3.5 out of 5
A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee
by Karen Abbot
published by Random House
released on December 28, 2010 (hardcover) and March 13, 2012 (paperback)
provided by NetGalley
“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.”from Penguin Random House
When I first started reading this book I hopped right on Goodreads and exclaimed how awesome it is. I had never heard of Gypsy Rose Lee before reading this book. I chose it based on the cover and a sentence about the plot. I was immediately intrigued by her life.
Gypsy Rose Lee was a famous burlesque dancer. Not only did she live an interesting life but the history of her family is also fascinating. Once I dug into the book a couple of things bugged me about it.
The book also includes a huge amount of info on the history of burlesque including a ton of info on the Minsky Brothers of NYC. While this was cool to learn about it detracts from Gypsy’s story. During the first 100 or so pages it seems like you’ll never really get into Gypsy’s story because the author is providing the backstory on everyone else. This reminds me of the quote from the movie Wonder Boys, “even though you’re book is really beautiful…it’s very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone’s horses, and the dental records…”. I would guess that the author was having difficulty editing herself but I bet that she was simply so enamored with all of the details that she felt compelled to include them.
My other issue with the book is that it jumps around back and forth between different time periods constantly. This combined with all of the extra info makes it a confusing read, especially when you are first starting the book. I once read a review of a film that used nonlinear storytelling and it said that if your story is interesting enough (and the format isn’t a part of the plot) then it’s unnecessary to format media in this way. I tend to agree.
I wanted to mention these issues in case you also went into the book a blank slate. Plus I wanted you to know why I took away 1.5 stars. Other than those issues I found the book fantastic. I particularly enjoyed how the author included slang from that time. The author also reconstructs scenes and tried to make you feel like you were there as events were happening. I think that she did this through a combo of investigation and assumption. This doesn’t bother me but some sticklers may take issue with it.
Gypsy herself, is amazing. Like my favorite movie heroine Nomi Malone, Gypsy is described as being untalented. Yet she was able to find a way into the spotlight. To give you a small amount of back story on her, her mother Rose was considered the ultimate stage mother who took Gypsy (then Rose Louise Hovick) and her younger sister June Hovick (then Baby June) on the road doing vaudeville as children. June was considered extremely talented, she was a natural dancer who also put a ton of effort into becoming even better. Meanwhile, Rose Louise was considered to just be there, basically, so she just did whatever was needed in an act. Their mother, Rose, often had an unpaid bevy of young men or young women who toured with them.
Eventually, June went off on her own. Rose and Rose Louise continued to tour during the ebbing of vaudeville and found themselves smack in the middle of burlesque. Since there was money in it they created a burlesque celebrity out of Rose Louise, aka Gypsy Rose Lee, despite her mother’s initial objections to what she considered a tawdry profession. The book deals with all of this and the complex familial relationships between Gypsy, her mother, and her sister both before and after Gypsy’s rise to fame.
Some describe this book as racy. It definitely goes there. You learn all about the behind-the-scenes workings of burlesque. I particularly enjoyed the nuggets on how the stripteasers and vaudeville acts pulled off some of their tricks. There are also several suspicious deaths. Plus you find out about the decency crackdown in NYC that affected burlesque and a few nuggets here and there about prohibition.
The story of Gypsy’s mom, Rose is crazy, as is her family history. The changing of her daughters’ names and personal histories is also disconcerting (example-cannibalism).
I was so intrigued by this book that I had to watch both film adaptations of the musical Gypsy that was somewhat based on her life (the next remake will star Barbra Streisand!). I also intend to read Gypsy’s autobiography in the future.
If you are interested in burlesque, vaudeville, and Gypsy Rose Lee (and her family) you should read this book.
Note: I was able to read a galley of this book for free via NetGalley and Random House. This doesn’t affect my opinion on it.