"American Rose -- A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee" by Karen Abbott. Random House. 422 pages. $26.
By Adera Causey
Gypsy Rose Lee has been presented as a symbol of wanton sexuality, as a beacon of liberation, as a forerunner to countless Hollywood beauties wasted by excess and abuse, as a shrewd self-marketer and as an unschooled temptress who ultimately became ensnared in a web of her own making. This much serialized, dramatized and memorialized early enigma of a century ago has received yet another investigative treatment with Karen Abbott's "American Rose."
This is largely familiar territory for Abbott, whose bestselling "Sin in the Second City" detailed an infamous Chicago brothel owned by sisters. Now, with a slight change of setting and approach to the treatment of sex, she moves east to New York City's burlesque stages through the story of the iconic Gypsy Rose Lee.
For many Americans, the mere use of the stripper's name is enough to conjure images of lust and suggestive dances in clubs of yesteryear. Her name brings up a reminder of her memoir and later the stage show and movie, which tell of her life as portrayed by Ethel Merman in the film and also of the dramatics of her over-the-top mother Rose (made famous by the wicked excess of Rosalind Russell).
We are reintroduced to those stories as Gypsy, the veritable street urchin and younger daughter of the stage mother extraordinaire, becomes the cash cow of her mother's eye, a woman so bent on success that she seizes her older daughter's name and christens her younger one with it, all in the name of fame of fortune. This biography details it all -- the girls' constantly morphing personas, the older sister's resentment, Mama Rose's fights with truancy regulators and vice squads, the many hangers-on who get dragged along on the family schemes, the intra-family squabbles and breakups and Gypsy's own life as it is forced southward by abuse and exhaustion.
With it all come the recriminations and legal accusations, the scandalous acts and the rise and fall of various social mores and morality wars (many reminiscent of those still being waged today).
Abbott does an admirable job with some of this historic background, particularly in her handling of vaudeville, burlesque and the film industry as they battle for audience dominance, first amid the economic expansion of the roaring '20s and later amid the extreme contractions after the Crash.
She parallels this context and Gypsy's travails with the rise and fall of the colorful Minsky family, the first to bring Gypsy into her burlesque grandeur and arguably one of the most skilled theater management families to manipulate the aforementioned economic and ethical fluctuations. These discussions are handled deftly and, when taken along with the evocative photographs found in this book, present Abbott at her best.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to make this book a standout. Her handling of the star Gypsy is, ironically, her greatest weakness. This book offers little more to the stripper's story than that which can be found in Gypsy's autobiography (and theatrical productions of the same name).
While the bibliography and footnotes evidence Abbott's comprehensive research, ultimately this book does not seem to borrow much from these secondary sources nor does it add to their body of scholarship.
When Abbott takes artistic license, it is in an unnecessary attempt to further dramatize an oversized life. The result is a book that reads as a sympathetic glorifying and, at times, defensive view of Gypsy.
Taken alongside a jumpy narrative, an approach that has worked in other historical accounts, the book is a difficult-to-read treatment by a writer whose subjectivity becomes questionable.
Ultimately all this book serves to prove is that a rose by any other name is just a rehashed glorification of a Gypsy-esque American Rose.
Adera Causey is curator of education at the Hunter Museum of American Art.