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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare - The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee    by Karen Abbott order for
American Rose
by Karen Abbott
Order:  USA  Can
Random House, 2012 (2010)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Karen Abbott, author of the remarkable Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul, now gives us an equally fascinating (and thoroughly researched) look at another strong woman who reinvents herself - American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare - The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.

In an Author's Note at the beginning, Abbott speaks of the challenge of discovering 'Gypsy the person, as opposed to Gypsy the persona', a woman eulogized by a friend as the 'most private public figure of her time'. The author goes back and forth in time to show us Gypsy's life, from vaudeville's prime in the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression to the 1940 New York World's Fair, World War II and its aftermath.

Readers are introduced to Gypsy's more than formidable mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, who would stop at nothing, including murder, in pursuit of her goals. Though Gypsy was first called Ellen June, that name was subsequently given to her dainty dancer of a younger sister, and Gypsy ended up as Rose Louise. Their mother's ambition was initially totally focused on Baby June's developing vaudeville act, while her 'broken edges cut her daughters in ways both emotional and physical, and only sharpened with age.'

June rebels at age thirteen, marries, and begins to make a life for herself (later as actress June Havoc), leaving Rose and Louise to each other. And when 'There is no more vaudeville', it's Louise who decides that burlesque is better than starvation. She reinvents herself as Gypsy Rose Lee, is discovered by Billy Minsky, and is pulled into a relationship with 'one of New York's most notorious and dangerous criminals.' Eventually 'More than eleven thousand people a week came to see Gypsy Rose Lee and her elegant, brainy joke of a strip.'

But she's not just a burlesque stripper - Gypsy tries her hand at detective stories and writes a memoir. She dies of cancer in 1970, leaving her sister and a son, Erik. Karen Abbott sums her up well in the book's final sentence as 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can.' American Rose is an engrossing read, both for its insights into this elusive American icon, and for the window it gives readers into the era in which she shone.

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