“I wanted to point out how you are different from all the other strippers I have ever seen. Seeing them is something like getting a peep at a girl on a picnic. Perfectly ordinary experience. But to feel that you are seeing a princess take off her pants: That’s something else again.”
—Critic Carl Van Doren to Gypsy Rose Lee
America in the Roaring Twenties: Money flowed fast and free. Speakeasies beckoned beyond dimly lit doorways. Vaudeville was king. Talking pictures were only a distant flicker. But then, almost overnight, the Great Depression leveled everything. When the dust settled, Americans were primed for a star who could distract them from the grim new reality and excite them in different, unexpected ways. Enter Gypsy Rose Lee, a strutting, bawdy, erudite “ecdysiast” who possessed a preternatural gift for delivering exactly what America needed.
The story of Gypsy Rose Lee is the story of America itself: tumultuous, daring, devastating, thrilling, and relentlessly self-inventing. She’s the ideal lens with which to examine burlesque—an art form as uniquely American as baseball or Jazz, and one she infused with her singular philosophy and style. She was the first performer to blend sex and comedy, to put on more than she took off, to use burlesque to tell stories about herself and the world around her, to understand that no one would laugh at a strip teaser if she first laughed at herself.
While other headliners stripped off every stitch of clothing (and, in some cases, their dignity as well), Gypsy backed up against the velvet curtain, standing tall and regal and unobtainable; the audience always begged for more and was secretly pleased when she refused. She was adored by factory workers, street peddlers, gangsters, New York’s literary elite, and everyone in between; she mastered the trick of belonging to everyone without letting a single person truly know her.
Gypsy’s audience got more from a flash of her shoulder than most people today get out of hard core porn. “I’m not the most beautiful naked ass,” she always said, “but I’m the smartest”—a statement she proved by remaining relevant and universally beloved until her death at age 59.
This January, celebrate the life and legacy of Gypsy Rose Lee by attending a local burlesque event. Can’t find live burlesque where you live? You can still show your support by adding your name to this petition to the United States Postal Service, requesting a commemorative stamp in memory of the First Lady of American Burlesque–a one-of-a-kind, American born-and-bred icon, whose sensational true-life tale of tragedy and triumph is the very personification of the American Dream.
Happy 100th, Rose Louise!