vulgarity of her claim to fame and cashing in on it. She appeared with her shtick in Broadway revues and musicals, in carnivals, and even, although heavily bowdlerized, on early television.

As experience convinced her that she would forever be saddled with the stripper persona, Lee made the most of it by aspiring to the literati and the art world. (One of her creations made it to Peggy Guggenheim’s gallery.) Always a voracious reader, she began to write, producing over the years two mysteries (One was The G-String Murders), a memoir, plays, and occasional pieces for The New Yorker. Her forays into “literature” brought her friendships with Janet Flanner and Carson McCullers, and during one memorable period, a stay at February House, the Brooklyn Heights townhouse maintained by publisher George Davis as a kind of Yadoo-on-Middagh-Street haven for writers, composers, and artists to live cheaply and create. Lee’s revolving roommates included W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, McCullers, Truman Capote, or Paul and Jane Bowles. And what a hoot that breakfast table must have been!

Lee’s literary pretensions won her fans, but also a fair amount of derision, amid many rumors, largely unproven, of having used a ghostwriter. In their 1940 musical Pal Joey, Rodgers and Hart created a character who interviewed Lee to find out what crossed her mind as she stripped. The fictive Lee responds:

Zip! Walter Lippman wasn’t brilliant today!
Zip! Will Saroyan ever write a great play?
Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night.
Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right.

And concludes:

I adore the great Confucius,
And the lines of luscious Lucius!
Zip! I am so eclectic!
I don’t care for either Mickey,
Mouse and Rooney make me sicky
Zip! I’m a little hectic
Zip! My artistic taste is classic and dear.
Zip! Who the hell’s Lili St. Cyr?

Lee’s 1957 memoir was a bestseller, but could have sold far more copies had she told the real truth about herself and her mother. Rose plagued her daughters for decades, insisting on money and credit for their fame long after it was due. (June herself not only starred in the premiere of Pal Joey but wrote two highly-regarded memoirs that charted her career as a fine actress and director; she is still living.)

After multiple husbands, Rose opened a lesbian boarding house in Manhattan and began numerous affairs with women. In 1937, while hosting a house party at Lee’s upstate New York home, Rose claimed to have discovered one of her guests dead from a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Lee’s son later claimed that Rose murdered the woman for making a pass at Lee, but Frankel handily rebuts that theory (Leewas out of town at the time). Still, an inconsistent coroner’s report and the fact the Rose burnt the woman’s diaries lead Frankel to conclude that Rose either killed the woman or goaded her into killing herself. Either way, not a situation Ethel Merman would have relished putting into song. Rose was by all accounts a hideous woman, but Lee was never able to escape her thrall. For the last decade of Rose’s life, according to Shteir, the two spoke only through lawyers.

Lee also deleted much of her love life from Gypsy. Married three times, never happily, she had numerous lovers including the flamboyant Mike Todd, known some years later for marrying Elizabeth Taylor and subsequently dying in a plane crash. Husband number one was a businessman with whom Lee had little in common; the marriage collapsed in less than two years. Number two was gay, and Lee married him, according to both biographers, to make Mike Todd jealous; three months later, the marriage was annulled. (Those who put stock in omens might have been forewarned when the chimpanzee, hired to serve as ring bearer, peed on the groom.) The third was Spanish artist Julio De Diego, and their union faded after a few years with the poor Spaniard, in Frankel’s words, persecuted by “a torrent of verbal abuse.”

Lee’s most audacious sexual stunt was in choosing a potential father, seducing him, and giving birth to his son—without telling either the sperm donor or his offspring until the boy was in his teens. That the daddy was the dictatorial and famously bald director Otto Preminger makes the scandal that much spicier. (There son Erick wrote his own 1984 memoir, Gypsy and Me, which filled in many of the holes left by her own autobiography.)

By the end of her life, Lee was reduced to patching together a stage version of her career, as well as bit parts on television and in the movies; she even sold dog food in commercials. But she had her greatest late-career success hosting a daytime talk show in the late 1950s, where her gift of gab was perfectly utilized. I remember her dimly from that era, flamboyantly costumed, her diction slightly sibilant from a distinct overbite, lots of noisy bracelets, her naughty past hovering around her like a ghostly aura, making her most innocent remarks into double entendres. A kind of low-rent Auntie Mame.

 

Whether or not this fascinating woman deserves simultaneous books depends on what you’re looking for. Frankel’s is by far the longer, some 300 dense pages, and impressive in its research—painstakingly so. Shteir’s, part of the Icons of America series from Yale University Press, is more of a long essay, and as such is livelier, but still disappointing. That both are published by academic presses comes as no surprise. Frankel is, and I quote directly from the dustjacket, Assistant Director, Women, Minorities, and Teaching at the American Historical Society. Shteir is an associate professor of The Theater School at DePaul University, and both seem hell-bent on finding the political and sociological significance of Lee’s life and career.

Frankel seeks to make her a proto-feminist, taking full charge of her personal and professional lives, a liberal political activist and survivor of a Red Scare (yes, that too), and a take-charge kind of dame capable of using a man as stud. Shteir wanders all over the map, evoking everyone from JonBenet Ramsey, Karl Marx, and Roland Barthes. Her Freudian analysis of Lee’s choice of stage name is risible, and sentences like these give the reader pause: “…thirty-some years after Gypsy’s death, despite women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, and modern pornography’s ubiquity, her striptease and personae still interest American women as a physical act, a metaphor for self-revelation, a popular art, and a way to immorality.” Oh, really? I’m guessing most women don’t give her a single thought in the course of a lifetime.

Of the two, Frankel’s is valuable for its rich lode of period detail, even if her rendering of it is on the dull side. (These books should above all else be fun; they’re not.) Hats off to her for reminding us of one stripper whose claim to fame was her ability to swing her “pendulous” breasts in two different directions at the same time. Now that’s entertainment.

___
Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. His previous review for Open Letters was on Oscar Hammerstein.

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2 Comments »

  • Amanda Beech says:

    Hard to be classy with your clothes off or almost off. Gypsy managed it very well for a long time longer than most and her fame somehow deserved even belatedly.

  • Robert Strom says:

    Dear Mr. Adams,

    This is a wonderful piece.

    I hope you will contact me to review my forthcoming book:

    Lady of Burlesque – The Career of Gypsy Rose Lee (McFarland 2011)

    It can be seen and ordered on Amazon… it arrives just in time for the 100th Anniversary of Gypsy’s birthday (January 9th, 1911).

    Best,

    Robert

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