Gypsy Rose Lee is America’s best known burlesque dancer. What’s less known about her is the life of Rose Louise, the reasons she was driven to burlesque, and how she really thought about herself and her life. This is as much due to her own cultivation of her personal myth as anything else; taking her sister’s legacy in vaudeville and making it her own, Gypsy became a legend even in her own time, the master of the strip tease. Karen Abbott has done research into Gypsy’s early life, while she was still Rose Louise, and attempted to work out the true story of the woman behind the myth.
Gypsy Rose Lee was certainly a fascinating woman. I didn’t know much about her before reading this book, just her name and that she was a famous burlesque dancer. The story within this book was, for me, fascinating. I took a class in American musical theatre back in college and it was easily one of the more interesting courses outside of my majors. Of course, it started right at the beginning, with the origins of vaudeville and burlesque – both of which feature largely here.
As a child, Gypsy was in vaudeville, and hugely successful, with her sister June as the lead performer. An awkward child, Gypsy, then known as Rose Louise, could often be mistaken for one of the boys, while her ethereal baby sister stole the show. It was only when June ran off at the age of fifteen that Rose transformed herself into Gypsy Rose Lee, joining burlesque shows out of desperation and eventually becoming a true master of the racy performances. Behind the scenes was a difficult mother and some very difficult family relationships, all of which made for compelling reading. At times it was hard to believe that Gypsy and her family actually lived these lives – they are so outside the norm. I was simultaneously fascinating and drawn to pity Gypsy and June for completely missing out on normal childhoods – they didn’t go to school, they didn’t make friends, and they lived just to make their mother more money.
Despite the incredibly compelling life of Gypsy, I didn’t really feel that the book lived up to its full potential. That’s because it switches around quite drastically in time. This could have been a useful device for contrasting the older Gypsy with the child Rose Louise, but in the end it flipped around too much for my liking. I wouldn’t have minded Gypsy’s biography alternated with interviews and the author’s research (presuming the latter took a secondary role) but switching through multiple time periods was just distracting. I wound up feeling the book would have been better as a straightforward biography, told in chronological order. Gypsy’s story doesn’t need these devices to be captivating.
Bar the flaw of alternating periods of history, American Rose was an incredibly addictive, compelling read. I was drawn to read more and more of Gypsy’s life, reading this non-fiction book as easily as I would read any novel. If you don’t mind the switching around, I’d highly recommend this book.
I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.