Lee, Gypsy Rose (1914-1970)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Lee, Gypsy Rose (1914-1970)

Even to those who have never seen and would never consider seeing a strip show, the name Gypsy Rose Lee conjures up a glittering image. In the parlance of her trade, Lee was part "parade stripper" and part "society stripper." She invented the intellectual striptease performance and took stripping out of the dingy burlesque halls and into the high-toned venues of Broadway. Though she was notorious for her inability to sing or dance, Lee was a natural performer who knew how to control an audience with timing, humor, and sex appeal. In the 1940s, Variety's J.P. McEvoy described Lee's act as a "burlesque of burlesque—literally more tease than strip."

Lee was born Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle, Washington, on January 9, 1914. Her father was a cub reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and her mother was an amateur performer with big ambitions. Shortly after the birth of Lee's sister, June, in 1916, Lee's mother took the girls and left their father. By the time Lee was five, both girls were enrolled in dancing school and soon afterwards began their careers singing and dancing on the grueling vaudeville circuit. Though later Lee would spin yarns about studying ballet, sociology, and anthropology at the Imperial School in Moscow, she actually had little formal schooling. Her mother falsified papers and lied about the girls' ages to stay one step ahead of the truant officer and keep the children on the stage. June Hovick eventually left her controlling mother to go on to a successful Broadway career, leaving her sister to perfect her striptease on the bump-and-grind stages of burlesque. Gypsy, who got her nickname from a fondness for fortune-telling, got her big break in 1937 when she did her strip in the Ziegfeld Follies.

A master of creating image and effect, Lee managed to exemplify the stripper in the public imagination without exposing her naked body for more than a second or two at a time. "Bare flesh bores men," she said, and went about finding a way to keep audiences interested while keeping her own dignity intact. Considering zippers inelegant, she outfitted her clothes with snaps, used rubber cement to attach her lace stockings to her legs, secured her g-string with unbreakable dental floss, and covered it all with an evening gown, gloves, fur coat, and jewels. By the time Lee had pranced and joked her way down to her underwear, the audience was hers. Leaving nothing to chance, Lee sometimes paid a woman in the audience to scream or a waiter to drop a tray as she dramatically removed her brassiere a split second before the lights went out and the laughter and applause thundered.

When H.L. Mencken dubbed Lee an "ecdysiast" from the Greek word for one who sheds, it inspired Lee to take an intellectual approach to her craft, and she began to sprinkle her act with quotes from the likes of Spinoza and Aldous Huxley, creating the paradoxical "intellectual strip." Audiences loved her. When she performed at the 1939 New York World's Fair, she drew crowds as large as 17,500, more than President Franklin Roosevelt and politician Wendell Wilkie combined.

In 1937, Twentieth Century Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck signed Lee to a $2000 a week contract to make movies with her clothes on. Outcries from such conservative groups such as the Catholic Legion of Decency forced her to use her non-stripping name, Louise Hovick, for her movie roles, but she was not skilled as an actor and later believed that going to Hollywood had been a "big mistake." Though Lee projected an elegant, sophisticated image in her act, she was really a hard-boiled trouper from small-town vaudeville stages. Her lowbrow vaudevillian sensibility did not fit in with many of the actors who wanted to be viewed as upper class.

Lee continued to manage her image into a profitable career. In the 1940s, she became a best-selling author with The G-String Murders, and in 1957 wrote her own memoirs, which were made into the popular musical Gypsy. Her quick wit and salty humor placed her in demand as a panelist on television shows and she had her own syndicated talk show in the 1960s. She was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1969 and died the next year.

Gypsy Rose Lee was full of contradictions—she was at once the intellectual stripper, the poor glamour girl, and the rich, successful entertainer who cooked on a hot plate in her hotel room to save money. Though always a figure of romance, she had three failed marriages. But with faultless showmanship and pure brass, she created a persona that eclipsed the real Louise Hovick and outlived her. And she added an icon to American culture that will not be soon forgotten.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Lee, Gypsy Rose. Gypsy: A Memoir. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Preminger, Erik Lee. Gypsy and Me: At Home and on the Road. Boston, Little, Brown, 1984.