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Gypsy: The Art of the Tease

Rachel Shteir
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    A true icon of America at a turning point in its history, Gypsy Rose Lee was the first-and the only-stripper to become a household name, write novels, and win the adulation of intellectuals, bankers, socialites, and ordinary Americans. Her outrageous blend of funny-smart sex symbol with the aura of high culture-she boasted that she liked to read Great Books and listen to classical music while taking off her clothes on-stage-inspired a musical, memoirs, a portrait by Max Ernst, and a species of rose.Gypsyis the first book about Gypsy Rose Lee's life, fame, and place in America not written by a family member, and it reveals her deep impact on the social and cultural transformations taking shape during her life.

    Rachel Shteir, author of the prize-winningStriptease, gives us Gypsy's story from her arrival in New York in 1931 to her sojourns in Hollywood, her friendships and rivalries with writers and artists, the Sondheim musical, family memoirs that retold her history in divergent ways, and a television biopic currently in the making. With verve, audacity, and native guile, Gypsy Rose Lee moved striptease from the margins of American life to Broadway, Hollywood, and Main Street.Gypsytells how she did it, and why.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14245-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. INTRODUCTION “Particles, Legends, Romance”
    (pp. 1-9)

    Before the woman who became known as Gypsy Rose Lee arrived in New York in 1930, striptease took place more frequently on tables in saloon backrooms or in whorehouses than on Broadway or in Hollywood. The police raided the burlesque theaters where strippers performed and arrested them for indecent exposure. Judges determined whether their dances violated obscenity laws and sentenced them to jail time. No one wrote about striptease in chic and serious literary magazines. Society matrons anddebutantes never giggled at a striptease (nor tried to do one).Nor did Broadway lyricists, Russian choreographers, or Hollywood screenwriters satirize taking it off....

  4. ONE Undressing the Family Romance
    (pp. 10-30)

    To Broadway aficionados, the name Gypsy Rose Lee recalls the 1959 eponymous musical (based on her memoir) created by Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, and Jerome Robbins. These men saw Gypsy as a victim of Mama Rose, the stage-door mother who forced her daughter into a life of striptease. But the truth about Gypsy is more complicated than anything the musical or the memoir reveals. It is also more complicated than the three memoirs Gypsy’s sister and son wrote about their extraordinary relative. No one could invent this woman who tore herself and her profession down at every opportunity....

  5. TWO The Queen of Striptease
    (pp. 31-82)

    As the Depression settled over the country, Gypsy performed in burlesque theaters across America, from Chicago to St. Louis, from Washington to Newark. By the time she arrived in New York at the end of 1930, she had dropped her supporting cast the way other strippers dropped their garters onstage.

    If striptease started in the Midwest, New York—which is always about the solo act—made taking off your clothes a sophisticated one-woman spectacle. There is something poignant about New York burlesque creating the lone stripper in an era of socialist fervor. The vulnerable undressing woman onstage mirrored the Depression...

  6. THREE To Hollywood and Back
    (pp. 83-102)

    Going to Hollywood raised Gypsy’s status and alienated the Shuberts, who immediately placed an advertisement for a stripper—“no experience necessary”—inVariety. But many other Americans—especially New Yorkers—lampooned and celebrated Gypsy’s ubiquity. Seniors at the prestigious Peddie School named her the “most prominent woman today,” over Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart. Comparing the stripper unfavorably to a well-known opera singer of the day, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia bragged that the new airport being built in Queens “will be to Newark what Gypsy Rose Lee is to Kristen Flagstad.” At a roast in City Hall,...

  7. FOUR The Rise and Fall of the Striptease Intellectual
    (pp. 103-150)

    An emblematic attempt to decrown the Queen of Striptease—to strip striptease of its elegant pose—occurred in the spring of 1940, when H. L. Mencken dragged Gypsy into a linguistic quarrel about her profession. This was classic Mencken: by calling attention to Gypsy’s role in domesticating striptease, he would expose her and the “Booboisie”—his word for the aspirational middle class that had created her—as hypocrites. The spat began playfully enough when Gypsy’s friend, the stripper Georgia Sothern, known for taking it off to the song “Hold That Tiger,” set out to find a synonym for “striptease,” as...

  8. FIVE Selling Striptease
    (pp. 151-184)

    Despite the postwar generation’s expansive flair, at times a Victorian prudishness surged. At Christmas 1948 Gypsy performed on a live CBS television variety show from Madison Square Garden. Everything went smoothly as a parade of stars did their numbers. But the minute Gypsy touched her shoulder strap, announcing that she intended to do “Psychology of a Stripteaser,” asTimemagazine then called it, wavy gray lines appeared and “startled televiewers found themselves staring at nothing but the initials CBS, while in the background, Gypsy’s voice trilled on, and enthusiastic Air Force veterans shouted the traditional ‘Take it off! Take it...

  9. Conclusion
    (pp. 185-190)

    Not having finished the job in her first memoir, June followed with a second volume,More Havocand a one-woman show,An Unexpected Evening with June Havoc.Erik’s more amused version of events,Gypsy and Me,was published in 1984. Whereas Erik bragged that his mother’s entire life was fabliaux, June played the role of the aggrieved sister compelled by her superior moral character to “set the record straight.” Of these perspectives I find Gypsy’s reckless attitude toward the truth to be most charming—a dimension of the American penchant for self-invention and self-aggrandizement. Gypsy didn’t sell snake oil. She...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 191-192)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 193-204)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 205-210)
  13. Index
    (pp. 211-220)
  14. Credits
    (pp. 221-222)