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
Darling,” she said, “your dog has just been run over. It was killed.” June’s four-year-old brain tried to process her mother’s tone and expression, to dig at the truth of her words. “NeeNee is dead,” Rose continued. “Run over—dead.” She shoved June, gently, toward the set. For four straight takes, all from different angles, the Baby cried fat, perfect tears, and her mother’s applause beat a wondrous rhythm inside her head.
A glittering, shiny world opened up and made room for them. The film star Mary Pickford planned a party, a high-profile fete that Rose anticipated for weeks. That afternoon June developed chicken pox, and the doctor advised Rose to let her rest. Instead she sat on the bed and made up her daughter’s face: mascara, dollops of rouge, lipstick, thick greasepaint to hide the splotches and bumps. “
You’re my trouper,” she murmured, leaning in to kiss June’s cheek. “Nobody could ever guess now by looking at you that your temperature is 103.” And off to the party they went.
(photo credit 5.2)
The Baby didn’t always have to cry, or look sad and neglected, to score parts. Harold Lloyd, second only to Charlie Chaplin as a silent-film leading man, heard about June and wanted to work with her. His movie
On the Jump
was standard comedic fare for the time—choppy, disjointed scenes that each vied independently for a laugh. A midget balances books on his head, a man whacks passersby on their behinds with his cello, people chase each other around for no apparent reason, someone pulls a dog out of a purse. In one scene, Harold Lloyd hoists a box and stumbles under its weight. He lowers it to the ground, runs off to the side, and then lifts two tall tiers of china. From the corner of his eye, he sees the box’s lid fly off, and a cumulus cloud of yellow hair rises over the edge. The girl it belongs to is improbably tiny, no higher than his knee, and it’s as if an unseen hand lifts her slowly to her toes.
She unfurls her arms and begins to dance. The camera pans back to Lloyd, who is so enchanted he drops his china. He makes no move to sweep up
the pieces. She knows he’s watching her, and for his benefit she leaps around the box, weightless, a leaf being kicked by the wind. She wears a calm expression—regal, almost—as if Rose had told a different sort of story before this take, one that promised everything would be okay, now and always, for all of them.
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.
Abe Minsky was in a hurry. He had paid $100 for a first-class ticket on the
and sailed 3,142 miles, docking in Bordeaux, France. He traveled another 362 miles to Paris by train, drumming his fingers against the window, watching the lolling countryside slip past him, ideas somersaulting in his brain. He had decisions to make and he knew, better than anyone, that New York could not be persuaded to wait.
The First World War was raging in Europe and inching closer to U.S. shores, despite President Woodrow Wilson’s campaign promises to the contrary. On Sunday mornings Manhattan’s faithful sat rapt in pews, listening to unsettling sermons and adamant predictions. “
The second coming of Christ,” warned a minister at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian, “is not only certain, but signs of the time point to an early coming. Might it not be well if His coming were to be now and bring about the end of the great war?”
Every incident was spliced, examined, threaded with conspiracy. An early-morning
explosion on Black Tom Island, in New York Bay off Jersey City, killed seven men and destroyed $40 million worth of property within a twenty-five-mile radius. Shells and shrapnel intended for Allied ships continued to burst for three hours, breaking windows along Wall Street, shattering plate glass all the way to Times Square. German saboteurs were to blame, everyone believed, since the country’s agents were infiltrating New York’s neighborhoods, depositing millions of dollars in its banks. Even the city’s socialites prepared for potential disruption, hosting a rash of “war weddings” and “war engagements.”
Performer at the Folies Bergère, 1916.
(photo credit 6.1)
Abe was not interested in developments on the western front or, for that matter, on the Upper East Side. He only wanted to visit France before it fell to Germany, especially the grand burgundy-and-gold music hall, now almost fifty years old, tucked away at 32 rue Richer in the foothills of Montmartre.
He knew the history of the Folies Bergère well. Here
Charlie Chaplin made his vaudeville debut at age fourteen, and the crafty
Anna Pavlova surrounded herself with inferior dancers so she appeared even greater than she really was. Elephants, seals, and rats shared the stage with jugglers, acrobats, clowns, cyclists, and an Indian “rubber man.” A performer called “
The Kangaroo Boxer” challenged his marsupial rival for three two-minute rounds; the animal, using gloved paws, always won (owing, in part, to the performer’s reluctance to permanently maim his livelihood). Before the turn of the century the Impressionist genius Édouard Manet sat here for hours studying the barmaids, and a thick-lipped, bearded cripple named Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec drank his signature Tremblement de Terre (“Earthquake”) cocktail—equal parts absinthe and cognac—while forging an unlikely kinship with the ladies who ruled the back promenade.
These ladies were tradition, one of the Folies Bergère’s oldest, as much a part of the scenery as the striped crimson ceiling and sham indoor garden. Folies Bergère management distributed cards only to the best dressed and best behaved, passes that were valid for two weeks. On the appointed day the general manager hosted a parade to decide which prostitutes deserved a renewed card. Pretty boys offering paid companionship circulated as well, although gentlemen for hire were excluded from the pass system.
Abe had been to the Moulin Rouge, too,
before a fire closed the famed hall down a few years earlier. The Folies Bergère was older and,
in his opinion, just as grand. There it stood, at the end of a long line of literary cafés, next door to a mattress shop named Les Colonnes d’Hercule. With its golden speared bars winding around the top floor, the place looked to Abe like an eighteen-karat jail.
The theater’s door swung open, and he waded through a forest of gilt and plush. Patrons laid claim to every square foot of the hall, hundreds of them laughing, blowing spires of smoke, singing lyrics he couldn’t understand: “
Allons, enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé; Contre nous de la tyrannie, L’étendard sanglant est levé.
” Soldiers in brocaded képi hats and hobnailed boots sipped bourbon at Toulouse-Lautrec’s green bar, flirting with women in the more subdued costumes of wartime: dresses in dour grays raised to a practical midcalf length, hats adorned with a single feather, a dab of Vaseline on the eyelids instead of charcoal liner. Professional linguists strolled about the theater wearing caps marked
, facilitating some conversations and eavesdropping on others. Promenade ladies fanned themselves, and the ripe scent of their underarms mingled with the weak perfume of dying flowers pinned along their necklines.
No matter what happened on the western front, Paris would
have its pleasures curtailed. “
To deprive Paris of a chance of smiling, even in war time,” said one theater owner, “is like depriving it of air to breathe.” As a New Yorker, Abe appreciated a city that knew its priorities, especially when those priorities included black leotards, red garter belts, and the tease of nearly bare flesh. He sank into an armchair seat, impatient for the curtain to rise. This was not pleasure but research; Paris shows were the best ones in the world from which to steal.
fter Billy’s close call with the gunman, Abe accepted his little brother’s offer to join his movie theater business—on one condition: he, Abe, was boss, and would have final approval on all decisions. Abe was going to build an empire, make the Minsky name famous across the country, and Billy was lucky just to be standing with him now, at the beginning.
Billy looked at his brother for a long, silent moment. He agreed and left it at that.
Privately the brothers marveled that anyone made it to their National Winter Garden at all.
Access to the seats was maddeningly difficult, requiring patrons to ride a rickety, temperamental elevator, squeeze through a narrow lobby, and then shimmy around the theater’s back wall by way of the fire escape landing. A swarm of shrewd thieves infiltrated the crowd, picking pockets while their victims focused on reaching their seats alive. Customers didn’t care much about the quality of the films or music; they were willing to risk robbery or injury for the rooftop atmosphere alone.
Rooftop gardens were the height of fashion. On summer nights wealthy New Yorkers flocked to
the roof of Madison Square Garden, where braids of colored lights connected a forest of palm trees and Chinese lanterns swung low from rafters. The Minskys’ rooftop wasn’t quite so glamorous, but it offered a rare luxury for tenement dwellers. For once they could look down on the city rather than being trapped in the thick of it, high above the screams of slum boys playing slugball and hit-the-crack, the first-floor parlors crowded with old men hunched over hands of pinochle, the rotten scent of the street vendors’ overripe peaches.
Despite the rooftop ambiance, the brothers soon realized that a local, family-based operation couldn’t compete with new movie chains, like the nearby Loew’s Delancey Street Theatre. Nor could they book any major vaudeville acts, since the big-time palaces outbid them. They knew they had to transform their operation, one way or another, into a house that could draw the stars. Maybe films and vaudeville weren’t the way to go, Billy suggested. The Minskys were, after all, men who took risks and who appreciated the risqué—men more suited to burlesque.
What began in ancient Greece as an art form that mocked social conventions, spoofed politics and current affairs, and titillated audiences with suggestive dialogue became, ultimately, a bold celebration of the female form. Just after the Civil War, a play called
The Black Crook—
considered the original Broadway musical—debuted, marking the first time in the history of the American stage that women appeared naked
not as an integral part of the plot but for the brazen appeal of nudity itself. Burlesque evolved further, drawing from circuses and dime museum freaks, dance-hall honky-tonk and minstrel shows, behind-the-barn tent and cooch dancers, and by the turn of the twentieth century it had fully distinguished itself, for better or worse, from vaudeville. While middle-class men took their wives to see Tony Pastor’s sweet dancers and clean comics, working-class men flocked alone to watch the gyrations of ample blondes and “screaming farces” with titles like
Did You Ever Send Your Wife to Jersey?
Variety became vaudeville and aligned itself with talent,” as one historian put it. “Burlesque became itself and aligned itself with dirt.”