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 (13 page)

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
9.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Ten-dollar fine, he said. She knew perfectly well that showing more than what the script called for was a punishable offense.

He threw on the house lights, pushed the curtain aside, and took center stage.

The Minsky brothers,” he yelled above the frenzy, “run a decent theater. There won’t be any more of that, and if you don’t like it, you’re free to leave.”

Billy Minsky panicked at the words. He rushed to Nick, clamped a hand around his shoulder, and yanked him back behind the curtain.

If people want it,” Billy said, “we’ll give it to them. When a court finds that I’ve broken some law, I’ll stop. Until then, we’ll sell tickets.” The way Billy saw it, men had seen Mae’s routine countless times at private stag shows.
He hadn’t invented the strip, but he’d bring it out from the back room.

Give Mae back her ten dollars, Billy ordered. Moreover, she’d score a ten-dollar raise as long as she repeated her “accident” every single night.

few weeks later, a man named John Sumner, the secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, requested that police pay a visit to the National Winter Garden. Sumner never expected to become the city’s premier vice quester,
having lost his virginity to a prostitute at the old
Haymarket “resort” in Chelsea, but he strove to match the efforts of his predecessor, Anthony Comstock (who reportedly “
died of joy” after procuring the conviction of birth control advocate Margaret Sanger).

A horse-drawn paddy wagon pulled up to Second Avenue and Houston Street, and the officers handcuffed the first Minsky brother they spotted, who happened to be Herbert. They took him for a ride downtown to chat with Inspector McCaullaugh at the precinct station.

The Minskys knew the law wasn’t on their side.
Two years prior, in 1915, the courts had decreed that movies and theater were popular entertainment, not art, and therefore unprotected by the First Amendment. Burlesque, not surprisingly, fell into this category. For two hours the inspector railed at Herbert and for two hours Herbert took it, eyes downcast, threading and unthreading his fingers as if they might produce a singing cat or length of rope, some vaudeville trick on the fly.

I have never before or since,” he confessed to his brothers, “felt quite so mean and worthless.”

When the inspector ran out of condemnations, Herbert stood and grimly shook his hand. “
Have your men drop in anytime,” he said. “They’ll never see anything off color at Minsky’s.”

The following afternoon, Herbert installed red, white, and blue lights in the center of the footlight trough and wired them to the ticket booth, where he was stationed every night. If he saw a cop in uniform or suspected one had infiltrated the audience in disguise, he threw on the red light. At once the act downgraded into a tamer version of itself—
a “Boston,” they called it, named for that city’s especially vigilant enforcers of decency. Bodices remained buttoned, hips swayed to a halt, and the officer would leave disappointed, not having seen anything remotely objectionable.

Never let it be said that the Minskys weren’t men of their word.

Chapter Eleven

Michael Todd was the toughest, lowest kind of man, that close to being a gangster. And Gypsy was mad about him.
mad about him.


Chicago, Illinois, 1941

fter arriving in Chicago, Gypsy does what Michael Todd will not, filing for divorce from a spouse she doesn’t love. Just as her mother did nearly thirty years earlier, Gypsy claims her husband, Arnold “Bob” Mizzy, treated her “
cruelly” by using “
obscene and abusive language” and knocking her down twice. She requests that the decree apply to her two wedding ceremonies, one in a water taxi off the Santa Ana coast and another at Long Beach, both sanctioned by 20th Century–Fox and attended by the press.

Reporters follow Gypsy to Chicago, covering her divorce
, headlines blare) and the grand opening of Mike’s Theatre Café on the city’s North Side. Teenage waitresses wear gingham skirts and serve Jell-O and milk along with highballs. Children swing back and forth on the railing while their parents watch Gypsy work the stage, using every one of her old tricks. She pays a woman in the audience to scream as she pulls off her last pin. A beat later, a busboy
drops a tray of dishes. While the audience roars, Gypsy pretends to faint. “
I never try to stir up the animal in ’em,” she confides to Chicago’s press corps. “
Did you ever hold a piece of candy or a toy in front of a baby—just out of his reach? Notice how he laughs? That’s your strip audience.”

She keeps her word to George Davis and pounds on the typewriter between performances, rereading while she soaks off her body paint in the tub, a process that often takes hours. His connections help her land a contract with Simon & Schuster. “
I’ll do my specialty in Macy’s to sell a book,” she writes to her publicist. “If you would prefer something a little more dignified, make it a Wannamaker’s window.” She’s eager to finish now. George is a great friend but a stubborn, temperamental critic, and his letters often have less to do with
The G-String Murders
than with his own floundering literary career, the daily chaos at Middagh Street, pointed comments about her decision to leave (“
I’m delighted to hear that Todd wants you to stay on and make more money”), and, most maddening, his insights into her future.

I think it very funny,” George writes, “that you were once arrested for playing in a sketch called ‘Illusion.’ By rights you should have been given a life sentence: you’ve been playing it constantly.… Over and over I catch myself staring the mask of youth off you, the way dirty boys stare the dress off their teacher, and what I see scares the bejesus out of me. Not for myself, but for you.” More foreboding than his words is the fact that she had thought them first herself, the looping, silent sound track in her mind since becoming Gypsy Rose Lee.

She and Mike spend nearly every hour of every day together operating the Theatre Café, and if he leaves Chicago he sends letters: “
Darling, I reread your pink letter at least 10 times.… I feel exactly like you do and wish I could say it as good as you do—somehow I can’t make with gags & funny words.”

His wife, Bertha, has her suspicions, and Mike still insists on discretion, mostly for the benefit of his son. If Bertha discovers their affair, she will keep him from seeing Michael Todd, Jr. One night, when Gypsy is expecting Mike for dinner, she hears a knock at her door. To her surprise she finds Junior, dressed in a suit, comb lines visible across his hair.

My father was unavoidably detained,” he says. “He has asked me to take you to dinner.”

The kid is eleven years old.

He orders Gypsy’s favorite dish and brand of champagne, discusses his burgeoning business philosophy. At the end of the meal, he drops his hand over the check.

“Dad is paying for dinner, Miss Lee,” he says, “but your split of champagne, that’s on me.”

Gypsy thinks, not for the first time, that Mike would be a good father to her own child, should she ever decide to have one.

With the Theatre Café
making $55,000 per week, Mike takes an extended business trip to New York, seeking a show to produce on Broadway. In his absence, Gypsy notices one of the managers making some curious changes. A pinup-pretty girl now stands behind a green felt box and encourages patrons to play a dice game. He also raises drink prices, imposes a minimum, and fires half of the waitresses.

Mike is furious upon his return and demands that everything revert to the way it had been. The manager explains that certain business “connections” demanded the changes, connections who could not be reasoned with. The next day, two henchmen for the Chicago Mafia stop by to underscore that point. Mike withdraws his name from the Café, sells it to the Mob for one dollar, and flees the city.

Gypsy leaves with him and takes the act on the road, traveling across the country, three shows a day, six days a week. In August, as the tour nears its end,
Bertha Todd bursts into her dressing room in Syracuse, weepy and wild-eyed. She aims a shaking finger at Gypsy.

End your affair with Mike, she demands. Immediately.

There is no affair, Gypsy says, her tone calm and cool.

She has her superstitions, developed during childhood and deepening as she ages. Eat twelve grapes on the twelve strokes of midnight every New Year’s Eve. Never lay your hat on your bed. Don’t whistle in the dressing room. No hint of the color green backstage. And truth is malleable, something to be bent or stretched or made to disappear, but direct lies always find the path back to the one who tells them.

Dainty June, at the height of her career.
(photo credit 11.1)

Chapter Twelve

Forty-five weeks of two shows a day, seven days a week, in states that permitted Sunday shows. And if you made good you stayed on the wheel, show after show, until you were too old and shaky to play any part at all.


On the Vaudeville Circuit, 1920–1924

By now Louise was nine and June seven, but Rose Hovick didn’t need the calendar to tell time. She had a private clock, set precisely to her needs and preferences, years tacked on and stripped away within mere moments.
Birth certificates were forged and forged again: locations chosen at whim; dates substituted or invented entirely, always younger for train travel and older for evading child welfare. Had she not wished so desperately for her girls to be seen, they might not have existed at all.

Murray Gordon—“Gordon” to Rose, “Uncle Gordon” to June, and still a nonentity to Louise—applied a veneer of order over the chaos, slowing time just enough to establish rules and routines. He would sleep separately and alone; the girls never once caught him trying to enter their mother’s room. “
We never saw or heard a thing about them being intimate,” June said. “It was strictly hidden.” And
no salary for the
boys in the act, an edict Rose found brilliant. “The experience they’ll get,” he told their parents, “is worth more than money.” He discovered the boys in hotel courtyards and small-town alleyways during stops on the circuit, and their parents, for the most part, were happy to be rid of them.

One singer, from Shamokin, Pennsylvania, had never owned a pair of underwear or socks. He sang in clear, pitch-perfect Italian, but was so deformed he couldn’t straighten his legs. Gordon positioned him close to the wings, in near darkness, with a pin spot illuminating only his face. The sight of the audience terrified him, and at the high notes he sometimes wet his pants.

Another boy slept in one room with twelve siblings and had a father who spent more time in jail than at home. Rose named this second boy
Sonny Sinclair. Within a week Gordon had taken him to see three doctors, the last of whom determined that Sonny, ten years old, had syphilis.

The disease is incurable,” Rose told Louise and June, “and there is only one way you can get it—by letting some man enter your room. Most important of all, nearly all men have it.”

Except, she hastened to add, for Gordon.

Gordon also put an end to games of hide-and-seek in between rehearsals and performances. No more wasting their energy or wandering into situations they were too young to understand, such as the time June spied on a fellow vaudeville star, a man with a lioness. The animal was the most regal creature June had ever seen, and she crept backstage at every opportunity to watch them practice their act. One day she noticed the man touching his animal, petting her again and again between her hind legs. She made a strange, unfamiliar sound, somewhere between a purr and a roar, and June ran and told her mother that the lioness was hurt. The following afternoon, Rose hid backstage with June so they could watch together. “
He fondled her and fondled her,” June remembered, “and finally he entered her.” She felt her mother stiffen, heard her sharp intake of breath, but Rose said nothing about this man trespassing into a room where he didn’t belong.

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
9.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Devil—With Wings by L. Ron Hubbard
Runaway Horses by Mishima, Yukio
Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall
Texas Proud (Vincente 2) by Constance O'Banyon
When Joss Met Matt by Cahill,Ellie
Dark Horse by Marilyn Todd
Everything We Keep: A Novel by Kerry Lonsdale
Reckless by Ruth Wind
The Strangers of Kindness by Terry Hickman