Abbott has just published a book about Lee, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare—The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee (Random House). “I don’t consider the book a biography,” Abbott says during a recent appearance at Alabama Booksmith in Homewood. “I consider it a microcosm of 20th-century America as it unfolded through this one dramatic life that perfectly dovetailed with the Depression, two world wars and Prohibition.” Abbott’s book reads almost like a novel, as she jumps back and forth in time and place to create a vivid picture of Lee and her world.
Abbott describes how Seattle-born Louise Hovick became the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee, overcoming—among other obstacles—a horrible stage mother named Rose, who was likely psychotic and pitted her two daughters against each other. “She paid them one dollar a day while she carried $30,000 in a bag around her waist,” Abbott says. Lee had a difficult relationship with her sister, the actress June Havoc, whom Abbott interviewed not long before she died.
Lee’s complex personality made Abbott’s work difficult. “One of the challenges of the book is that I didn’t know how I felt about her from page to page, or from story to story I would discover about her,” Abbott says. “Sometimes, I felt incredibly sorry for her. Her childhood was one of the strangest, saddest rags-to-riches stories I ever read. I liked her. I admired her. I was jealous of her. I was terrified of her. I thought she was incredibly cruel, and I thought she could be incredibly generous. So I didn’t know what to feel.”
Mama Dixie, leader of Tuscaloosa troupe Pink Box Burlesque, was not even born while Lee was alive, but is fascinated by her. “I think everything about her was very complicated,” Dixie says. “She had a very rich life and made some smart decisions and not-so-smart decisions. She was very strong and at the same time very fragile. She was very business savvy and yet had overwhelming experiences in that situation. That all went together to make a whole person.”
I told Abbott I found it intriguing that Lee had the creative will to sandpaper her mother’s very rough edges and make her a palatable character in her 1957 memoir Gypsy, which was made into a Broadway musical and a film. “Yeah, it’s true,” Abbott says. “In the musical, the mother’s portrayed as this sort of eccentric, pushy woman, a stage mother, but in real life, this woman was seriously mentally disturbed. And as Gypsy said, ‘If I told the truth about my mother, nobody would believe it. I have to make her a punch line.’” According to Abbott, there is evidence that Rose, who died in 1954, was even a murderer.
Burlesque is a grand tease, a way to both reveal and conceal, which is similar to what Lee did with her private life, according to Mama Dixie. “I think especially with [Lee], because it became so obvious that she had painted her own autobiography, it’s become the standard way a performer approaches burlesque,” Dixie says. “You take what’s going on already [in your life], and you throw some feathers and glitter at it, and you move it around. The tease begins when you remove that stuff and get down to what’s real. [Lee] teased a lot of the world with the story of what she was. But when she died, you got down to brass tacks, but it didn’t make her painting of that picture any less glamorous.”