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Gypsy Rose Lee & Burlesque’s Allure

Rebroadcast

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

Guests

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.”

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Gypsy Rose Lee strip routine

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