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 (4 page)

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
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Rose’s older sister, Mina,
died of a drug overdose when she was just twenty. Afterward the younger sister, Belle, clung to Rose, absorbing her philosophy, noting the patterns of her behavior. Big Lady’s mother, Dottie, rounded out the crew. She, too, shared the family penchant for marrying young, wedding Big Lady’s father at age fourteen and then simply losing track of him. Big Lady, Rose, Louise, and June knew nothing of their father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. “
Of course, he was only a man,” June said, “so it didn’t much matter.”

Big Lady often fled her dull, untidy life in Seattle and ventured out to San Francisco or Juneau or Tonopah, lugging a trunk of hand-sewn corsets and garters dotted with beads and jewels. Undergarments were her specialty. On the backs she embroidered hearts and across the fronts naughty angels who cracked jokes in bright, cursive lettering. In Goldstream, Nevada, the prostitutes were among her best customers. But she catered to all kinds, even
embroidering an altar cloth for the nuns of Sacred Heart Convent.

Once, after Rose, Louise, and June moved in, Big Lady took an extended trip. Rose asked her to knit an afghan throw rug while she was on the road. Months passed, and Rose wondered when it would be finished. “
Dozens of tiny squares don’t knit themselves together, dear,” Big Lady told her. Rose accepted this, and kept sending her mother money for yarn.

Meanwhile, Rose described the project to a few neighbors in West Seattle, who told her that they, too, were waiting for this same afghan. They’d also sent money for yarn. Next time they spoke, Rose accused her mother of running a scam.

“Now, Rose,” she explained, “I keep track of every penny sent by each person, so when I finish knitting I’ll add up the score. You see, darling, the one who has paid the most gets the prize. It’s a sort of auction, only it’s private and it goes on during, not after, I make the afghan.”

Impressed, Rose told the story to her daughters. “There’s nothing ordinary about your Big Lady, girls,” she said, and only hoped she could pass on such valuable lessons.

uring Rose’s childhood, Charlie Thompson quietly tolerated both Big Lady’s long absences and her brief appearances. His hair was bone white by the age of twenty-seven, and he held the same job his entire life, working as a cashier for the
Great Northern Railway. He escaped only as far as his own backyard garden. There, at least, nothing talked back or disobeyed or seethed with disappointment.

Rose didn’t care to pass her time at Seattle’s Alki Beach with neighborhood girls, stringing “
Indian necklaces” made of wild rose seed pods. Instead she longed to be on the stage, and Charlie Thompson indulged her, but only for one summer. He had no choice, really; each night the child cornered him with tales of vaudeville routines past and present, and she wasn’t alone in her fascination. “
Vaudeville was America in motley,” wrote one historian, “the national relaxation … we flocked vicariously to don the false face, let down our back hair, and forget.”

Variety, as the entertainment was originally called, had its roots in
Europe, where itinerant performers trouped from town to town and village to village. Later in the century, “vaudeville” became
the more popular term, derived from vau-de-Vire, the valley of the Vire River in Normandy, where locals gathered on mild nights to show off whatever odd or remarkable talent they happened to possess. Similarly, it had always been American tradition to enliven a play with entr’acte performances by singers, dancers, magicians, and acrobats.
George Washington, in black satin court dress, always preceded by an usher carrying lighted wax candles in silver candlesticks, used to stroll down the aisle of the old John Street Theatre in lower Manhattan. From the decorated presidential box Washington reportedly saw
The School for Scandal
no fewer than three times, but not because he enjoyed the play. “His Excellency,” confessed one colleague, “seemed greatly charmed with Mlle. Placide, the lively tight-rope dancer from Paris, who appeared in most gracious diversions between the acts.”

Vaudeville became a community enterprise, cheap entertainment for new immigrants, offering something for everyone: skits, jugglers, singers, minstrel acts, and “
coon shouters” (the most famous of whom was a Jewish woman named Sophie Tucker, who donned blackface and sang “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, but Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love”), gymnastics, animal and human tricks, comedy sketches, choreographed brawls, innovative dancing (in one popular number, a woman spun and leapt and pirouetted among
two dozen eggs, never breaking a one), and bluntly ribald humor. A perennially popular skit, “
The Haymakers,” began with a group of harvesters, boys and girls, working on a farm. Eyebrows waggled, bawdy quips were exchanged, and each boy lined up to visit the same girl behind the haystack, shocked expressions and disheveled appearances betraying their indiscretion.

Dime museums, such as P. T. Barnum’s famous place on Broadway, staged 10-cent shows in divided buildings—one for freak exhibitions, the other for variety acts—showcasing fat ladies, bearded women, pickled embryos in jars,
Bertha Mills and her nineteen-inch feet, Laloo and the parasitic, headless twin sprouting from his stomach, Down syndrome children passed off as “Aztecs,” and a few entertainers who would go on to achieve legitimate success, including comedians Weber and Fields and magician Harry Houdini.

For years Houdini was the highest-paid vaudeville star in the country, and crowds flocked to see him, hoping to learn his secrets. One renowned songwriter, Gerald Marks, recalled following Houdini from show to show. Every time the magician appeared wrapped in heavy chains and prepared to submerge himself, upside down, into a tank of water, he warned the crowd, “
This is a very dangerous thing I’m about to do, and I don’t know if I’m going to come out alive. I always kiss my wife good-bye.” With that, Bess Houdini rose solemnly from her seat in the front row, approached the stage, and embraced her husband. One night the songwriter discovered the secret: Bess, too, was an illusionist, distracting everyone with her sweet, stoic smile and then slipping a key beneath Houdini’s tongue.

In New York City a producer named
Tony Pastor introduced “refined” vaudeville, shows to which respectable men could take their wives, sisters, or sweethearts without fear of encountering harlots or drunken revelers. Pastor favored sweet, wholesome performers such as the minstrel duo who first sang the tune “While Strolling Through the Park One Day.” The idea spread, and managers across the country advertised theaters with “no wine room” and exhorted the
new commandments of vaudeville: Keep it clean, keep it neat, keep it dainty. No hells, no damns, no mention of any deities. Ladies will wear silk tights to the hip. And if you have to stoop to dirt to get a laugh, you’re in the wrong theater.

In 1904, the summer she was twelve, Rose joined a group of child vaudevillians, practicing the mandolin and dance routines, but when the days shortened again Charlie Thompson told her enough was enough. He enrolled her in a
Catholic boarding school for girls in Seattle, where, according to Big Lady, she could “
learn manners and obedience from the sisters.” Big Lady herself claimed to read the Bible regularly and warned of God’s growing wrath. “
God wouldn’t like the way men have turned everything around,” she said, “to make things easier.”

Rose came to believe that God witnessed her every act and heard her every thought, and that He cleared a path especially for her. She didn’t need outside channels or people to get His attention. To underscore her point, she used her Bible to make a
paper doll family. When the silence
of the halls grew unbearable, Rose told the nuns she had to go home to visit her sick father. Instead
she joined any roving vaudeville troupe that happened to pass through. After a few weeks the nuns caught on, dispatched a search party, and found her, invariably, in the front row of a chorus, singing out louder than anyone.

dozen years, two divorces, and two children later, Rose begged her father to assist his granddaughters’ burgeoning careers. Charlie Thompson acquiesced when she asked for two favors: a recital at the Knights of Pythias lodge hall, where he would play piano, and money for costumes. Rose still had a flare of hope for Louise—the girl had done one thing right, scoring first prize in a “Healthy Baby” contest when she was a year old—and decided to dress her in a sensible ensemble: striped skirt and black sweater, feathered hat, and white stockings tucked into thick-heeled Mary Janes. June got a pink tarlatan ballet dress and toe shoes and a butterfly pin that nested inside her blond curls, which Rose touched up with a dab of peroxide. Every night she knelt before her baby and massaged cold cream onto June’s knees, and every afternoon she took June to the best vaudeville houses in Seattle. Watching from the wings of the Orpheum or the Admiral or Pantages, Rose ordered her daughter to memorize all of the best songs and steps, and she did, within hours. “
We always,” June said, “stole our stuff.”

The Hovick girls’ debut followed the induction of new Knights of Pythias officers, and once the men took their seats Louise found herself in the center of the room. Her brown hair was bobbed at midear, Dutch boy style, and the hat’s tight string gave her an extra chin. She was wide and round and curveless—her grandpa called her “
Plug”—and both her front teeth sloped to a point, like sharpened pencils. Every month Charlie stashed some money away, saving up for the dentist.

She sang a tough tomboy number—“
I’m a hard-boiled rose, everybody knows”—and executed a series of poses too disjointed to be called a dance. Knee bent, heel lifted, hands on hips, swivel and repeat from the other side, scowling all the while. A stage direction on the sheet music instructed, “Pull skirt up,” and at the appropriate place in the song Louise did, sliding a gloved hand up one pudgy thigh.

Rose kept silent as Louise performed, waiting in the wings for June’s
turn. “Baby June” was her new name, her official name, though by now she was two and a half years old. Charlie Thompson struck a chord and his granddaughter spun out, splitting in the air and raising herself up. “
The rose step,” Rose called out, hands clasped as if in prayer. Her voice carried to every corner in the room. “Smile, dear, smile. That’s right. Now, arabesque, arabesque.” Baby June was more graceful than either Leland sister and prettier than Anna Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina.

Charlie Thompson could play the piano by ear but kept his eyes fixed on the sheet music, never once glancing up at June. “
Fank you,” she said, falling into bow after bow, her forehead flush against her knees, compact as a folding chair. “Fank all of you.” Inside her tiny toe shoes the Baby’s feet were bleeding. Rose had just enough money for a brand-new pair, filched from her father’s account. Louise’s teeth could wait; the girl didn’t need a proper smile to sing about being a rose, hard-boiled or otherwise.

Chapter Three

A Minsky never says die, or if he does, he says it softly.


New York City, Late Spring 1912

“Billy Minsky
!” a voice called from behind, and the man who owned that name turned. It was late, and the street lamp cast a dim semicircle of light on the corner of
14th Street and Second Avenue. He couldn’t see who was wielding the gun, just its long silver finger of a barrel, pointing and accusatory.

He should have known this was coming.
Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that four gangsters pulled up to the Metropole Café in a Packard touring car and shot Beansie Rosenthal dead? Beansie had been Billy’s source, telling him all about a crooked police lieutenant and his graft and gambling and prostitution rackets. Billy knew it was risky to write about the scandal for the
New York World
, but he had always been one to take chances. He embodied the times, preferring swift action to careful planning, no matter the consequences. “
This is a get-things-done-quick age,”
editorialized that year. “A ready-to-put-on-and-wear age. A just-add-hot-water-and-serve age. A new-speed-record-every-day age. A take-it-or-leave-it-I’m-busy age.” He penned article after article about the lieutenant and his henchmen, thugs with names like Billiard Ball Jack and Gyp the Blood. His exposé had sent several of them to jail earlier in the year, and now one of them was out here, waiting for him by the stoop of his family home.

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
7.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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