You are not going to believe this, but not everything you see in Gypsy (the musical or the movie) is strictly true. Thank the goddess of burlesque we have no less a luminary than Karen Abbott (she of the best-selling Sin in the Second City) to set the Broadway/Hollywood version of history straight. American Rose (Random House, 422 pages, $26) tells the story of iconic striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, based not on the outright lies of stage and screen but from the unimpeachable perspective of Gypsy's sister, movie actress June Havoc, and Gypsy's son by film director Otto Preminger, Erik.
If it appears in quotes in the book, you can take it to the bank that Abbott drew it from documentary sources (all at least as credible as the tabloid press) or "interviews" (mostly with Havoc, who was pushing 95 when Abbott first met her, or Erik Preminger, who knew his mother for less than half her life). And when Abbott "occasionally" slips into the mind of her subject to divine for readers what Gypsy must have been thinking, she solemnly pinkie swears that "I do so using the most careful consideration of my research, and with the tantalizing, agonizing knowledge that there is certainly more to the story." (Whew, for a minute there I thought she might be totally making this stuff up.)
To be fair, Abbott could be forgiven if she took the odd liberty with the truth. Gypsy Rose Lee was, after all, a tissue of lies and half-truths crafted by Rose Louise Hovick, an ugly-duckling child performer on the vaudeville circuit, and her Mother of All Stage Mothers, Rose Thompson Hovick, who once pushed a hotel manager out a window (the police ruled it self-defense) and may have once fatally shot a lesbian admirer for making a pass at Gypsy in the late '30s. On top of the usual vagaries of mother-daughter relations, so much of Gypsy's early stage career was lifted from her younger, more conventionally talented sister June we may never know the truth.
The appeal of American Rose (for readers who relish this sort of thing) lies not in Abbott's dubious research but in the book's clever organization and the author's evident flair for retelling a sensational story (even if it is only a story). Instead of starting at the beginning of Gypsy's career and perhaps losing most of her readers halfway through a bleak narrative of a vaudeville performer's life on the road with a sociopathic mother, Abbott interweaves chapters of Gypsy's grueling rise with chapters that trace her from the peak of her fame, starting with the World's Fair in 1940.
American Rose ultimately fails, however, because it never quite captures for 21st-century readers what made this "Dorothy Parker in a G-string," as Abbott describes her, so compelling for 20th-century audiences. Like Gypsy, Abbott leaves us wanting more.
GO: Karen Abbott reads from American Rose at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 226-4651. 7:30 pm Friday, Feb. 4. Free.