January 8, 1911– Gypsy Rose Lee
My friends who care about such things understand that Jule Styne–Stephen Sondheim–Arthur Laurents‘ Gypsy (1959) is my favorite musical. I think it is a perfect piece of theatre. I consider Gypsy to be the highest of human accomplishments.
I am well connected in Hollywood and my insiders tell me that Barbra Streisand still plans to produce, direct and star in a new film version of this classic show. Streisand, too old to play the role of Gypsy Rose Lee’s mother by decades, states:
“Age is just a number; some people look old at 45. Some people look younger at my age… I saw CGI of an actor that made him go from 60 to 30, by the way. What they can do now, technically. It should happen, but it just takes forever.”
“Forever” must have meant waiting for Arthur Laurents to die. Laurents, who wrote the script for the original and had held rights to all productions, was not in favor of Streisand playing Mama Rose on film.
It has been filmed before, with Rosalind Russell as an effective, but the softest of Mama Roses. Hardcore Musical Theatre people love to opine about the casting of any Mama Rose. I admire Streisand’s talent as a director, but I am afraid that at nearly 75 years old, she is a tiny bit long-in-the-tooth for a character that starts the story in her 30s. Streisand might break a hip. Still, Streisand doing that great sung monologue, Rose’s Turn, intrigues.
She was dismissed as “untalented” by her own mother, but Gypsy Rose Lee remains a source of inspiration even 47 years after she took that final curtain call.
Born Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle to a teenage mother right out of a convent, she got an early start in show business, appearing with her little sister June Hovick in a Vaudeville act when she was just 8-years-old. It was apparent that the sister, Baby June, was the true talent of the siblings. From the start of their act, Louise was pushed to the background while June was moved to the center stage and given a special pink spotlight.
The family moved to Hollywood with an act named Dainty June, The Hollywood Baby, And Her Newsboys. Their mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, had an overbearing determination to see her young daughters have successful stage careers and she divorced her husband to become the girls’ full-time manager.
In their teenage years, Louise and June had the responsibility of supporting the family. They traveled all over the USA, playing cheap Vaudeville theatres, living out of suitcases, and skipping school. When June was 13-years-old, she eloped with fellow vaudevillian Bobby Reed. The sister act was finished.
Louise was unable to generate much interest as a solo act. At 17-years-old, and stranded in Kansas City without a booking, she was approached by an agent about appearing in a Burlesque show when the usual stripper had landed in prison. Despite Mama Rose’s objections, Louise took the gig and was reinvented as Gypsy Rose Lee.
Lee made her NYC debut in 1931, at Minsky’s Famous Republic Theatre, the first Burlesque house on Broadway. Comedians Abbott And Costello, Phil Silvers, and Red Buttons were on the same bill, but the strippers were the stars. At the height of the Great Depression, a strip tease artist could make more than $2,000 a week. Lee played 12 weeks in a row at The Republic, setting a record for the theatre. She was arrested during one of the many police raids on Minsky’s theatres. This only helped her become even more popular.
Lee didn’t perform the usual bumps and grinds of traditional Burlesque routines. She developed a special slow strip which she accompanied with a smart patter song. Her patter was her biggest asset. In those days, women made up half of the typical Burlesque audience, and Lee became famous for her onstage wit and sophistication.
When she turned of 33-years-old, Lee decided she wanted have a child. She told her sister June that she wanted to select the father, and he needed to be:
“The toughest, meanest son of a bitch that I can find, somebody who’s ruthless, and my child will rule the world.”
Her choice was the great Hollywood film director Otto Preminger. Lee slept with him just one time. When he was 18-years-old, her son, Erik Lee, demanded to know why she wouldn’t tell him who his father was. Her retort:
“Because it’s none of your business.”
Lee’s Gypsy: Memoirs Of America’s Most Celebrated Stripper (1957), plus that landmark stage musical and the film based on it, made Rose even more notorious than the daughter. Lee’s book was a bestseller, but she could have sold even more copies had she told the real story about herself and her mother. Rose hounded her daughters for decades, demanding money and credit for their fame.
June, the sister, became June Havoc. She not only starred in the premiere of the great Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey (1940), she wrote a pair of memoirs that told the story of her long career as an acclaimed actor and stage director. Havoc took her final curtain call in spring 2012.
The musical Gypsy is a horror show wrapped up as a showbiz fable. Rose Hovick is the scary monster. The musical and the memoir were, like everything else having to do with that family, highly fictionalized. It turns out that Rose, who wrote the manual on how to be a stage-mother, was actually worse in real life. She was an epic bully, enabler, and manipulator, plus she was guilty of at least two murders, and possibly a third. And, most dreadful of all… she was probably a lesbian.
The essence of Gypsy is basically true though. Rose’s voracious, inhuman ambition, the early fame of Lee’s little sister who could toe-dance at the age of two as “Baby June” on the Vaudeville circuit, and the desperation that set in when radio, films and the Depression made Vaudeville extinct, those are all fact. June really did elope with one of the act’s chorus boys. It was true that Louise could not sing, dance or act, but she was willing to take her clothes off on stage, and smart theater owners recognized that the way she did it was something special.
After one of her many arrests, Lee stated:
“I was completely covered… in a blue spotlight”.
Her talent for publicity made her a household name. The more famous and adored she became, the fewer garments she had to take off.
“Funny thing about show people, they think if you’re not in Hollywood or on Broadway making a couple of thousand a week, taking guff from everybody and his cousin, and sweating out poor crowds, you’re not doing well. But, I’ve been touring the country playing nightclubs and making twice as much as I made in the movies, and having more fun! I get a lot more fishing done, for one thing, and I can live in my trailer and see the country.”
Through the decades, Lee and her sister continued to fight, then reconcile. Havoc helped Lee get through her final battle with that damn cancer, finally taken in 1970 at just 57-years-old. But, when Lee was on her deathbed, she whispered to her son Erik:
“After I go, don’t let June in the house. She’ll rob you blind.”
If she interests you, and she should, I recommend American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee (2011) by Karen Abbott. Erik Preminger is now in his early 70s. He works as an actor and writer, with his own memoir titled G-String Mother: My Life With Gypsy Rose Lee. He wrote of his famous mother:
“She was a true-life Auntie Mame, only better.”