The original burlesque bombshell and all around icon for progressive politics, Gypsy Rose Lee, comes alive in Noralee Frankel's revealing biography, Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee.
BUST readers who are fans or practitioners of neo-burlesque will be thrilled to discover that historian Noralee Frankel has created the first truly scholarly biography of Gypsy Rose Lee. And in the same way that much of today’s neo-burlesque phenomenon is fueled by feminist underpinnings, so too does Frankel, in this exhaustively researched work, reveal the forward-thinking politics of this burlesque pioneer.
In so doing, Frankel is very straightforward about the need to “strip” away the historical fiction by which the world thinks it knows this provocative performer: the still-beloved musical Gypsy, which put a sugar-coated spin on the stripper’s hardscrabble life. Lee herself, in the parlance of the period’s burlesque, was famous for working “sweet” rather than “hot” and happily encouraged the myth behind Gypsy’s narrative—of a tomboy-turned-stripper who is egged on by the ambitious but loving Mama Rose. In reality, Mama was the abusive Rose Hovick, whose daughters June and Gypsy (born Louise) served both as meal tickets and as proxies for her thwarted ambitions from the time they were children.
But as Frankel also deftly points out, this unconventional upbringing (which included Rose’s open bisexuality) also instilled in Lee a clear sense of injustice over sexism, racism, and class discrimination, and she fought for labor unions and progressive causes. Moreover, Lee, an unapologetic “career girl” and single mother by design, struggled to create a progressive personal life that matched her politics, making a case for her legendary legacy off-stage as well as on.