Burlesque Series: Gypsy Rose Lee

Born into relative poverty, with her younger sister June Havoc being a star by the age of two-and-a-half, Rose Louise Hovick was considered the less talented sister in her family. Her mother wanted her daughters to have careers in show business, and while “Louise” (as she was known) performed acceptably, June excelled – she was quickly a star, and the main breadwinner in a family with a rotating cast of down-on-their-luck father figures. That all changed, however, in 1928, when June eloped with another dancer and started her own career.

Louise wasn’t able to sustain the family’s act on her own, and instead went on to receive a basic education. Meanwhile, she was still dancing, and a fortuitous event changed her career direction forever – during an act, one of the shoulder straps on the gown she was wearing snapped, and she spent the rest of the act trying (unsuccessfully) to keep her clothes on. The audience loved it, and a burlesque star was born.

Louise moved to New York, and created the stage name she would keep for the rest of her life – Gypsy Rose Lee. She was quickly selected for inclusion in the notorious Minsky’s Burlesque troupe, and by the early 1930s had been arrested numerous times in the frequent raids on Minsky’s shows – Billy Minsky would later describe her act as “seven minutes of sheer art”. Her career was vast and varied; she performed in Michael Todd’s 1942 “Stars and Garters” revue; wrote two novels with burlesque-themed mysteries; starred in several feature films (including “Stage Door Canteen”, where she performed her act – during the Hayes Code era!); she was a noted labor activist who brought huge crowds to union rallies.

Gypsy’s routine was of a somewhat more casual and intellectual bent than the routines of many of her contemporaries. She would walk about the stage and slink behind curtains, revealing more and more of herself, whilst often reciting self-written rhyming phrases, interacting with the audience, or singing. It was more an artsy, deliberate tease than a frenetic titillation, which endeared her to literary types as well as the average burlesque crowd. After her mother’s death in 1957, she wrote an autobiography that formed the basis for the 1959 musical “Gypsy“. She would dance very little after this point, preferring to share the company of noted authors and writers; he house was full of paintings by artists such as Picasso and Miró which were given as gifts. In 1970, she passed away, but her legacy lives on – especially now, during a burlesque revival which has been growing for years in cities like her beloved New York.

Check out one of her acts here, in a relatively rare Tru Vue series:


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