Today is the birthday (1911) of Gypsy Rose Lee, a burlesque entertainer, actress, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical and film Gypsy. Gypsy Rose Lee was born in Seattle, Washington, as Rose Louise Hovick, but known within family and close circles as Louise. In this post to distinguish her family members, I am going to use Louise for her, June for her younger sister, and Rose for her mother.
Rose forged various birth certificates for each of her daughters — older when needed to evade varying state child labour laws, and younger for reduced or free train fares. The girls were unsure until later in life what their years of birth were, and Louise usually gave 9 January as her birthday even though it was 8 January.
Rose had married Norwegian-American, John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper advertising salesman and a reporter at The Seattle Times. They married on May 28, 1910 in Seattle, Washington and divorced on August 20, 1915. After the divorce, June supported the family by appearing in vaudeville, being billed “Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World” when she was only 2½. Rose and June went to Hollywood for two years where June appeared in short films directed by Hal Roach. Louise was left behind while June and her mother were on the road. She had an elementary education, unlike June who was taught to read by stage-hands. Much to her mother’s displeasure, June eloped with Bobby Reed, a dancer in their act, in December 1928, and went on to pursue a brief career in marathon dancing, a more profitable vocation than tap dancing.
Louise’s singing and dancing talents were insufficient to sustain the act without June. Eventually, it became apparent that Louise could make money in burlesque, which earned her legendary status as a high class and witty striptease artist. Initially, her act was propelled forward when a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself. Encouraged by the audience’s response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.
You can see from this clip that the purpose of her act was not so much to bare her body as to tease the audience into thinking that she was going to – hence strip-tease. She became as famous for her onstage wit as for her strip style, and – changing her stage name to Gypsy Rose Lee – she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky’s Burlesque, where she performed for four years. She was frequently arrested in raids on the Minsky brothers’ shows. During the Great Depression, Louise spoke at various union meetings in support of New York laborers. According to activist Harry Fisher, her talks were among the most well attended.
In 1937 and 1938, billed as Louise Hovick, she made five films in Hollywood. But her acting was generally panned, so she returned to New York City where she had an affair with film producer Michael Todd and co-produced and appeared in his 1942 musical revue, Star and Garter.
In 1941 Louise wrote a mystery thriller called The G-String Murders, which was made into the sanitized 1943 film, Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. While some assert this was actually ghost written by Craig Rice, there are others who claim that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Louise’s own correspondence to prove that she wrote a large part of the novel herself under the guidance of Rice and others, including her editor George Davis, a friend and mentor. Lee’s second murder mystery, Mother Finds a Body, was published in 1942.
Louise married Arnold “Bob” Mizzy on August 25, 1937, and divorced in 1941. In 1942, she married William Alexander Kirkland; they divorced in 1944. While married to Kirkland, she gave birth on December 11, 1944, to a son fathered by Otto Preminger. Her son was named Erik Lee, but has since been known successively as Erik Kirkland, Erik de Diego, and Erik Preminger. Gypsy was married for a third time in 1948, to Julio de Diego, but that union also ended in divorce in 1955.
In 1940 she bought a town home on East 63rd St in Manhattan with a private courtyard, 26 rooms and seven baths. Louise and her sister continued to get demands for money from their mother who had opened a boarding house/ lesbian bordello in a 10-room apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan (rented for her by Louise). Details are sketchy and conflicting, but, according to Erik Preminger, Rose shot and killed her lover there after she had made a pass at Louise, and the killing was subsequently passed off as a suicide (and Rose was never prosecuted). Rose died in 1954, after which Louise felt freed to write about her without risking a lawsuit. Louise’s memoirs, Gypsy, were published in 1957 and were taken as inspirational material for the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable.
Her sister June did not like the way she was portrayed in the piece, but she was eventually persuaded (and paid) not to oppose it for her sister’s sake. The play and the subsequent movie deal assured Louise a steady income. The sisters became estranged for a period of time but reconciled. June, in turn, wrote Early Havoc and More Havoc, to tell her version of the story. Louise went on to host a morning San Francisco KGO-TV television talk show, “Gypsy.” The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with art by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all of which were reportedly gifts to her by the artists themselves. Like Picasso, she was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain’s Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities.
Louise died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970, aged 59. She is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California (here pictured with the year of her birth incorrectly noted).
Louise put together a cookbook that was never published, and also contributed celebrity recipes to magazines. None of them is especially out of the ordinary. They are mostly for standard dishes given to her by friends. She reports that her mother was especially fond of chow mein, which I presume was nothing more than standard Chinese-American fare from faceless joints, and nothing like 炒面 (chǎomiàn – fried noodles) which the humblest roadside cook in China can make ten times better. I did, however, come across this greeting card with Louise’s photo and her recipe for torrijas, a Spanish festive form of French toast:
Torrijas are customarily made for Christmas or Easter. The only real difference between torrijas and French toast is that torrijas are deep fried in olive oil. Basically you cut stale bread in thick slices then soak it in sweetened milk, followed by a second soaking in sweetened beaten egg. Generally, each step should take about 30 minutes – don’t rush. Then shake off the excess fluid and deep fry the bread in olive oil at 350°F until golden. Drain on wire racks and dust with sugar.