Burlesque entertainer, actress and writer Gypsy Rose Lee was born 100 years ago today.
The New York Public Library is celebrating the 100th birthday of Lee, who was a novelist, playwright, New Yorker essayist, fashion icon, actress, activist, member of New York’s literati, world-famous “ecdysiast” and subject of one of the best-loved musicals in American history.
She was born on January 8, 1911 in Seattle as Rose Louise Hovick to a teenage mother fresh out of a convent. She and her sister June had an early star in show biz and became an act in Hollywood, and then travelled the country. But June then eloped with vaudevillian Bobby Reed and Louise was on her own. She took a job appearing on a burlesque stage and Gypsy Rose Lee was born.
Not long after, she made her New York debut on April 1, 1931, at Minsky’s famous 42nd Street theatre The Republic, the first to feature burlesque on Broadway. Comedians like Abbott & Costello, Red Buttons and Rag Ragland rounded out the bill, but the stars were the striptease artists. During the height of the Depression, she could have made between $700 and $2,000 a week. Gypsy Rose Lee would play 12 weeks straight at The Republic, setting a record for the theatre.
“If you’re Gypsy Rose Lee,” Lee herself liked to say, “all you have to do is keep your strength up so you can carry your money to the bank.”
While living at Brooklyn Heights famous “February House” Lee wrote a book that was eventually made into a movie. Her memoirs, Gypsy, were published in 1957 and were taken as inspirational material for the Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents musical Gypsy: A Musical Fable.
The play and the subsequent movie deal assured Gypsy a steady income.
Gypsy was diagnosed in 1969 with metastatic lung cancer, which prompted her to reconcile with June before her death. “This is my present, you know,” she reportedly told June, “my present from Mother”.
She died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970 and is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.