The NY Observer today reviews the new biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, Karen Abbott’s American Rose. As mentioned on our Hidden Brooklyn Heights Walking Tour, while living at Brooklyn Heights famous “February House” Lee wrote a book that was eventually made into a movie:
NY Observer: 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.