A Woman to Know: Gypsy Rose Lee

Anything worth doing is worth doing slowly. — Gypsy Rose Lee

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

The famous Broadway musical immortalized her early life in showbiz. But Gypsy was a real person, with a real life, both off the stage and on.

Before she was the world's most famous burlesque star, she was a little girl touring the 1920s vaudeville circuit. Her mother became America's most famous momager (also the woman who set the template for the demanding stage-mother stereotype). She pushed Gypsy (then known as Rose) and her sister June into the spotlight, taking them out of school to pursue fame. "Mama Rose" forced the young girls to lie about their ages, sabotage other acts and run out of town with bills unpaid and costumes shoplifted.

But after June eloped and escaped her mother's scheme, Gypsy took center stage. As later made legendary in the musical of her life, "Gypsy," she turned to stripping — first removing a single glove, then a hat, then dropping a skinny shoulder strap. But Gypsy wasn't only a striptease artist; she charmed thousands of fans, male and female, with her quick wit and sardonic stage banter. Soon, she was headlining acts without her mother's help, eventually touring the country. She moved to Hollywood in the 1930s, starring in movies and even launching her own TV show.

Years later she recounted her difficult upbringing in her blockbuster memoir, "Gypsy." The memoir became the hit musical, the musical became an award-winning film — and the rest is history.

With the massive success from the musical, Gypsy retired in Beverly Hills. She remained a Hollywood staple, appearing on talk shows and even stripping for audiences from time to time. She called June in 1969: "This is my present, you know," she said of her recent lung cancer diagnosis. "This is my present from Mother."

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