"Stripping Gypsy" by Noralee Frankel: Book Review

"Stripping Gypsy" by Noralee Frankel Oxford University Press, 300 pp., $27.95 Reviewed by David Marshall James The demise of Vaudeville and the advent of the Great Depression set the stage for the rise of Gypsy Rose Lee (nee Rose Louise Hovick, in Seattle) to international acclaim as a striptease (accent on the "tease") artist in burlesque. The enterprising Minsky brothers bought up a half-dozen, gone-broke, "legitimate" Broadway theaters along 42nd Street, including the 2,000-seat Republic, bringing big-time burlesque right to the heart of the Great White Way. With one-dollar top seats, racy comedians and comely showgirls offered bawdy sketches interspersed with the pieces de resistance: the gals who shed down to G-strings and pasties. Each stripper developed a signature style, or gimmick, and Gypsy's intellectual patter provided an amusing contrast to her onstage exposure under the blue lights, as she followed the beat of the orchestra, removing strategically placed straight pins, gradually releasing bits of her costume. As the last, crucial section fell, she would pull the stage curtains around her. In comparison, her good friend and fellow stripper, Atlanta-born Georgia Sothern, peeled off her outerwear to thumps, bumps, grinds, and rapid gyrations in the "hot" style more commonly associated with the profession. Yet Gypsy knew that by being uncommon-- by striving to be an offstage intellectual through association with the brightest minds and talents of her era-- she could build her legend and could keep her name in the public domain past the prime of her youth, beauty, and stamina. Although she appeared in movies during every decade from the 1920s (as a child performer) through the 1960s, Hollywood never showcased her to her full advantage, because of strict obscenity and morality codes that were rigorously enforced during her apex. Nevertheless, Gypsy's act (under the aegis of master showman Mike Todd) proved a sensation at the 1939-1940 World's Fair, after which Todd marketed a burlesque revival, "Star and Garter," headlining Gypsy on Broadway, stashing another smash under their belts. Thereafter, whenever she went on the road with her act, it always represented a minor variation on the routines delineated in "Star and Garter." However, following World War II, burlesque was as dead as Vaudeville, having been absorbed into Broadway musical comedy, with the baser elements moving on to much-smaller stages in smoke-filled nightclubs, which never suited Gypsy as much as the big houses on 42nd Street, where, with an orchestra pit between herself and the audience, she had more room to create her illusion. Nevertheless, the money to be had in stripping supplied a big drawing card. She could pull in much more in a club than she could in a "straight play" on Broadway, although she did those occasionally. Biographer Noralee Frankel recounts Gypsy's steady immersion into the public consciousness, mostly via media outlets (it was the heyday of syndicated newspaper columnists such as Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Leonard Lyons, and Earl Wilson, as well as the weekly magazine, such as Life, The New Yorker, and The Saturday Evening Post) that were as anxious to exploit her as she was to use them. In spite of Gypsy's profession, Frankel notes, the entertainer emerges in retrospect as a prototype of the mondern woman, long before such a figure was popular. None of her three marriages had to do with financial security; indeed, Gypsy refused to abandon her career, which proved problematical with all her spouses, who were not thrilled to assume the role of consort. When Gypsy decided to have a child, she picked (unbeknownst to him at the time) director Otto Preminger, with whom she carried on an affair while she was in Hollywood making "Belle of the Yukon" (1944). She conceived her child before she divorced her second husband, creating the smokescreen that he was the father. Although she sought personal fulfillment outside the conventions of her day, she shrewdly underplayed such actions, always desirous of presenting the illusion of normalcy in her personal life as much as she presented an illusion of illicit exposition in her theatrical endeavors. Frankel writes that Gypsy wanted to marry Mike Todd, the show-biz mastermind who orchestrated her greatest on-stage successes, but he dropped her for actress Joan Blondell and was married to Elizabeth Taylor when he died in a plane crash in 1958. Nevertheless, Gypsy ultimately wanted to secure her legend without a husband overshadowing her, and she achieved that goal with the 1959 Broadway musical based on her 1957 memoir, "Gypsy," which covered the first 26 years of her life, from 1911 to her appearance in the 1937 edition of the "Ziegfeld Follies," alongside good friend and mentor Fanny Brice, who was herself immortalized in the 1964 Broadway musical "Funny Girl." Interestingly, "Funny Girl" has been signed, sealed, and delivered by Barbra Streisand, on stage and screen. "Gypsy," on the other hand, is a much stronger show, examining the universal theme of the maturation of parent/child relationships, with a superb score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, and a strong libretto by Arthur Laurents, who has recently directed the revival of "West Side Story" on Broadway. The part of Mama Rose, although toned down from reality (Frankel indicates that she was certifiably insane, even wielding a pistol at her daughters' first husbands), is the greatest female role in American musical theater. As such, it has been interpreted on Broadway by Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bernadette Peters, and Patti LuPone. All five actresses won Tony awards for their performances. This phenomenal recognition for the revivals of "Gypsy," on Broadway alone, is unprecedented in the annals of American theater. Additionally, there are the movie (Rosalind Russell as Rose) and TV (Bette Midler as Rose) productions. Such is the stuff of legends, although Frankel completely overlooks "Gypsy" beyond the original production and film version. Without the perennial nature of the musical over the past fifty years, Gypsy Rose Lee's legend would be nowhere what it has become today. A more thoughtful analysis of the show and its incredible afterlife would have served this book much better. However, Frankel's biography squares up as a good starting point for those wishing to learn more about Gypsy Rose Lee, largely owing to its start-to-finish overview of her life. Afterward, readers should move on to the memoir "Gypsy," then Erik Lee Preminger's "Gypsy and Me." Then, there are Gypsy's two murder mysteries and her movies, as well as what survives of her '50s and '60s TV appearances. Nevertheless, her greatest successes lie in the mists of performances past, on and around 42nd Street. It is fitting, then, that her legend continues in that vein, with the actresses who will surely undertake the role of Mama Rose for many decades to come. * * *