THE PITCH: Think you know about burlesque legend Gypsy Rose Lee because you read her memoir or saw the Stephen-Sondheim-penned musical, Gypsy? Karen Abbott's new book aims to change your mind.
GYPSY: Though she was raised by her domineering mother to work in the vaudeville style of the Jazz Age, Rose Louise Hovick became the burlesque star known as Gypsy Rose Lee while the Great Depression gripped the country. Abbott hones in on the tumultuous triangle of ambition, envy, and, apparently, murder that connected Gypsy to her sister June and mother Rose.
PAGE TURNER: Abbott cranks up the potboiler tension before her four page author's note is even finished. Of an interview with Gypsy's elderly sister June, she writes, "She coiled long, blade-thin fingers around my wrist. "I was no sister," June said. "I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.""
STYLE POINTS: Morton Minsky says that her body wasn't the main attraction. "She had mastered the art of the tease to such an extent that no one minded. [...] Her costumes were suggestive and seductive rather than the flower, psuedo-virginal frocks assumed by the less imaginative. She used black silk stockings, lace panties, red garters, and mesh netting. In a manner new to burlesque, she turned her essentially shy feelings about disrobing onstage into a mocking, spoofing jest."
TELEPATHIC TENSION: "When I occassionally slip inside of Gypsy's head, I do so using the most careful consideration of my research, and with the tantalizing, agonizing knowledge that there is certainly more to the story," writes Abbott, which is a nice way of saying that she has taken some liberties with American Rose. True or not, though, Abbott's speculations of Gypsy's thoughts often serve as a fascinating catalyst for the story.
BROTHEL BACKGROUND: Abbott's first book, Sin the Second City, explored the history of Chicago's vice district through the lens of the Everleigh Club, a brothel operated there for about a decade around the turn of the century. That wildly successful narrative non-fiction book led USA Today to say that Abbott "pioneered sizzle history." American Rose certainly follows in that "sizzle history" tradition, exploring Depression-era America and the fraught business of burlesque to tell Gypsy's tale.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT TO GYPSY: "May your bare ass always be shining."
American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott. Random House. $26. 448 pp
Karen Abbott reads from and signs American Rose at the Highland Ballroom Book Bash on Tues., Jan 18 at 7 pm. Bernadette Seacrest & Her Provocateurs will perform. More details at A Cappella Books.
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