Gypsy Rose Lee’s performance didn’t end after she stepped off the stage. The famed striptease artist used her brazen, quick-witted public image as a fortress. “Over and over I catch myself staring the mask of youth off you,” Gypsy’s old friend, George Davis, the fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, observed in a letter. “And what I see scares the bejeesus out of me. Not for myself, but for you.” In her sparkling, jaw-dropping biography of Gypsy, Karen Abbott pries the mask off, revealing a grotesque, fascinating face of bitterness, jealousy and ambition.

American Rose resembles a Greek tragedy with chorus girls or a terrific novel in which the family unravels as the protagonist undresses. Abbott shuffles between Gypsy’s itinerant childhood playing vaudeville theaters, where she and her sister learned “that they would never be normal, everyday people”; the rise of burlesque in the United States, spearheaded by the forever hustling Billy Minsky; and Gypsy’s unconventional path to stardom. “I cannot sing. I cannot dance,” she once told her son, Erik. “But just remember your mother’s a star.”

Abbott’s story doesn’t revel in old anecdotes or talk much about Gypsy, the play and movie that immortalized its subject. Instead, Abbott explores why Gypsy never let her defenses down: She had no choice. Gypsy’s mother, Rose, was a distrustful, conniving stage mother who wielded her status as matriarch/manager (and the family’s controversial, murderous past) like a blunt object. Their relationship was so combustible that they literally wrestled on Rose’s deathbed. The only man Gypsy ever loved refused to marry her, and her younger sister, actress June Havoc, was more of a competitor and an object of pity than a sibling. At one point, Gypsy willingly sent a struggling June to a sex party to make connections. “I was no sister,” Havoc tells Abbott. “I was a knot in her life. I was nothing.”

The best biographies do more than detail the life of a subject—they completely embed the reader in that person’s life and mindset. They combine tenacious reporting with writing that belongs to a first-rate novelist. American Rose is the rare biography that captures the imagination and doesn’t let go. It would scare the bejeesus out of Gypsy Rose Lee, and it’s guaranteed to enthrall readers.

 

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