So here I am with another Woman Crush Wednesday, but this time on a Friday. Luckily I can’t help but think this week’s crush recipient would approve of a bit of rule breaking. So hot on the heels of Loula’s piece on burlesque here is my Woman Crush Friday, the very fabulous Miss Gypsy Rose Lee.
To explain my love for Gypsy, or Louise Hovick as she started out, I need to go back to my childhood, because yes, I fell in love with a stripper on the screen when I was most definitely not old enough to do so. As a small child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching musicals on Sunday afternoons. Technicolor was my friend and I didn’t understand why people didn’t spontaneously burst into song while walking down the street. My two favourite films were with hindsight, somewhat… problematic.
Gigi, starring Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan and Maurice Chevalier was my first celluloid love. It is the tale of a teenage girl being groomed to become a courtesan to a much older man like her grandmother had been before her (yes really). Gigi (Caron) and Gaston (Jourdan) are friends in an uncle and niece or big brother/kid sister sort of a way, they play cards and laugh at the ridiculous Parisians around them, but her destiny is to stop all that and become his strumpet. At one point he starts to think maybe this might all be ‘a bit weird’ and then she puts on a pretty dress, he falls in love with her, et voila le happy ending! I was obsessed with Gigi. I wanted her hair, I wanted her clothes, I am embarrassed to say that I even wanted to eat ortolan (the cruellest of all the foods but one that came with its own fashion accessory). In between dancing ’round my house singing ‘zank eavens for leetle girlz’ with an innocent lack of irony, I apparently announced to my no doubt thrilled parentals that my future goal was to be kept by a French millionaire.
My second and enduring musical love was Gypsy. Starring Natalie Wood as our heroine, the film (like the stage musical) follows the life of the very real Louise Hovick. In the film version of her life, Louise starts out playing the reluctant second fiddle to her sister, stage star Baby June. Later on, she becomes the reluctant centre of attention, ever encouraged (forced) by her pushy stage mother Rose, after June (not unsurprisingly) does a runner from Mama Rose to marry young (aged 14). As the story unfolds we see Louise and Mama’s steady decline from Orpheum circuit to (gasp) having to play Burlesque theatres, ably hurried along by some epic song and dance numbers. Upon finding themselves at rock bottom Louise discovers an inner grit, and with the drop of glove becomes proud ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee.
I was going to be a stripper and dear reader I did
Suddenly becoming the mistress of an old French man didn’t seem such an attractive future to my 7-year-old self. I was going to be a stripper and dear reader I did (thankfully some years later). In the intervening gap, I continued to watch my beloved film, and found out that Gypsy was a real woman, and that the musical was (sort of) her real story but most interestingly that it was just the tip of the iceberg of her fabulousness. Yes she came from ‘the circuit’, yes her younger more beautiful sister was on the stage first and then ran away to get married young, yes her mother was pushy, yes she became a stripper … but the devil, as they say, is in the details.
The scene in Gypsy where a single strap falls off her dress revealing her shoulder to rapturous applause – well there may be some truth in it. Apparently, on stage one day her strap did fall off but resulted in her entire dress falling off revealing rather more than just an immaculate shoulder. An extreme wardrobe malfunction perhaps, but one that got such a good response, she kept it in the act.
Gotta Getta Gimmick is a brilliant song, but get a gimmick Gypsy really did. She saw what everyone else was doing – bumping and grinding – and she did the opposite. She played to her strengths (after all she’d never been the dancer that Baby June was) and she emphasised the tease, instead of the jerky dance moves that her contemporaries were performing on stage.
She tried her hand at the acting, failed and moved on. She tried her hand at marriage(s), failed and moved on. She tried her hand at writing and screenplays, failed and moved on. She tried her hand at motherhood and mostly succeeded. Her son Erik lived with his mother for a long time and in his book describes her fondly, this all despite Gypsy never really reconciling her difficult relationship with her own mother Rose, who continued to ride the coat tails of her daughter’s fame for many years. Gypsy and Baby June both wrote books about their lives – Gypsy’s memoir became the musical I still love. June, who didn’t much like the way she was portrayed in the film (but who kept her mouth largely shut thanks to some financial encouragement) wrote her own side of the story, not once but twice in her books Early Havoc and More Havoc. The sisters fell out, then fell back in again and eventually achieved some vague sense of sisterly harmony.
Gypsy loved literature, and art – she was rumoured to own a Picasso given to her by the artist himself. She raised money for charity and attended communist party meetings – landing her an investigation from the House Committee on un-American activities.
She was political and opinionated and proud. She was beautiful, maybe not Natalie Wood beautiful, but she made the absolute very best from what she had even with her Mama on her back. Worthy of a crush in my opinion, whatever day of the week it might be.