Authors: Karen Abbott
Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Historical, #Entertainment & Performing Arts, #Women
n the meantime, they holed up in a hotel room in downtown Kansas City. A brief engagement at a nightclub called the Cuban Gardens—which was neither Cuban nor a garden, Louise noted—ended when one of its investors was shot dead over a dog-racing dispute. It was just as well, since the place was clearly disreputable, what with a master of ceremonies who called himself “
Happy Vic Allen, the Kansas City Joy Boy.” Louise’s nineteenth birthday (sixteenth, according to Mother’s
math) fell on the night they closed, and with only $82 left in the grouch bag they had to cancel the customary Chinese dinner. When the agent finally called a few days later, Rose tried to sound nonchalant and didn’t mention the Cuban Gardens debacle at all.
Now here’s the deal, Rose,” he said, his voice so shrill Louise could hear it from across the room. “It’s for a full week, right here in the city, two shows a day—”
“What is the salary?” Rose asked.
“As a personal favor to you, Sam,” Rose said, struggling to keep her voice calm, “we’ll take it.”
he Gayety Theater was a sprawling structure on the southeast corner of 12th and Wyandotte Streets, with a gingerbread-colored brick facade and ornate white moldings outlining the windows. A lattice of steel rose from the roof, supporting a vertical string of letters, each as tall as a door:
, the sign read, a saucy constellation winking against the sky. Just for good measure, a canvas banner unfurled beneath the marquee:
40 GIRLS 40. BURLESQUE AS YOU LIKE IT. 40 GIRLS 40
Rose stopped in the middle of the street. “Burlesque
!” she whispered, as if the word felt lewd inside her mouth. “Sam wouldn’t dare do a thing like this to us.”
She stormed inside the theater, angry now. Louise understood her mother’s reaction; respectable vaudevillians never stooped to burlesque unless they had to, and even then they kept the transgression to themselves. But there was no rule for what vaudevillians should do when burlesque was the only option left.
Louise and the girls waited in the lobby. Years later, when she wrote the story of how she became Gypsy Rose Lee, she crafted this memory carefully and with great detail, as if it picked up color and dimension with each recalling. She remembered the life-sized cardboard cutout of
a blonde looming over everyone, the tiny triangle patch covering the area where panties should have been, the two tassels affixed to either side of her brassiere, the way a breeze from a strategically placed fan pinwheeled the fringe. She gave this performer (likely a composite sketch of several burlesque mentors) a name,
TESSIE THE TASSEL TWIRLER
, and made her a cornerstone of the fable her life would soon become.
Mother came huffing out, Sam following and grabbing at her arm.
“Don’t touch me
!” Rose said. “There are laws to protect innocent women and children against fiends like you!”
“Let’s go inside and talk it over,” he said.
“Never! I’d rather starve first.”
Louise stepped forward and faced her mother. “Well, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I’m tired of starving to death. That’s all we’ve been doing for years. We have eleven dollars after the garage and hotel bill are paid. Where can we go on that?”
“Don’t say that, Louise,” Rose said. She shushed at the sobbing Hollywood Blondes. “Something will turn up. It always has, and it always will.”
“It already has turned up. This is it. Nothing better is ever going to turn up for us. There’s no place left for us to work anymore, Mother. There is no more vaudeville.”
“You gotta roll with the punches,” Sam added. “There’s a lot of dough to be picked up in burlesque, and what the hell, your life don’t go with it.”
Yes, it does.” Louise did not say these words so much as hear her lips say them, and she knew they were true without knowing why.
How can we explain each other’s behavior? How can we love fiercely, and yet comprehend the utter cruelty that’s being piled upon us? It hurts so terribly and you feel so helpless, like a butterfly on a pin.
It has been a stop-time year, all forward motion suspended, a looping refrain with no accompanying song. Every facet of Gypsy’s life threads together and pulls tight to restrict her:
The Naked Genius
debacle, her health, her finances, her family, her new home, the end of her relationship with Michael Todd—after which June sends a letter, reminding her of the perils of looking back:
I am sorry, really I am but I ’spose you have had a million people tell you that it couldn’t have worked for Houdini anyway. Now what? Are you going back to the dark alley life? I hope not.
Gypsy heeds the advice and grounds herself, focusing on her home. It is the center of her life and what she hopes will center her; she is
thirty-two, now, and has to think that way. She’d bought it at Mike’s insistence, a 1917 New York City landmark on East 63rd Street, former property of the Vanderbilts and future property of Spike Lee, for the price of
$12,500, a bargain even then.
In the parlance of realtors, the place has beautiful bones: two houses connected by a courtyard, twenty-eight rooms in all, an elevator, a Spanish Mediterranean stucco facade, an arched entryway and balcony, a garage that will soon house a silver-and-maroon Rolls-Royce monogrammed with her initials—used, of course, although
she’ll claim it was built especially for her. But the basement is a swamp, the elevator cables are missing, the hallways and stairs are slick with grime, the pipes are rotted through, and the old coal-fire furnace is busted beyond repair. Building materials are in short supply due to the war, and even if she cajoles stagehands into doing the work for her, renovations will be costly and drag on for years.
Nevertheless she applies for permits, gets estimates from contractors, signs off on plans to excavate the street and install a new tap in the city main. Details matter, too, and during her rare downtime she scavenges through Upper East Side antique shops. She doesn’t believe in spending money on frivolous luxuries—room service, for example—but on investments, pieces that will outlast her, if not her legacy: English Regency painted armchairs, a papier-mâché-and-pearl worktable, bunches of antique glass grapes. For the grand foyer she plans an intricate scrollwork design done entirely in gold leaf, the initials “G.R.L.” etched on every door. Picassos and Vertes along the walls, a miniature kitchen in her bedroom, and a professionally painted mural in the dining room—angels lolling on woolly clouds, tufted across the walls and ceiling. She pawns an iron dolphin in exchange for a Victorian bed, and reminds the work crews to preserve the contents of her refrigerator before cutting the electricity.
“Of course it goes without saying,” Gypsy instructs, “how vitally important it is that food be kept in good condition to prevent any waste.”
The requests for money have never stopped and never will; it wouldn’t be her family, otherwise. “
We know how well we’re doing,” Gypsy says, speaking for herself and June, “by the number of fan letters
we get from needy relatives.” Big Lady and Aunt Belle have stacks of unpaid bills, emergency operations, a dossier with the Seattle Welfare Department. Gypsy receives a notice in the mail:
Dear Miss Hovick, we normally write to the agency to have a worker interview relatives of relief recipients, but we felt that you would appreciate our contacting you personally. A minimum budget of $36.75 per month would be sufficient to keep your relatives off the relief rolls.
The emotional demands are just as exacting, what with the family’s constant complaints about Rose’s behavior during impromptu visits out west.
She was an “insane person,” Aunt Belle recalls, stinking drunk, shaking her fists and kicking and bellowing, and it took two people to hold her down and carry her away. “
I’d rather put a gun to my head, Louise,” Belle says, “than die a slow death trying to live with her.” Before leaving the state, Rose ran up more than $100 on Big Lady’s credit at the drug and grocery stores. If Gypsy could send just enough to cover those bills, they’d be forever grateful. Gypsy does, although she can guess what the pair will later say in letters to Rose. “
I can’t imagine why Louise treats you so mean,” Big Lady sympathizes with her daughter. “She will find out later that her Mother is her very best and only real friend.”
Despite the cadence of their relationship—the whiplash back and forth, the hysteria, the silence, the withdraws and withdrawals—Big Lady is right. Gypsy might have taken to her bed in “
a total state of heartache” after the breakup with Mike, but Mother is the love of her life. “
They loved each other,” June said. “Madly.” Theirs is a primal connection that Gypsy is incapable of severing, parallel to love and just as deep but rotten at its root. It is a swooning, fun-house version of love, love concerned with appearances rather than intent, love both deprived and depraved, love that has to glimpse its distorted reflection in the mirror in order to exist at all.
It is why Gypsy acquiesces when Rose asks for a farmhouse on the Hudson River to share with her girlfriend. “
Louise dear,” she writes, “I
don’t ask much of you darling.… A beautiful all renevated [sic] painted 8 room house. A pipeless heater burns anything—wood, coal, or bodies. Please don’t use that last statement for press.”
It is why Gypsy forgives her when Rose arrives at domestic relations court in a chauffeur-driven limousine, her petite frame lost under a mink coat and piles of jewels, to
accuse Gypsy of stopping her allowance. It isn’t about the money, Gypsy knows, but about touching her daughter’s life with the heaviest hand she has, about bad attention being better than no attention at all—the same sort of attention she herself sought at the
premiere, when the spotlight was meant only for June.
It is why Gypsy looks past her lunatic behavior out in California, the inappropriate pleas to Michael Todd for help (
mother,” Rose says pointedly), the threats of resurrecting pieces of those dark alley days: “
My life with you,” Rose writes,
was anything but a happy one. Things you made me go through and endure in regards to all your stepping stones to your getting where you were interested in getting at any cost must now be told to your faithful public that do not know you at all.
Now, when Rose suffers serious injuries in a car accident, it is why Gypsy forgets everything that came before and yanks her mother close, even lets her see her fear. She confides in Rose about her own bad health, the pending operation to remove “
every tooth in my head,” the duodenal ulcer that makes her vomit blood. She shares her disappointment about
The Naked Genius
, knits Rose a sweater, advises her to “
be brave and try to rise above the pain.”
When she decides to leave for Hollywood—just one movie, this time, and under her proper name—she gives her mother a sincere good-bye, one that signals they will talk again, sooner rather than later. “
This isn’t a pleasure trip for me,” Gypsy writes.
I’m on a job, I will have no time to entertain anyone. You have the farm, and gawd knows I could scarcely afford to see that you kept it.
Now you must try and work out some happiness for yourself. I have a tough job ahead of me, it isn’t a cinch at my age to start all over, but that is what I am trying to do.
Gypsy has two tasks in mind but keeps quiet about the second, a secret plot that blooms sweetly inside her mind—a plan to change her life for good and, hopefully, for the better, a plan even Mother will understand.
Viewed in retrospect, after the sobering years which have intervened, the dead-pan thrill-seeking of the self-styled “lost generation,” the senseless cavortings of “flaming youth,” the determined squandering and guzzling and wenching of the newly rich, combine to form a lurid picture of a race of monsters outrageously at play.
POLLY ADLER, NEW YORK’S PREEMINENT MADAM
Just like that, from one year to the next, it changed. The National Winter Garden was no longer a haven for slummers, the ironic last stop after a night that would soon and best be forgotten, but a premiere destination, the place where things began.
On the first night of the new season, Morton and Herbert Minsky stood in the lobby, waiting for the clock to strike eight. Riotous bouquets of flowers sweetened the air, and
a floral horseshoe made of roses bowed over the brothers’ heads. Together they watched
the luminaries arrive, counting them the way brother Billy counted money. There were the members of the Algonquin Round Table: Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun, Alexander Woollcott and Harold Ross, Marc Connelly and George and Beatrice Kaufman. Dorothy Parker, party hopping in Paris with Ernest Hemingway, just missed the occasion, unfortunately; the woman knew how to make a grand entrance. Tiny and fragile but fierce, not quite five feet tall, wearing all black and an embroidered hat too large for her head, dark brown hair tucked primly underneath, she’d inquire, “
What fresh hell is this?” when the door swung open to let her inside.