A life in entertainment

This is the story of the 1920s and onwards seen through one particular aspect of American culture. The American Rose of the title is Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque dancer and stripper. This book, by Karen Abbott, is a social history of the times as well as a biography.

The background and family story of Gypsy (as she called herself in her later years) is fascinating. Her mother was a monster who lied, stole, cheated, deceived and possibly murdered. When Gypsy’s younger sister was born her mother decided that her birth name better fitted the new child so June became Louise and the baby became June. It wouldn’t be the last change in names during their life. As the children grew their mother encouraged/forced them to work as a variety act. June was the dancing star and Louise played other roles because she was larger and less pretty. A childhood spent on the move and continually performing was not good for sisterly affection or family loyalty. Eventually June ran away from the act and became a movie star. Louise found herself without a role and became a stripper in burlesque which was in its early stages. She later acted in movies and found worldwide success.

In addition to this fascinating story of a family split and damaged the author tells the story of the Minsky brothers who owned theatres and who came to be the leading purveyors of burlesque. The authorities, especially in the 1940s and 50s did not approve of the entertainment they provided so they had to overcome regular legal challenges.

This is actually quite a sad story. Gypsy had an horrendous early life and the author points to the fact that there are missing periods when it is likely that other disagreeable events occurred. The legacy of their years on the road left both sisters with a deep dislike and mistrust of each other and their mother. Neither of them seemed to find contentment in later life. There are a large number of facts missing or doubtful about the girls’ early life which the author tries to highlight so that the reader can make their own minds up about what might have happened.

The author choses to structure this book in an odd way. She alternates chapters between the childhood of the sisters, the 1960s when Gypsy is at the height of her fame, and the story of the Minsky brothers. I had no problem with this, once I worked out what was happening, but I did note that some details, such as the names of the men that Gypsy married, were missing because they fell between chapters.

I’m glad I read this book. I found it fascinating and the whole history of this time in American popular culture was new to me.

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