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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
by Karen Abbott

Published: 2012-03-13
Paperback : 448 pages
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3 clubs reading this now
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Recommended to book clubs by 1 of 1 members

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

America was flying high in the Roaring Twenties. Then, almost overnight, the Great Depression brought it crashing down. When the dust settled, people were primed for a star who could distract them from reality. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite ...

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Introduction

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

America was flying high in the Roaring Twenties. Then, almost overnight, the Great Depression brought it crashing down. When the dust settled, people were primed for a star who could distract them from reality. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a gift for delivering exactly what America needed. With her superb narrative skills and eye for detail, Karen Abbott brings to life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intense triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who literally killed to get her daughters on the stage. Weaving in the compelling saga of the Minskys—four scrappy brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque and transform the entertainment landscape—Karen Abbott creates a rich account of a legend whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

Editorial Review

A Letter from Author Karen Abbott

My grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once related a tale about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. â??She took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a single glove,â?? the cousin said, â??and she was so damned good at it I wouldâ??ve gladly given her fifteen more.â?? This story got me thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? And how did an awkward girl named Louise Hovick become her? I spent three years researching the answer, research that included connecting with Gypsyâ??s late sister, the actress June Havoc; I was the last person to interview her.

When I arrived at Juneâ??s Connecticut farm I found her lying in bed, her hair done up in pert white pigtails. She was ninety-four years old, give or take, and the legs that once danced on stages across the country were now motionless, two nearly imperceptible bumps tucked beneath crisp white sheets. Her eyes were a bold shade of blue and painfully sensitive to light. She told me the musical Gypsy distorted her childhood so thoroughly it was as if â??I didnâ??t own me anymore.â?? She realized her sister was â??screwing me out in public,â?? and that, in the end, there was no stopping either Gypsy or Gypsy; the play was both her sisterâ??s monument and her best chance for monumental revisionism.

It took another visit for June to share more personal memories: money was Gypsyâ??s â??god,â?? and she would do anything to anybody, including June, to make more of it. Gypsy did in fact do things, not only to June but also to herselfâ??â??terribleâ?? and â??awfulâ?? and â??shockingâ?? things, things beneath her sisterâ??s formidable intellect and keen wit, things that made June believe, to that day, that love (even love fraught with competition and jealousy) never existed between them at all.

I asked and listened, for as much time as June gave me. I asked until her patience wore thin and her eyes watered with the effort to stay open.

â??I hope I didnâ??t upset you today,â?? I whispered. â??Thatâ??s not my intention.â??

â??I know,â?? June said. Those startling eyes found their focus, settling on mine. â??Iâ??m sorry I couldnâ??t be more open about some thingsâ?¦ Iâ??m still ashamed for her. I wish they hadnâ??t happened.â??

â??Would Gypsy wish the same?â?? I asked.

â??She had no shame.â??

A pause, and I said, feebly, â??You were a good sister to her.â??

A hand tunneled out from the sheet. She coiled long, blade-thin fingers around my wrist.

â??I was no sister,â?? June said. â??I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.â??

She retracted her hand, gave her eyes permission to close. I kissed her cheek and crept out the bedroom door. I was grateful she let me insideâ??even on the periphery, even briefly¬â??and I suspected she was saving her own questions for the day she reunited with the sister she did profess to love, the one she still called Louise.

Excerpt

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Discussion Questions

1. Karen Abbott has said in interviews that she structured American Rose like a striptease: revealing a bit, retreating, then revealing more, moving back and forth through time, until the entire narrative is revealed. Did you think this was the most effective and entertaining way to tell a sweeping story like Gypsy’s? Did you find the book more challenging because of the structure?
2. Gypsy’s mother, Rose Hovick, is widely considered the original “Stage Mother,” desperate to achieve fame and fortune through her children, at any cost. Do you think her actions were at all justified? Did you sympathize with her at any point? What modern-day mothers might you compare to Rose?
3. The Minsky brothers considered burlesque to be a viable art form, as culturally important as other American inventions like baseball or jazz. Do you agree that there’s a difference between burlesque and what goes on inside strip clubs? Where you do personally draw the line between art and pornography? The line between promoting female performers and exploiting them?
4. Gypsy’s rise to fame coincided with the worst economic time in American history. Why did burlesque thrive during the Great Depression? Would you have gone as far as Gypsy did to survive? Do you know any stories about your own family’s circumstances during the Great Depression?
5. What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like American Rose that can’t be from a novel? In what ways does the book read like a novel?
6. One of the overarching themes in American Rose is the question of identity: Rose tampers with her daughters’ names and ages; the Minsky patriarch changes his name to escape Russia; Gypsy sheds “Louise Hovick” when she becomes a star. How did these incidents affect each character and inform the way they lived their lives?
7. Abbott has called vaudeville “the reality TV of the 1920s.” Would you agree with this assessment? Which act in described in the book would you most like to see? If you had been in vaudeville, what would’ve been your “talent”?
8. The Minsky brothers griped that the showgirls working for “legitimate” Broadway producers such as Florenz Ziegfeld showed just as much skin as Minskys’ stripteasers, yet critics and law enforcement treated them differently: Ziegfeld shows were “art” while Minsky shows were “indecent.” Why do you think there was such a disparity in the way they were viewed? Did you agree with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s decision to shut the Minskys down, or do you think the brothers were victims of censorship?
9. American Rose explores the idea of sibling rivalry. How did Rose’s treatment of her daughters influence their interactions and relationship? Do you think the sisters were fair to one another? Who did you sympathize with more?
10. Abbott makes a clear distinction between the girl who was born Louise Hovick and the woman who became Gypsy Rose Lee. How did Gypsy the person view Gypsy Rose Lee, the creation? What did Gypsy like about her creation, and what did she struggle with? How did one affect the other? Do you think Gypsy was ultimately proud of what she’d become?
11. Gypsy’s story begins at the turn of the 20th century and ends in 1970, unfolding simultaneously with several major events in American history. How did Gypsy affect the times, and how did they affect her? Abbott has called Gypsy “the secret love child of Dorothy Parker and Lady Gaga.” What current personalities would you compare to Gypsy Rose Lee? Why has she captured American’s imagination for so long?
12. Gypsy obviously had a very complicated relationship with her mother. Do you believe they loved each other? Do you believe either of them was capable of love at all? June called Rose “a beautiful little ornament that was damaged.” Do you think Rose Hovick was merely eccentric, or was she mentally ill?
13. What was your personal opinion of Gypsy? Did you like her? Find her intimidating? Admire her? Did your feelings toward her shift along the way?

Suggested by Members

Gypsy's relationship with her Mother, sister and the men in her life.
by riggosmom (see profile) 03/09/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Note from author Karen Abbott:

My grandmother has a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. This cousin clamed that Gypsy took a full fifteen minutes to peel off a glove, and that she was “so damn good at it” that he would’ve gladly given her fifteen more. That story got me thinking: who was Gypsy Rose Lee? Who could possibly make the simple act of peeling off a glove so riveting that someone would be compelled to watch for a full half hour?

I decided I had to know, and so I researched this book for three years—research that included interviewing Gypsy’s son and her now-deceased sister, the actress June Havoc, who shared stories about Gypsy and their infamous mother that had never before been told.

One of the first places I looked was in old archives of Life magazine. Gypsy got a lot of press in Life (I later discovered that she’d been having an affair with the photographer!) I found one article that called her “the most private public woman in the world.” And I thought that was a fascinating contradiction: here’s someone who literally exposed herself for a living, and yet she always managed to keep something hidden. The second Life clip reiterated that theme: “Gypsy is the only women in the world with a public both and a private mind, both equally exciting.” And the third—and best—discovery was a telegram that read: “May your bare ass always be shining,” signed “Eleanor Roosevelt.” And I thought anyone who gets a telegram like that from the First Lady deserves to have her story told—and her real story is not at all like the one they produce on Broadway.

Finally, a note about the book: Gypsy was a complicated person. She did not live her life in a linear fashion; she moved backward as often as she moved forward, and I thought it would be a disservice to tell her story in a conventional way. So I structured the book like one of Gypsy’s stripteases—showing a bit here, then pulling back, and showing a bit more over there, until she’s wholly revealed at the end.

Book Club Recommendations

Our refreshments were cookies and cupcakes etc that started arounf the time period in the book.
by riggosmom (see profile) 03/09/12

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
  "American Rose by Karen Abbott"by riggosmom (see profile) 03/09/12

This was an interesting read for the history of Gypsy Rose Lee and the times she lived. It was poorly written because all of our members (25) felt it jumped back and fourth too much. It could have been... (read more)

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