Not enough of us ladies know about Gypsy Rose Lee. But we should. The star of burlesque who had her face all over the Chicago World’s Fair and the foot lights of New York City inspired the multi-Tony Award winning play Gypsy and countless of strip tease moves. She is truly a model of how a woman can use her brains and body to navigate a tough, male-centered world.
Gypsy was born Rose Louise Hovick in 1911, the less attractive daughter of Rose and John Hovick. Her childhood is the classic example of being raised by a headstrong, money-obsessed mother and an absent father.
Louise’s career started at the age of one, when she won a “Healthy Baby” beauty contest. But as she grew it was clear that the years would be awkward for her before she came into her own—long limbed, with dull brown hair and a freckled face, she was no inherent beauty despite the early title.
Then her sister June came along—all blond-haired and blue-eyed, with an insanely natural talent for dance—and Louise took the backseat, sometimes literally. June danced with the body of an aged ballerina in her tiny toe shoes, the grace of a girl far greater than her only two years. Her talent was discovered when she toddled over to a ballet bar (when Louise was taking classes, and was horrid, much to the dismay of the teacher and her mother) and proceeded to get her tiny toes on point. From then on, Rose was obsessed with putting June in the spotlight.
Rose divorced John early on, claiming her daughters fiercely for herself. They moved in with her parents in West Seattle, where the little ones got their first education in seduction. Rose’s mother Anna was an experienced seamstress, specializing in lacy lingerie and hats. She would often take to the rails, traveling to peddle her wares to racy escorts and prostitutes all over the northwest. And most likely June and Louise got their first tastes of soft lace, the material running through their fingers was an early education in how to use the female body to seduce.
Rose procured enough funds to make some costumes for her girls and some makeshift props. With “Baby June Havoc” in the center, they started a routine. Louise often played a boy in their little gigs—with a bowl haircut and those long legs and looking naturally unsure and uncomfortable, she seemed to fit pants and vests more than skirts and bows. And she was a drastic contrast to dainty June in her little furs and delicate shoes. They played community halls and June took a turn or two on the big screen before the family took to vaudeville circuit.
Now, the Vaudeville life back in the 20s and 30s was sometimes akin to what we’d think of as the life of, well, gypsies and carnival folk. While the Dust Bowl hadn’t hit the country yet, it was a hard, tiring life. Talented but exhausted performers went from city to city, in cars and trains packed with their gear and enough personal items to last them as long as the road or rail. Child performers mingled with adults and learned things far too advanced for their tender years. In fact, they just plain grew up too soon, being money-makers since childhood with no regularity with school or family (neither girl would be educated beyond age 7).
Which is exactly what happened to Louise and June. As soon as the “Baby June” gig took up, the Havocs were up and out. For a decade they played the vaudeville circuit, sometimes riding on June’s young age (Rose fibbed about that more than once, and for many years the daughters weren’t quite sure how old they actually were), then on her naturally beautiful development into adolescence. Rose paid kids performers to join in on the act from town to town, paying them almost nothing for the honor of being part of the show. Louise had a pet monkey, June a puppy. They spent too many nights in parlors around the company of adults. Rose taught them how to shoplift, and how to seduce train conductors and hotel managers so that they could skip out on the check. Beautiful and petite herself, Rose nailed her pathetic single mother routine, but was strong enough to push a hotel manager out the window and could physically scare the crap out of men throughout her tumultuous life.
Rose saw how men reacted to her daughters, and to women in general. While she claimed to be pure and innocent, she most likely had sold herself at some point to save money. And while they didn’t call it “escorting” back then, she often made some money on the side by spending time with gentlemen (one of which who would become the second Mr. Havoc for a while).
June took off with one of the male dancers at 13 (June would find out later that she was actually 16 at the time) Rose and Louise went home to Seattle to regroup.
And it was there that their burlesque show was born.
Rose tried and failed to first put together a group of young women dressed as girls, dolls and everything. When that show flopped, she bleach-blonded the girls and put them in heels.
All but Louise, who insisted she stand out as the only brunette.
Gypsy was in the making.
She still didn’t have any natural talent, and even being the outsider in “Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blonds” didn’t make her an immediate star. At the time, burlesque was not respected or even considered an art form. It was more in tune to our modern day strip clubs, but instead of being solo on a stage surrounded by men leering with a cocktail and tucking dollars into panty lines, they’d keep their hands to themselves, usually underneath newspapers in their laps, while the dancers stayed a safe distance away on a stage. There was little showmanship in these performances. Tits and ass were to be seen. Not much was to be heard.
Those years were hard for the Havocs. June had tried to create a new show with her beau, but vaudeville was dying out and they resorted to marathon dancing, which wore her out physically and emotionally. But she was making an honest living and was in love, so that life beat her former one exponentially. She would later on find success on stage and film.
Louise was still trying to please her mother, and had grown into Rose’s hard shadow. She started calling shots about their shows, and how much they paid the blondes, and where they stayed. She started insisting that she would be the center of the show, and worked her seduction as they traveled from town to town. They often slept in tents to save the money on hotels, and were perpetually hungry.
Though few stories will confirm it and Rose and Louise only alluded to it in hushed tones, they also took to escorting at this time. With a career that insisted she be looked at and hard times having fallen upon them, Louise’s renting herself out became, for a short period, their survival technique. In later years Rose would throw these days in Louise’s face as a form of blackmail.
And then came the Minsky’s.
Lower East Side Jews in a time when New York City was a teeming melting pot even more so than it is now, the Minsky brothers revolutionized the burlesque scene. Before Minsky’s, burlesque shows were both too tame or too lewd to attract a wealthier, more energetic crowd.
After a trip to Paris, Abe Minksy came back to New York in love and wanting to replicate the Folies Bergere; the famous French dance hall where a runway was lit by bright bulbs and the dancers wore feathers and fur in their acts. After a few trials and errors, the Minsky brothers owned the most successful clubs in New York City, attracting crowds of all sorts to see some of the most beautiful dancers the world had to offer.
When he asked her name, Louise blurted out “Gypsy Rose Lee”, and that’s how she was billed from then on.
Her years on the vaudeville and cheap burlesque circuit, the harsh love of her mother and her continual competition in proving that she was as valuable as dainty June now came together for Gypsy.
We would now look at her routine as “classic”. She would wear gorgeous, lavish dresses and furs and heels and stockings, all held together with straight pins. As she paraded across the stage she spoke in low, whispered tones so that her audience would have to lean forward ever so slightly to hear her. And as she dropped a straight pin in the bell of a waiting tuba in the pit orchestra, its delightful little “ping” would accentuate the look of surprise on her face.
She took off very little clothing in her act, which was a start contrast to many of the performers of the day. Rather she mixed a bit of stand-up comedy with the knowledge that sometimes less is more.
For the next several decades Gypsy made her living primarily as a performer. When money was good she hoarded it away, perhaps an inherited obsession with money that her mother had imbued. She gave herself an education by reading incessantly backstage and throughout the years wrote the memoir Gypsy that would rise to infamy on the stage, as well as a detective novel and several plays.
And the years took her far—to the star of the Chicago World’s Fair, to a short stint on Broadway, to film and comfortably into retirement in California, where she made several television appearances and sat for a while on Hollywood Squares.
Gypsy truly was an anomaly. A woman with no natural talent who observed the world, chose her place in it, and rose to be one of the most famous dancers and performers in history.
Her life definitely was not easy—she had a violent relationship with her mother, while she and June never really resolved their mutual jealousies to have a true sisterly relationship—but she made the world hers. She had several lovers, several husbands, and one son. She would be an escort when she needed and spent time with men for monetary compensation.
But she wisely used all of these avenues—vaudeville, escorting, burlesque, theater, film—to observe how the world worked and what the people in it desired. With a drive to be looked at as more than just a burlesque dancer, she educated herself and spread her wings as a writer and producer. She embraced love.
And as her name lives on in infamy—on the stage, in films, and in books about her that continue to come out and dazzle—we can surely say that Gypsy Rose Lee was one hell of a successful woman.