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
Abe and Billy vowed to reinvent the National Winter Garden as the best burlesque house in New York, dubious though that distinction may have been. Their Lower East Side comrades would appreciate burlesque—what man in his right mind would choose
, complete with scantily clad chorus girls as Roman charioteers? They learned that the business of burlesque revolved around “
wheels,” organizations that supplied shows to theaters across the country: the Columbia Wheel, the Mutual Wheel, and the American Wheel. A typical year for the American Wheel took seventy-three shows on tour to eighty-one theaters from New York to Omaha, playing to about 700,000 people. The wheels supplied a different road show every week, including costumes, scenery, jokes, and music, and the theater owner simply had to open the doors, sell tickets, and sweep up.
Nothing to it, the Minskys thought, so
in late spring of 1916, Abe and Billy booked a show from the American Wheel. The night before the grand opening, a tawdry procession slinked down Houston Street, blackface comics in clown shoes, zaftig derrières peeking from leotards (
belonging to shiksas, naturally, since Jewish girls did not engage in such scandalous behavior), and cardboard cutouts of tenement buildings almost as tall as the originals. Perfect, all of it, except the brothers realized too late that there was no way to transport the enormous stage sets up to the sixth floor in their tiny elevator. Plan B involved piano movers, who tried to haul the sets up via the roof, only to smash the windows of the adjacent building.
Undeterred, Billy—with Abe’s consent—canceled the show and posted
fliers proclaiming that the National Winter Garden would reopen in the fall with a live burlesque show—stock burlesque, which meant autonomous burlesque, unencumbered by any rules or any wheel. They should regroup, Billy said, and take the summer to strategize. He recruited their little brother Herbert and ordered him to study classic comedy, the works of Cratinus and Menander and Aristophanes. Billy ventured up and down the East Coast, scouting out every burlesque show he could find, noting what flopped and what deserved to be stolen. And Abe set off at once for Paris, where he now sat in an overstuffed armchair watching the curtain lift, just like wrapping falling away from the gift he wanted most.
The girls were magnificent, red lace hugging thighs, peacock tail feathers rising from bottoms. Their heads reared back like thoroughbreds’. Legs kicked in flawless unison, high at first, knees almost meeting noses, and then level with hips, a line so straight and perfect you could have set a table across the shins. His fellow New Yorker Irving Berlin was sadly mistaken, singing “Why do they rave about beautiful France … we can enjoy all their joys here at home,” because Abe saw one idea, one
idea, that he’d never spotted at home—not along Broadway, not in any music halls, not even in the old, short-lived, New York–style Folies Bergère, where
a woman dressed as the Statue of Liberty mounted a pedestal to flirt with the audience. The Parisian Folies Bergère had a
, of all things, and when the music neared its crescendo those glorious legs stepped closer and closer still, a bracelet of spotlights following each stride. The men hollered and stretched their arms, every curve of ankle and spike of heel just out of reach. It was a revelation: Abe had traveled 3,504 miles to see the best girls in Paris, but now they were coming to him.
Gypsy Rose Lee, working on her novel backstage.
(photo credit 6.2)
You have made your stake, you would kill anyone who tried to steal from you; you ache to accumulate more and more.
GEORGE DAVIS TO GYPSY ROSE LEE
After the World’s Fair, after Michael Todd leaves for Chicago, she moves in with some of the most important writers and artists of the time: Carson McCullers, W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Chester Kallman, and George Davis, the openly gay fiction editor of
and an old friend—the only one who knew her before she became Gypsy Rose Lee. After all, she is a writer now, too, although her work on
The G-String Murders
proves sporadic and frustrating. “
If I have night lunch with a smarty pants like Saroyan,” Gypsy confesses to a friend, “I want to spit on the whole damned manuscript.”
This sleepover literary salon was George’s idea, something positive to counter the increasingly grim news from Europe, and
the house at 7 Middagh Street is like no other on the block. Its facade resembles a playing card, with intricate moldings etched in the shape of diamonds and clubs, and it operates strictly by anarchic rule. Cocktail hour commences at 4
, dinners (prepared by Eva, Gypsy’s personal cook)
often stretch into breakfast, and party guests include everyone from the soldiers in port to Columbia University professors to
editors to Salvador Dalí. After feasting on Eva’s roast beef and gravy, boiled potatoes, and chocolate cake, they migrate to the parlor and take turns entertaining. Auden pops Benzedrine tablets and does wicked imitations, George’s observations about his friends cut with scalpel precision, and no one tells a story like Gypsy Rose Lee, who, one visitor notes, pervades the house “
like a whirlwind of laughter and sex.”
Holding a brandy in one hand and a cigarette in the other, Gypsy recounts her days in vaudeville, embellishing as she pleases (could they believe she played the back end of a cow?), about Mother’s schemes and attitudes toward men, about raids at Minsky’s and her striptease mentor, Tessie the Tassel Twirler, who proffered some sage advice: “
Leave them hungry for more—you don’t just dump the whole roast on the platter.” Carson McCullers sits at Gypsy’s feet and stares up at her, enthralled. She loves this witty, exotic creature, whose legs seem to stretch longer than Carson’s whole body, whose spontaneity and warmth are the perfect antidote to the distant coolness of
Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, a Swiss writer and painter who has broken her heart. Carson hears rumors that Gypsy entertains women as well as men, and it is certainly true that the stripteaser cultivates homosexual fans. She wants to spend every minute with Gypsy but keep things light and fun, and luckily, Gypsy won’t have it any other way.
Nearly every night, Gypsy invites Carson to her third-floor suite, greeting her at the door in a sheer nightgown—worn, on cold nights, over baggy long underwear that sags at the knees. A fin-shaped clip holds her hair from her face, still smudged with makeup she never bothered to remove. All of which is to say, without words, that Gypsy views stripping as work, not fun, and portrays herself as a sex symbol only when paid to do so. Carson flops on Gypsy’s bed, keeps her whiskey bottle within reach, and confides all of her troubles. She is under immense pressure to match the critical and commercial success of her debut novel,
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
, and to redeem herself after the disappointing reception of her second,
Reflections in a Golden Eye
. Work is going so slowly on
The Bride and Her Brother
, her tale of a twelve-year-old misfit, Frankie, who feels like an “unjoined person.” How Carson
misses writing for the simple joy of it, without worrying about readers or a career. Her estranged husband will probably soon show up in Brooklyn again to pick another fight. And she can’t help it: she misses Annemarie terribly. Gypsy listens and soothes and fetches her friend homemade strudel she’s made with apples from the backyard garden. If their visit lasts past midnight, Gypsy lets Carson sleep in her bed.
On Thanksgiving night, after another raucous party, Gypsy hears a caravan of fire engines whine down Middagh Street. She jumps out of her chair and beckons to Carson, and together they chase after the commotion, hand in hand. “
We ran for several blocks,” Carson recalled. “It was exhilarating to be out in the chilly air after the close heat of the parlor.” They’re almost at the scene when Gypsy feels a hard yank on her arm. She turns to Carson, who looks half crazy, the pupils of her wide doe eyes shrunk to pinpoints under the streetlights. “Frankie is in love with her brother and his bride,” Carson says, breathless, “and wants to become a member of the wedding!”
With that, her slump is over. She knows exactly how to write
The Bride and Her Brother
, the book that would become
The Member of the Wedding
Gypsy, meanwhile, is finally making progress on her own novel, with George’s guidance. She rambles about her days in burlesque as he sits at her typewriter and serves as stenographer, taking down every word. Then he helps arrange her stories, like puzzle pieces, into a rough sketch. She names the burlesque impresario “H. I. Moss” and molds him after Billy Minsky—stout, with hound-dog jowls and a fondness for speaking of himself in the third person. The surname, “Moss,” is an ironic tribute to one of the Minsky brothers’ foes, a New York City license commissioner.
H. I. Moss didn’t care much whether I wanted to be a strip teaser or not,” Gypsy writes. “He thought of himself as a star builder.”
Once Gypsy feels comfortable facing the blank page alone, she rises at six every morning, wraps herself in a housecoat, and types with the pads of her fingers so as not to break her three-inch nails. George knocks on the door in the afternoon to offer his critique, navigating the snowdrifts of crumpled paper layered across the floor. As he scribbles in the margins, she resumes her natural state of restlessness, making calls,
scanning her datebook, filing her nails. If she’s feeling bloated or lethargic, she summons her masseuse from Manhattan to “
get my ass pounded” while George questions her dialogue or plot twists. And occasionally—more than she cares to admit—she finds herself thinking about Michael Todd.
The letters keep coming. “
I read you are too smart to be happy,” he teases. “I don’t think you are so smart, so you can get happy with me—try it sometime.” He has another grand idea, one guaranteed to be even more lucrative than their show at the World’s Fair. He plans to open a club in Chicago—a glittering spectacle,
catering not to the elite “Chez Paree crowd” but to families and “your average working-class Joe,” with a dance floor suspended above a sixty-foot stage, champagne cocktails for 25 cents, and a Ben Hur chariot race. He’ll call it the Theatre Café, and the advertisements will read:
ALL THIS AND GYPSY ROSE LEE TOO
. The best part of all—they’ll be together again.
He implores her to think about it, and she promises she will. Maybe, she thinks, she could prove her theory wrong. Maybe she doesn’t have to be foolish in order to indulge this strange bright flash in her heart.
Our true intent is all for your delight.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
Rose sat behind the piano this time instead of her father, graceful fingers arched and poised, engagement rings stacked to her knuckle. She had scored
at least one more marriage proposal since her two divorces; her daughters couldn’t keep track. They just knew what Rose meant when she “
removed” a man from their lives, as if he were a dirty dish or a wart. Once in a while the numerous removals came in handy, as when they got stranded in Bend, Oregon, in 1918, without any money or bookings. Rose surveyed the town to find the biggest lodge hall, then reached into her bag and fished out the proper insignia pin for her lapel. A swipe of powder across her face, a wad of tissues clutched in her fist, Louise and June squeezed close on either side, and she was ready to call on the head man of the lodge.
They are little show kiddies,” she said, the tears threatening to fall. “I thought we were supposed to play your lovely little town, but it seems I got my engagements mixed up again. I’m not much of a businesswoman and I—we were really due in Prineville but I bought the wrong tickets. I used our last cent in the world to get to the wrong town.”