Read American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee Online

Authors: Karen Abbott

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Women

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (12 page)

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
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New York City, 1917–1920

As soon as Abe Minsky returned from his field trip to Paris, he summoned Billy for a conference at the National Winter Garden, eager to share the details of his potential European import.

Ya know,” he said, “if we could only get lights somehow, there’s quite a stunt they pulled at the Folies Bergère. They paraded girls on a runway—”

That got Billy’s attention. “Runway? What kind of runway?”

“There was a raised platform coming down from stage right into the theater,” Abe explained, pointing with his cigar. “The audience went crazy when they paraded down in spotlights. If we could manage a few spots—”

“Spots, hell!” Billy interrupted. “If it’s in the house, we’ll use the house lights. They may not be glamorous, but they’ll be able to see the girls. For the moment we can do without the glamour, or at least until we have some more money for spots.”

The following Sunday, when the National Winter Garden was closed, the Minskys brought in a team of carpenters and watched the runway come to life.
They planned to advertise it as the first such contraption in American theater history—who cared if it were true?—and it was a beauty, a long gleaming strip that ran from the orchestra pit up the center of the house to a point just under the rim of the balcony. The crew had to dismantle forty-eight orchestra seats, a painful but necessary concession, and the brothers added one more decorative touch to their theater, this time with homegrown rather than Gallic flair: American flags pasted flush along the edges of the exterior windows and jutting at jaunty angles on either side of the doorway.

Left: Morton, Billy, and Herbert Minsky.
(photo credit 10.1)

Sacrifice and patriotism had become New York’s latest trends with the United States’ formal entry into World War I. For the first time the city had
more motor vehicles than horses, and the streets were crowded with Studebaker sedans, red, white, and blue ribbons streaming from bumpers. One couldn’t window-shop without encountering artist
J. Montgomery Flagg’s finger-pointing, craggy-faced portrait of Uncle Sam beseeching young men to join the army. A group of New York society matrons calling themselves “
The First Fifty” announced that they would diminish waste and extravagance by “pruning their lunches to two courses, and dinners to three.” (Of course, one editorial writer pointed out, women of that milieu tended to eat lightly, anyway.) The Anti-Saloon League of New York argued that responsible citizens should support an immediate halt in distilling and brewing to conserve fuel and grain for the troops, developing slogans such as “
Booze or coal?” and “Save 11,000,000 loaves a day.”

City Hall bowed to the pressure, passing an ordinance forbidding hotels, restaurants, saloons, cabarets, and roof gardens to sell liquor after 1
, and imposing new taxes on everything from cigars to telegrams to tickets for Broadway shows. Despite the added expense, the theater industry, as in Paris, managed to thrive. The blocks from 38th to 50th Streets offered fifty-five amusement houses, all but five of them devoted to theater, and all but thirty-four of them belonging to the three Shubert brothers, sons of poor Jewish immigrants. Lee Shubert, whose formal education had ended at age ten, was an odd-looking man—“
a fascinating cross,” Gypsy Rose Lee noted, “between a wooden Indian and a hooded cobra.” He was reportedly illiterate but a genius with numbers. Although he knew nothing about directing or the creative process,
he worked to cultivate an image as a businessman with highbrow taste, and
Billy Minsky considered him the greatest showman in the country. “
The people must be amused,” Lee Shubert said. “The war, even with its ticket tax, will have no appreciable effect upon theatrical entertainments, provided, of course, they are what the people want.”

Minsky “Rosebuds” on the runway at the National Winter Garden.
(photo credit 10.2)

owntown, in a decidedly more modest family empire—so far, at least—the Minsky brothers prepared to debut their new attraction. When the show opened on Monday, Minsky’s six showgirls, all of them over thirty, christened the runway with
a sad parade. The harsh yellow house lights were unkind to their skin, showcasing every clump of foundation and wayward smear of rouge. Even worse, the footlights seemed to cut the girls in half, illuminating the bottoms but not the tops of their legs, and shining beams directly on their chins—or, in some cases, double chins. Still, they walked
the audience, so close the men could smell their perfume and hear them lose their
breath as they strutted and twirled. Close enough for the men to look directly up their legs—bloated legs encased in garish pink tights, but legs nonetheless.

The National Winter Garden was sold out all that week. Billy, still troubled by the footlights’ distortion of the girls, asked little brother Herbert to study the psychology of color. Blue was remote and cool; green, soothing; yellow cheerful. Red or magenta signified drama, romance, mystery, and sex—the proper colors for Minsky’s. With Billy’s and Abe’s permission, Herbert spent $2,000 on power cables for stage lighting and tried a rich magenta, which seemed to flatter every skin tone and evoked, subtly, the feeling of an old-time brothel.

Billy and Abe kept their focus on business matters while
Herbert took over “culture,” commissioning an artist to transform the concrete walls into a mural celebrating
Iago and Roderigo frozen in banter; a drunken Cassio; Desdemona, lovely even in death. He himself fashioned whimsical backdrops in the style of Aubrey Beardsley. Deep crimson paint created borders between each scene, and lush, multicolored silk drapes swept down from the ceiling. The hard wooden seats stayed—let the uptown joints waste money on velvet—but Herbert added one last touch: “The play’s the thing” etched along the proscenium, with proper credit to
“Will” Shakespeare.

Even with these upgrades, the Minsky brothers well knew they weren’t Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario behind the famous
Ziegfeld Follies
, and this was precisely their intention. The Minskys understood the National Winter Garden audience, the ethos of the working man. Fantasies had to have a tangible, realistic shell. The sort of girls the Minskys advertised—“
plenty of short girls, tall girls, fat girls”—sounded, above all, attainable. A man paid 50 cents to see a Minsky show, more than double the cost of a ticket at a lesser burlesque house, but this was the closest he might ever get to the
. The rest of Manhattan was full of reminders of what a workingman could never have, but the Lower East Side stood level with his gaze, spoke his language, deigned to shake his hand.

Ziegfeld, on the other hand, traded in fantasy. In 1907, he produced a Parisian-style “revue” on the roof garden of the Jardin de Paris near 44th Street, and the
Ziegfeld Follies
was born.

No name in the history of American entertainment ever had such a magic connotation,” wrote the comedian Eddie Cantor. “When an Arabian wizard said, ‘Open sesame!’ you expected diamond fountains and platinum flowers to sprout out of a rock. When a Hindu fakir said ‘Abracadabra!’ you knew he’d change into a flying horse or a singing tree. But when somebody said, ‘The Ziegfeld
’ you expected the Seven Wonders of the World to stand at attention and say, ‘Yessir!’ ”

Ziegfeld sought tall, pin-thin ladies with absurdly long legs who were more decorous than dirty and who could stretch the limits of New York law, which permitted a nude woman onstage as long as she stood still. He aimed to transform the American chorus girl into an abstract objet d’art, a remote, glittering ornament too delicate to touch. After the
found a permanent home at the New Amsterdam Theatre, Ziegfeld produced a cabaret number called “Midnight Frolics” that evoked Marcel Duchamp’s
Nude Descending a Staircase
, with girls parading across the stage in flawless unison, all lithe limbs and blade-edged bones, a Cubist tableau in motion. “
One type is missing,” Ziegfeld wrote, explaining his criteria, “because the public has eliminated it. Time was when big women were admired onstage. They were so tall and broad that skirts were imperative. One sees them on the boards no more.”

In addition to “glorifying the American girl,” Ziegfeld offered the best comedic talent in the business: Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, W. C. Fields, and the gawky Fanny Brice, whose clever parody of
girls made her the most famous of them all.

y mocking Ziegfeld and satirizing his skits, the Minskys offered burlesque in the original, truest sense of the word. That distinction allowed the brothers to skim the edges of class and elegance without being limited by them. Billy planted signs on Second Avenue that read
and hired a first-rate soubrette named Mae Dix, an “
energetic Amazon” known for flashing her “
censorless ginger.”

One summer night, toward the end of the season, a thick heat skulked through the auditorium. Men huddled in large packs, heaving toward the stage, shirts polka-dotted with sweat stains. The place smelled of greasepaint and talc and cheap cigars. Spirals of smoke unraveled upward, fogging the air, blurring the Shakespeare quotes on the walls. Mae Dix sauntered across the stage and down Abe’s runway, wearing a short black dress with white collar and cuffs, French maid style. The collar and cuffs were detachable, so they could be washed daily, although Mae tried to make them last for at least two shows.

At the end of her number, after a final twirl and shake, she pulled at her collar, holding it away from the thick makeup on her neck, but she was not yet behind the curtain. A man in the audience hinged his fingers on his lips and whistled, begging her to stay onstage and do it again—take off something else, the cuffs this time. Mae obliged, fell into a bow, and thought the show was over.

But there was a stampede of clapping now, furious and unrelenting, and Mae slowly, tentatively, undid her bodice, one button at a time. She stepped back behind the curtain, where Nick Elliott, the house manager, stood glaring at her.

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
9.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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