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Book Discussion Guide: American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott: Reviews

Book reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Imaginative and engaging, Abbott’s biography of the celebrated stripper, who died in 1970 at age 59, also proves a well-informed look at the evolution of musical theater in the early 20th century. Abbott (Sin in the Second City) was able to interview Gypsy Rose Lee's 94-year-old sister, June Havoc, shortly before she died in 2010. Lee and her sister grew up under their indomitable stage mother, Rose, whom Lee wrote about in a memoir that became the Broadway hit Gypsy in 1959. Abbott shares some fresh, intimate details as she develops two parallel narrative strands: the hand-to-mouth early years when Rose was plying the city-to-city vaudeville circuit with her child acts featuring her talented daughter, June, and the more gawky, reliable Louise; and the steady success of the Minsky brothers on the Lower East Side of New York City as they invested in a string of vaudeville theaters that gradually morphed into wildly successful burlesque houses. When June ran away (at age 13 to get married), Rose reinvented Louise as her last vestige of hope – and thus Gypsy Rose Lee made “her delicate, unclean break from the past.” Soon, the long-legged, tease-talking Gypsy was warming up for her next careers – Hollywood and Broadway. Abbott's work, cutting fluidly between decades and recreating dialogue, captures this dizzying, sullying, transformative era in America.

From Kirkus Reviews

Abbott (Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, 2008) presents a rollicking account of Gypsy Rose Lee (1911–1970), the legendary striptease artist who titillated legions and battled her monstrous stage mother Rose, a gorgon of a woman who would make Medea blanche. Lee endured a childhood of ghastly deprivation, criss-crossing the country in various Vaudeville acts featuring her younger, cuter and more talented sister June. Stocky and boyish, Louise, as she was known, developed a keen mind and sly sense of humor, armor against the psychological abuse doled out by Mama Rose, who, convinced of her younger daughter's star potential, favored June unconscionably, treating Louise as an afterthought at best. After June suffered a breakdown and left the act, Rose focused her attention on the elder girl, who, through sheer force of will, transformed herself into a national sex symbol and revolutionized the art of burlesque. Mama Rose is the tale's most compelling character, a con artist, thief and probable murderer who emotionally dominated and manipulated her daughters with apparent relish, a Dickensian harridan who in her declining years watched pornographic movies to unwind, chuckling at the “funny” bits. Abbott writes in a propulsive, witty style, jumping back and forth in chronology and limning a vivid portrait of Lee's milieu, lovingly rendering the Tammany Hall politicians, gangsters, Algonquin Round Table habitués and theatrical promoters that constituted Lee's world. Running concurrently with Lee's story is that of the Minsky brothers, whose burlesque house became a New York institution and served as the setting for the introduction of Gypsy Rose Lee, the teasing, intellectual beauty with the razor-sharp instinct for what to reveal and what to hide. Lee’s success – she would publish novels, act in films and write an autobiography that would serve as inspiration for one of Broadway's most enduring triumph – sweet, but Mama Rose, long after her death, would haunt her daring daughter to the grave. A fast-paced, funny, flavorful reckoning with a unique American icon.

From The New York Times

If American Rose does not excel at biographical explanation, it does have a penchant for ornate writing. Some of this befits the gaudiness of the world that Ms. Abbott’s book evokes, but some is just plain overwrought, particularly when it comes to deathbed scenes. As she writes about one figure’s demise: “Quiet crept in, stealthy, taking its time, turning down the volume and unfurling the curtain, lowering it by inches, until the velvet hem teased the floor and the darkness seized his eyes.” If there is such a thing as death by show business, this is what it’s like.

From Library Journal

Abbott’s follow-up to the national best seller Sin in the Second City (2007 is a thorough and lively account of the life of Gypsy Rose Lee, an American icon from the Roaring Twenties until her death in 1970. A symbol of sexual tantalization, Lee experienced great depths of misery while maintaining an unusually ambitious workload; her relationships with her mother and sister were complicated by competition and disapproval. Abbott draws on exclusive interviews and never-before-published materials to give readers/listeners a true sense of Lee’s life. Actress Bernadette Dunne gives even the bawdiest bits a dignified reading. Anyone interested in pop culture and celebrity bios will appreciate this title, which has garnered strong praise from fellow authors Kathryn Stockett and Rebecca Skloot.