Body Talk: Gypsy Rose Lee and the Art of Strip-Down Comedy

The burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee may have been the first modern celebrity: the first to be famous for being

The burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee may have been the first modern celebrity: the first to be famous for being famous, and the first to admit to a total lack of talent. “If you’re Gypsy Rose Lee,” Lee herself liked to say, “all you have to do is keep your strength up so you can carry your money to the bank.” She wasn’t a gifted singer or dancer, or even especially beautiful. All she did was take her clothes off–everything but a few strategically placed ribbons and rhinestones–but she took them off with personality, chattering wittily as she undressed and feigning surprise when the final garment fell away.

Today we would call this her “brand,” and like everyone who has a reputation simply for having a reputation, Lee had to tend to hers carefully. A skilled self-mythologizer, she cultivated a cerebral air, mentioning in interviews that she read Marx and Proust; the press referred to her as the “intellectual” striptease artist. Like Madame de Pompadour, or Sasha Grey, Lee knew that an aura of intelligence adds an appealing sheen to a naked body. What mattered was not what you did but what you said. You could even revise the past in order to secure a better future. (This she learned from her mother, who once killed a prowler and claimed he was a cow.) In her memoir and the musical it inspired, Lee altered some facts and ignored others, and in doing so determined her legacy.

Lee seems the ideal subject for a biographer: the thicker the paint on the self-portrait, the more satisfying it is to scratch away. And Karen Abbott’s American Rose, the latest account of Lee’s life, begins promisingly: Lee sits in her dressing room, preparing to perform for an audience of thousands at the 1940 World’s Fair. Almost 30 years old, she has just been voted the most popular woman in America. Even Eleanor Roosevelt, whom she outranked in the survey, admires her. Some years later, she would send Lee a telegram that exclaimed, “May your bare ass always be shining.”

But before Lee can take the stage, the chapter ends, and the next travels back to Lee’s early life. It’s the first of many dizzying cuts. American Rose‘s short sections are not arranged chronologically, nor are they all about Lee. Ms. Abbott also profiles the men who brought burlesque to the American public during the early decades of the 20th century and explores the circumstances that caused it to thrive, especially in New York. During the Depression, out-of-work actresses would do anything to make money, including take their clothes off, and even men unable to afford an expensive theater ticket could spare a dollar to watch them. In stripping, theater found a gimmick that radio, which had eaten into vaudeville’s audience, couldn’t compete with: You can hear a joke, but not a naked girl.

These accounts are absorbing and well researched, but when it comes to Lee herself, Ms. Abbott is less than thorough. She has little interest in Lee’s intellectual life, essentially dismissing her politics–Lee donated to progressive causes and helped the burlesque performers’ union, to which she belonged, organize strikes–as an affectation. Also cursory is her treatment of Lee’s successful novels, the first of which she wrote while living in an artists commune in Brooklyn Heights, where her housemates included W.H. Auden and Carson McCullers. Drawing heavily from Lee’s memoir, Ms. Abbott focuses on the painful family dynamics–the peripatetic childhood spent on the vaudeville circuit, the ferocious stage mother, the starlet sister–central to the Gypsy myth, and to her understanding of Lee as a tragic figure. She shies away from topics Lee herself did not discuss, like her sexuality, places where a braver or more curious biographer would have applied more pressure.

In an effort to gin up excitement for these familiar stories, Ms. Abbott relies on evasion and rhetorical embellishment–which are, as it happens, the same strategies that made Lee a star. But they’re better suited to a stripper than a biographer. The glimpses she gives into the past and future do not generate a sense of anticipation. Rather than tantalize, they frustrate, as do her attempts to add luster to her story’s well-worn threads by embroidering her subjects’ thoughts. (In one scene, for example, Lee’s mother is said “to feel her grip [on Lee] slipping, her hold weakening, finger by clenched finger. She grasped and felt nothing, shouted and heard no response.”) The result is the prose equivalent of costume jewelry: Its eye-catching exterior conceals a hollow core, and anyone who appreciates the real thing won’t be fooled.

The early years of the Depression were burlesque’s golden age. Lee and women like her numbered among America’s biggest stars. Acts became increasingly elaborate: One performer trained parrots to remove her clothes; another used doves. Burlesque halls took over Times Square, previously home to traditionally respectable theaters. A rumor spread that Billy Minsky–one of the most influential men in the business, and the subject of American Rose‘s most intriguing sections–was planning to convert the Main Branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd and Fifth into an opulent striptease hall.

As the 1930s progressed, however, Tammany Hall lost much of its power, and the new mayor was determined to clean up New York. “This,” Fiorello La Guardia declared, “is the beginning of the end of organized filth.” His administration shuttered many burlesque houses, deeming them, in the words of one city official, “habitats of sex-crazed perverts.” Two decades later, burlesque had all but disappeared. What took its place turned out to be even more obscene: Old theaters were converted into grimy cubicles where naked dancers gyrated behind plastic partitions or into grind houses that screened pornographic films 20 hours a day. Outside their doors, hustlers solicited passersby.

The girls (and boys) of the new Times Square–the topless dancers, the porn stars, the “masseuses”–were effectively mute. They might murmur lewd commands or compliments, but mostly they moaned and screamed and licked their lips, or other things. Mouths were wet, soft, speechless: orifices meant to satisfy physical urges or lightly encourage the imagination. No longer were words of central importance, as they had been for Lee. When she opened her mouth, it was to say something. “A stripteaser,” she maintained, “is a woman who puts on an exotic sexual spectacle. My act is straight comedy.” She specialized in puns and turns of phrase: After being arrested for giving an “indecent performance,” she insisted to reporters that she hadn’t been naked at all. “I was,” she said, “completely covered by a blue spotlight.” Reviewers called her a “riot,” and 80 years later her monologues still hold their charm.

She wasn’t simply an object of the male gaze: To look at Lee was necessarily to hear her. In her acts, she talked her way out of being just a body. Inside it, her audiences soon realized, was a voice–and a mind. “There is more to see,” she announced in one routine, “than meets the eye.” Regrettably, Ms. Abbott does not reveal this detail until the final chapter. American Rose is light on the specifics, and sustained consideration, of Lee’s act, omissions that indicate Ms. Abbott does not quite understand why so many people were captivated by her subject. Lee became a star for the same reason she stayed one: because she knew how to control her image and because she knew how to talk.

Body Talk: Gypsy Rose Lee and the Art of Strip-Down Comedy