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Lee, Gypsy Roselocked

(09 January 1914–26 April 1970)
  • Stephen M. Archer

Gypsy Rose Lee

Photograph by Fred Palumbo, 1956.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-112035).

Lee, Gypsy Rose (09 January 1914–26 April 1970), striptease artist, burlesque entertainer, and writer, was born Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle, Washington, the daughter of John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper reporter, and Rose Thompson. Lee’s parents divorced when she was about four years old. She and her sister June (who later became screen actress June Havoc) lived with their mother’s father in Seattle, where Rose Hovick, a prototypical stage mother, drove the girls into a show business career. They began by performing at several lodges to which their grandfather belonged. Lee described herself as a child as being “big for my age and more than just chubby” with the nickname of “Plug.” Lee once described her childhood to a reporter: “At that time I wanted to die—just for the vacation.”

Lee’s mother succeeded in getting her daughters into vaudeville, and Lee and her sister eventually earned as much as $1,250 a week as a song-and-dance act, until June ran off with a chorus boy when she was thirteen. Vaudeville was by then in its last days, and in desperation Lee’s mother booked the act, now called Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes, into a burlesque theater. Lee drifted into stripping, obtaining valuable professional advice from an artiste billed as Tessie, the Tassel Twirler. With her mother’s approval, she billed herself as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Lee first appeared in New York City in 1931 at Minsky’s, where a fortuitous police raid garnered her considerable front-page publicity. She soon emerged as a national celebrity, her intelligence and sophisticated wit distinguishing her from other strippers. Variety (29 Apr. 1970) noted that the secret of her stripping was the investiture of a sense of humor; her “peeling was languorous, inviting, and she took distinct pains ‘not to stir the animal in men.’ ” Even though her act featured very little exposure of flesh, she soon became the most famous stripper in America, chatting with her audiences and thereby charming instead of titillating them. Theater manager Florenz Ziegfeld cast her in a small part in Hotcha and subsequently used her as a showgirl in his Follies. She later appeared in George White’s Scandals and at Billy Rose’s Casino de Paree. H. L. Mencken coined the term “ecdysiast” to describe her act. A tall woman (five feet nine inches), she divested herself of her garments with such panache that the French, avoiding the crass language associated with burlesque, dubbed her “une deshabilleuse.” Lee herself said, “Did you ever hold a piece of candy or a toy in front of a baby—just out of his reach? Notice how he laughs. That’s your strip audience.”

In 1938 Lee made her film debut as Louise Hovick, strippers then considered by the censoring Hays Office as unfit to appear in films, but the New York Times reviewer recognized her and suggested it was “the first time a strip-tease artist has appeared before her public without revealing anything, not even her ability.” In 1939–1940 she stripped out of a $2,500 costume in the Streets of Paris show at the New York World’s Fair. During this engagement columnist Walter Winchell asked her to write a guest column for him. She enjoyed the assignment so much that she began a mystery novel. Published in 1941, The G-String Murders immediately became a bestseller, and overnight Lee began to participate in the city’s varied literary scene. She wrote articles, most of them slightly naughty descriptions of life on the burlesque stage, for the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, American Mercury, Variety, and Collier’s, as well as another, less successful mystery novel, Mother Finds a Body, published in 1942.

All the while Lee had continued her burlesque career, and after the New York City burlesque houses were closed by order of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in March 1942, she appeared on Broadway in Star and Garter. In 1943 The G-String Murders was released as the film Lady of Burlesque, exciting considerable controversy and a ban by the National Legion of Decency. That same year Lee’s comic play, The Naked Genius, a revision of an earlier, unproduced comedy called Ghost in the Woodpile, opened and toured to savagely critical reviews. Nevertheless producer Mike Todd, with whom Lee was having an affair, brought the show to Broadway. The Naked Genius ran for only one month, the critics having called it “an appalling mess, a silly and vulgar and embarrassing hodge-podge that wastes the time and withers the talent of a great many actors.” Nonetheless, 20th Century–Fox purchased the film rights for $150,000. Also in 1943 Lee appeared in the film Stage Door Canteen, performing a satire of a striptease. Her success enabled Lee to acquire a house, located at 154 East Sixty-third Street in Manhattan, that had twenty-six rooms and featured marble floors, seven baths, a greenhouse, an elevator, and a small outdoor pool.

In 1957 Lee published her autobiography, Gypsy: A Memoir, in which she describes her early life and career in somewhat idealized terms. Bemused critics noted that the main figure was not Lee but her mother and called it a “slickly professional job” of delineation—to be expected from such a practiced hand at circumscribed self-exposure. Others pointed out that Gypsy Rose Lee did not create the public’s taste but rather mirrored it with a certain happy elegance. Other reactions included “Fast, funny, tremendously quotable,” “an honest, unsparing document, extraordinary Americana, a close-up on a doughty tribe,” “friendly, honest, sad, funny and wry. … Good stuff.” The memoir sold well and in 1959 was adapted by Arthur Laurents into a Broadway musical with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, score by Jule Styne, staging and choreography by Jerome Robbins, scenery by Jo Mielziner, all under the production of David Merrick and Leland Hayward. Starring Ethel Merman as Lee’s mother, Gypsy ran for 702 performances. Critic Walter Kerr called it “the best damn musical I’ve seen in years”; other reviewers were almost unanimously in agreement. Lee’s considerable income from the show allowed her to indulge her penchant for filling her Manhattan townhouse with antiques. A film version, starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood, appeared in 1962.

Lee attempted another stage version of her life with her solo show, A Curious Evening with Gypsy Rose Lee, which she premiered in Palm Beach in 1958. She revised the show and opened it on Broadway in 1961 to critical and popular indifference. She took the show to Los Angeles later that year and moved permanently to a seventeen-room house in Beverly Hills. For a time she hosted a syndicated television talk show, which was frequently blipped by network censors. She later toured with United Service Organizations (USO) shows, passing out her Kosher Fortune Cookies containing suggestive messages. She died of cancer at age fifty-six in Los Angeles.

Lee had been married three times, first to Arnold R. Mizzy, a dental supply manufacturer, whom she wed in 1937; they divorced in 1941. She married an actor, William Alexander Kirkland, in 1942, separated from him three months later, and divorced him in 1944. Her last marriage was to an artist, Julio de Diego, in 1948; they divorced in 1955. Her son Erik Lee, thought to have been fathered by William Kirkland, was in fact offspring of Lee and film director Otto Preminger, who adopted him in 1971.

As her Newsweek obituary (11 May 1970) pointed out, Lee had actually bared less of her body than any other striptease headliner. She delighted audiences with her “polished comic brass,” which, combined with her magnetic, statuesque persona, made her the epitome of the stripper for more than three decades. Her sophisticated sexiness was a matter of shrewd packaging. As one co-worker noted, “She had a product to sell, like a car. She could twist any statement into a sexy one. Basically, she knew how to handle men.” As Lee put it herself, “You don’t have to be naked to look naked. You just have to think naked” (Life, 27 May 1957).


Erik Preminger inherited his mother’s collection of scrapbooks; the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, holds a clipping file. Lee’s many articles include “My Burlesque Customers,” American Mercury, Nov. 1942; “Mother and the Man Named Gordon,” “Mother and the Knights of Pythias,” and “Just Like Children Leading Normal Lives,” all in the New Yorker, 20 Nov., 10 Apr., and 3 July 1943; “Stranded in Kansas City; or, A Fate Worse Than Vaudeville” and “Up the Runway to Minsky’s,” both in Harper’s, Apr. and May 1957; and “Scrapbook Views of a Smart Stripper,” Life, 27 May 1957. Lee’s autobiography, Gypsy, remains the single most detailed treatment of her life and career. Erik Preminger published Gypsy and Me in 1984, and June Havoc presented her story in Early Havoc in 1959. Articles about Lee include Kyle Crichton, “Strip to Fame,” Collier’s, 19 Dec. 1936; John Richmond, “Gypsy Rose Lee, Striptease Intellectual,” American Mercury, Jan. 1941; J. P. McEvoy, “More Tease Than Strip,” Variety, 4 June 1941; “Gypsy Rose Lee, a General Collector,” Hobbies, Oct. 1942; Richard E. Lauterbach, “Gypsy Rose Lee,” Life, 14 Dec. 1942; “Gypsy Rose and Muse,” Cue, 12 July 1943; “Gypsy Rose Lee,” House & Garden, Dec. 1943; “Gypsy Joins the Carny,” Life, 6 June 1949; “The Men Laugh … Hardest with Women in the Audience,” Newsweek, 29 Apr. 1957; “Tips by an Improbable Pro,” Life, 29 June 1959; and Stanley Richard, “A Visit with Gypsy Rose Lee,” Theatre, Jan. 1960. Obituaries are in National Affairs, 11 May 1970; the New York Times, 28 Apr. 1970, followed by a eulogy on 10 May; Los Angeles Times, 27 Apr. 1970; and Variety, 29 Apr. 1970.