THERE WAS A TIME, following vaudeville's pinnacle but prior to the expansion of talking motion pictures, when burlesque reigned supreme. Modern burlesque queens do much to differentiate their lascivious creativity from that of the nude stripteuse, but today's pronounced distinction between the two was unnecessary in the days when burlesque titans the Minsky brothers dominated a portion of New York's thriving entertainment sector. Karen Abbott's American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee revisits an era when burlesque was not yet a sub-genre of alternative performance art, but rather a mainstream form of working-class entertainment.
Abbott's already-bestselling book is far more than another biography of history's most notorious peeler. Detailing the ins and outs of Gypsy Rose Lee's (then Louise Hovick) childhood on the vaudeville circuit, and her transition into burlesque (by way of acting as Fanny Brice's "talking woman" in comedy skits), the author also gives ample page time to political happenings and social practices relevant to the era. The burlesque aficionado will take comfort in Abbot's appreciation of the form's cherished artistry, while readers loyal to other forms of entertainment will welcome the multitude of tie-in references to still celebrated dignitaries of the footlights—not limited to Charlie Chaplin, Gene Kelly, WC Fields, Ethel Merman, the Three Stooges, and perhaps burlesque's best-known comedic duo, Abbott and Costello. A particularly notable quality of American Rose is that even though the author's thorough research is evident, it nearly reads like fiction. The book dances to and from the decades it spans, and Abbott's careful decision not to present events chronologically turns out to be a refreshing method of delivering biographical information. American Rose provides undemanding edification—without taking notice of the extensive research notes, sources, and bibliography that Abbott appendixes, it is easy to forget this enjoyable read is an accurate historical account.
Blending the life story of Gypsy Rose Lee with the rise of the Minsky brothers' entertainment empire, as well as a peek at the underbelly of New York politics and organized crime (which were periodically one and the same), Karen Abbott has produced not only a narrative of Lee's life, but a glimpse into American society over the first half of the 20th century.