American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
By: Karen Abbott
(Random House)

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“Mother says I’m the most beautiful naked ass-well, I’m not. I’m the smartest,” remarks Louise Hovick, best known as Gypsy Rose Lee, the most famous stripper in America. When 20-year-old Lee agreed to take her clothes off for money at The Republic on Manhattan’s 42nd Street, the comedic brunette, who was coined “untalented” by her mother, would become one of the leading entrepreneurs in American burlesque. In addition to bumping and grinding, Lee would create her own lyrics and costumes, as well as make her mark in films and books. As a professional stripteaser, Lee was no ordinary dame willing to show off her assets for a quick buck. Reportedly, Lee took 15 minutes to peel off a single glove and yet audiences always begged for more.

In 1970, Lee passed away at age 59 from lung cancer, but unlike other burlesque queens, whose names have been long forgotten, she continues to be a source of inspiration to today’s stage sirens. It’s difficult not to visit Broadway without seeing the glorious lights of Gypsy taking over Manhattan. There would be no neo-burlesque movement in New York City without Lee’s contributions to the sexy art form. Yet who really was Lee, an entertainer who managed to outpoll Eleanor Roosevelt as the most popular woman in 1941 and why can’t we stop talking about her? Author Karen Abbott provides some insight with a novelistic approach in American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, one of the few books that finally gets the story right.

It may be a Herculean task to tell the tale of a woman Abbot describes as “long legs, glossy dark hair, more ambition than talent and a penchant for reimagining her past,” but her addicting tale of a leading lady emotionally battered by a ruthless stage mother is one, that like any Lee performance, is just too sizzling hot to pass up. In a surprisingly quick read, audiences will discover the infamous sibling rivalry that came to an end when Lee’s death was near, as well as a romance with Mike Todd, who would later dump her for actress Joan Blondell, become Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, and then die in a plane crash. There’s also the birth of her son Erik Preminger, whose father is legendary film director and married bachelor Otto Preminger.

More scandalous than “Page Six,” but just as dramatic as the popular musical she would inspire, Lee’s life is one that not even a fine writer like Abbott could create on her own. Both a cautionary tale for child stars and a triumphant tale of burlesque’s rise to popularity, American Rose is one of the few biographies that successfully captures Lee in all of her glory: mysterious, tragic, and above all, an inspiration to female performers everywhere. While Abbott jumps back and forth in time, it’s a literary striptease that keeps readers hooked. American Rose is a loving portrait of a woman who didn’t mind showing some skin, but managed to keep her life a tantalizing mystery.

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