|Gypsy Rose Lee in 1937, with one of her dogs|
Gypsy Rose Lee Born Jan 8, 1911 or Feb 19, 1912..? Died April 26, 1970
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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