People who think Madonna invented reinventing herself have clearly never heard of the equally versatile, equally scandalous no-last-name-needed sexual iconoclast who rose to national attention more than three-quarters of a century ago. Her name was Gypsy Rose Lee, and her incredible life and legacy are once again in the spotlight as yet another theatrical revival of Gypsy hit Broadway a couple of years ago.
The Grande Dame of burlesque stripped and quipped her way to fame in an era where other ecdysiasts (strippers to you) toiled in professional anonymity and societal contempt. What made Gypsy different? Just how did this smart-alecky Jewish girl in a G-string become a world-famous national treasure?
Gypsy’s childhood as a vaudeville trouper under the tutelage of the mother of all stage others is well-documented (in the sense of ubiquity, not accuracy) in her eponymous autobiography, a classic Broadway musical, and the movie (and TV movie) based on the hit play. With Bernadette Peters following in the footsteps of Ethel Merman and Rosalind Russell to play the über-juicy role of Gypsy’s mother in the last revival, the beloved musical will invariably invite critics to compare Peters to her predecessors, as a new audience revels in the unprecedented rise of a moderately talented girl running around in her underwear (beating Madonna to the punch by some 50 years).
The original Gypsy (nee Louise Hovick) learned her craft from burlesque dancer “Tessie the Tassel Twirler” and later became a featured performer at H.K. Minsky’s famous New York club. Within a few short years she was the toast of the town, and eventually worked her way uptown to become a Ziegfeld girl before taking on roles in several films and theatrical extravaganzas.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Fine. But just how did Gypsy become “the toast of the town?” (Have you ever tried becoming the toast of the town? I doubt it’s easy.) Gypsy Rose Lee had flair, Gypsy Rose Lee had style. But more important, it was because Gypsy used her considerable brains as well as her bod, adding wit to the ole “bump and grind” grind. She inserted jokes and double entendres, all done with a sly, mocking tone that let her audience know she thought sex was kinda funny. Gypsy made a big deal about sex being no big deal. (Sound familiar, Material Girl?)
Known as the “intellectual stripper,” Gypsy hobnobbed with New York’s writers and artists. She herself became a successful author who wrote mysteries (The G-String Murders and Mother Finds a Body), as well as a play — The Naked Genius — and an eponymous best-selling autobiography, which became a classic Broadway musical and Hollywood film. (Though one could argue that Gypsy is more about Mama than poor Louise.) She took her unique take on stripperdom on the road, and then again reinvented herself as a glamorous purveyor of bon mots on numerous panel shows, eventually getting her own television talk show in the 1960s.
While Gypsy had her quips, today’s exotic dancers are largely anything but exotic, nor dancers nor wits. (Is anything less humorless than a silicone chest? Though long acrylic nails are hilarious.) But even though today’s famous former strippers are no intellectuals (Anna Nicole Smith), some of our biggest stars and omnipresent icons owe a huge debt to Gypsy, the original constantly self-reinventing sexual provocateur.