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I was a 24-year-old know-it-all in 1962 when my editor sent me off to meet Gypsy Rose Lee for lunch. I figured if it were a plum assignment, it would have gone to my older, more mature colleague, Dick Shippy, the Akron Beacon Journal's best writer. So I was rather blasé about meeting this particular celebrity, and my attitude was apparent in the opening paragraphs of the story that resulted:
Akron Beacon Journal, October 14, 1962
People tell me Gypsy Rose Lee is an American institution.

That’s nice to know, because judging by what she’s been doing the last few years, it’s hard figuring out why the woman is so famous.

As an institution, she can loll around and be admired. Miss Lee is one of those lucky performers whose name remains a household word even though she stopped doing her specialty — stripping — years ago.
The next four paragraphs pretty much summed up what I knew about the woman before our meeting:
She writes books every now and then, and the one that was turned into a musical play and movie — “Gypsy” — certainly did a lot to advance the legend of Gypsy Rose Lee.

Miss Lee was a long-time queen of burlesque, but failed in her attempt to become a box office draw in the movies.

You can see her on television these days, but most of those appearances are on “What's My Line,” “Tonight,” “Stump the Stars,” and other programs that have her being herself.

This past summer she had a supporting role and worked as an advisor to Joanne Woodward, who starred in the title role of “The Stripper,” a movie to be released next year.

A brief explanation. At the time, we had a tendency to identify celebrities by their first names, implying a familiarity that didn't exist. In the story that appeared on October 14, I called her "Gypsy," not Miss Lee. I edited it for the purposes of this page; I would have changed it to "Ms. Lee," but that title wasn't yet widely accepted in 1962.

Also, at the time of our interview, the working title of the Joanne Woodward film was the rather vague "A Woman in July." It wasn't changed to "The Stripper" until later.

My story continues:

Last week she was in Cleveland to work on KYW’s “The Mike Douglas Show,” and that’s where I met her and found out what sets Gypsy Rose Lee apart from thousand of other women who, over the years, have been paid to remove their clothing on stage. I also learned why Ms. Lee remains popular throughout the world: It’s her style.

There he was, sitting with some friends in a dimly lit Cleveland restaurant in mid-afternoon, but Gypsy Rose Lee was “on.” Everything she said boomed out, each word accompanied by a wide gesture. Each sentence started with “dear,” “darling” or “sweetheart.” Every eye in the place was on “the star.”

I’ve never seen Ms. Lee perform, I wasn’t around when she was the burlesque queen, and I was too young when she was a big hit with GIs during World War Two. I was prepared to ask the same old questions, but immediately discovered Miss Lee is tired of interviews that begin that way — with the same old questions.

Luckily for me, it was Gene Godt, the amiable KYW publicity man, who asked the first old question, and Miss Lee directed her wrath at him. His question: “How did you get the name ‘Gypsy’?”

“What a trite question!” she barked at him. (Godt ducked under the table.) “I’m not going to answer that one again,” Miss Lee continued.

She then added two other “trite” questions she was sick of being asked:

• How did she feel when she took off her clothes in front of an audience?

• And who really writes her books?

Yes, I was ill-prepared to meet Gypsy Rose Lee, and it wasn't simply due to my inexperience, incompetence, or laziness. And I can't blame our newspaper morgue (library, if you will) for a shortage of clippings on the entertainer, though, heaven knows, she had been in the news often enough over the years.

I had not read her autobiography, "Gypsy: A Memoir." Nor had I seen the Broadway musical. The movie version hadn't yet been released. The only times I'd seen her were on television's "I've Got a Secret" and "The Big Party," the first a game show, the other a stilted gathering of celebrities. As a callow youth, I regarded her as has-been. Worse, an uninteresting has-been, a one-trick pony.

I have since learned that she was anything but "uninteresting," though in going online for information about Gypsy Rose Lee — and there is a ton of it on the Internet — I suspect much of it is fantasy. The Internet has never been a cathedral of truth, but, for that matter, you can't trust everything you read in books, no matter how thoroughly the author claims to have researched the material. So keep that in mind should you decide to keep reading, especially on the second page that became necessary, thanks to the amount of material I collected on line.

AS THINGS TURNED OUT, I didn't actually interview Gypsy Rose Lee; for reasons I didn't appreciate at the time, she wouldn't answer questions about her past, she only wanted to talk abut the present, and to behave as though we were friends meeting for lunch.

Though it forced me to change the angle of my story, I caved to her conditions. I rationalized that my editor would be satisfied with a story that could be headlined, "My Lunch With Gypsy Rose Lee."

We proceeded to have a very pleasant time for more than an hour. With us, besides Gene Godt, who had arranged this meeting, were two silent members of the Gypsy Rose Lee entourage and the Beacon Journal photographer who accompanied me. We were six people at the table in the center of the restaurant, five of us likely annoying other diners with our laughter while Gypsy Rose Lee held court. Finally, it became clear — the woman was a celebrity because she behaved like one.

Our conversation rolled along merrily, partly because I took no notes. She became fascinated by that, wondering how I expected to write anything afterward. At that point in my life, I had little trouble remembering huge chunks of conversation, so long as I wrote them down within an hour or two. (Several days later, after he read the story, Godt sent a note to compliment me on how well I had recalled the occasion; he particularly liked the part where he ducked under the table.)

Miss Lee was in great spirits, friendly and funny, not inclined to take herself seriously. It was as though her life was a huge joke she had played on the world. Not only had she gotten away with it, but had been paid handsomely along the way.

I thought her conversational wanderings might inadvertently take her into her past, but they never did. She was not about to expose me to the dark side of her life, much of which involved her mother, some of which involved her dealings with unsavory characters. She was more interested in talking about mundane things, including gardening, then her favorite hobby. She claimed she spent much of her spare time planting and weeding at her home in Beverly Hills, California.

"And I have the calluses to prove it. Feel that one!” she commanded as she thrust a finger in my face. She then pointed to a callus on another finger the way some women might call attention to an engagement ring.

She moved to California last winter after spending most of her life in a 24-room home in New York City. (She said she bought the New York home in 1942 for $80,000, and sold it a few months ago for $225,000.)

She explained her move to the West Coast:

“I was in California last Thanksgiving having dinner with some friends. They pointed out their windows toward a hill about two miles away. ‘There’s a home over there you’d just love,’ they told me. ‘It’s old and dilapidated — just like you.’ ”

She looked at me as if to ask, “You don’t think I’m old and dilapidated, do you, sweetheart?” And, honest, she isn’t. Heck, she looks better in person at age 48 than she did in photographs when she was 28.

Well, Ms. Lee became interested in that old, dilapidated house — “It’s early Gloria Swanson,” she said — and moved West where she’s fallen in love with the Southern California climate and scenery.

Because of her devotion to her garden — in which she apparently grows every flower imaginable — she claims she has “the nice smelling lawn in the world.”

“I go outside to see which way the wind is blowing and I know where to run to get the best scent. The aroma is terrific, although it's too much for people who aren’t used to it. My secretary came out from New York last month and got sick from the smell. Me? I’ve always been an outside girl.”

She actually was 51 at the time, but had been lying about her age most of her life and perhaps had come to believe that particular fib. Certainly the press went along with it; I wrote that she was 48 not because she told me so, but because the clippings I had been able to find about her all agreed that she was born in 1914, which was three years from the truth.

Also, she misled me about the sale of her New York property. It wasn't in New York City, but in a place called Highland Mills, located an hour's drive north of Manhattan. She had sold the property in 1945, a deal that actually had nothing to do with buying her Beverly Hills home. She continued to own a much more valuable piece of property in Manhattan.

She backed up her claim about being "an outside girl" by saying she was fond of camping and fishing, but admitted she hadn't done either recently.

There was more to my story, but the part that jumped from the cover of our magazine section to page four has been lost.

Except for getting a good meal out of it, I could have skipped this meeting and simply stayed home and gotten similar quotes from watching her on the Douglas show. But my editor liked my approach and my story, though I wonder why. Reading it recently, I was disappointed in how little hard information it included. I could have written a similar piece about a flamboyant relative. But a lot of the juicy stuff about Rose Louise Hovick wasn't widely known in 1962, and apparently much of the juicy stuff you can squeeze out of "Gypsy," the musical and the book, is the product of poetic license. Because of that, had she talked about her family life, it would have been in her best interest to support the "Gypsy" fairy tale rather than tell me the real story..

EIGHT YEARS after I met her, Gypsy Rose Lee died of lung cancer. Since then there has been much research into the life of Rose Louise Hovick, and several detailed books have been written. Her sister, actress June Havoc, who died in 2010, wrote a couple of autobiographies that contradicted — or clarified — things in "Gypsy," and at least one biography has been written about their mother, Rose Hovick, who actually was the central character in the stage and movie musical.

Besides reading about Gypsy Rose Lee online, I found — and watched — one of her movies on Amazon Prime. It was "Belle of the Yukon," made in 1944. She was cast opposite Randolph Scott. Never has there been so little chemistry between co-stars.

Let me make this clear — Gypsy Rose Lee was one of the most charming and pleasant celebrities I ever met . . . but I don't agree with assessments that have been made about her or the reasons for her success or the hyperbole spouted about the woman's place in our culture. In person she may have been Auntie Mame, but on screen she was as lifeless as a mannequin. Having also seen a short film of her act — a clip from "Stage Door Canteen" — I can't think many folks wanted to watch her perform on stage more than once.

I believe she was a curiosity more than a star, and that her "talent," such as it was, was vastly overstated. She was more a comedienne than a stripper, attractive, but not beautiful. The humor in her act was very much of its time — it had been written that she stole a lot of her material from other performers, including a fellow named Dwight Fiske, a Harvard-educated, piano-playing comedian who specialized in suggestive songs, featuring lines that seem laughably tame today. He was known as "The Great Leerer" and "King Leer," and because of his facial expressions, was funnier in person than he was on radio or on the party records he pioneered.

Gypsy Rose Lee reciting a Dwight Fiske song elevated burlesque, and probably made audiences feel better about watching a stripper. There were no bumps and grinds in a Gypsy Rose Lee performance, except, perhaps, in the very beginning, when she was 18 years old. She very quickly found her gimmick, and simply faced the audience and made wisecracks as she very slowly shed some clothing.

More people talked about her than actually saw her perform on stage, and from 1931 to 1933 she became a New York City celebrity for her perfomances at Minsky's Burlesque theaters. Soon her name was known from coast-to-coast, often used in punchlines by radio comedians, the way they did Sally Rand and Mae West. People formed opinions of Gypsy Rose Lee without first-hand knowledge of her act.

When Fiorello H. LaGuardia became mayor of New York City in 1934, he cracked down on burlesque houses. It wasn't long before Gypsy Rose Lee wanted to escape burlesque, and she did two Ziegfeld shows on Broadway. By 1937, Minsky's days were numbered, but Gypsy Rose Lee's future seemed bright when she signed a movie contract with Darryl F. Zanuck and 20th Century Fox. Immediately there was a problem:

New York Post, May 17, 1937
HOLLYWOOD, May 17 (UP) — Because various organizations have protested the glorification of a strip-tease dancer — Gypsy Rose Lee — in the movies, her employer, Darryl F. Zanuck, announced today that henceforth she will be known as Louise Hovick.

Miss Lee was born Louise Hovick. Zanuck said that protests were irrelevant since Miss Hovick is no longer a strip-tease dancer. She now is a dramatic actress, he said.

This must have thrown a monkey wrench into the machinery Zanuck had set up to exploit his new contract player. Her stage name was all she really had going for her. Louise Hovick had a long face and lips slightly pursed — as did her sister, June Havoc — making both of them look as though they were about to say something sarcastic. Gypsy Rose Lee was not attractive enough for a leading lady, and she lacked the acting ability to become another Eve Arden. June Havoc, on the other hand, could do both, though her movie career, several years away,, never lived up to its potential.

As for Louise Hovick, she wasn't asked to do much in her first three films — "You Can't Have Everything" starred Alice Faye, then one of the country's top box office draws, and Don Ameche; "Ali Baba Goes to Town" starred Eddie Cantor and Tony Martin; "Sally, Irene and Mary" were played by Alice Faye, Joan Davis and Marjorie Weaver, with Louise Hovick featured as a woman named Joyce, and buried in a cast that also included Tony Martin, Fred Allen and Jimmy Durante.

Finally, in 1938, she was prominently featured in "Battle of Broadway," with Victor McLaglen, Brian Donlevy and Lynn Bari, and perhaps it was this film that convinced Louise Hovick to go back to her old job. But before she did, there was one more movie to make — "My Lucky Star," which put the spotlight on skater Sonja Henie. Richard Greene, Joan Davis and Cesar Romero co-starred.

On October 21, 1938, Louise Hovick became Gypsy Rose Lee again, and returned to stripping, doing it at a theater in San Francisco.

But she was nothing if not resourceful. After leaving Hollywood, she used her spare time to become a writer, cranking out two novels, first of which — "The G-String Murders" — was made into a Barbara Stanwyck movie ("Lady of Burlesque"). As you may have guessed from something she said during our conversation, there were many who believed her books were ghost written. Her denials became believable over the years when Miss Lee acquired a reputation as an intellectual who moved in a circle with the literary and artistic elite.

Along the way Gypsy Rose Lee was married three times, which is one of the subjects on the second page. Another subject is a fatal shooting that took place at her Highland Mills, N. Y., home on June 1, 1937. Today many believe the shooting that day was a murder committed by Rose Hovick, Gypsy Rose Lee's mother. The ruling at the time was that the victim, 29-year-old Genevieve Augstin, an art teacher, had committed suicide. I think authorities who made that ruling were correct, and those who have come up with a murder theory are grasping for scandal.

IN THE FINAL eight years of her life, Gypsy Rose Lee's television and acting career picked up. After a small role as Madame Olga in "The Stripper" (1963), she made another movie aappearance in "The Trouble With Angels" (1966) with Rosalind Russell and Hayley Mills. She had guest roles on television in "Burke's Law" (1964), "Batman" (1965), "The Name of the Game" (1968), and co-starred in the TV movie, "The Over-the-Hill Gang" (1969). She made four appearances on "The Phyllis Diller Show" (1966), and had a short-lived series of her own, "The Gypsy Rose Lee Show" (1967), and returned to co-host "The Mike Douglas Show" in 1968. One of the guests that week was her third husband, Julio de Diego, whom she had divorced several years before.

Some have ridiculed those movie and television appearance as act-by-the-numbers cameo roles, but, to me, Gypsy Rose Lee finally let her personality show through on screen. However you describe her work in the 1960s, it was better than what she was doing a decade earlier when she performed a four-minute act as the headliner of a carnival show that featured several younger strippers.

She and her sister, June Havoc, had an off-again, on-again relationship through most of their life, living together for a few years in the 1940s when both were between husbands. However, they became estranged in the late 1950s because of June Havoc's displeasure over the way she was portrayed in "Gypsy." They didn't reconcile until Gypsy Rose Lee was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1969. She had been a non-stop smoker most of her life.

Gypsy Rose Lee died on April 26, 1970. She was 59 years old. The following March, ABC's "The American Sportsman" featured Gypsy Rose Lee fishing for marlin off Australia. It was the last film she ever made. She was an outside girl, after all.

 

More about Gypsy Rose Lee, sister June Havoc,
and their mother, Madam Rose Hovick

 
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