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 (7 page)

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
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“Madame, if you please,” Rose said in a reverent voice, straight from her convent days. “I would like your opinion.… Would you say my baby was a natural dancer?”

June peered into the ruffles, her teeth dry from her unbroken smile. She couldn’t see Madame Pavlova, but heard her stilted reply.

“One cannot tell such a things. She is not even yet borned. Her feets have not formed enough to hold her.” She spun and glided away, her toe shoes rasping across the floor. June released her mouth from the smile.

“Foreigners,” Rose muttered. “I could hardly understand a word she said.”

Nevertheless, she quickly forgot the ballerina’s slight. When they left for Hollywood, Rose announced her daughter’s new billing: “Baby June, the Pocket-sized Pavlova.”

hey had been down to Hollywood before for minor vaudeville shows and benefit concerts; the write-ups had made every trip worthwhile. “
Baby June Hovick, whose three years weigh lightly on her dainty shoulders,” wrote the
Los Angeles Times
, “has danced on her toes since she learned to walk, and is altogether the most adorable little creature in captivity.” Most satisfying, the press bought into Rose’s marketing scheme: “Baby June delighted the large crowd last night, a baby Pavlova,” the
Seattle Times
reported. “Her little legs and feet speak poetry.”
Los Angeles society women elected June the queen of their annual carnival, where
the “little tot” led a parade of Tommy Tuckers, Cinderellas, Aladdins, and Little Bo Peeps and performed “a toe dance as dainty as Pavlova ever dreamed of.” Rose saved every clipping, underlining the most flattering phrases with red pencil, beginning a scrapbook she would keep for the rest of her life. The Baby’s toe shoes didn’t last nearly so long. Blood gathered in the tips, hardly wider than thimbles, spreading across the satin like a blooming rose. At night, Rose dabbed salve on June’s cuts and calluses and taped the tips of her cracked nails. There was always a new pair of shoes waiting to be broken in.

Sometimes the entire tribe came along: Great-grandma Dottie, Big Lady, Aunt Belle, Rose, June, Louise, and the family dogs. During one occasion they all crammed into a boardinghouse room when it became clear Dottie was nearing death. She was tiny but innately resilient, like all their female kin, and Rose sent June and Louise out to play. When they returned, they saw their mother, Aunt Belle, and Big Lady locked in a hug, weeping. Not because their great-grandmother had finally passed, although she had, but because Rose found the missing diamond from one of her engagement rings under Dottie’s body.

Hush, children,” Rose said, placing a finger over each daughter’s mouth. “I had given up hope of ever seeing it again … wouldn’t Granny be pleased if she knew that by dying she had saved me from accusing anyone of stealing my diamond?” The girls found themselves trapped in a grid of arms, Mother and Big Lady and Aunt Belle all squeezing tight, and for one moment the family felt incredibly, indestructibly, close.

ater, the sisters would remember things differently, as sisters do, old grudges and misunderstandings refracting each memory, bending them in opposite directions. June looked at her big sister and saw “
the most beautiful child alive,” with eggshell smooth skin and a shiny brown cap of hair, instead of an overweight, ungraceful tomboy. She, not Louise, was awkward, with wiry, bruise-mottled legs and a “
Norwegian beak”
of a nose, her talent more slapstick than refined. In her view, Louise didn’t lack ability so much as interest. “
She was haughty,” June said, “and not sure she wanted to be there because she didn’t
to be there.”

To Louise, June was born for the sole purpose of gracing a stage, as if those oddly tired eyes and miraculous little feet had been specially ordered by Dionysus; even the barrel curlers their mother wound in her hair every night couldn’t diminish the effect. “
Only actresses,” Louise thought, not without jealousy, “could be so pretty.” But she resented the Baby’s talent most of all. Of course Louise
to make her steps light and quick and her voice carry without cracking, but her body refused to obey her brain. “
I wanted desperately to sing and dance as well as June,” she insisted, “but she learned everything so fast.… I couldn’t help looking at myself and I hated the person I saw.”

The one thing the sisters came to agree on, after years of being entrapped by her words and mauled by her will, was their mother, a woman whose every thought and action defied her last, who raised her daughters as if they were two grizzled generals preparing for war—with men, with her, with each other. From year to year, month to month, even moment to moment, neither Louise nor June nor Rose knew the true status of their relationship: the tornado of slights (real or imagined), remorse (genuine or feigned), and resentment (always authentic, always deep) scythed too fiercely through their paths.

Rose was forthright in her dishonesty. “
Never lie, never steal,” she’d advise, “it does no good in the long run,” but she did both every day they spent on the road. A self-professed prude, she invoked God often and disdained makeup (for herself; the Lord understood the girls needed rouge onstage), nail polish, and silk stockings, yet ventured this opinion about marriage: “
If you don’t succeed the first time, try, try again, only don’t try to squeeze oil out of a rock.” Her petite hands, with their fragile, baby-bird bones, were capable, literally, of murder. She was by turns tender and pathetic and terrifying, broken in a way that no one, in that time or place, had any idea how to fix. “
Mother was,” June thought, “a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.” Her broken edges cut her daughters in ways both emotional and physical, and only sharpened with age.

Louise recalled many injuries from these days, long before Rose’s unyielding focus turned from June to her, long before the Minsky brothers stepped in and rearranged her world, long before she trained her mind to ignore messages from her body. At first Rose tried desperately to fit her into the act. “
I know that Louise is destined to be a great, great something or other,” she insisted to Big Lady and Belle. “My children are rare.” She bought Louise a saxophone she couldn’t play and spoiled her with presents, such as a Helena Rubenstein makeup box, to make her forget how jealous she was of June. But Louise knew she was a liability most of the time; her mother made that clear when she called her “
excess baggage” and sighed in her direction, asking,
the matter with you, Louise? Is it that you don’t want to do the dance? Is that it? What
you want?”

What Rose wanted, at least part of the time, was for Louise to go away, although she worried about strange influences warping her elder daughter. “
When she’s away from us,” Rose fretted, “she’s in a nest of civilians. Oh God, please don’t let it rub off on her.” But on several occasions she made it happen, allowing the girls’ father, Daddy Jack Hovick, a rare visit (despite her fury at his remarrying), or taking her to live with
Aunt Hilma, Daddy Jack’s sister in Seattle. Aunt Hilma was married to an advertising executive for the
Seattle Times
, and they owned a grand white house on Queen Anne Hill.

Their daughter, Helen, died at age seventeen. Aunt Hilma and her husband went out one evening and came home to find Helen in a pool of her own blood—a freak menstrual hemorrhage
, the doctors concluded—and they were overjoyed at the idea of taking Louise in.
Rose enrolled Louise in the local public school and told her she could stay in Helen’s room. She and June would send for her just as soon as they landed either a string of movie deals or a long-term circuit contract, and they would all troupe together, across the country, hoping, ultimately, to perform at the Palace Theatre in New York City, the heart of vaudeville in the heart of everything.

Forty years later, when Gypsy Rose Lee told the story of little Louise, her old self, the identity she traded in with the hope of trading up, she said that living in Seattle with wealthy relatives sounded just
fine. She explored her cousin’s things while a neighborhood girl, Helen’s best friend, provided narration. This silver mirror and matching comb came from “Tiffany’s in New York,” and here was a “real pearl necklace,” to which a new gem was added on each birthday.

Mother says you’re the luckiest little girl in the whole world,” Helen’s friend said. “Everybody doesn’t get a chance to be adopted into such a nice family.”

At that, Louise felt the comb slip from her fingers, and informed the girl that she wasn’t going to be
. She was merely staying for a visit, “until Mother gets back on her feet.”

“Oh no,” Helen’s friend insisted. “I heard my mother and father talking about it after dinner. They said the papers are all drawn up and all your mother has to do is sign them.”

In the doorway stood Mother and Aunt Hilma. Rose blew her nose, poked a tissue at her eyes.

“Louise, dear,” she said, “you’re old enough now to know how hard life has been for me these past few months, what a fight I’ve had just to keep our heads above water. It might be years before June is where she belongs in the theater. Years of hard work and struggle …”

“But if I’m adopted I won’t be yours anymore,” Louise said. Her mother must not understand what “adoption” truly means, she thought. That was the only explanation. “I’ll work harder in the act, Mother. I’ll practice every day, honest I will. I’ll do anything but, please, don’t let me be adopted.”

After a moment Rose sighed, crumpled the tissue in her palm, and ordered her daughter to get her coat. Outside, Louise turned her face upward, willing her mother to look down.

“I’ll make up for it some way,” Louise promised. “You’ll see.”

y now, Rose figured June had been to Los Angeles enough times and scored enough film cameos to merit another moniker: “
The Hollywood Baby.” The Hollywood Baby was a natural, perfect at taking direction, with a face that could reflect anything you wished to see. On
one visit, for instance, June was in competition for a part along with five hundred other “
beribboned, beflowered, overbleached, overcurled moppets.” Rose noticed the director looking their way. “Smile, baby,” Rose instructed, and pinched June’s cheeks until she whimpered.

The director, Hal Roach of “Our Gang” fame, approached and asked June if she knew any rhymes. June launched into a song:

Nobody knows me number

Nobody knows me name

Nobody knows where I gets me clothes

But I gets them all the same

She’ll do,” he said. “Stop slapping her face for color. She’s right as she is. She plays the part of a hungry, beat-up waif.”

Rose was furious but accepted the job on the Baby’s behalf. June would do it because June did it all; clearly, her younger daughter had inherited her work ethic and drive. Hal Roach loved the Baby, booking her for film after film, many of them silent, so all June had to do was let those sad eyes work for her. Before each take, Rose bent down and leveled her face with her daughter’s.

BOOK: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
7.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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