With the critically acclaimed "Sin in the Second City," bestselling author Karen Abbott "pioneered sizzle history" ("USA Today"). Now she returns with the gripping and expansive story of America's coming-of-age--told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered. Read more...
With the critically acclaimed "Sin in the Second City," bestselling author Karen Abbott "pioneered sizzle history" ("USA Today"). Now she returns with the gripping and expansive story of America's coming-of-age--told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered.
America in the Roaring Twenties. Vaudeville was king. Talking pictures were only a distant flicker. Speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways; money flowed fast and free. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from grim reality and excite them in new, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.
With her superb narrative skills and eye for compelling detail, Karen Abbott brings to vivid life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy's world, including her intensely dramatic triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who seduced men and women alike and literally killed to get her daughters on the stage.
"American Rose" chronicles their story, as well as the story of the four scrappy and savvy showbiz brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee's brand of burlesque. Modeling their shows after the glitzy, daring reviews staged in the theaters of Paris, the Minsky brothers relied on grit, determination, and a few tricks that fell just outside the law--and they would shape, and ultimately transform, the landscape of American entertainment.
With a supporting cast of such Jazz- and Depression-era heavyweights as Lucky Luciano, Harry Houdini, FDR, and Fanny Brice, Karen Abbott weaves a rich narrative of a woman who defied all odds to become a legend--and whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2010-11-29
- Reviewer: Staff
Imaginative and engaging, Abbott's biography of the celebrated stripper, who died in 1970 at age 59, also proves a well-informed look at the evolution of musical theater in the early 20th century. Abbott (Sin in the Second City) was able to interview Gypsy Rose Lee's 94-year-old sister, June Havoc, shortly before she died in 2010. Lee and her sister grew up under their indomitable stage mother, Rose, whom Lee wrote about in a memoir that became the Broadway hit Gypsy in 1959. Abbott shares some fresh, intimate details as she develops two parallel narrative strands: the hand-to-mouth early years when Rose was plying the city-to-city vaudeville circuit with her child acts featuring her talented daughter, June, and the more gawky, reliable Louise; and the steady success of the Minsky brothers on the Lower East Side of New York City as they invested in a string of vaudeville theaters that gradually morphed into wildly successful burlesque houses. When June ran away (at age 13 to get married), Rose reinvented Louise as her last vestige of hope—and thus Gypsy Rose Lee made "her delicate, unclean break from the past." Soon, the long-legged, tease-talking Gypsy was warming up for her next careers—Hollywood and Broadway. Abbott's work, cutting fluidly between decades and recreating dialogue, captures this dizzying, sullying, transformative era in America. (Jan.)
Let her entertain you
Gypsy Rose Lee’s performance didn’t end after she stepped off the stage. The famed striptease artist used her brazen, quick-witted public image as a fortress. “Over and over I catch myself staring the mask of youth off you,” Gypsy’s old friend, George Davis, the fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, observed in a letter. “And what I see scares the bejeesus out of me. Not for myself, but for you.” In her sparkling, jaw-dropping biography of Gypsy, Karen Abbott pries the mask off, revealing a grotesque, fascinating face of bitterness, jealousy and ambition.
American Rose resembles a Greek tragedy with chorus girls or a terrific novel in which the family unravels as the protagonist undresses. Abbott shuffles between Gypsy’s itinerant childhood playing vaudeville theaters, where she and her sister learned “that they would never be normal, everyday people”; the rise of burlesque in the United States, spearheaded by the forever hustling Billy Minsky; and Gypsy’s unconventional path to stardom. “I cannot sing. I cannot dance,” she once told her son, Erik. “But just remember your mother’s a star.”
Abbott’s story doesn’t revel in old anecdotes or talk much about Gypsy, the play and movie that immortalized its subject. Instead, Abbott explores why Gypsy never let her defenses down: She had no choice. Gypsy’s mother, Rose, was a distrustful, conniving stage mother who wielded her status as matriarch/manager (and the family’s controversial, murderous past) like a blunt object. Their relationship was so combustible that they literally wrestled on Rose’s deathbed. The only man Gypsy ever loved refused to marry her, and her younger sister, actress June Havoc, was more of a competitor and an object of pity than a sibling. At one point, Gypsy willingly sent a struggling June to a sex party to make connections. “I was no sister,” Havoc tells Abbott. “I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.”
The best biographies do more than detail the life of a subject—they completely embed the reader in that person’s life and mindset. They combine tenacious reporting with writing that belongs to a first-rate novelist. American Rose is the rare biography that captures the imagination and doesn’t let go. It would scare the bejeesus out of Gypsy Rose Lee, and it’s guaranteed to enthrall readers.