[descriptions from throughout the book]
Full-length, hand-tinted pictures of girls in various forms of undress graced the walls [of the theatre]. The one of me, wearing a sunbonnet and holding a bouquet of flowers just large enough to bring the customers in and keep the police out, was third from the left...
She had just finished her number and the skirt of her costume was thrown over her shoulders. Crisp, pinkish hair fell over her puffy eyes and her body paint was streaked with sweat. She was known as “Dynamic Dolly” because she worked so hard and fast, with bumps and grinds that shook the second balcony. There was something pathetic about her as she unpinned a grouch bag from her G-string and took out a five-dollar bill...
“I think I’ll give you two panels for a skirt; one in front and one in back. Then you can strip a petticoat from under them.” With my mouth full of pins, I explained how the bolero top would work. “You strip the brassière from under, too. Then you wear red shoes and a rose in your hair and you’re on.”
comments: This is, I suppose, one of the more unusual murder stories of the past 100
Gypsy Rose Lee is one of the few people to become famous and respected via striptease – or burlesque as it is known in the US – and was thought of as the intellectual stripper.
Even if she was forgotten in her own right (she died in 1970) she will live on in the musical Gypsy (music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), forever being revived somewhere, and ensured of an extended life so long as there are older actresses who can belt out a song, want a good part, and have some clout. (So forever then.) It's Gypsy’s mother who is actually the key character in the musical, and it’s a role to die for – she’s a scenery-chewing, attention-seeking bitch, mad as a box of frogs.
You guess that Gypsy herself, real name Louise Hovick, wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find her mother grabbing the historical spotlight.
The book is… very hard to parse. There is a general agreement that the comedic crime writer Craig Rice gave her some help – or advice? Or tips? Maybe she was a ghostwriter. But nobody actually knows.
[I have never featured Craig Rice on the blog, but my friend Kate Jackson at Cross-examining Crime has – you can catch up here.]
|The author signing the book|
Gypsy’s voice comes through loud and clear in the book, and feels (but how do we know?) authentic. The crime plot is complex and tortuous and even a keen reader loses interest in it part way through - who saw whom on the ladder, on the stairs, in the elevator, it becomes boring after a while – but it isn’t flimsy, as you might expect of a non-professional.
What made the book fascinating to me was the picture of life in the theatre: the view from backstage. That was surely the real things, with its comedians and communal changing rooms, the police raid, the backstage politics, the phoney princess.
There were very detailed descriptions of the performers’ outfits: the theatre manager tells Gypsy she needs ‘clothes; velvets with feathers, diamonds in your hair.’ Probably the most famous passage in the book is the sign backstage in the theatre FULL NET PANTS. NO BUMPS. NO GRINDS. KEEP YOUR NAVEL COVERED.
Gypsy and her colleagues become very real, and their lives are fascinating. The problematic aspect for a good feminist is this: Are they clever women making their way in an unfair world in the best way they can… or are they exploited sex workers being used and abused by those around them? I don’t know what the answer is. The performers themselves are very anxious to draw a strict line between their profession and prostitution: but still this has the same complications and worries as the Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman, which somehow managed to make a romcom out of a woman selling sex on the streets of Beverley Hills.
The reality of the book sometimes makes for uncomfortable reading. But despite some unlikely aspects of the plot, it’s probably the best portrait you could find of what it was actually like to be a performer in those theatres. A sociological document, as I am always saying.
There is a mention of Djer Kiss, which I didn’t understand at all – I thought it might be an OCR mistake in the book’s transition to Kindle. But when I checked that out, it turned out to be a very popular perfume of the time: the explanation here is well worth reading.
A grouch bag, above, is a hidden pocket or purse where one can keep one's money safe. There is a theory that Groucho Marx got his nickmane because he used to have one.
There is a remarkable collection of pictures of Gypsy Rose Lee at the New York Public Library: all these ones come from there.