Broadway Features and Reviews
Broadway's Gypsy Exposed
By Juliane Elizabeth Buntin, Broadway Magazine
Gypsy is one of America's most treasured musicals. Most Broadway goers know the show is based on the autobiography of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, which features a domineering stage-mom so ferocious her onstage character coined the archetype. Like so many other "based on" artworks, we can learn a lot about the real Gypsy from the musical adaptation, but we can miss a lot too-that's the danger of translating real-life to paper and paper to stage. Even Gypsy admitted her memoir twisted truth with wit, and historians agree that she was not the most reliable narrator. Naturally, uncovering a clear picture of the woman who inspired it all is best done by looking between the lines of both a fact-focused biography and the fantastical and important product of her musical "fable" and personal writings.
Rose Louise Hovick (she didn't acquire the name Gypsy until much later in life) was born in Seattle, Washington on February 9th, 1911. She was a big baby, over 12 pounds at birth, and she grew into an awkward child, especially compared to younger sister June, who could sing and dance on point by age two. When Louise was seven, her mother Rose created a vaudeville act called "Dainty June and her Newsboys." The act highlighted June's talents while keeping shyer Louise on the sidelines, playing backbone (one of the newsboys!) to her spotlighted sister. After years of the vaudeville act, June eventually got fed up with her mother's demands and ran off with a boy from the show.
Without June, Rose and Louise gathered a gaggle of girls from the Seattle area interested in show-business to help them start what became known as "Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes". The girls dressed in childish costumes and died their hair blonde, while Louise remained brunette. They performed in high heels, struggling to keep the act afloat in the dying vaudeville world. Eventually, they debuted at their first burlesque house, The Missouri Theatre in Kansas City.
Here Louise became Gypsy. Her career as a stripper started off with removing her clothes for a calloused group of men in a seedy environment. But it didn't take long for Gypsy to distinguish herself from the other girls chained to stripper's lifestyle. Her most notable difference was humor-Gypsy's personality got men going just as much as her body. By 1931 she'd made it to Manhattan, and began performing at the upscale burlesque venue Minsky's, where her routine was an original, intellectualized tease. Often, she removed no more than a glove as she recited witty monologues in a highbrow, coy accent.
Her Manhattan success granted Gypsy graceful fame, and she began to move in elite literary circles that included Carson McCullers, W.H Auden, and Carl Van Doren. "The Literary Stripper", as she called herself, had enough charm and smarts to hold her own despite her lack of formal education. Eventually Gypsy began writing her own works, including a failed play and a commercially successful mystery novel called The G-String Murders, which was followed by another mystery entitled Mother Finds the Body.
Gypsy was married three times, to Julio de Diego, Alexander Kirkland, and Robert Mizzy. Her only son, Erik, was born in 1944, the product of a brief affair with director Otto Preminger during Gypsy's marriage to Kirkland.
Gypsy's mother Rose died in 1954. The death unshackled Gypsy from her mother's influence, and by 1957 the memoir Gypsy was published. The book instantly shot to the top of the best seller lists, and garnered a $200,000 movie rights deal. Instead of taking the monumental film offer, Gypsy decided to sell the theatrical rights to her book for $4,000 against a percentage of the gross. This move, which would now be considered ridiculous, proved ultimately lucrative.
In 1969, Gypsy was diagnosed with lung cancer, and in 1970 she passed away. The musical adapted from her memoir certifies her legacy forever-as a strip-tease artist, a writer, and a show-business legend, a star who provided inspiration for one of the greatest Broadway shows of all time. Even Rose couldn't have asked for more.
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