Tuesday, June 14, 2011

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bar, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott

January 8, 2011, marked the 100th birthday of Gypsy Rose Lee so of course there would be tribute shows and a renewed interest of her life in the main stream media.   Karen Abbott's book, American Rose came out just in time for the celebration.  Jo Boobs and Karen Abbott were actually involved in the celebration at the New York Public Library on her birthday, how cool is that?  

Though this book came out just in time for the big anniversary, it is very obvious from reading it that years of research and preparation went into it.  With interviews with Gypsy's younger sister "Baby" June, her son Erik, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, letters to and from Gypsy as well as her diaries.  There are 40 pages devoted to Notes and Sources as well as the Bibliography.  No one can accuse Karen Abbot of not doing her homework.

The book is written in such a way that you get all the facts with out it reading like a text book.  She weaves details and narrative so at the end of the 350 pages you feel like you were there with Gypsy; cooking on hot plates back stage; crammed in hotel rooms with 10 other kids, all pretending to be younger; and you feel like you've been through all the triumphs and pit falls with her.  One of the things that I love is that though the book is about Gypsy Rose Lee, it's not just about Gypsy.  You learn so much about the Minsky brothers; the old vaudeville and burlesque wheels; New York City politics and how it affected the trade; and Rose Havok, the mother, master mind and bane of Gypsy's existence.  Never has there been a story that so richly embodied the Rags to Riches American Dream and her life did so over and over again with every high and every fall.

Beginning with her as a child and loosing her name, June, to her younger sister as she had "no talent" and was sent to live in "Baby June's" shadow until June ran away to get married and Louise Havok (Gypsy) became her mother's only hope for fame so she could live vicariously through and off her daughter.  Stealing bits and pieces from June's career and reinventing herself until no one knew what was real
any more and truly becoming Gypsy Rose Lee.  I think that Karen Abbott being able to interview June made a great impact on her ability to be able to accurately write this book.  Being able to get that perspective and having someone sift through the truth and the legend brings a whole new light to the Gypsy myth.

I will say as the book is not written in a linear story line and often jumps back and forth between times lines you do have to pay attention.  Had I been able to sit down in one sitting and read the book it probably wouldn't have been an issue, but I read when I have spare time like most people do. I did occasionally find myself flipping back and forth to make sure I understood what was going on when it switched between Gypsy's childhood to her days in Hollywood or New York and back to her childhood again.

Overall I will say that I found the book truly inspiring.  Being a burlesque performer, and one that teaches Burlesque History at that, I am always looking for more information on how those who came before us did it.  It never ceases to amaze me that once upon a time people could make their living off this amazing art form.  And not just a living; but a grand, extravagant living with furs, estates and jewels!  There was a trade off, however, with the amazing highs there were equally opposite lows of living in cars, not having food and shelter, etc...nothing came with out a price.  The sheer amount of drive and determination these women had is amazing.  Gypsy started her entertainment career the day she was born, these days most burlesque performers can't get started until at least 21 so we're years behind where these women were by then.

I don't think I have ever read such a detailed account of Gypsy's life and I'm not sure there are many people who would be as passionate about it as Karen Abbott obviously is to even come close later on.  She made me feel like I was there, a part of this amazing time and amazing life.  I hadn't gotten around to reading her previous book Sin in the Second City, but I will definitely be picking that one up very soon.  If it's even half as well written as American Rose I'll be a happy reader.

Below is a video from the100th birthday celebration at The New York Public Library!