Gypsy Rose Lee Biography

PHOTO: Gypsy Rose Lee

Real name Rose Louise Hovick, she was to earn her fame as the world’s most famous stripper.

Gypsy Rose Lee was born Rose Louise Hovick on 14 February 1911 in Washington to advertising salesman John Olaf Hovick and his teenage bride Rose. Her younger sister, who would become an actress too, was born in 1913.

Her early career consisted of touring the provinces in a vaudeville act co-starring with her sister, and managed by her mother. Her sister, June Havoc, began a solo career, and Rose Louise became the Gypsy Rose Lee character, “intellectual stripper”.

Gypsy was overshadowed by her talented younger sister and vaudeville was dying out. Her mother took the girls to a burlesque house and at the age of 15, Gypsy made her debut.

She took to the stage in a grass skirt and not much else and teasingly didn't take much off. The audience responded positively to this new form of striptease, which was more tease than strip. She earned a reputation for her onstage wit as well as her strip style.

Soon she had made it to Minsky’s, the most famous burlesque house in the United States, where waitresses in French maid costumes sprayed the audience with perfume. Here she took her stage name which derived from her hobby of reading tea leaves and was combined with her real first name Rose and added Lee as a whim. She pursued a very successful career in burlesque even performing at high society balls.

In 1937, when mayor LaGuardia shut down all of New York’s burlesque houses, Lee was forced to head west to Hollywood, and began her film career. In 1939, she returned to headline New York World’s fair. She married Arnold Mizzy on 25 August 1937 at the insistence of her film studio but they divorced in 1941.

Gypsy had an affair with film producer Mike Todd and in an attempt to make him jealous married William Alexander Kirkland in 1942,later divorcing in 1944.

Initially appearing as Louise Hovich, she earned billing as Gypsy Rose Lee by 1943, and she excelled at comic roles in films such as 'Belle of the Yukon' in 1944.

On 1 December 1944, she gave birth to her only child Erik Lee who was fathered by film director Otto Preminger.

Through these films, however, Lee was to remain completely clothed at all times.

In 1948, Gypsy married third husband Julio de Diego but they divorced in 1955.

Lee’s talents were not to be confined to mere performing, however. A novelist and memoir writer, she also saw her adaptations of her work storm the stage. Lee’s 'The G-string Murders' was adapted as 'Lady of Burlesque' in 1943, and her 'The Naked Genius' adapted in 'Doll Face'.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Lee became a television guest star, exhibiting a witty, self-deprecating character. She even succeeded in hosting her own talk show on at least two occasions.

Throughout her career, Gypsy had to deal with her mother who tried to exhort money through vicious threats until her death from terminal cancer in 1954.

It was her – admittedly fanciful - autobiography, 'Gypsy: A Memoir', published in 1957, which secured her fame. It was adapted for the stage by Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim.

The motion picture adaptation of the tale of stripper, and brutal encouraging mother, became a great success. Starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood, the film was a great success, and cemented Lee’s legend.

Diagnosed with lung cancer in 1969, she died on 26 April 1970. She is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in California.

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