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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee [Hardcover]

Karen Abbott
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Dec 28 2010
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

With the critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City, bestselling author Karen Abbott “pioneered sizzle history” (USA Today). Now she returns with the gripping and expansive story of America’s coming-of-age—told through the extraordinary life of Gypsy Rose Lee and the world she survived and conquered.

America in the Roaring Twenties. Vaudeville was king. Talking pictures were only a distant flicker. Speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways; money flowed fast and free. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from grim reality and excite them in new, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite stripper who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.

With her superb narrative skills and eye for compelling detail, Karen Abbott brings to vivid life an era of ambition, glamour, struggle, and survival. Using exclusive interviews and never-before-published material, she vividly delves into Gypsy’s world, including her intensely dramatic triangle relationship with her sister, actress June Havoc, and their formidable mother, Rose, a petite but ferocious woman who seduced men and women alike and literally killed to get her daughters on the stage.

American Rose chronicles their story, as well as the story of the four scrappy and savvy showbiz brothers from New York City who would pave the way for Gypsy Rose Lee’s brand of burlesque. Modeling their shows after the glitzy, daring reviews staged in the theaters of Paris, the Minsky brothers relied on grit, determination, and a few tricks that fell just outside the law—and they would shape, and ultimately transform, the landscape of American entertainment.

With a supporting cast of such Jazz- and Depression-era heavyweights as Lucky Luciano, Harry Houdini, FDR, and Fanny Brice, Karen Abbott weaves a rich narrative of a woman who defied all odds to become a legend—and whose sensational tale of tragedy and triumph embodies the American Dream.

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Review

Praise for American Rose:

"Abbott creates a brainy striptease similar to the one her subject may have performed: uncovering doozies in one chapter about Lee's outrageous life, followed in the next by the less salacious (but always captivating) details about how New York City's Minsky brothers, who played a crucial role in Lee's stardom, built their burlesque empire." —Newsday

"At its core, American Rose is a haunting portrait of a woman 'giving what she has to, keeping all she can,' offering her audiences a sassy, confident self while making sure they would never know the damaged soul who created her." —The Los Angeles Times

"American Rose is the rare biography that captures the imagination and doesn't let go. It would scare the bejeesus out of Gypsy Rose Lee, and it's guaranteed to enthrall readers." —Book Page

"[Abbott's] portrait of the famed stripper is both darker and more inspiring than the famed stripper's version of her life as filtered by Broadway or Hollywood." —Atlanta Journal-Constitution


Praise for Karen Abbott’s Sin in the Second City

 
“A delicious history . . . a lush love letter to the underworld . . . [Abbott] describes the Levee’s characters in such detail that it’s easy to mistake this meticulously researched history for literary fiction.”—The New York Times Book Review
 
“[Abbott’s] research enables the kind of vivid description à la fellow journalist Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City that makes what could be a dry historic account an intriguing read.”—The Seattle Times
 
“[A] satisfyingly lurid tale . . . Change the hemlines, add 100 years, and the book could be filed under current affairs.”—USA Today
 
“Assiduously researched . . . Even this book’s minutiae . . . make for good storytelling.”—The New York Times

“A colorful history of old Chicago that reads like a novel.”—The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
 
“Lavish . . . an immensely readable book.”—The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Karen Abbott is the New York Times bestselling author of Sin in the Second City. A native of Philadelphia, she now lives in New York City with her husband and two African Grey parrots who do a mean Ethel Merman. Visit her online at www.karenabbott.net. 

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting Biography Of Gypsy Rose Lee Aug. 27 2012
By Mark Anderson TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
This is a very interesting and well written biography of Gypsy Rose Lee as well as a very well researched history of the Minsky brothers and their chain of burlesque theatres.

The author has done a very good job of researching Lee's life and digging out the real details behind the facade created by Lee and her mother, Rose.

Lee's mother was the model for the character played by Rosalind Russell in the movie version of Gypsy. The Rosalind Russell version was the image of her mother which Lee wanted to present to the world. The real Rose uncovered by Karen Abbott's research comes closer to the Bette Davis character in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane.

Karen Abbott does a really good job of getting behind the character and image Gypsy Rose Lee created for herself. Abbott has also done a very good job of recreating the atmosphere of the times. She also writes a very interesting history of the Minsky brothers and the business of burlesque.

The audio book version of American Rose is very well done. Abbott's writing style is well suited to the spoken word and the audio book reader does an excellent job with the material.

Overall a very worthwhile book and audio book. I have a forty minute commute to/from work and I generally pass the time listening to audio books. I really enjoyed this one.
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4.0 out of 5 stars LET HER ENTERTAIN YOU ONE MORE TIME Jan. 30 2011
By Gail Cooke TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Audio CD
You've undoubtedly heard the buzz about Barbra Streisand doing a remake of the film Gypsy -some comments are positive, some negative, and others ho-hum. What is not at all ho-hum and very positive is AMERICAN ROSE read by the very talented Bernadette Dunne and penned by NY Times best-selling author Karen Abbott (Sin in the Second City).

With a wealth of stage experience (The Kennedy Center, The Washington Shakespeare Company, etc) Dunne delivers a masterful voice performance bringing to life the characters with whom many of us are familiar - Gypsy, sister June and, of course, the indomitable Mama Rose. Dunne easily segues between characters, clearly delineating each as the story unfolds.

Abbott begins AMERICAN ROSE in 1940 when Gypsy was about to perform at the World's Fair, surely a landmark in her career. We learn that landmark was earned by Gypsy herself who excelled at self-promotion and skillful at creating the public persona she wanted the world to see. She was also a mistress of illusion or as Abbott puts it '....she knows that what she hides is as much of a reward as what she deigns to reveal.'

After the World's Fair the author takes us back in time to 1910 Seattle shortly before Gypsy was born (dates are a bit hazy as Mama Rose (Rose Hovick) didn't mind forging a few documents re her daughters' ages). Following Gypsy's early stage training we meet some fascinating men who were in and out of her life - Billy Minsky, Mike Todd.

Much of what is found in AMERICAN ROSE may well be remembered from the hit musical Gypsy. Nonetheless Abbott is apt at supplying details that could not have been included in the Broadway stage presentation and comparing Gypsy's days with that time in America. Give a listen - let Gypsy entertain you.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  222 reviews
82 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional; the story could not be better told -- disturbing, sad and compelling Dec 16 2010
By Peter G. Keen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
There are so many excellent and thoughtful Amazon reviews of this book that there is little to add. I will just make some comments on the writing and structure - the Eng Lit major stuff. This is a truly first-rate and very disturbing work, very skillfully modulated. It's a horror story of about as psychotic a mother as could be and the devastation she created in her abuse and exploitation of her children. The known murders she committed seem just part of her detachment from anything or anyone outside her anger, viciousness, ambition and just sheer perversion. As a tale of showbiz, poverty and struggle, the tragic triangle of Rose, June and Gypsy is compelling. It's far more, though, the tale of how Gypsy built her invented self and turned her prodigious talent from just getting by to a public persona that was glamorous but fragile; she never escaped the binds of her mother or worked through the fractured relationships with her sister, the child star of the family. The story of her life is complex and enriched by the context of New York post-World War I, vaudeville and burlesque, and the ever-existing links between way out showbiz personalities, crime bosses, and hustlers.

What makes the book work as well as it does is the very fine line Ms Abbott treads in her exposition - stray just a little and it would lose credibility and impact. It doesn't glamorize or trivialize the world of vaudeville. The figures that are usually made larger-than-life or caricatures come across as real - the (in)famous Minsky brothers, Mayor Jimmy Walker, Fanny Brice, Mike Todd, Otto Preminger and many others. The backdrop setting gives body to the struggles, fights, deals and machinations that surrounded mama Rose and makes Gypsy's work and life come alive, to the extent that, as other Amazon reviews note, you really wish at an emotional level that somehow she and June could have had a chance and that the almost inexorable damage, physical as well as mental, could have been ended. The consequences of the damage dominate her later years where the egocentric courage, disguises and ambition become more and more amoral and almost indifferent.

It takes a superior writer to make all this balanced, convincing, vivid and fair in presentation and judgment. Ms Abbott never lets the writing get in the way of the story. It is this that gives the story its resonance. She avoids psychoanalytic guesswork - much of Gypsy and just about all of Rose is beyond understanding. It avoids the sensational, moralistic judgments or efforts to push some very good stories too far. The book has no melodramatic flourishes about a life and society of melodrama. It's very restrained but at the same time empathic - a masterly balancing of tone and content. The narrative technique of moving between her early life, (relative) old age and days of public glory is initially a little disorienting but seems to me to have been a good choice. Gipsy's life is very much a jigsaw of pieces and a linear biography would not have captured the complexity of her many selves. The writing is unobtrusive, with deft sketches and clarity of presentation and pacing. There are some striking phrases that are quite haunting. One I recall talks of how Rose has so much control over Gypsy since she knew too much about the mechanics of her self-creation - "where all the damaged parts were stashed, the lovely lies they invented together to fill in the gaps."

I think this is a book that will stay with me. I found it disturbing and very sad. Poor child - how could she ever have become whole?
50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine and Gripping Read! Nov. 10 2010
By hasselaar - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
A fascinating book about a stage and screen enigma of the past. Gypsy Rose Lee was an early vaudeville, stage and screen star about which little truth has been written ( not even by Gypsy herself.). At last, this book provides a more in depth and factual account of the well-concealed life of a legend. Gypsy Rose (or - Louise) was born into quite a strange family of extremely odd women who managed to quite promptly evict most men from their lives. As a girl, she and her sister (the actress- June Havoc) were taken on the road by their mother and used to satisfy her cravings for attention and publicity. Lingering memories of sexual abuse, extreme physical abuse (by the mother) and constant exposure to a life that no child should have experienced, produced 2 very unique women. Rose became a striper, although considered to be the lesser talent of the 2 sisters, probably to finally gain the attention that her younger sister, the child star, had stolen from her. The other sister, June, was a child star who turned into a movie actress of lesser caliber.

That the 2 girls even survived their upbringing is a miracle, that they survived their mother, is even more of one. With a mother who seems to have committed 3 murders, while in a furious rage, which possessed her throughout her life - the girls had little hope of ever leading a normal life. Rose grew-up obsessed by money,celebrity and fame, June seems to have grown-up angry and jealous of her older sister. Everyone in the family treated each other horribly, but the 2 girls did survive to become stars.

The book can be quite intense at times, life on the road was hardly the life for growing girls. But the descriptions of vaudeville and stage life from the turn of the last century are quite well-described by the author and are extremely interesting. This book should be read as a history of women's rights in the show biz world, a mini-history of vaudeville and a fascinating biography of a legend: Gypsy Rose Lee.

Life was hard for women and children in the early years of the last century and this book offers ample demonstration of that fact. Even for one not interested in June Havoc or Gypsy, the read is quite educational for those wishing to learn more of the beginning years of stage and screen. I recommend this book highly, you will not be able to put it down.
50 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars not Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood Nov. 10 2010
By Patricia R. Andersen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product
I knew very little about Gypsy Rose Lee before I read this book. I knew she had a talk show in the mid 1960's which I remember seeing, that the musical "Gypsy" was based on her life and that Rosalind Russell played "Mama Rose" and Natalie Wood played "Gypsy". I also knew at one time she had been a stripper because that's what it had in the musical.
I knew Rose Havock (June Havoc's and Gypsy's mom) was a stage mother. I even showed the musical to my sons so they'd realized I wasn't such a horrible mother. But I never knew to what extent "Mama Rose" was a stage mother or how truly twisted she was.
Karen Abbott has written an absolutely fascinating book about the times of burlesque and the depression. She alternates Gypsy's life story with the story of the Minsky brothers, giving details about the economic as well as the moral pulse of society. I found it very difficult to put the book down.
I was stunned at what Gypsy and June went through. What kind of mother names her second daughter the same as the first, already presuming the first, living daughter is a failure? What kind of mother would twist her children's minds by saying the dog died just to get a child to cry on command? And what kind of grandmother would hand her 5 year old grandson a real gun? Rose Havock, that's who. And that's probably one of the nicest things you can say about her.
I was also impressed by the way M's Abbott portrayed the sibling relationship between Gypsy and June. M's Abbott seemed to hit the sibling relationship right on the head between sisters. Her portrayal of Gypsy as an older sister (because she was) is touching but chilling to the bone.
I recommend this book highly to anyone interested in a good biography or anyone interested in thet time period in American history. You won't be able to put it down, it's that good.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Jumbled, very frustrating July 26 2011
By Bob Pr. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is the most frustrating book (IIRC) I've ever read. It was no doubt difficult for the author (Karen Abbott) to get close to the facts of Louise Horvick's (aka GRL/Gypsy) life since so much was invented either by Gypsy or her mother. But the author needlessly makes it more frustrating by not presenting Gypsy's life and times sequentially but, instead, presents Gypsy (and those important to her) in many jumbled time periods through 38 short chapters that consistently alternate the time periods they cover.

For example:
Ch.10: NYC, 1917-20
Ch 11: Chicago 1941
Ch 12: Vaudeville Circuit, 1920-24
Ch. 13: NYC 1942.

Her organization results in many topsy-turvy descriptions, e.g., the divorce from a later husband occurs in a chapter preceding her marriage to an earlier one. Too many chapters (& paragraphs, IMO) intrude with the Minsky brothers buying burlesque houses without contributing much to the story--unless you're interested in real estate deals in NYC. (Minskys' also had a burlesque theater in nearby NJ which served many NYC customers but that one's never mentioned--very disappointing to a close friend who did a strip-dance act there in the 1950s, before my friend became a social worker.)

And Abott sometimes inappropriately interchanges present and past tense verbs.

The resulting book is a bit like an Impressionist painting--a collage of small dabs of color which blur to form images rather than presenting well-defined characters. This seems to be deliberate: maybe the author's (& editor's?) decision to put readers through some of what she went through in researching the material?

There are other misses: GRL (& sister June) were obviously much twisted by their mother, Momma Rose. But Abbott has almost nothing about Momma Rose's relationship with HER mother. Momma Rose certainly meets the criteria for being a sociopath (anti-social personality disorder) with her lack of empathy, impulsive reactions, deceits/lies, murders attempted and perhaps accomplished, manipulations, revenge, self-centeredness, lack of remorse, etc. From where did this come?

Abbott's book probably presents some interesting information about this family and their lives which had been previously unknown. But if the book had been organized in a different way, it would have been a far easier and more pleasant read.

The many positive 5 star ratings by readers on Amazon influenced me to buy & read this book. But since then, I've gone back to read the 2 & 1 star (critical) reviews and agree with ALL I've seen so far. While this book PROBABLY IS worth reading, it has been made unnecessarily complex. (ETA: 45% of the positive (5,4,3 stars) reviews were posted by "Amazon Vine" people who got a FREE BOOK in EXCHANGE for their review; only 28% of the 2,1 star more critical reviews were posted by "A.V." readers.)

This has made me VERY sensitive to whether or not a positive (or critical) review is made by a person with a "Amazon Vine" or "Vine Voice" label with their name. People with these labels tend to be overwhelmingly VERY positive -- when and if they're less than glowing, I can multiply their criticisms by 10.

After reading "American Rose," I bought and read Noralee Frankel's "Stripping Gypsy," another recent biography of Gypsy and found it FAR, FAR more valuable and easier to read. I highly recommend it. Also, the book by Gypsy's son, Erik Preminger, published under 2 different titles: "Gypsy & Me" & also known as "My G-String Mother." (Plus I've also read the 2 books by Gypsy's sister, June Havoc -- "Early Havoc" and "More Havoc;" both worthwhile.)

But, IMO, it's much better to read her son Erik's book AFTER you've gotten a good view of what Gypsy went through growing up with Momma Rose. (Read "Stripping Gypsy" first so you understand how far, FAR better Gypsy was at raising Erik than how Momma Rose treated Gypsy & June. Like most other people, Gypsy was not entirely immune to passing on horrible child rearing practices but she did eliminate the worst and softened others considerably.)
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars I'm sorry I bought it June 19 2011
By M. Crispin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
I wanted to like this book, I really did. But aside from the messy, confusing and unnecessary skipping around in time that so many others have mentioned, i just couldn't take the stilted writing and poor editing. A good story and interesting characters will usually hold my attention despite such flaws in a book. This one didn't have either. Don't waste your money.
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