Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Miss Gypsy Rose Lee: "The Dorothy Parker of undressing"

One hundred years after her birth (which was celebrated in style at the New York Public Library with readings and appearances by modern-day burlesque stars), Gypsy never ceases to fascinate. "I like to say if Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret love child, it would have been Gypsy Rose Lee," mused Karen Abbott, the author of the latest biography. Reportedly, an HBO show about her life starring Sigourney Weaver is in the works. She's had a string of bios (as well as penning her own), but Gypsy: The Art of the Tease by Rachel Shteir is the first from a university press. (Don't worry, it may be a tad cryptic at times, but it's not written in academese and does not mention the dread words 'postmodern' or 'semiotics'.) Have a gander at my photo gallery, which shows the many sides of Gypsy's personality.
"That year, pictures of Gypsy project mischief," writes Shteir of 1936. "Maurice Seymour, the Russian émigré cum celebrity photographer, would take several cheesecake photos of the star that double as comic portraits. In one she hides her bare breasts with gloved hands while a black lace mantilla covers her head and shoulders, and she gazes away from the camera as though she were thinking important thoughts."
H. L. Mencken coined a word just for Gypsy: ecdysiast (from "ecdysis," meaning "to molt"). 
Photo by George Skadding.
Even after she won fame and fortune, Gypsy enjoyed touring with carnivals and mixing with the hoi polloi. The candid images below show life on the road.

As anyone who has ever seen the musical based on her life knows, Gypsy was not conventionally beautiful, but she did have that certain je ne sais quoi
"Come one, come all!"
Above: resting the gams backstage and offering a helping hand. Below, working on a writing project while on tour. Gypsy subbed as a guest columnist for Walter Winchell and wrote articles for the New Yorker on growing up in vaudeville (which became the nexus of her autobiography). 

While rooming with friend Fanny Brice on tour, Gypsy ate dinners on hot plates to save money on room service, yet she paid lavishly for haute couture to maintain her image.
Reprimanded by the daunting Mama Rose for always having her nose in a book while on tour in vaudeville as a girl, Gypsy went on to pen a creditable murder mystery that became a good role for Barbara Stanwyck (unfortunately, the screenplay for Lady of Burlesque excised much of the book's color and inside dope on the world of burlesque).
Sadly, no decent footage exists of Gypsy doing any part of her act; the numbers in the various forgettable vehicles they created for her in Hollywood were completely sanitized. Her gifts were better served in Manhattan, where she starred in Cole Porter's DuBarry Was a Lady and various Minsky shows. Gypsy was hands down the most famous person in her profession, making the cover of Life in 1941 and appearing on mainstream television shows such as What's My Line. She even had her own tv talk show in the '50s, which must have been a hoot. Although no video exists, you can get a sense of her effervescence in this audio snippet, in which she whoops it up with Judy Garland.
Natalie Wood and GRL on the set of the film Gypsy.


  1. What did Gypsy think of pole dancing? (I think she preferred ostrich feathers and fans.)
    I am told pole dancing began in Canada. No mention of whether or not firehouses were involved.

    1. Pole dancing kind of grosses me out ... as does the idea of frequenting strip clubs--a far cry from and infinitely more louche than Gypsy. She was smart and entertaining; more show biz than sex worker.

    2. Pole dancing has been recognized as a sport competition, performed in an athletic, non-lurid way. There's a push to have it included in the 2016 Olympics. It was an exercise long before the strip clubs adopted it.
      So there's more to the pole, and more to Gypsy, than meets the eye!

    3. Pole dancing dates back to ancient India and China.
      It's an art, it's part of the strip tease art and now some like to think it's more acceptable because it's a sport too. The truth is it has always been an art form, artists talents range and art is subjective. I think Gypsy would have loved some of the more crafty acts of today. For those who dismiss the integrity of women thriving as strippers today, you forget that there have always been people in every industry who will have sex for position of power or money and there are always people in most industries who wont. Enjoy life. It's a shmorgishborg! Thank you, Grace aka Zora aka i_muse (on live journal)