As some of you noticed (mom), it took me a very long time to read American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare the Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott. This is not to say it wasn’t interesting, but it is a very long book. And like many nonfiction books and biographies it wasn’t an “I-can’t-put-it-down” type of book. I finished it a few weeks ago now, on a long plane ride home.
I first came across Abbot’s biography when I popped into a Barnes and Noble to use the bathroom and immediately noticed the cover. Isn’t the cover pretty? I like pink things, I like vintage looking things, and I liked another book by Karen Abbott (Sin in the Second City). So I wrote down the title and immediately downloaded it onto my kindle when I got home.
Unlike most biographies this one jumped back and forth between eras. The first chapter is entitled “New York World’s Fair, 1940” and the second “Seattle Washington, 1910s.” At first I thought it was a kind of introduction, but I was wrong, and the time period ADD continued, making it hard to keep the characters in Gypsy’s life straight. Not only did Abbott jump between eras, but she also jumped between points of view. On the one hand it made sense, as the history of Burlesque and the Minsky Brother’s theaters are imperative to Gypsy’s story, but on the other, it made for a very confusing read. The amount of time it took me to read the biography probably made the confusion worse.
In general, it might have just been easier to discuss events surrounding Gypsy’s life rather than her actual story, as Gypsy continually re-wrote her past. According to Abbott, Gypsy claimed her sister June’s triumphs as her own as she rose to fame (her ability to dance, headlining the Vaudeville circuit etc). Even though Gypsy’s life is quite murky once she became Gypsy Rose Lee, Abbott was able to shed light on her early life. And let me tell you, it was fascinating.
Rose Hovick, Gypsy’s mother, was crazy! Early on in Gypsy and June’s life, Rose told them a family story: “their great-great-grandmother emigrated from Norway and set out for the West Coast in a covered wagon. She made it as far as the Sierra Nevada Mountainswhen her party was stranded by a blizzard. Most of the party died, frozen or starved or devoured by wolves. Rescue workers whisked Grandma to the nearest settlement and undressed her, discovering what appeared to be horse meat strapped around her body, hidden from the other survivors. She alone appeared plump and healthy. On closer inspection, the rescue team discovered that it wasn’t horse meat after all but rather the flesh of her less fortunate companions” (11-12). This morbid tale of survival exemplifies the Hovick family’s attitude towards life and dreams: take what you want and do what you need in order to make it. Abbott describes this piece of family lore as “a fairy tale, Hovick style, in which drama trumped veracity and the women always won” (12).
Rose Hovick was more than the ultimate stage mother, as the musical Gypsy! would have you believe. She killed, she lied, she cheated, she stole and she was a master manipulator, manipulating both men around her and her children. Gypsy was unsure of her age for most of her life and her birth name was taken from her when June was born, more beautiful and “full of promise.”
This brings me to my second point. My familiarity with Gypsy’s story originally stemmed from a few clips of the TV movie version I saw in my History of Musicals in America course in undergrad. When I finally got around to watching the full movie on Netflix (you can stream it for free) I was shocked. The Gypsy Rose Lee of Gypsy! would never participate in scandalous sex parties to further her career. It was almost hard to believe the Gypsy of the musical would ever strip, it seemed so against her nature. According to June, “[Gypsy!] realizes who she wanted to be before the burlesque thing happened. She wanted to be this beautiful, idealistic, romantic person with dreams” (316). The reader is left wondering if the romantic Louise of Gyspy! ever existed, deep down inside Gypsy Rose Lee. Perhaps it was there, crushed and hidden by her mother, or perhaps it never existed.
I wish there was more substance, rather than speculation, but given the situation, I believe Abbot did an excellent job. I suppose speculation is always a part of writing biographies of deceased persons. While I think I might slightly prefer Abbott’s first work, Sin in the Second City, American Rose cemented Karen Abbott as my favorite nonfiction writer.