Karen Abbott

Jess Sauer

By Jess Sauer

on 02.22.11 in Interviews

Many are familiar with Gypsy Rose Lee’s career through the film or musical Gypsy, both of which were based more on her memoir’s fabricated origin story than the actual life of Louise Hovick (her given name). A leggy burlesque queen who dated gangsters and hobnobbed with literati like H.L. Mencken and Carson McCullers, Lee became “the most popular woman in the world.” Yet there was another person buried beneath the persona, the bon mots and the arched eyebrows. If Gypsy is the story of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, American Rose suggests that Gypsy was never so disguised as when she was naked. The book chronicles Lee’s life from infancy to death, but it is not merely a biography. Rather, Abbott uses Gypsy’s multifaceted life as a prism through which the first half of the 20th Century can be glimpsed in all its colors — from garish to brilliant. eMusic’s Jess Sauer spoke with Abbott about Gypsy, and the America that made her possible.

In your book, you said that your grandmother was kind of your first exposure to Gypsy. Was she the very first, or just the first mention after you became a writer that sparked your interest? Had you seen the musical or movie before?

No, I actually hadn’t seen the movie or musical until after I started working on the book. But my grandmother, she’s only a couple of years younger than Gypsy, who would have turned 100 a month ago. My grandmother’s 92, so she always told stories about growing up during the Great Depression. And she loved to tell about a cousin who said he’d seen Gypsy Rose Lee perform in 1935. I have to think it was my grandmother who saw her perform, but she wasn’t admitting it. Yeah, the “cousin” said that Gypsy took a full 15 minutes to peel off a single glove, and that she was so damn good at it, he gladly would have given her 15 more. So I just thought that was really interesting, you know: who could possibly take the simple act of peeling off a glove and make it so riveting that someone might be compelled to watch this for a full half hour? So I began looking into her, and I just took it from there, and then started realizing “Oh, the sort of myth that’s been perpetuated on Broadway and in her memoir really has nothing to do with her true story.”

The [burlesque-promoting] Minsky brothers ‘story is a huge part of the book. As you were researching, did it became more apparent to you that they needed to be as much of a part of the story as Gypsy, or did you know from the outset that you wanted to do a dual-perspective story? When I got started, I really never wanted to write a biography of Gypsy — and I don’t actually consider it to be a biography so much as a microcosm of 20th Century America as told through this one really compelling, dramatic life that happened to unfold during all of these major events, as well as sort of capitalize on them and be affected by them in unique ways. I don’t think Gypsy would necessarily have become Gypsy if it weren’t for the Great Depression and the fact that burlesque really thrived during the Depression. The time period really captivated me, and I thought she was the perfect foil to really examine the time period, and of course had a really quintessential Americana — you know, the strangest rags-to-riches you’re ever going to read. I often call it Horatio Alger meets Tim Burton, it’s that strange.

The meat of the book is set in the Depression, and I was wondering whether the current recession inspired your focus on that particular period.

I’m always interested when politics repeats itself, or when the country’s mood repeats itself. But it just so happened that her heyday, when she became Gypsy Rose Lee, was in the Depression. I start the book and finish the book in 1940 — I figured that was the exact middle of her life, and it was also the year she was named the most popular woman in the world, so it’s sort of like what came before that and what came after that. I wanted to use the 1940s as a sort of fulcrum to balance and look at both the early parts of her life and then after. And it just so happened leading up to 1940, the bulk of that was the Depression.

You center around 1940, but you’re leaping back and forth in time. Did that have to do with the messiness of her narrative? It seemed like you had to do a lot of piecing together, and at the end there was still some mysteriousness.

I didn’t think she was a linear person. She didn’t live a linear life, in a linear fashion. She would have been really ill-served by a beginning-middle-end narrative. It would’ve been incredibly boring and wouldn’t fit her. So I wanted to structure her story like a striptease: reveal a little bit over here, and pull away, then go over here and reveal a little bit and pull away, and then reveal all at the end, and I think I’ve revealed as much of her as — I don’t know, I feel like I knew who she was at the end. She was somebody who in actuality had this really conflicted relationship with this monster she created, and that’s something she never said aloud, and I think that was probably the thing that would keep her up at night. What more is there to know about a person than the one thing that would really keep them up at night? I think that’s it.

There seems to be a really strong relationship between censorship and burlesque in this almost symbiotic way. In that era, there was a culture of repression that also resulted in a culture of wild creativity. For instance, when you’re listing the locations of speakeasies, they’re in the lobby of a bank, or under a secretary’s desk. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that: how in a time that was so repressed, socially and economically, there was this mainstream culture that was actually quite fringey.

What is the quote at the beginning of the book, from Jean-Paul Sartre? He says, “Genius is born in desperate circumstances.” If somebody wants a drink, they’re going to find a way to create a place where they can have a drink, and the same with burlesque. These people who put on burlesque were mostly desperate. These were women who had lost their jobs, the men who watched them were mostly unemployed men who would line up at burlesque in the morning to get into the evening shows, who were desperate to escape their humdrum, daily depressing existence and the fact that there was nothing left out there for them. The fact that there were so many girls in burlesque sort of forced each one to find a way to market herself, or to find a way to make herself stand out. So, you know, you had people who were really able to capitalize on that, Gypsy being the ultimate one. I tried to think of who I would compare her to, and I always come back to, you know, if Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret lovechild, I think it would’ve been Gypsy. Not only for her dramatic presence, but also because she had a really facile wit and could always come up with something clever to say in the moment.

My favorite from the whole book was when she’d been arrested, and they put a blanket over her, and she said, “I’ve been draped!”

I know, I know. I love that too. It’s so corny, but funny at the same time.

There will always be industries that profit off of desperate times, but it also seemed, partially because of the Depression and the fact that everyone was in desperate times, that there was a sort of egalitarianism in burlesque, in terms of the crowds that attended. There were actually members of the upper crust in the same theater with really down-and-out people.

I think that was the brilliance of the Minskys in particular. It’s in burlesque, but the Minskys specifically had the ability to go high and low, and it was also Gypsy’s genius. Here’s somebody who was hanging around with the Algonquin Round Table and H.L. Mencken, and living in Brooklyn with Carson McCullers, and yet cursed like a sailor and was one of “the people” — literally, she was not someone who was born into privilege. So yeah, I think that was part of the brilliance of burlesque and of the Minskys and Gypsy.

In your bio it says that you attended Catholic school. What effect do you think that upbringing had on your later professional interest in subcultures that Catholicism would deem sinful?

I think that the thing about that is that I’m more interested in the women that were doing things that were considered subversive at the time, but were really revolutionary. With Catholicism, which I really haven’t practiced since I was a kid, I was always really interested in the Virgin Mary. I had a Virgin Mary collection, and a Lady of Guadalupe collection. I was always interested in Mary more than anyone else, and the idea of Mary Magdalene, too, and the fact that she was eventually exalted. So that was the interesting thing about Catholicism to me, the sort of easy redemption that somebody can have. Just the whole magic of it, in terms of, “Oh, I killed someone, but now I apologize and I’m clear in the eyes of God, if not in the eyes of the court. But I can go to heaven now!” You know, it’s sort of like the easy redemption of Catholicism, the very easy sinning and the very easy redemption that go hand-in-hand. So I think that sort of plays into the books. There’s always a moral ambiguity there that I think is really fascinating.

Catholicism is so strict in some ways that it almost has to be that forgiving.

Yeah, or nobody would ever go to heaven!