Wednesday 28 September 2022

Let Me Entertain You

She sat in her Hollywood square, rather benignly. I had no idea why she was famous, and I was at an age where someone would have had to explain it to me.

She was a guest on other shows, too, like “The Pruitts of Southampton.”

Little did pre-teen me know she had not only appeared in movies, she was the subject of one.

She was Gypsy Rose Lee.

Considering the censorship (outside of burlesque shows, that is) of the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, it’s a wonder that Lee had any kind of mainstream career. But she was no dummy. This United Press story from 1937 provides a bit of insight.

Gypsy Rose Lee Cast in Full Fledged Movie Role

HOLLYWOOD, March 27 (U.P.).—Today we have with us Miss Gypsy Rose Lee, a full-fledged motion-picture star in a Technicolored epic of the Far North called "Belle of the Yukon." It wasn't always so. We remember and Miss Gypsy remembers when the Hays office said her name was mud. The censors said worse than that. They said any movie with the name of Gypsy Rose Lee In the title never would get their seal of purity. They said no strip dancer could flaunt her name in the movies that came from Hollywood. This was embarrassing for Miss Gypsy. She'd just finished a stint of tossing her scanties into the $6.60 seats on Broadway (the time was 1937) and 20th Century-Fox had signed her as a movie actress.
The decision of the blue-pencil boys was embarrassing to the studio, too. It had to revise its official biography of Miss Lee into a colorless document concerning a Miss Louise Hovick. This Miss Hovick (still Gypsy Rose, but in plenty of clothes) appeared in four pictures as a villainess. Then she left Hollywood.
Writes Detective Novel
There seemed to be no room in the movie business for the classiest stripper burlesque ever produced. She went to New York. Time passed. There were pictures in the magazines showing her selling the spangles off her costume to War Bond buyers. She got another job in a big-time show.
Then, to the amazement of everybody, including herself, she wrote a detective novel, "The G-string Murders." It was a little rip-snorter. It soon became a best seller. The movies bought it, of course, and turned it into a picture but they couldn't use Miss Gypsy's title. The blue-noses might kick. They called it "Lady of Burlesque," and it was no great shakes as an epic of the cinema.
Gypsy Rose, the authoress, was encouraged. She immediately wrote another detective story of low life In the Southwest, called "Mother Finds a Body." We read this book with Interest; so did thousands of others. It concerned murder in a tourist camp and strip-dancer ladies.
By now the artiste that made the Minsky brothers famous was a literary notable. So help us, the long-haired ones started giving her literary teas. And pretty soon Miss Gypsy was publishing autobiographical sketches about her life with mother and sister, in that sophisticated weekly, the New Yorker. Good sketches they were, too, something in the vein of Clarence Day's "Life With Father."
Hired for Movies
By last year the celebrated writer was star of a New York show called "Star and Garter." We paid five and a half hard-earned dollars last Summer to see this performance. It was money well spent. Miss Gypsy kept on most of her clothes most of the time and sang some songs which she, personally, wrote. Good, loud songs.
So a few weeks ago an outfit called International Pictures hired Miss Lee to star in the movies. She was out entertaining soldiers at the time but she got here as quickly as she could and at this writing she's in there with such fellow thespians as Dinah Shore, Randolph Scott, Bob Burns, Charles Winninger and Bob Armstrong. She gets top billing like this:
G-Y-P-S-Y   R-O-S-E   L-E-E. Box-car size.
The Hays office hasn't let out one single peep. We don't get it. We'll call upon Miss Gypsy and see if she has an explanation.

Lee lived into the permissive ‘60s, where nudity on screen and on stage was really no big deal to a younger generation. What did the world’s most famous ex-stripper think of it? She talked about it to the National Enterprise Association in a story published July 16, 1969.

Gypsy Was Real, Class Stripper

NEW YORK—(NEA)—Every night in a Broadway theater on 47th Street, a dozen or so young men and women lie on the stage and undress beneath what appears to be a long muslin tablecloth. Then, as the orchestra plays something appropriate for slipping out of tablecloths, the cast of "Hair" rises and stands—jaybird naked — before its audience.
The patrons stiffen momentarily, blink and then nod absently to show their sophisticated upbringing . “That's what I call tasteful nudity,” gulps a man in a tuxedo.
People never gulped like that when Gypsy Rose Lee walked offstage back in the 1930s and '40s. No sir. People whistled. In class burlesque houses like the Republic, the Irving Place and the 42nd Street Apollo, men in tuxedos stood and applauded as though they had just heard Caruso sing in "Rigoletto."
As perhaps the most famous strip-teaser produced by burlesque, Miss Lee was more tease than strip. She winked, she sang scurrilous ditties and she looked absolutely scrumptious, but all her audience ever saw was a flash of flesh as she sidled off to the wings.
There were more basic, less scrupulous characters in burlesque in those days, to be sure, but none remotely challenged the attention on-stage nudity gets today. The human body has not been so discussed since the invention of the bustle.
Now 54, Gypsy Rose Lee is amused at the uproar, sort of.
"I don't think people are seeing anything the world didn't know about," she says, smirking. "It's just that now, suddenly, people are talking about it."
As a stripper, Miss Lee—Louise Hovick to her mother—absorbed much of the lusty atmosphere that went with the bus ness. Her conversation is laced with exclamatory "What the hells" and other sundry oaths. She is not shy and, certainly, she is not dumb.
Indeed, if Gypsy was not the greatest stripper ever, she has to be the most intelligent. While girls like energetic Georgia Sothern, the tassel girls, Rose La Rose and Mimi ("I'm more Scarlett than Scarlett O'Hara") Lynne faded into the sunset, Gypsy Rose Lee stuck around, wrote a best-seller, "The G-String Murders," and then scored with her autobiography, "Gypsy," which became a Broadway hit and movie.
Today she is a respected member of the Hollywood community in Beverly Hills where she lives with two peacocks, 11 Chinese hairless dogs, numerous goldfish and several lizards.
These days, she endorses things like the National Water Institute's clean waters contest. All those poor baby seals being killed by the oil slicks and being washed up on Monterey Beach," she fumes. "Now what the hell good can there be in that?"
Animals, obviously, are important to Gypsy. Now her pet projects include a trip to England with her Chinese hairless this year to win dog shows and get the American Kennel Club to recognize the breed. "They're recognized in England," she says. "I was up all night last night with one which was having puppies. All dogs have pups at night, you know. Boy, my eyes feel like they're out on sticks."
Other waking moments are spent in more profitable activities. Gypsy has, for instance, just completed filming a comic western with Walter Brennan, Edward Buchanan and Pat O'Brien called, not altogether accurately, "The Over-The-Hill Gang."
"It's got all the clich├ęs that ever went into a western," she explained. "It's so dear and so funny. I play a woman with a heart of gold who runs the local saloon, of course, and, no, I don't remove my clothes."
As one might suspect, Gypsy Rose Lee is fairly broadminded on the subject of undress. "I saw 'Hair' in California and liked it," she said. "I was hardly aware of the nudity. It seemed like natural development in the play."
Recently, however, Miss Lee has observed nudity not so natural.
"Topless waitresses bother me," she admits. "For myself, I'd much rather see bare bosoms on the stage than at the dinner table. For one thing, it makes it difficult to order sometimes, you know . . . 'Do you have any roast breast—I mean, duck?' or maybe you find yourself discussing 'the lovely cantaloupes on the menu' or something.
"One place here oven has topless billiards . . . now, if that isn't hazardous I don't know what is."
A now-squelched off-Broadway play gained considerable notoriety recently by displaying two actors in a rather advanced state of affection. Gypsy Rose Lee laughed at the prospect.
“All of this is just a fad,” she said, “and fads aren’t going to take the place of good theatre. I think I’d rather watch my birds than that, anyway.”

Actually, she was a touch over 54 when this interview was published, which was less than a year before her death.

I think I agree with Gypsy. Burlesque may have been tacky and tawdry at times, but at least it left a little to the imagination.

1 comment:

  1. One of the best ways to see latter-day Gypsy Rose Lee is in the few surviving tapes of her 1960s San Francisco-based daytime talk show "Gypsy and Her Friends," predating Rosie and Ellen (both of whom could have taken lessons).