LEE, GYPSY ROSE (Rose Louise Hovick, Louise Hovick) (1914–1970) Stripper

Born Rose Louise Hovick on January 9, 1914, Gypsy Rose Lee succeeded in using the striptease as a vehicle to international stardom. When Louise was four, her parents divorced, leaving her mother Rose to support Louise and her younger sister, June. Rose decided to manage her daughters in stage careers, a goal she set to with uncompromising determination. Through her relentless drive, Rose succeeded in booking their act, called “Dainty June and Her Newsboy Songsters,” in vaudeville theaters throughout the country. Both daughters, however, resented Rose’s domineering personality. In 1929, at 13, June finally escaped her mother’s control by eloping with one of the “newsboys” hired by Rose.

Rose and Louise continued the act without June, but found few bookings as vaudeville’s popularity faded. They were forced to start working far more unseemly theaters featuring burlesque shows. One night in Toledo, the headlining striptease artist landed in jail, and the 17-year-old Louise was pushed to take her spot. Perhaps out of nervousness, she removed her clothes slowly and wrapped herself in the stage curtain at the end of her act. More suggestive than most strip acts, her performance was a hit with the audience. Renaming herself Gypsy Rose Lee, she embarked on a new career as America’s most famous stripper. Appearing in the Ziegfeld Follies and other popular shows, Lee removed fewer pieces of clothing than other striptease stars. Her act, hailed by intellectuals and high society, entertained instead by gently making fun of sexual mores and inhibitions. While slowly slithering out of her dress, the statuesque Lee would talk to the crowd, making witty and sophisticated observations. As she herself said of her stage performance, “You don’t have to be naked to look naked. You just have to think naked.”

Under the name Louise Hovick, Lee appeared in several movies, but she had far greater success as a writer. Entirely self-educated, she wrote The GString Murders in 1941, which became one of the year’s best-selling novels. The following year, when Mayor Fiorello La Guardia closed New York’s burlesque houses, Lee increasingly turned to writing. She wrote a second mystery novel (Mother Finds a Body, 1942), a comic play (The Naked Genius, 1943), and many articles for Collier’s, The New Yorker, and other popular magazines.

Her greatest literary success, however, was Gypsy: A Memoir (1957). Rather than being a strict autobiography, the book focused on her youth in vaudeville and burlesque with the character of hermother Rose at center stage. Two years after it was published, Gypsy became the basis of a critically and popularly acclaimed Broadway musical starring ETHEL MERMAN as Rose. (The part was later played by ROSALIND RUSSELL in a 1961 film and by BETTE MIDLER in a 1993 television production.) Its success helped fund Lee’s passion for art and antiques, which filled her lavish 26-room Manhattan townhouse.

To capitalize on Gypsy’s success, Lee put together A Curious Evening with Gypsy Rose Lee, her own one-woman show that premiered in New York City and then traveled to Los Angeles in 1961. She decided to settle permanently in Beverly Hills, where she hosted a slightly risqué televisionb talk show. Still celebrated for her witticisms long after her stripping days were over, Lee died of lung cancer at 56 on April 26, 1970. Married and divorced three times, Lee had one child, a son named Erik; he was adopted by his father, film director Otto Preminger, after her death.

Further Reading
Archer, Stephen M. “Lee, Gypsy Rose” In American National Biography, edited by John Arthur Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, vol. 13, pp. 371–372. New York:Oxford University Press, 1999.
Lee, Gypsy Rose. Gypsy: A Memoir. 1957. Reprint, Berkeley, Calif.: Frog, Ltd., 1990.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gypsy (1962). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Gypsy (1993). Pioneer Video, DVD/VHS, 2000/1999.