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Behind the facade of Gypsy Rose Lee

Karen Abbott, author of "American Rose," talks about Gypsy Rose Lee and her life of "relentless self-invention."

By Randy Dotinga / February 11, 2011

"She wanted to be this beautiful person with dreams," biographer Karen Abbott says of Gypsy Rose Lee, "instead of this complicated woman who had a lot of self doubt."

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For a woman who provoked with the promise of exposing it all, stripteaser extraordinaire Gypsy Rose Lee sure knew how to keep things hidden. Her mom wasn't just the mother of all stage mothers; she was a depraved and possibly fatal force. Gypsy didn't just grow up on the road; she was run over by maternal ambition. And there wasn't just a touch of a chill in this most famous of stage performers; the Arctic ran through her soul.

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Author Karen Abbott chronicles her life in the new book "American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare – The Life And Times Of Gypsy Rose Lee." I called Abbott, who's on a book tour, to ask what she uncovered about Gypsy Rose Lee, the most entrancing of American icons.

Q: What's interesting to you about Gypsy Rose Lee?
Her story is the quintessential rags-to-riches story. A half century before Madonna, she knew how to make performance out of desire. There's the timeliness of her story – if Lady Gaga and Dorothy Parker had a love child it would be Gypsy Rose Lee – and the fact that she was this brand before branding existed.

Q: How did you discover her?
I blame everything on my grandmother; I blame all the fun things on her.

She's 92, and she was always telling me stories about growing up in the Great Depression. She told me about a cousin who saw Gypsy Rose Lee in 1935 and said it took her 15 minutes to pull off a single glove. She was so good at it that he would have given 15 minutes more to watch her take off another glove.

Q: There were other strippers at the time, but she stood out. How come?
She has this really keen intellect and this wit. She'd back up against the curtain and stand tall and regal, put that teasing aspect into it. She attracted the higher echelons of society, appealed to the low brow and high brow.

Q: Despite her humor, she doesn't seem to have had much joy in her personal life, does she?
She doesn't come across as being happy. One of the questions I wrestled with was whether she really capable of loving anyone, was she even capable of loving her own creation.

She lived in this exquisite trap. Anytime she tried to step outside what the creation was, she did not do as well as she hoped.

Q: What were some myths about her in the musical and the movie "Gypsy"?
They weren't just her monument. They were her chance for monumental revisionism.

She wanted to be this beautiful person with dreams. The musical allowed her to revise her life as she wished it would be, soften out the rough edges, making her this plucky, happy-go lucky character instead of this complicated woman who had a lot of self doubt.

Her mother is presented as this slightly eccentric, pushy character, who doesn't begin to scratch the surface, including the lengths to which she would go – including murder – to get her daughters on stage, to maintain where they were going. Anything that threatened the life they were building was to be disposed of in no uncertain terms.

Q: What surprised you about her?
How intensely private she was. It's one of the things I admired about her. Here's someone who was completely unique , literally exposed herself for a living, but remained private. I really admired that.

Q: What does her story say about her time and place?
Her story is really America, its relentless self-invention.

Randy Dotinga blogs regularly for the Monitor's book section.

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