Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee

Gypsy Rose Lee in the film Stage Door Canteen (1943)
Born Rose Louise Hovick
(1911-01-08)January 8, 1911
Seattle, Washington, US
Died April 26, 1970(1970-04-26) (aged 59)
Los Angeles, California, US
Cause of death Lung cancer
Occupation Actress, author, playwright, dancer, entertainer
Years active 1928–69
Spouse(s) Robert Mizzy (1937–41)
Alexander Kirkland (1942–44)
Julio De Diego (1948–55)
Children 1
Gypsy Rose Lee in Los Angeles, c. 1937

Gypsy Rose Lee (January 8, 1911[1][2][3] – April 26, 1970) was an American burlesque entertainer famous for her striptease act. She was also an actress, author, and playwright whose 1957 memoir was made into the stage musical and film Gypsy.

Early life

Gypsy Rose Lee was born in Seattle, Washington on January 8, 1911,[1][2][3] as Rose Louise Hovick; however, she always gave January 9 as her date of birth.[2] Louise's sister, actress June Havoc, born Ellen June Hovick or Ellen Evangeline Hovick, was born on November 8, 1912. Their mother, Rose (née Rose Evangeline Thompson), daughter of Charles and Anna Thompson, forged various birth certificates for each of her daughters—older when needed to evade varying state child labour laws, and younger for reduced or free train fares. The girls were unsure until later in life what their years of birth were.[2][4]

Rose had married Norwegian-American John Olaf Hovick, a newspaper advertising salesman and a reporter at The Seattle Times.[5][6][7] They married on May 28, 1910 in Seattle, Washington.[8] They divorced on August 20, 1915.[9]

Rose married her second husband, Judson Brennerman, a traveling salesman, on May 26, 1916 at a Unitarian church in Seattle, with the Rev J.D.A. Powers officiating.[10]

After the divorce of Hovick and Thompson, June supported the family by appearing in vaudeville, being billed "Tiniest Toe Dancer in the World" when she was only 2½.[4] Rose and June went to Hollywood for two years where June appeared in short films directed by Hal Roach.[4] Louise was left behind while June and her mother were on the road. She had an elementary education, unlike June who was taught to read by stage-hands.[4] Much to her mother's displeasure, June eloped with Bobby Reed, a dancer in their act, in December 1928, and went on to pursue a brief career in marathon dancing, a more profitable vocation than tap dancing.[4]


Louise's singing and dancing talents were insufficient to sustain the act without June. Eventually, it became apparent that Louise could make money in burlesque, which earned her legendary status as an elegant and witty striptease artist. Initially, her act was propelled forward when a shoulder strap on one of her gowns gave way, causing her dress to fall to her feet despite her efforts to cover herself; encouraged by the audience's response, she went on to make the trick the focus of her performance.[11]

Her innovations were an almost casual strip style compared to the herky-jerky styles of most burlesque strippers (she emphasized the "tease" in "striptease"), and she brought a sharp sense of humor into her act as well. She became as famous for her onstage wit as for her strip style, and – changing her stage name to Gypsy Rose Lee – she became one of the biggest stars of Minsky's Burlesque, where she performed for four years. She was frequently arrested in raids on the Minsky brothers' shows. During the Great Depression, Lee spoke at various union meetings in support of New York laborers. According to activist Harry Fisher, her talks were among those that attracted the largest audiences.[12]

In 1937 and 1938, billed as Louise Hovick, she made five films in Hollywood.[13] But her acting was generally panned, so she returned to New York City where she had an affair with film producer Michael Todd and co-produced and appeared in his 1942 musical revue, Star and Garter.[14]

Lee viewed herself as a "high-class" stripper, and she approved of H. L. Mencken's term "ecdysiast", which he coined as a more "dignified" way of referring to the profession. Her style of intellectual recitation while stripping was spoofed in the number "Zip!" in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, a musical in which Havoc had appeared on Broadway, opposite Gene Kelly. Lee performed an abbreviated version of her act (intellectual recitation and all) in the 1943 film Stage Door Canteen. Her routine starts at about 1 hour 29 minutes into the film and lasts about six minutes.[15]

In 1941, Lee authored a mystery thriller called The G-String Murders, which was made into the sanitized 1943 film, Lady of Burlesque starring Barbara Stanwyck. While some assert this was in fact ghost-written by Craig Rice, there are those who claim that there is more than sufficient written evidence in the form of manuscripts and Lee's own correspondence to prove that she wrote a large part of the novel herself under the guidance of Rice and others, including her editor George Davis, a friend and mentor.[16][17] Lee's second murder mystery, Mother Finds a Body, was published in 1942.


Gypsy Rose Lee, full-length portrait

In Hollywood, she married Arnold "Bob" Mizzy on August 25, 1937, at the insistence of the film studio. In 1942, she married William Alexander Kirkland; they divorced in 1944. While married to Kirkland, she gave birth on December 11, 1944, to a son fathered by Otto Preminger. Her son was named Erik Lee, but has since been known successively as Erik Kirkland, Erik de Diego, and Erik Lee Preminger. Gypsy married a third time in 1948, to Julio de Diego, but that union also ended in divorce.

In 1940 she purchased a townhouse on East 63rd St in Manhattan with a private courtyard, 26 rooms and seven baths.[18] Mother Rose continued to demand money from Lee and Havoc. Lee rented a 10-room apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan for Rose, who opened a boardinghouse for women there. On one occasion in the 1930s, Rose shot and killed a woman who was either a guest at the boardinghouse or a guest on the farm in Highland Mills in Orange County, New York that Rose owned. A historical web site for lesbians cites varying reports of which place was the scene of the crime.[19] According to Gypsy's son, Erik Lee Preminger, who is the author of several books, the murder victim was Mother Rose's female lover, who had allegedly made a pass at Gypsy. The violent incident was investigated and reportedly explained away as a suicide. Mother Rose was not prosecuted.[20] She died in 1954 of colon cancer.

Later years

Gypsy Rose Lee in 1956

After the death of their mother, the sisters now felt free to write about her without risking a lawsuit. Gypsy's memoirs, titled 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. June Havoc did not like the way she was portrayed in the piece, but she was eventually persuaded (and paid) not to oppose it for her sister's sake. The play and the subsequent movie deal assured Gypsy a steady income. The sisters became estranged for a period of time but reconciled. June, in turn, wrote Early Havoc and More Havoc, to relate her version of the story. Gypsy Rose Lee went on to host a morning San Francisco KGO-TV television talk show, Gypsy. The walls of her Los Angeles home were adorned with pictures by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, and Dorothea Tanning, all of which were reportedly gifts to her by the artists themselves.

Like many other Americans, and well-known artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, Gypsy Rose Lee was a supporter of the Popular Front movement in the Spanish Civil War and raised money for charity to alleviate the suffering of Spanish children during the conflict. "She became politically active, and supported Spanish Loyalists during Spain's Civil War. She also became a fixture at Communist United Front meetings, and was investigated by the House Committee on un-American activities."[21]

Grave of Gypsy Rose Lee at Inglewood Park Cemetery (with wrong year of birth)


Lee died of lung cancer in Los Angeles in 1970, aged 59. She is buried in Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.


The song "Zip" from the musical "Pal Joey" (written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart) imagines the thoughts and musings that go through Gypsy Rose Lee's mind while she strips onstage as recounted by way of an interviewer who sings of their encounter with Miss Lee as being "the greatest achievement" they'd had. Elaine Stritch regularly performed this song (as the interviewer) for many years.

Punk band The Distillers wrote "Gypsy Rose Lee", a song for their debut album in 2000.

In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn recorded "(Say Has Anybody Seen My) Sweet Gypsy Rose?" by W.M. Irwin Levine & L. Russell Brown. (The song uses her name and profession, but relies on a fictitious prior life.)

In January 2012, Seattle Theater Writers (a group of arts critics for various publications) awarded the first Gypsy Rose Lee Awards, honoring her Seattle roots and celebrating excellence in local theatre.


Motion pictures






  1. 1 2 Birthdate given as January 8,; accessed September 16, 2015.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Karen Abbott (2010) American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare, The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, New York: Random House; ISBN 1-4000-6691-3; OCLC 608296594
  3. 1 2 A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee, based on research by author Karen Abbott, which includes a photocopy of an apparently non-certified certificate of live birth with some handwritten parts, from the King County Health Department, Record# 193, File # 1388, indicates January 8, 1911, although Lee always gave January 9 as her date of birth.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 Laura Jacobs (Mar 2003) "Taking it all off", Vanity Fair, Vol. 511, p. 198.
  5. "This is a story of three women whose dreams clashed" (July 16, 1980), Boston Globe, p. 1
  6. Noralee Frankel (2009) Stripping Gypsy: The Life of Gypsy Rose Lee, Oxford University Press US; ISBN 0-19-536803-7; ISBN 978-0-19-536803-1
  7. Erik Lee Preminger (2004) My G-string mother: and home and backstage with Gypsy Rose Lee, Frog Books; ISBN 1-58394-096-0, ISBN 978-1-58394-096-9, p. 186.
  8. King County Department of Executive Services, Records and Licensing Division, Marriage Returns, 1891-1947, Marriage Certificates, 1855-1990, Office of the Secretary of State, Washington State Archives, Digital Archives, Source: King County Auditor, Marriage Certificates, 1855-1969; Marriage Returns, 1891-1947. King County Archives, Seattle, WA.
  9. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; NARA Series: Passport Applications, January 2, 1906 - March 31, 1925; Roll #: 2708; Volume #: Roll 2708 - Certificates: 513300-513899, February 12–14, 1925; (U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925)
  10. Washington, Marriage Records, 1865-2004 from Washington State Archives. Olympia, Washington: Washington State Archives.
  11. Helen Welshimer (February 14, 1937) "Burlesque's strippers graduate to Broadway", Laredo Times (Texas), p. 13
  12. Fisher, Harry (1998) Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War, p. 10, University of Nebraska Press: Lincoln ISBN 978-0-80322-006-5
  13. "Gypsy Rose Lee", IMDb.
  14. Profile,; accessed August 7, 2014.
  15. Stage Door Canteen available on; accessed August 11, 2015.
  16. Tippins, Sherill. February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company Publishing, 2005.
  17. Hubin, Allen J. Crime Fiction, 1749–1980: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1984, p. 243.
  18. Zemeckis, Leslie (2013). Behind The Burly Q Check, Delaware, USA: Skyhorse Publishing; ISBN 978-1-62087-691-6
  19. historical web site that cites some reports of a shooting in Manhattan and other reports of a shooting at Rose's country house in Orange County
  20. Jacobs, Laura (March 2003). "Taking It All Off". Vanity Fair.
  21. "The Monday Interview with Karen Abbott". Publishers Weekly. January 3, 2011.

Further reading

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/19/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.