Karen Abbott on burlesque, history and Gypsy Rose Lee
If there's one thing we've proven time and time again, it's that Denver loves its burlesque. What better way to show your appreciation for the timeless act of girls seductively removing their clothes and dancing than to learn a little about the history? You can do so this weekend at the Tattered Cover LoDo, when author Karen Abbott gives a presentation on the life and times of one of burlesque's first leading ladies, Gypsy Rose Lee. We caught up with her before the reading to talk about American Rose, her book about Gypsy Rose, what it's like to write historical fiction and more.
Photo by Gilbert King
Westword: Can you talk a little about the research that went into the book and why you choose Gypsy Rose Lee to use as the character?
Karen Abbott: The seed of it was planted by my grandmother, who is 92 years old, so she's just a little younger than Gypsy would have been. She used to always tell me these stories about growing up during the Great Depression, and she once relayed a tale about a cousin who claimed to have seen Gypsy perform in 1935.
According to the cousin, Gypsy took a full 15 minutes to peel of a simple glove. He said she was so damn good at it he'd gladly have given her 15 more. This got me thinking about who Gypsy Rose was and who could possibly take the simple act of peeling off a glove and make it so riveting that somebody might feel compelled to watch it. So I started looking into her story and I came across a few articles about her in Life Magazine from the 1940s. She was in a slew of articles in the '40s, and part of the reason for that, I found out later, was because she was sleeping with the photographer at the time. There were a few articles that really intrigued me, and one of those was one that said she was "the only woman in the world with a public body and a private mind." So, here's somebody who takes her clothes off for a living but is considered to be intensely private.
I also found this correspondence between Eleanor Roosevelt and Gypsy Lee that said, "May your bare ass always be shining." With a telegram from the first lady with that message, I was sold. I was determined to be the one to figure her out.
WW: What was the research like?
Gypsy Rose Lee
KA: When I sold this book, there had never been an objective book about her written by anyone. There was just her memoir, which is sort of the mythology she created for herself. Then there was a book from her son that tells the story from when she retired to her death. There were a couple of academic books that were great resources, but they were more focused on very specific aspects, her role in the feminist movement and the social theory behind all that.
WW: So why the fictionized history?
KA: I'm not really particularly interested in biography; I'm more interested in narrative and storytelling. This is a classic story, a piece of Americana and the straightest rags-to-riches story you'll ever hear. I like to call it Horatio Alger meets Tim Burton. Here she was living her life and it was dovetailing with all these major events in America, the coming of age, the Great Depression, the Roaring '20s, two world wars, and I was really just interested in telling the story of that time.
WW: Why do you think she thrived so much during the Depression?
KA: There was a switch in the country. After vaudeville died with the stock market crash, the country's mood changed overnight. Instead of being drawn to the sunny optimism of vaudeville, the country wanted something darker. Burlesque was the only thing that was really thriving during the Depression. Gypsy really seized that, not only by getting in at the right time, but by introducing a style nobody had really seen before -- 11,000 people a week were going to see her.
WW: Even still, she seems like she was unlikable character...
KA: I felt differently about her on every page. I felt incredibly sorry for her at times, especially during the points of her childhood before she became Gypsy Rose Lee. Then I admired her for becoming what she was. I was also terrified of her, because she was quite the formidable woman to cross at some point. Sometimes I liked her because she had a huge heart, then I hated her. It was really all over the place.
WW: Was that kind of hard to deal with while you were writing the book?
KA: No, it made her incredibly interesting to me. It made her a richer character. At some points you feel sorry for her and you see why she was the way she was. Nobody is likable on every day of their life. She was just more tumultuous than most.