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Down to the bare essentials

By Staff | Apr 28, 2009

Noralee Frankel retells a popular figure’s story in “Stripping Gypsy.”

Gypsy Rose Lee was most famous for her strip-tease act on the 1930s burlesque stage, and her life with her infamous stage mom, Rose, was made into a 1950s musical. Gypsy’s story doesn’t end where the musical does, and this book chronicles her life on and off the burlesque stage. Gypsy was also an actress, an author, a playwright and an activist.

While burlesque was a part of her life forever, Gypsy didn’t just stay in burlesque. She had a turn in the Ziegfield Follies in 1932 before finding that the pay was dismal compared to what she was getting in burlesque. She returned to the Follies in late 1936 and early 1937 before leaving for a short career in Hollywood in 1937.

Under her real name, Louise Hovick, she appeared in a few films, but was regulated to the “bad girl” roles. The backlash against her by the newly created Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America didn’t help her career.

Gypsy left Hollywood and began a short stint as a housewife in her first marriage. When that didn’t work out, she wrote her first mystery novel, which was well received. She lived a new life among a collective of writers and continued to ply that craft. It was something that would stick with her throughout the years, even as she bounced from burlesque acts on stage, at the World’s Fair and abroad. She wrote another mystery novel, several plays, many articles, and finally a memoir.

Gypsy, an independent woman, found romance to be a rocky road. She didn’t want to rely on a man for anything and was used to taking care of herself, so many of her romances were with married men who wouldn’t push for a commitment. She tried marriage three times and had one son, whom she never told his father’s identity.

During the war, Gypsy performed at USO shows for soldiers before moving to host radio programs and television shows, but in the wake of the McCarthy-era, found herself blacklisted because of past political activities and suspicions of communism, something she denied.

In her 40s, she found herself again in Hollywood doing movies and still writing until she died of lung cancer in 1970 at the age of 59. Gypsy’s life is one of a woman who went after what she wanted and did it on her own terms no matter what. She was smart and funny and went about her career with dignity and mirth. Her story is a fascinating one and also follows the culture of the time.

Contact Amy at amendenhall@graffitiwv.com