Sign of the Times: Gypsy Rose Lee and the 20th Century


“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing slowly . . . very slowly”
-Gypsy Rose Lee

I have written and rewritten this post, but having just returned from NYC (only a few hours ago) I was inspired to revisit it. My trouble is not the book was bad or too complex, but because Gypsy Rose Lee herself is so hard to pin down. My experience with American Rose was not what I expected.

Karen Abbott begins the book as Gypsy is about to headline the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, a crowning moment in her career in the city that made her a legend. As she is prepared to take the stage, the narration switches to the story of her birth. Details of her early years are sparse until her sister was born in 1913.

Upon her sister’s birth, her mother, Rose Hovick, renamed Gypsy Rose Louise and her sister was given Gypsy’s birth name, Ellen, as her mother thought it a pretty name and more fitting for her prettier new girl. This moment captures the first battle in a lifelong fight for her mother’s attention and affection.

Abbott jumps around Gypsy’s timeline shifting between Gypsy at the height of her career, early years dragged around the Vaudeville circuit with her mom and sister, and the time just before her death in 1970. These shifts are not always smooth and were especially confusing with an audiobook. That is not to say Bernadette Dunn fails with the narration. On the contrary, her reading is understated and allows Gypsy’s words and actions to provide the drama. Still, the way the book was written, as a listener, I had to pay attention and pick up on the people mentioned to piece together what time period Abbott was covering at that moment.

Gypsy’s life, as Abbott shows, was not solely about fame, scandalous images, or her who’s who of friends. What still haunts me about Gypsy was her mentally unstable mother and the damage she did to both Gypsy and June (who became the actress June Havoc). Rose Hovick’s horrible abuse of the girls without out interruption to start might have turned me off the book entirely. By jumping between Gypsy at her zenith and her nightmarish childhood, Abbott made the harder moments a bit easier to read.

Since Abbott is writing non-fiction she is left to piece together Gypsy’s life from the the knot of tales Gypsy herself told, the press reports of different eras, and documentation which, given her mother’s talent for fraud, are not even the most reliable sources. Abbott also accomplished what few who have set out to study Gypsy did- she actually interviewed her sister June, offering some of the most honest and emotional bits of the book. This look beyond the story told on the stage was an appreciated layer in the story.

As a whole, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in “old Hollywood” bios, the darker side of the entertainment industry, the 1930s-1950s, or fans of Gypsy the musical who would like to know the real story. While the Dunn’s narration is great, I would only recommend listening if you can devote yourself to paying attention. Otherwise, the physical book will make the time changes more easy to follow.


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