Seattle-born Rose Louise Hovick had her first brush with fame at age one, winning a healthy baby contest. As Gypsy Rose Lee, she became famous in burlesque as a classy and witty strip tease artist. She, her little sister June, and her monstrous stage mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, passed into show biz legend when her bestselling 1957 memoir, Gypsy, became a Broadway smash.
Stars in Her Mother's Eyes
The mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, was a teenage bride fresh from a convent school when was married to Jack Olaf Hovick. At 19, she gave birth to the 12-pound Rose Louise on January 9, 1911, at 4314 Frontenac Street in West Seattle. Rose reported that the birth was horrific and the baby was washed outside in the snow.
A second child was born in Vancouver, B.C. two years later, and named June. By this time the Hovick marriage was in trouble, but it limped along a little longer. Rose's father had not allowed Rose to go on the stage, and now, she wanted a career for her children. Jack Hovick explained that they couldn't afford expensive dancing lessons for the girls. Later, Rose told her daughters that her own mother had warned her against marrying a Norwegian, as his wife would always come second to the animals in the barn. When Rose accused him of a being a tight-fisted Norwegian farmer, Hovick reminded her he was a actually a newspaperman. Louise's memoir states that her father was a reporter for The Seattle Times. He is recorded on her 1911 birth certificate, however, as an ad salesman.
A Legacy of Lingerie
After the breakup, Rose and girls moved back in with her parents in West Seattle. Charlie Thompson was a Great Northern Railway employee who worked in the baggage room at King Street station. His wife Anna was an excellent seamstress and milliner who created extravagant hats and exotic lingerie. She spent months on the road visiting mining towns and lumber camps from Nevada to the Yukon, selling the flashy apparel to prostitutes. Rose set to work to make a performer out of Louise, but Louse had no talent at all. She couldn't sing or dance. Her little sister June, however, could dance on point at aged two. Rose's father arranged for a debut concert at his lodge hall, and soon Baby June was appearing regularly around Seattle, once as part of the bill on Anna Pavolva's farewell tour, inspiring Rose to change her billing to "Baby June, the Pocked-sized Pavlova."
Baby June and Plug
Eventually, Baby June got an audition with Alexander Pantages (1876-1936) who had come to Seattle in 1902 and built theaters up and down the west coast. Soon she was launched in vaudeville and also appeared in Hollywood movies. She couldn't speak until three, but the films were silent and she could cry for the cameras when her mother told her the dog had died. Meanwhile, Rose Louise, nicknamed Plug, a chubby, ungainly child with dark hair in a shiny Dutch bob, stayed back in Seattle with her father or grandparents and went to kindergarten, sometimes visiting her mother and her sister in Hollywood. When Louise was seven, she joined them permanently. Neither girl got any further schooling.
Dainty June and the Newsboy Songsters
June was now the star of the vaudeville act, "Madam Rose presents Dainty June and her Newsboy Songsters." The newsboy songsters consisted of a revolving cast of male street urchins whose parents were glad to turn them over to someone who would feed them. They received pocked money and the promise of theatrical training. Louse was one of the newsboy songsters, and even off stage was sometimes dressed as a boy in a knickerbocker suit, cloth cap, and belted leather coat so as not to eclipse June, who sported tiny fur coats, hats, and muffs, garish makeup and peroxided ringlets.
"People stared at us when we walked down the street," wrote Louse later. At its height, the act was pulling in $1,500 a week on the Orpheus circuit, and Dainty June was a powerhouse with top billing who often stopped the show.
Madam Rose taught the girls to lie about their ages to truant officers and railway train conductors, steal blankets and sheets from hotels, and sneak out without paying. The girls were practiced shoplifters. Madam Rose wasn't above sabotaging rival acts and was masterful at conning well wishers out of money with her genteel, brave-but-helpless single mother act. June later said that after the age of five, she never believed anything her mother said.
A tiny, delicate looking woman, Rose nevertheless once managed to push a hotel manager out of a window.
From Plug to Hard Boiled Rose
Despite Rose's hectoring, Louise continued to display no interest in show business. For years she had one song in the act, a "tough" novelty number called "Hard Boiled Rose" and also appeared as a pretty, but static doll, billed as "The Doll Girl." Louse later said that Rose threatened that it she didn't work harder, she would be given away and legally adopted by her aunt, Jack Hovick's sister Helma and her husband Fred, managing editor of the The Seattle Times, who lived in a big white house on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle.
By the late 1920s, vaudeville was dying and Dainty June was getting too big for a kid act. The girls never knew their real ages until they were grown. June thought she was 13 when she eloped with Bobby Reed, one of the newsboy songsters, but she was probably three years older. A furious Rose jammed a gun into Bobby's chest and pulled the trigger but the safety catch was on.
Getting Their Act Together
With Dainty June's departure, the act was over. Rose and Louise went back to Seattle to regroup. There, with backing from Rose's father, they recruited a half dozed unprepossessing adolescent girls who wanted a career in show business.
Louise made babyish costumes for them, and they hit the road as Madam Rose's Dancing Daughters, an act in which they held dolls. The act wasn't a success.
Vaudeville was dying. Rose Louise and her Hollywood Blondes, now living in a tent to save money on hotels, workedtheir first burlesque house, the Missouri Theatre in Kansas City. "I could be a star without any talent at all," Louise wrote in her memoir. At first, she was just another stripper in bump-and-grind venues where the customers masturbated beneath newspapers in their laps. But she soon managed to pull away from the pack with humor.
Gypsy Rose Lee
By 1931, she was in New York, and playing Minsky's. She soon moved up into higher social circles and became the toast of cafe society.
Rose Louise Hovick was now Gypsy Rose Lee. Her act was a send-up of a strip act. She recited a witty monologue in a low sing-song voice and a cultivated accent as she stripped, and got big laughs as she-dropped the pins that held her costumes together into the tuba with plinking sounds and fussily straightened the crooked black blow on her nipple with an "Oh dear!" She revealed little actual flesh, ending the act draped coyly by the curtain. The act was really more about comedy than sex, and men and their wives were now in the audience.
A run at Hollywood failed, as did a play she wrote, but Lee made money producing and appearing in "Star and Garter," a 1942 musical revue with her lover Mike Todd. Lee's friends now included literary lights such as Carson McCullers, Janet Flanner, Carl Van Doren, and W.H. Auden. Her mystery novel The G-String Murders (later filmed as Lady of Burlesque with Barbara Stanwyck) was a critical and commercial success. A follow up mystery novel, Mother Finds A Body, with a grotesque character not unlike Madam Rose, was not.
Love and Family Fame
In 1944 she gave birth to her only child, Erik, the product of a short affair with the director Otto Preminger. Officially, the boy's father was her second marriage. Erik learned of his true parentage in his late teens.
Madam Rose's Last Act
Madam Rose died in 1954. Her last words threatened her daughter Louise, promising to drag her daughter into death with her. In later years, Rose had run a lesbian boarding house and farm. One of her guests was shot at a party, and the verdict was suicide, but Lee's son, Erik Preminger, is quoted in a Vanity Fair article saying that the victim was Rose's lover, and that Rose killed her in front of many witnesses after she made a pass at Gypsy. According to Rose's sister Belle, a Seattle doctor who saw Rose on a visit home said she was "crazy" and "dangerously so." She harassed and blackmailed both her daughters, demanding money and gifts, although she was well provided for, and turned up at their performances dressed shabbily and claiming to be ill and poor. They both communicated with her through lawyers.
Writing and Stripping
After Rose's death, Lee was free to exploit the sensational story of her childhood without fear of a libel suit from her mother. Her 1957 memoir, Gypsy, was an instant best seller. Lee was not, however, a reliable narrator. She changed some unpleasant facts, dramatized, and put an amusing spin on the horrors of life on the road with Madam Rose. She once told her sister, "Without my wit, Mother is just one more corny song with a boring lyric." Havoc's tough 1959 memoir, Early Havoc paints a much darker picture. Lee turned down a $200,000 movie rights deal for her memoir, instead selling the theatrical rights to her book for $4,000 against a percentage of the gross. She told her son Erik, "It's a risk, but if the show is successful I'll get royalties for it for the rest of my life as well as at last that much when it's sold as a film." Although she was always a good businesswoman, she had never learned any math and was confused by fractions and percentages. During negotiations she was known to rely on pie charts rather than figures.
The production was jeopardized by objections from June, who at one point hired a lawyer. She felt the story was full of lies and falsely depicted her as a no-talent kid and the heavy who runs off with Louise's boyfriend. Eventually, she relented after some small changes were made. The full title -- Gypsy: A Musical Fable -- was a concession to June.
Lee continued her strip act until the 1950s, with her 12-year old son Erik as her assistant on the road.
After the success of her book and the musical, and with three failed marriages behind her, she moved from New York to a house in Beverly Hills, made appearances on television shows and Hollywood Squares, presided over her own successful talk show for housewives, and indulged in her hobbies of gardening, knitting, antique collection, dog breeding, and quilting.
Gypsy Rose Less died in 1970, with the musical bearing her name guaranteeing her lasting show business fame.
By Kathrine K. Beck, April 8, 2004