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Gypsy Rose Lee & Burlesque’s Allure


The story and power of the legendary Gypsy Rose Lee. They called her the “intellectual stripper.”

Gypsy Rose Lee, whose real name was Louise Hovick, shows off her costume, called 'Eclipse of the Sun.’ (AP)

Gypsy Rose Lee was hitting vaudeville stages across the country when she was four years old. By fifteen, she was headlining as a burlesque performer.

Eventually, she became beloved by Eleanor Roosevelt, the New York literati and longshoremen alike. She was described, in that day, as the only woman in the world “with a public body and a private mind, both equally exciting.”

The legend of her life is the stuff of Broadway show and film, in “Gypsy.”

Her patter to the audience as the clothes came off was of sociology, ballet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Puritans and Noel Coward.

“If Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a secret love child it would have been Gypsy Rose Lee,” says Karen Abbott, author of the new book, American Rose – A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. “The woman knew how to make a dramatic entrance. She would arrive at opening nights at the Met wearing a full length cape made entirely of orchids.”

But the reality of who Gypsy — born Louise Hovick — was can be as hard to get at, as tantalizing concealed, as the end of her dance.

“Gypsy Rose Lee was a brand before branding existed,” Abbott says. “And part of that brand was to laugh at herself. It was a bit of a self defense mechanism but it was also the way she connected with the audience and the idea that if she laughs first nobody else will be laughing at her.  And she wanted the audience to be just as culpable for watching her disrobing as she was for disrobing.”

This hour in an archive edition of On Point: The story of America’s “intellectual stripper.”

-Tom Ashbrook


Karen Abbott, journalist and author whose new book is “American Rose – A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee.” You can read an excerpt.

Listen back to Karen Abbott’s conversation with Tom Ashbrook about her book “Sin in the Second City.”

Honeysuckle Hype, West Coast burlesque producer and performer who performs as “your average food-obsessed 1950s Lesbian housewife.”


Gypsy Rose Lee strip routine

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  • http://www.Burlesque-Expo.com Scratch

    Hi Tom,

    My name is Scratch; I’m producer of The Boston Babydolls, New England’s leading burlesque troupe, and organizer of the annual Great Burlesque Exposition, a weekend-long gathering of burlesque performers and fans which occurs each spring in Cambridge, MA.

    I’m a real-life practitioner of burlesque and I can help compare and contrast the era in which Gypsy performed with today’s contemporary burlesque. Please contact me via email or at (617) 869-2000 to add my voice to today’s show.

  • rob sprogell (sprowgle)

    My grandmother, wearing a fancy fox stole, went with a mutual friend to a party that Gypsy was hosting. Gypsy greeted them at the door, and immediately whisked my grandmother around and introduced her to many of the attendees; then, rather abruptly, she said to my grandmother, “Ok, dearie, everyone’s seen it– you can take it the hell off!”

  • jim thompson, fort millsc


    I’ve always loved Gypsy.She certainly was in a class by herself-although she and several other ladies of vaudeville and burlesque were very special and talented women-many who were stars at the Howard in Boston’s Scollay Square.

  • Jay


    One of the first television talk shows I ever enjoyed in the late 1950′s early 60′s was Gypsy’s!! She was funny, urbane and serious too.

  • Barbara

    My earliest memory of hearing the name, “Gypsy Rose Lee” was as a very small child of about three or four. I was running around my nanna’s house just before bath time as I was removing my clothing. The memory definitely stuck with me and I’m looking forward to reading more about her.

  • Eve Young

    Hi Tom,

    I was a Women’s Studies major at Tufts University and am so happy that you chose to have Karen Abbot on your show today.

    In today’s pop cultural soup, feminist and other resistance art is just as important as ever.

    Thank you! Please continue on this vein!

    Eve Young
    Tufts University
    Medford, MA

  • Joe Carlin

    One night in 1969 I was the night duty officer at the Bangkok Airport. I was approached by a staffer from the American Embassy who asked me to find a seat on a C-130 cargo plane to send an entertainer to Taiwan. I told him I could not because the only plane going to Taiwan was filled with cargo and no fold down seats were available. He then introduced me to Gypsy Rose Lee. I said I would ask the pilot knowing that he had control over the bunk in the cockpit. He refused my request at first and then asked me who the entertainer was. I told him. He said, “Get her ass up here in the cockpit.” She went to Taiwan that night.

  • Mari McAvenia

    It’s great to hear from Scratch, impresario deluxe for the Boston Babydolls. He’s both a gentleman & a scholar on this particular topic, essentially keeping the art alive in Boston, with the collaboration of a stellar troupe of gorgeous & talented ladies, naturally.

    Fun show, overall. Added a bit of color to a drab New England day.

  • Brett

    When I was four, I saw Buddy Rich on TV and wanted to do what he did. At six, I began to take formal lessons in playing drums. After taking lessons from a military drummer for two years, which was a valuable education in the rudiments, I took lessons at eight years old from an old guy who, among other gigs, had played drums in a burlesque theatre. He told me that drums were an auditory representation of movement (my phrasing). I learned a lot about accents and emphasis from his approach, and the idea that I was playing a part that had elements of dance and movement stuck with me.

    I always wanted to play drums for a stripper in a burlesque club, but the form died out long before I was old enough to find such a gig (and, of course, Rock-n-Roll, “serious” Jazz and other interests intervened, as well).

    I still have an interest in Vaudeville. I put together a novelty band about five years ago; we all had alter ego personas with back stories about starting in Vaudeville, retiring and coming out of retirement, etc. We had costumes, a burlesque dancer, told jokes, etc. It was great fun. Many of my musician friends thought the idea was crazy, but we got gigs and packed venues (the downside was that very few venues wanted an act they couldn’t fit into one genre or a well-trodden context).

    Vaudeville is coming back and rubbing elbows with the periphery of many of my circles. It was refreshing to hear there is a revival in burlesque.

    Gypsy Rose Lee was an interesting character. Karen Abbott’s book sounds like a good read…the other book mentioned by the caller (it’s name momentarily escapes me…”February House”?) sounds interesting, too.

  • Abbey Schoenfeld

    I just watched this clip and what’s so interesting is that in Gypsy Rose Lee’s day, her striptease was so alluring and she was never naked. Now you can watch people having sex on TV. Times sure have changed and not necessarily for the better. There was a kind of innocent fun before, an enticement of what might come and now it is all out there leaving nothing to the imagination. I feel nostalgic for a more innocent time.

  • Mari Bonomi

    “But the reality of who Gypsy — born Louise Hovick — is as hard to get at, as tantalizing concealed, as the end of her dance.”

    Fascinating topic, certainly!

    But… uhm… I taught English for almost 40 years and the sentence I copy/pasted above is not – a sentence that is. Someone needs a proofreader! :)

    Still love you, NPR!

  • Marge Coates

    Has anyone seen Gypsy in “The Trouble with Angels”? Her part was small, but delightful, and she has the same expressions as she did as the youngster in the film clip provided.

  • http://www.onpointradio.org/about-on-point/john-wihbey John Wihbey

    Mari – You are right — a Web editing error, alas. Thanks for the love. Apologies to you and to Tom! -John

  • Jennie

    Just finished the book! Great story – but then again very sad. I wanted to hug Louise and June – and kick Momma Rose in the arse!

  • Jill

    A favorite story in my hometown of Lancaster, SC is of Gypsy Rose Lee’s visit here to open a small railroad depot. She was listed by Col. Elliot White Springs on the Lancaster & Chester Railroad as the Vice-Pres. in Charge of Unveiling. His somewhat risque and innovative ads campaign for Springmaid sheets had made quite a stir and this event topped it off.

  • Kate

    I’m sorry that you didn’t mention that a film was made of Gypsy Rose Lee’s “The G-String Murders” with the title of “Lady of Burlesque”, ca. 1943. It starred Barbara Stanwyck and was actually quite good and fun to watch not only because of Stanwyck’s performance, but also because the story was rather clever.

  • http://www.divatauniadolls.com Diva Taunia

    I absolutely love this! I’m a professional vocalist and after having gastric bypass surgery on 3/25/08 and losing over 160 lbs, decided to start my own Burlesque Troupe in the Lowell MA/Nashua NH area called The Diva Taunia Dolls Burlesque.

    I’ve long been a fan of Burlesque and have long known that it takes a strong, intelligent woman to pull off this ridiculously amazing art form. Thanks so much for this great segment, which I’ll be passing on to all of my dolls!

    Taunia | http://www.divatauniadolls.com

    • Guest

      I’ve seen The Divataunia Dolls and you should be ashamed of yourself — both to call what you do ‘burlesque’ and, mostly, of the shameless way you exploit performers. Quit while you’re behind. Real burlesque doesn’t need or want you.

  • http://www.BoylanMedia.com Tony

    Anyone who likes burlesque and lives near Chicago should check out the Windy City Burlesque Fest coming in March.

  • Southern Listener

    In the interview, the author didn’t seem to “get” that interviewing estranged family members about one’s subject does not a book make. I am concerned that this biography was dependent on the dreamlike remembrances of an estranged nonagenarian sister. I had been interested in reading it until the way the author described it made it seem questionable IF that is the main source of that part of the book. Neither the author nor the host of the show seemed to understand the limitations that places on probable accuracy. I will be interested in looking at the footnotes and other sources, but if it is speculative based solely on an estranged relative’s POV it would have been best labeled a novel.

  • Dmacal50

    Hail Gypsy! In 1968 while laying in a hopsital bed in the Phillipines from wounds received in Vietnam Gypsy visited me. She brought a ray of sunshine to a wounded Marine who was so far from home, and took a picture which I still treasure today.I will remember her fondly.

  • Jasoturner

    Hey, this is totally off topic, but does anyone know what’s up with Tom?  Why all the guest hosts and rebroadcasts?  Hope he’s okay, because I really want him back here asap.  Best show on radio.  Actually my favorite show period.

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      Tom’s fine, Jasoturner, just on vacation! He’ll be back next week. Glad you like the show.

      • Jasoturner

        Thanks.  I’m getting to that age when I worry when I don’t hear from my friends for a while…

      • nj

        But he came back for just one day on Monday?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

    All nice and fun perhaps, but those of us with brains will not miss the fact that the entire audience is in uniform, and in their youth and naivite, appear on their way to kill and maim others just like themselves, and civilians along with them.

    While still in basic training in the USA, young women strip off red white and blue g-strings with star pasties at the enlisted club, in front of thousands of freshly shaved headed red blooded recruits on their way to the bogus wars in the middle east.

    It would be nice to see Tom, discuss the fact that its all part of the formula.  War and sex.   The lack of availability in the middle east necessitates the recruitment of women in the armed forced, moral boosters and NCO club concubines,  of which a huge percentage of these girls are raped.   War is hell.

    • Anonymous

      To paraphrase General McAuliffe: Nuts to you pal.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

        True-to-form Jeffe,  Another banal response.  I see you’re still on guard duty and ever-vigilant in repelling logic and truth from this site.   But you cant stop everyone from connecting the dots.  But… Carry on trooper.   

        • SPB

          I like the way you start your comment Paulo “those of us with brains” which means anyone who disagrees with your doesn’t have brains.    Well, I guess Jeffe68 and I are empty headed.    It just seems like you have an opinion about the military and just want to use this topic as a way to air your opinion.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

            Its quite relevant, how many soldiers really know the corporate and political reasons they are giving up their lives and limbs???
            But for so long they march off to warm on shmaltzy tunes by Irving Berlin, and snippy jokes from Bob Hope, and of course lots of dancing babes.  

            Try this: compare the rosy video clip of Gypsy Rose Lee’s performance in front of troops who have yet to die, lose a limb or get PSTD, with this clip of basically the same thing   http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=anna+magnani&aq=f

            We Italians certainly have a different perspective of war and entertainment than sugar coated Americans.

          • godsbuster

            “Its quite relevant, how many soldiers really know the corporate and
            political reasons they are giving up their lives and limbs??? ”

            Their not knowing is precisely what makes war possible in the first place – on both sides of any conflict.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Paolo-Caruso/1778940602 Paolo Caruso

            Compare the happy clip of Gypsy and the troops with this one with Anna Magnani entertaining Italian soldiers in La Sciantosa.


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QME6C6XTBAYFEJP2GYDH3VQEMU Beat

    Why do we have to remember this old fart?

  • Bossworks1

    Masquers Theatre in Soap Lake WA is currently in rehearsals for Gypsy which will open Oct. 14th. I am excited and terrified to be providing the choreography for this unique musical and enjoying learning more about the real story of Gypsy Rose Lee. I remember the Natalie Wood movie from my childhood but there was so much more to her than the movie covered. Great timing for the rebroadcast….and one quick side note: we still need a young guy that can sing and dance for the role of Tulsa, its unpaid but would be great experience.

  • Lormorketec

    I agree with many of these points, but many marketers make incorrect assumptions about the strategy Green Beads, messaging and emotional connections that will resonate with their target audience.

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