Saturday, 12 January 2013

The 31 Women - Number One, Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee in 1937, with one of her dogs
I decided to begin with Gipsy Rose Lee as her birthday, 9th of January is the first in the year - although it may actually have been on the 19th of February, or on a different day entirely. To understand why, and what she was doing in an art exhibition, you must read the biography below!

Gypsy Rose Lee        Born Jan 8, 1911 or Feb 19, 1912..?           Died April 26, 1970

In 1943 Louise Rose Hovick was by far the most famous of all the 31 Women, but as an artiste rather than an artist, under her stage name of Gypsy Rose Lee.
From childhood she had a career as a dancer, actress and then a stripper and burlesque performer, gaining her fame & notoriety. She was a multi-talented, self-educated woman and a great self-publicist who read voraciously and described herself as the Literary Stripper. Introduced into New York’s artistic circles in 1940, Gypsy decided to try her hand at the visual arts. Two shows at Peggy  Guggenheim’s Art of This Century gallery included Gypsy's work, however her aspirations to be a visual artist were short lived.  She remained friends with Peggy and many of the artists but her own creations were just one of her many hobbies, soon replace by another.
 Although she grew up in a female centred family and throughout her life she strove to stay independent of manipulation by men, Gypsy would have laughed at any suggestion that she was a feminist. Her mother, Rose, was a very determined woman with theatrical aspirations who played a dominant and exploitative role in Gypsy's life. Rose Thompson was married at nineteen to John Olaf Hovick, a Norwegian American who worked as an advertising salesman for the Seattle Times. Rose Louise was born first and their marriage failed soon after the birth of a second daughter, June Ellen. 
 By the time their parents divorced, when June was two and Louise four, the girls had already begun to have dance classes. Rose Thompson promoted her dancing daughters relentlessly, turning them into vaudeville performers who rapidly became her bread and butter.

Fine art was distant during Rose Louise's childhood and later Gypsy collected art rather more seriously than she produced it. She commissioned work from Max Ernst before he became more widely fashionable, he created a marvellous painting of her and she reputedly created a portrait of him in return. In 1942 Ernst gave her another of his paintings as a wedding present, to Peggy Guggenheim’s chagrin. However Gypsy remained friends with Peggy and Max, they went to each other’s parties. Gypsy also befriended other women artists including Buffie Johnson, Hazel McKinley and Dorothea Tanning. She was the first person to buy one of Tanning’s paintings and her art collection soon contained  work by Johnson, Joseph Cornell, Ernst, Picasso, Miro and Chagall, as well as previous generations of artists including a small Degas bronze of a woman bathing.
Despite her enthusiasm for art and artists, Gipsy's own creativity really lay elsewhere, in costumes, performance and later, writing. She was a performer in the purely theatrical sense, with her burlesque shows which she described as more tease than strip. Compared with today’s in-your-face sex shows her act was very tame, with the audience only catching a fleeting glimpse, if they were lucky, of Gypsy’s G-string. Her repartee with the audience was more risqué than her act, she stood out from other strippers with her incorporation of a great deal of attitude and humour into the performance.

She was effectively a comedienne and became hugely popular, by the end of the 1930's she had many imitators. When she moved to New York with her own show, it was not a sleazy backstreet event but a sophisticated, highly staged musical evening which men could take their wives to. Her creative side was also used in the design of her costumes, she had considerable ability as both designer and needle-woman, skills she had inherited from her mother and grandmother.

She and her sister seldom went to school and Louise largely finished her formal education aged only seven. Her prettier sister’s performances, as “Baby June” were more lucrative, so June had even less schooling. The girls performed in a series of dance troupes managed by their mother, who exploited them both quite ruthlessly. They were occasionally accompanied by a governess, who toured the vaudeville circuits with them until Rose Thompson decided she could get away with pretending they were too old to need schooling. From then on the girls were forced to lie about their ages in order to avoid being taken from their mother, whilst on stage June was still forced to play the part of “Baby June” into her teens. On at least one occasion child labour authorities detained the two young girls, until their grandfather helped to get them released.

Confusion about their ages (and even their names) continued. Rose Thompson, having dispensed with their governess, used forged identity papers for both girls. Louise had been a large baby and by the time she was nine she was a tall, chubby and relatively plain child who could easily be passed off as older than she was; she routinely played boy's parts in the shows. As for 'Baby June,' at least one of the five birth certificates which their mother carried for her claimed she was three years younger than her actual age, another said she had been born in Vancouver, Canada. This confusion caused by their mother’s manipulations was never really resolved by either daughter. June said late in life that her mother was “… endearing and adorable – and lethal.” (in a 2003 interview with Alex Witchel of The New York Times)
The girls were routinely obliged to steal small necessities from shops, boarding houses and theatres, because while their mother’s apron strings were very long her purse strings were short. In her memoirs, written years later, Gypsy talked about their pets, playing hide and seek back stage and finding space in her trunk for her books. She glossed over the worst aspects of their itinerant childhood, but June painted a darker picture. Being much the better dancer June was the star while they were children, but she wanted to be a serious actress. She had to escape her mother’s clutches before she could begin her acting career. Using the stage name June Havoc she went on to play in everything from Hollywood movies to TV shows to Shakespeare and was also a writer and theatrical director.  She outlived her sister by almost fifty years.

Vaudeville was dying and by the time Louise was 18, June had eloped, though she soon separated from her young husband and for a time survived by performing in the infamous dance marathons. Rose Thompson’s dance troupes could no longer earn her a living, so Rose focussed on her only remaining asset. Louise was no longer a gangling child but a beautiful young woman with stage presence and a great figure. Within a year her mother had her performing in burlesque shows as Gypsy Rose Lee, though Gypsy claimed later that she chose the name for herself.
The two Roses arrived in New York in 1932 and Gypsy’s burlesque career took off. She starred at Minskys club for four years before being signed up by Zeigfield.  By 1937 she was in Hollywood, having finally managed to shake off her mother. After five bad films and a lot of hassle from prudish elements she decided the movies were not the career for her. She married briefly, but 1939 found her back in New York, without her husband.

She starred in Mike Todd’s hugely successful review, The Streets of Paris, at the New York World's Fair, but that Hollywood failure had shaken her legendary self-confidence. Gypsy Rose Lee was a seasoned performer and although not yet thirty, she knew from experience what ageing could mean for a woman like her, she urgently needed another string to her bow. She also remembered a conversation she had had with June, who had suggested she should write.

During her lifetime Gypsy's hobbies ranged from painting, breeding Chinese crested dogs and making costumes for her pets to home movies, stamp collecting, quilting and finally gardening, which she was only able to enjoy once she put down roots in California in the 1950's. However when she started writing, that was never a hobby but an activity she took completely seriously.  She first wrote a couple of guest columns in magazines, but soon became more widely known as a writer for her first detective novel, The G-String Murders, published in 1941. She wrote another novel and went on to write play and film scripts, her memoirs, short stories for publication in Flair Magazine and articles for Life Magazine.
There is much ill-informed supposition that Gypsy Rose Lee never wrote her novels, which are claimed to have been ghost-written by detective fiction author Craig Rice. Though Rice (real name Georgina Craig) was a friend of Gypsy’s and advised her on how to structure a novel, the suggestion appears to be a snobbish attempt to denigrate an under-educated woman, by journalists unable to accept that she had abilities beyond removing her clothes. Whilst Gypsy, having recognised her own inexperience, did have some assistance with her first novel, the published writing was by her and the ideas were all hers.

George Davis was a talented literary editor who had first met Gypsy in a Detroit bookshop when she was still touring with her mother. They renewed their friendship when she returned to New York after her Hollywood failure and, with Davis’ encouragement, she began to meet artists and writers. Davis was just the man to help with her literary ambitions. He had recently helped the young writer Carson McCullers to impose a publishable shape on her novella, Reflections in a Golden Eye and he was delighted to add Gypsy Rose Lee to his list of protégés.

Gypsy was serious about wanting to be a writer, even to the extent of moving into the house on Middagh Street, Brooklyn Heights, that Davis was then sharing with Carson McCullers and her husband Reeves. Also resident at the time were W.H. Auden and Auden’s young lover Chester Kallman. The house, which Davis had leased, was an experiment in communal living that he hoped would become a hive of literary and artistic activity. He was not disappointed, creative types came and went and for several years the house became a notable cultural salon.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s arrival into this literary hotbed, with her cook Eva Morcur, contributed order and homeliness to a household where nobody else had the slightest idea about cooking and housekeeping. Other residents of 7, Middagh Street came and went but included composer Benjamin Brittain, singer Peter Peers, composer/author Paul Bowles and his writer wife Jane. This unusual household did attract a huge variety of visitors including artists Salvador and Gala Dali, Pavel Tchelitchew (who redecorated the parlour with a surrealist mural) and writers Janet Flanner, Charles Henri Ford, Christopher Isherwood, Anaïs Nin and Klaus and Erica Mann, as well as sailors from the nearby docks, who came mostly for the parties.

Gypsy Rose Lee only lived on Middagh Street for a few months, but her literary sojourn was very successful. Her novel was well under way and she'd made lasting friendships and useful contacts outside the entertainment industry. In December 1940 she moved to Chicago to star in Mike Todd’s latest review. She finished her novel, writing backstage and The G-String Murders, published with a spree of publicity in 1941, was an instant success.

Her second novel, Mother Finds a Body, had an easier gestation, Gypsy was more confident and she continued to write.  She earned money from scripts, articles and short stories in magazines including the New Yorker, Harpers, Variety and there was also a cook-book and a popular and entertaining memoir. The hit musical, Gypsy was loosely based on this memoir, which in turn was loosely based on her real life on the road with her mother and sister. Her first novel also became a movie, Lady of Burlesque. All this helped to fund her sometimes extravagant lifestyle, though she always felt that she was not wealthy enough to rest on her laurels.

Her determination to be self-sufficient stemmed from her desperate childhood and her mother’s lessons in parsimony. She never really wanted a man to support her, though she fell for impresario Mike Todd. He refused to marry her and in a fit of pique she married actor Bill Kirkland in 1942, hoping that Todd would gallantly sweep her away before the wedding. This marriage was doomed before it began and though they had a son, she and Kirkland were soon divorced.
Her third marriage, to Spanish painter Julio de Diego, was more successful. He was also very fond of  her son, Erik who always remembered him as a great father. Unfortunately, in the end de Diego couldn’t take the strain of his wife’s career taking precedence over his. Lee remained friendly with both Kirkland and de Diego and for many years Erik believed that Kirkland was his real father. It wasn’t until he was serving in the US army in Germany that Lee finally told him the truth, film producer Otto Preminger was actually Erik’s father. 

Gypsy Rose Lee continued to perform her burlesque act until the mid nineteen-fifties, often with Erik as her assistant, though unlike her own mother, she didn’t force her child onto the stage. She ensured that Erik attended school, though she made him work hard when they were on tour. Her exploitation of her son bore little resemblance to that she had suffered at the hands of her own mother, but she was both possessive and manipulative. Eric became resentful and after he left home at sixteen to join the army, Gypsy lived alone.
Eventually she decided to retire, feeling she was too old to strip in public, though she never gave up theatre. She’d made her acting debut while touring with her mother, but it became a more lucrative activity from her mid-thirties. She wasn’t a great actress, but with her humour and stage presence she was well able to carry certain roles and starred successfully in Mame. She was a big hit on TV chat shows and in 1958 had one of her own which was immediately popular. She also acted in TV dramas including Batman and she made another eight films, the last in 1968.

Gypsy always drove herself and everybody else extremely hard, she was known to work thirty hours without rest. Even after she retired from touring she kept very active, working not just on her acting career but also making many public appearances for charity, caring for her numerous pets and remodelling her Beverley Hills home. Still reluctant to waste money, she did much of the work on the house and garden herself, relaxing with her dogs only when she felt there was no urgency to complete a project.

Despite a punishing work regime, Gypsy did try to look after herself. She drank little, having observed the damage alcohol could do. She suffered with stomach ulcers and her stressful life was no help, but her eventual downfall was tobacco. She was a heavy smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 1969. She died five months later when, whatever the confusion about her birth date, she certainly hadn’t reached her sixtieth birthday.

Her son Erik and his wife Barbara lived in Gypsy’s Los Angeles home for a while, before selling both the house and her art collection. Max Ernst’s 1941 Portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee became the most expensive Ernst painting ever to come up for auction, her name and notoriety undoubtedly adding to its value. After Eric and Barbara left, the house changed hands several times; it was said to be haunted, perhaps by the ghost of a woman who felt she hadn’t had enough time to enjoy the fruits of her labours, before her untimely death.

Comments and any further information about Gypsy Rose Lee's career as a writer and about her art work will be very welcome.

You can read about each of the 31 women as their birthdays arrive, earlier ones will remain on this blog.

Sources include: -

Gypsy Rose Lee      -      Gypsy, a Memoir,   published  1957 by Andre Deutsch

Havoc, June             -      Early Havoc,  pub. 1959 by Simon & Schuster

Eric Lee Preminger -     My G-String Mother: Home & Backstage with Gypsy Rose Lee, pub. 2004   

Sherill Tippins         -      February House,   pub in 2006 by Houghton-Mifflin



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