I love historical fiction – which may explain why I enjoyed the Broadway musical Gypsy so much. For it is fiction, no matter how well the title character rewrote, concealed and fabricated her own past. There is a very good reason why the play is subtitled “A Musical Fable“. Gypsy Rose Lee used it as a vehicle to revise her past: her childhood as she wished it had happened, or at the very least, exaggerated, softened, glamorized and simplified to make a better story. The bare bones of truth are there, all right, but shrouded in mythology, nostalgia … and Sondheim. The truth is just as complex, but far less flattering to everyone.
In American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, Karen Abbott does a superb job of peeling away the layers and exposing the real Gypsy, at least as far as possible. The woman behind the façade was intensely private, and unbelievably complex – how could she not be, with her personal history? In many instances, it’s impossible to fully understand Gypsy, her actions and motivations, but Abbott manages, teasing out every nuance from her subject’s personal papers, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of her research. It certainly helps that she was lucky enough to access two sources available to few other biographers: Erik Preminger, Gypsy’s son, and actress June Havoc, Gypsy’s sister.
Gypsy’s own attitude towards history (heavily influenced by her mother) was of necessity fluid, which is reflected in the book. She stole, discarded and invented at will (highlighted in her titular musical). As Abbott points out, her one and only talent was becoming whatever America wanted or needed, and she had absolutely no scruples about using every tool that came to hand to achieve her goals. Her audience knew only what she wanted them to know, and it’s doubtful that even those closest to her fully understood her.
Abbott successfully juggles three distinct narratives, rotating between them (in alternating chapters) and blurring the boundaries as the need arises. With the first chapter, the curtain opens on Gypsy in 1940, performing at New York World’s Fair, at the height of her popularity – drawing bigger crowds than even President Roosevelt. “At age twenty-nine, she stands precisely and precariously, on her own personal midway, cluttered with roaring secrets from her past and muted fears for her future, an equal number of years ahead in her life as behind (Abbott, p. 5).” From here, the latter half of Gypsy’s life unfolds, culminating with her death in 1970. This is approximately the point where the musical ends, and shows what happens after Gypsy became a star – a tale just as fascinating as the story of how she got there.
With the second chapter, the timeline jumps back to the early 1910s (precise date unknown, thanks to Mama Rose’s penchant for forging birth certificates) with the birth of Gypsy’s younger sister, Ellen June. This event sets the stage for the complex relationship between the two girls and their mother: Rose gives baby June the name originally belonging to her elder daughter – subsequently renamed Rose Louise (Louise for short). The three women would dance a truly bizarre pas de trois, an endlessly alternating cycle of attraction and repulsion, never fully independent of one another. Every gory detail of Gypsy’s family history, her childhood in vaudeville and her eventual entry into burlesque is exposed, sparing no one and nothing. Abbott deconstructs the early part of her life, demythologizing it and showing the truth behind the musical. The upward trajectory of Gypsy’s career eventually culminates with the 1940 World’s Fair, circling back to where the book began.
In between the rise and decline of Gypsy as an individual, Abbott also chronicles the development of burlesque, the medium that made her what she was. We learn the history of the Minsky family, the history of New York during Gypsy’s lifetime, and most importantly, the history of burlesque. It’s indicative that the subtitle of the book is “A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee” (italics mine). Gypsy is nothing without context; she could not exist in a vacuum. It’s doubtful that she could have flourished at any other point in history – she was shaped by her era as much as she shaped it.
The constant shifts in date and place can be a bit confusing at times, but it’s well worth the roller coaster ride. Within Gypsy’s life, past and present were so inextricably linked that a purely linear narrative would be meaningless. By moving back and forth, the reader is constantly grounded, reminded of where Gypsy came from, and its impact on where she is going. Abbott’s incredible prose carries you along, effortlessly transitioning from one story line to the next. The narrative simply flows, painting vivid images of impossibly complicated characters (who practically leap off the page) and some of the most turbulent times in US history. Throughout the book, it’s highly entertaining to see the origins of every component of the musical: what was real, what was invention, and what was … creative interpretation. Of course, in this instance, the truth was very often considerably stranger than any fiction could possibly be.
Did I mention that Karen Abbott signed our copies, Sinfully Yours?