Review: Gypsy by Gypsy Rose Lee

The subtitle of this book is “Memoirs of America’s most celebrated stripper.”  Stripper.  Going back to a time when that meant someone that didn’t take off all their clothes to reveal the glory beneath and thus titillate, but in that the act of stripping itself was the titillation.  In the days of burlesque, strip acts were production numbers on stages with full orchestras and costumes, and scenery. Indeed, those were the days, and Gypsy Rose Lee was the greatest of them all.

Look at the woman in the picture of the cover to the right.  You see that beautiful woman in a provocative pose, and you know that she is a beautiful woman.  If you wanted to sum up her life story with one easy parable, she would be “The Ugly Duckling”.  That isn’t to say that she was ever ugly.  This volume contains the pictures of her as a little girl, and they aren’t ugly.  She was, however, the eldest of two sisters, and her younger sister, actress June Havoc, was the little porcelain doll that became her mother’s pride.  Next to her, little Louise couldn’t match up.Gypsy is written in an amazingly style.  The adult Gypsy could have given little Louise the benefit of her adult wisdom, but she didn’t.  Every event is seen through the eyes of the little girl, with the knowledge of the little girl, not the insight of the older woman writing it out.  There is a naivety in this that makes the reader cringe, but not uncomfortable.  You know what is going on, you want to hold her, and I’ll admit that I hugged the book a time or two the first (and maybe every) time I read it.

At its core, this is a book that tells the tale of little Louise’s childhood growing up as the second banana to her sister’s vaudeville career and the butt of her mother’s plans.  As time goes on, circumstances take you from the humble beginnings to the rise of fame of Gypsy Rose Lee, the best there ever was at what she did.  Along the way, you meet interesting folks, famous in and of themselves. This is the book the musical, Gypsy, was based off of.  Let me tell you something about it, though; the musical paints a much nicer picture of Gypsy’s mama than actually existed.  If you’ve seen the musical, you’ll understand that this is saying something, and it isn’t a nice something.

That is, perhaps, the thing that brings me back to this story over and over again.  I want to shake Mama Rose for all the things she puts her daughters through, but especially what she puts little Louise through.  No child should have a mom like Mama Rose.  She was the worst kind of abusive, and she did it all for them; although ultimately for herself.

The weirdest thing about this book is that it gives the impression that it’s written for laughs by someone that doesn’t realize that what she’s writing isn’t as much “funny” as “sad”.  After many a read-through, I personally think she wrote it that way on purpose.  You catch yourself laughing because what she describes is so absurd.  Hours later, or perhaps on reading it over again, you realize just how not funny it really is; how traumatizing.

This is a great, wonderful read.  This is a person who was amazing.  From what she started with to what she ended up, frank and unadulterated.  No punches pulled except through the naive eyes of a child and how a child would see the things that were happening all around her.  Gypsy Rose Lee was an intelligent, down to earth person, who never shied away from telling the truth in an unique sort of way.  What she didn’t say was far more than anything she ever did say.  Reading between the lines is so much easier when the author writes specifically knowing that is what you’re going to do.

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