GYPSY ROSE LEE: A Burlesque Striptease
by Noralee Frankel.
Gypsy Rose Lee capivated generations of her fans. Born in Seattle in 1911 Louise Hovick, as she was known, toured vaudeville with her driven stage mother and her younger sister. When her sister ran off to marry and with vaudeville dying, Louise performed in burlesque theaters. In 1931, Louise, now Gypsy Rose Lee, worked Minksy’s theaters, where she became one of the very few women to talk as she undressed on stage. She was the only stripper “who can make nudity witty,” columnist Ashton Sevens once wrote.
After a stint in Hollywood, playing the “bad girl” to various “good girls” including singer Alice Faye and skater Sonya Henie, Gypsy published two mysteries and a play, and starred on Broadway. In 1950, she was blacklisted from radio and TV for her liberal political views. After a successful tour in Europe, she returned to the US and wrote a bestselling memoir, Gypsy. The book redeemed her with the public. By the mid-1960’s, she was a very successful talk show host. A three pack a dayer, she died of lung cancer in 1970.
On Broadway at the height of her fame, dressed as a Victorian lady, auburn-haired Gypsy Rose Lee strode onstage in a tight-fitting satin dress with three layers of dark fringe on a skirt that flared at the bottom. Holding a parasol, she looked demurely at her audience. After strolling across the stage, she lifted up her elegant dress, showing off her gorgeous, slim legs. Removing the dress by taking out strategically placed straight pins, she stood for a moment, holding it close to her crotch, and then let it fall on the floor. Underneath she wore a flag-inspired outfit with stars on the low-cut bodice and vertical stripes running down the short skirt. The GIs on home leave from World War II in her audience must have loved the moment. As she stretched her arms out, she separated the curtains. Stripping off the stars and stripes, she coyly held the garment against herself. Finally, backing offstage, she quickly wrapped herself in the curtain and dropped the outfit.
Over a decade earlier, the band at the Gaiety Theater in Toledo played “Little Gypsy Sweetheart.” Slowly and sensuously removing black-headed dressmaker’s straight pins from her lavender dress, Gypsy dropped the pins into the tuba in the orchestra pit below. They pinged as they hit the brass bell. Just as the music halted, she removed her shoulder straps and her filmy net dress fell on the floor, explained Gypsy, describing her first striptease. For another act, she dressed as a bird. She started at the top of the stairs and slowly descended. The applause grew. Gypsy flapped her wings and exposed parts of her lovely body.
During the second part of the show in Toledo, Gypsy performed “Powder My Back,” an act she copied from an entertainer she had seen in Kansas City. Gypsy half sang, half talked the suggestive lyrics. “Oh, won’t you powder my back every morning? ’Cause, Honey, there’s no one can do it like you.” After convincing a balding man in the audience to powder her back with a powder puff, she rewarded him by tying a red ribbon around a small strand of his hair. She coaxed the man to stand. When she kissed him, he squirmed with embarrassment. Gypsy’s premiere—if this story about her first striptease is true—revealed her amazing aplomb and stage presence.
As a stripteaser, Gypsy seized control of her life and never let go. Her transformation into a stripper began when the lead stripper of Ed Ryans’s burlesque company landed in jail. When Ryan asked Gypsy’s mother, Rose, if Gypsy stripped, she lied and answered in the affirmative. Originally performing only in comedic sketches in the show, Gypsy soon rose to starring stripper. Stripteasing, Rose argued, would lead to more respectable work such as acting on Broadway. An unconventional childhood with no real roots and few attachments prepared Gypsy emotionally for a career in burlesque.
At the onset of the Great Depression, stripping offered one of the few stage careers open to untrained performers and, with its emphasis on comedy and nudity, burlesque flourished as one of the most popular forms of theater for men.
Hardworking and talented, Gypsy steadily moved up in burlesque, getting higher billing and working at better theaters. In January 1931, at the Rialto in Chicago, she achieved a milestone by acquiring her own dressing room and being designated a burlesque star. Soon after, Gypsy received a job offer from Billy Minsky, the most celebrated name in burlesque.
Less than two years after her first strip, twenty-year-old Gypsy and her mother headed for Minsky’s Republic Theater on 42nd Street in New York. The patriarch of the family, A. B. Minsky, opened the National Winter Garden in 1912. By 1920, the Minsky family, including sons Billy, Herbert, Abe, and Morton, ran twelve theaters. Possessing a genius for burlesque, Billy modernized the mode of entertainment. At the turn of the century, women onstage in the chorus were chosen for their ample curves, often weighing close to two hundred pounds. In the 1920s, in keeping with the flapper image, Minsky hired alluring young women like Gypsy. Always the master, Minsky ruled even over the opinionated Rose.
Minsky advertised aggressively. Before Gypsy arrived, he sent a man on stilts up and down Broadway to announce her coming appearances. He even hired a plane to pull a banner with her name. To ensure that his audiences contained upper-class as well as working-class men, Minsky gave free tickets to members of the Harvard and Racquet clubs. The Minskys designed their theaters to match the clientele. Billy Minsky’s Republic Theater, located near Times Square, impressed Gypsy with its elegance. A doorman with a mustache and a red-lined cape greeted patrons. Velvet curtains framed the stage. The female ushers wore French-inspired maid’s costumes with short skirts and black silk stockings. Seating an enthusiastic audience of more than a thousand, the Republic produced two shows a day except on Sundays, when blue laws forced the theater to close. Minsky’s elegant new Broadway theater provided the perfect backdrop for the upscale act that Gypsy perfected there.
At Minsky’s, Gypsy refined elements of her routines such as teasing bald men. Over the next twenty-five years, she modified the details but kept their most significant elements. She figured out what excited men and left them hungry for another show. She calculated the audience’s attention span when watching comedic sketches and other strip routines and applied her knowledge to her own stage appearances. Some nine thousand men a week cheered Gypsy’s acts. Minsky billed Gypsy above the comic, one of the first strippers so honored.
Burlesque theater owners specialized in displaying the female body with variety and flair. The Minsky brothers’ National Winter Garden theater staged “a special event each night”: Monday, Chorus Girls’ Shimmy Contest; Tuesday, Perfect Form Contest; Wednesday, Chorus Girls’ Black Bottom Contest; Thursday, Oriental Dance Contest; and Friday, Living Picture Contest.
On Saturday, when their audiences peaked, the theater owners staged a “popularity contest for the entire company in which members of the audience participated,” reminisced Morton Minsky. Saturday night featured a lavish midnight show. At burlesque theaters, comedians and strippers reigned. At Minsky’s Republic Theater, Gypsy worked with comedians Bud Abbott and Lou
Costello. She also shared star billing with Nudina, an exotic dancer who performed with fans, balloons, and birds, including doves and cockatoos. Nudina often costarred with a six-foot snake, which when offstage slept peacefully in a sink in the strippers’ dressing room; she enjoyed working with the long reptiles and always mourned their passing.
To stay popular, Gypsy conceived an individual style with distinctive elements in her specialty numbers. Her costumes were carefully designed. Creating her own burlesque outfits, she used straight pins to keep her clothing in place and she threw them in the audience. She hated zippers. A sticking zipper could ruin an act or, even more seriously, damage her skin. The lucky redeemer of a pin won free admission to the next day’s performance. Glue held up her stockings, and dental floss kept the G-string in place.
Gypsy designed and crafted costumes that projected refinement. She preferred beautiful dresses for shedding. Onstage, she wore long skirts with organdy ruffles, lots of petticoats, and picture hats and carried a parasol. Audiences thought of Gypsy as a sexy southern belle or
a nice but naughty Victorian woman; they could view her shedding of such garments as a rebellion against restrictive clothing and repressive social mores. As her income soared, her costume expenses increased.
In keeping with her tasteful outer frocks, Gypsy refrained from bumps and grinds done in rapid succession. Such blatantly sexual stripping was described as “hot.” Instead, Gypsy worked “sweet.” She hid behind a large picture hat at the end of some of acts. Gypsy knew how to build suspense. Her act drew audiences who perennially hoped that she would expose more at the next performance. Gypsy believed. “It’s not how much I take off that matters,” she knew; “it’s the way I take things off that gives the effect.” At Minsky’s, Gypsy refined the art of “more tease than strip,” taking off much less than most strippers. She promised and appeared to give far more in the way of sex and nudity than she delivered. “You don’t have to be naked to look naked,” she explained; “you just have to think naked.” She perfected the illusion.
Onstage Gypsy appeared completely confident, never embarrassed. She controlled all elements of her performance, including her exit. Although Gypsy made her performance look natural, she knew precisely where to unfasten her outfit. She insisted, “If a strip teaser ever fumbles with her clothes or doesn’t time everything exactly with the music, she might just as well leave her clothes on.” Gypsy looked directly at her audience to hold their attention.
Since Gypsy pasted most of her last layer on her front and left her back uncovered, she permitted no one to be behind her during a performance. According to her son, his mother was modest. In one cartoon about Gypsy, stagehands averted their eyes as she backed off the stage. Of course the cartoon exploited Gypsy’s body by showing her completely nude from the back.
Fans often envisioned her performance as more than just fantasized sex. One paperback pamphlet, Sketches of Naughty Ladies and Secrets, put the point rather pretentiously, but accurately emphasized the aesthetic aspect of her appeal: “There are many who insist that so perfect was Gypsy Rose in her disrobing act that she deserved to be classed as an ‘artiste.’ ” Men regarded her as so beautiful that some insisted “their eyes never left her face all during her act.”
Gypsy’s intelligence combined with her beauty and sensational legs compensated for her small chest. She successfully maximized her physical assets and minimized other parts of her body. To lessen attention to her size 10½ feet, she wore simple shoes. Her beautiful legs made up much of her length They seemed to go on forever. She wore extra-long stockings and never used a razor, only a depilatory.
Before beginning in burlesque, Gypsy auditioned for Earl Carroll, who produced and directed numerous musicals, including Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Carroll criticized her figure as fat, and he nastily asked Rose how she had allowed her pretty daughter to gain so much weight. Gypsy never forgot. She maintained her weight at 130 pounds. Strip teasing avenged Gypsy, a heavyset adolescent constantly demeaned by her mother. Burlesque offered her glamour and fame. When she performed, the audience focused its entire attention on her.
On the burlesque stage, as in other forms of acting, the ability to play a role allowed Gypsy to both move outside of herself and dominate the scene. The audience’s passivity contrasted with the entertainer’s assertiveness.
The press quickly noticed this newcomer to burlesque. The Washington Post described her as a “swell looker.” Her clipping file contained articles calling her act “one of the biggest attractions in burlesque” and “a sensational hit.” “Miss Lee is a most attractive brunette with beauty and charm,” said one. Photos of her in a filmy organdy dress with the skirt flared out adorned several newspapers.
Always, she sold herself. Gypsy’s obsession with her body grew from the reality that her body provided her livelihood. Her career exacerbated her narcissism, and burlesque trained Gypsy to think of her own body as a commodity. “Hell, I won’t even take off my gloves unless I know what the money is,” she once asserted. An astute businesswoman, Gypsy deducted as business expenses everything that pertained to her image. All adornment for her body was tied to her professional activity. Even after she left burlesque, her journals rarely reflected intimate thoughts. Instead, they were ledgers in which she detailed how she spent her money. She kept accounts for every trip to the hairdresser, as well as the cost of pedicures, manicures, wigs, dresses, and hats.
The gangster Waxy Gordon, one of her earliest guardian angels, unexpectedly assisted her first climb out of burlesque. Like her mother, Gypsy periodically relied on men to advance her career. She knew how to use her beauty and brains, and part of her gift was recognizing those who might be helpful, although her judgment in men, such as Gordon, was hardly unerring.
One night while mingling with entertainers at a speakeasy, Gordon spotted Gypsy. Inez Worth, a burlesque singer, introduced Gypsy and her mother to him. Clearly smitten, Waxy sent champagne to the women’s table. Gypsy noticed his bodyguards. Gordon ordered the waiters to get Gypsy and Inez whatever they desired.
Soon after this initial encounter, Gordon invited Gypsy to perform at Comstock Prison in upstate New York in a show he financed. “You’d think in his business he’d stay as far from prisons as he could,” Rose mused. The cast traveled by train, eating a lobster dinner to music from the orchestra. When they arrived at the prison, the prison officials refused to allow Gypsy to perform because the guards feared she would corrupt the prisoners’ morals.
The free-spending gangster known as Waxy Gordon was born Irving Wexler sometime in the late 1880s to a family of Polish Jews living on the Lower East Side, New York City’s densest immigrant neighborhood. His sticky fingers earned him the nickname Waxy; he had an uncanny ability to lift valuables from other people’s pockets without being detected. He was sent to juvenile facilities, including Elmira Reformatory, but he never reformed. Waxy branched out as a bookmaker and ran the cocaine trade in several New York City neighborhoods.
Once national Prohibition began in 1919, Gordon was among those who realized there were fortunes to be made in the illegal importation and sale of alcohol. With the aid of a partner, Max “Big Maxey” Greenberg, he expanded his business into bootlegging, setting up thirteen
illegal breweries. Some of these properties became available when the owners died suddenly even though they had enjoyed the best of health. Paying no taxes on his illegal profits, Gordon enjoyed the lifestyle of a multimillionaire.
Gordon presented Gypsy with unusual gifts. One evening, he gave her a magnificent Mission-style oak dining room set consisting of thirty chairs and a massive long table for her new house in Rego (from “real good”) Park, a development in suburban Queens built on former farmland. Soon afterward, she could not afford to make the payments and lost the new house to foreclosure.
Waxy also sent her to a dentist to fix her long-neglected teeth. Gypsy’s mother had promised to have her teeth straightened, and her grandfather had saved money to pay for the procedure, but Rose had spent the funds probably on Gypsy sister, June, for her act. Years later, at Gordon’s request, a dentist filed Gypsy’s teeth to make them appear straight. The treatment was not a lasting success. The filing damaged nerves and contributed to the abscesses and other dental problems that continued to afflict her.
The FBI labeled Gordon “Public Enemy Number One.” Gordon may have welcomed being arrested by the police, calculating that, with Schultz on the loose, prison was safer than freedom. In late 1933, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Thomas E. Dewey prosecuted Waxy for tax evasion. Dewey wanted to win a big, splashy case against a gangster to advance his political ambitions, and his victories in this and later cases against the mob made his reputation; in 1942, New York voters would elect him governor. The jury convicted Waxy Gordon after only fifty-one minutes of deliberation, and the judge sentenced him to ten years’ incarceration and fifty thousand dollars in fines. Out of jail after seven years, he reestablished himself in the drug trade. Rearrested in 1951, Gordon died in prison the following year.
Before his arrest, Gordon contributed to Gypsy’s quest to leave burlesque by asking Lew Brown, a songwriter for Florenz Ziegfeld to use Gypsy in her show. People in the entertainment business knew to pay attention to Gordon’s friends, both because Gordon backed Broadway productions financially and because upsetting Gordon could be harmful to one’s health. The very next day after Gordon spoke to Brown, Gypsy arrived, with a bathing suit, at Ziegfeld’s theater on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street. Once Ziegfeld saw her luscious legs, he hired her as a chorus girl. Ziegfeld preferred long legs to big chests, so the women in his productions often measured larger around the hips than around the bust. Alluding to the famous hybrid rose, Ziegfeld referred to his chorus girls as “long-stemmed American beauties.” Outfitted in silk stockings, their firm legs glistened as they danced.
Gypsy’s desire to leave burlesque induced her to relinquish the thousand dollars she earned each week at Minsky’s and take sixty a week in a Ziegfeld production. She signed on in January 1932, less than one year after she arrived in New York, for a show initially called Laid in Mexico, later renamed Hot Cha! Dutch Schultz and Waxy Gordon were rumored to have provided financial backing. Comedian Bert Lahr (later famous as the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz) had star billing. Gypsy played a minor part as the Girl in the Compartment. Embarrassed over her career in burlesque, she appeared under the name Rose Louise. But she could not escape entirely: Her rating as a “chorus girl” by Actors’ Equity meant she was excluded from the finale. Gypsy was devastated by her inability to appear.
“I traveled in and out of burlesques, leaving for the prestige of musicals, and returning for the money of burlesque,” Gypsy explained. During the early 1930s, she periodically left strip theaters for other stage productions, but they never paid well or lasted long. Although the newspapers reported the sensation of a burlesque performer being signed by the more respectable Flo Ziegfeld, reporters took no notice of her role in Hot Cha! When the show closed, Gypsy appeared briefly at Earl Carroll’s theater, which ran racy revues similar to Ziegfeld’s. In 1933, she took a tiny part in George White’s romantic musical comedy, Melody. The reviews never mentioned her.
The next year, Billy Rose’s nightclub, Casino de Paree, provided another slightly more respectable venue, but Gypsy found that it differed from burlesque only by paying a lower salary. Her brief career at the popular club ended abruptly. In one version, Gypsy got so frazzled when she saw his wife, Fanny Brice, that she muffed her lines, so Rose fired her. Rose’s sister told another version, which is probably closer to the truth. Gypsy worked as a showgirl at Billy’s nightclub. To increase his audience, he decided to have the women in his chorus appear seminude. Gypsy argued that she was not going to appear in that state at $60 a week when she knew that the Minsky would pay her $500 a week. Billy Rose replied, “So your modesty is monetary.” Gypsy confirmed his conclusion by leaving and asking the Minskys to take her back.
Gypsy acknowledged that “burlesque has always been my financial paradise.” Stripping brought her both fame and fortune. At Minsky’s, she received star billing. Throughout the Depression, Gypsy’s career as a burlesque queen soared. When she first returned in 1934, the Minksys offered her a paltry ninety dollars, knowing that was more than she had been paid by Ziegfeld and Billy Rose. A desperate Gypsy took the money, confident that her salary would rise. Wooing large audiences, she quickly worked her way back to a munificent income, especially by Depression standards. Minsky profited, too. Gypsy may have started in burlesque because she had no viable alternative, but she stayed because of the fame and fortune she earned.
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This text is adapted from Stripping Gypsy by Noralee Frankel (Oxford University Press, 2009), (c) 2009 by Noralee Frankel. Noralee will be attending the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention and offering a fascinating presentation about Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy Rose Lee’s Motion Pictures
- You Can’t Have Everything (1937)
- Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937)
- Sally, Irene and Mary (1938)
- Battle of Broadway (1938)
- My Lucky Star (1938)
- Stage Door Canteen (1943)
- Belle of the Yukon (1944)
- Babes in Bagdad (1952)
- Screaming Mimi (1958)
- Wind Across the Everglades (1958)
- The Stripper (1963)
- The Trouble with Angels (1966)
- Around the World of Mike Todd (1968)
Gypsy Rose Lee’s Television Credits
- Think Fast (1949)
- The Gypsy Rose Lee Show (1958)
- Fractured Flickers (1963 interview)
- Who Has Seen the Wind? (1965)
- Gypsy (1965)
- Batman (1966)
- The Pruitts of Southampton (1966)
- The Over-the-Hill Gang (1969)
- The Hollywood Squares (1969)