Born Rose Louise Hovick in Seattle, Washington, in 1911, but called Louise from early childhood, Gypsy Rose Lee was the daughter of a mild-mannered businessman and a restless, fiery young woman named Rose, who was determined to get out of Seattle and make a life for herself and her daughter in show business. Her early efforts to get Louise into show business largely came to nothing, but that all changed in 1916, when Rose had another child, June. June was much more beautiful, photogenic and talented than Louise apparently could ever hope to be, which soon caused Rose to pack up her two children and search for a career in vaudeville (she divorced her husband when he objected to a career in show business). By the time Louise was seven and June five, they had put together a very successful act, Baby June and Her Farmboys. June was, of course, the star, and Louise was put in the chorus, though she did get an occasional moment in the spotlight. The act was making $1500 a week, but the family was not exactly living in high style, having to scrimp and save much of the time in order to buy food, and often in debt. There are many who believe that Rose was squandering the money.
There were also rumors about Rose during this time, about how she had to dodge the police, who enforced strict child labor laws, and even about how she may have murdered a man she thought was pestering her children. Despite these rumors, June and Louise's act continued to be successful throughout the 1920s. At the end of the decade June was 13 and had been re-christened Dainty June. By this time it was clear that vaudeville was a dying art form. Rose, however, still chased after her dream, and still made June up to be a cute baby. June resented it, and finally she married one of the chorus boys in the act (she was still only 13) and ran away with him. Not even this could stop Rose, however. This time she formed a new act, centering it around Louise. Called Rose Louise and Her Hollywood Blondes, she and her chorus girls performed slightly risqué musical numbers, and were moderately successful. Still, vaudeville continued to die out, which hurt the act. However, there was one form of vaudeville that still drew crowds: burlesque. Eventually, Rose, Louise and company had to take a job in a burlesque house. Sometime during their stay there the star stripper was not able to go on for a performance. Rose, never one to pass up an opportunity, volunteered Louise for the job. So Louise, just 15 at the time, stepped on stage, wearing not much more than a grass skirt, and slowly and teasingly . . . didn't take much off. Audiences responded favorably to this new kind of striptease act, which was more "tease" than "strip," more tantalizing than tawdry. Louise had finally found her calling.
For her stage name she took Gypsy, a nickname she derived from her hobby of reading tea leaves, and combined it with her real first name, Rose, and Lee, which she added on a whim. As Gypsy Rose Lee she launched a hugely successful career in burlesque, incorporating humor and intelligence, as well as the requisite removal of various articles of clothing, into her act. She became extremely popular, even appearing at the last place anyone would expect, high society balls. Once she had conquered the stages of burlesque, she decided to try her hand at movies. Billed under her real name, Louise Hovick--because the studio heads were afraid her stage name would scare people away--she made her film debut in Ali Baba Goes to Town (1937). It was a forgettable film, and her performance wasn't much more memorable. She appeared in three more films in the 1930s, and two more in the 1940s, but her film career was pretty much a bust. She tried her hand at writing with the "burlesque mystery" novel "The G-String Murders" (1941), which was made into the film Lady of Burlesque (1943), starring Barbara Stanwyck. By the 1950s, however, she was comfortable just being a sort of queen mother of burlesque. She had gone through three unhappy marriages, as well as affairs with showman Michael Todd and director Otto Preminger; the latter was the father of her only child, Erik Lee Preminger. She was not close to her sister June, who by this time had changed her name and was known as actress/dancer June Havoc. She also still had to contend with Mama Rose, who constantly tried to extort money from her with vicious threats. It wasn't until Rose died from terminal cancer in 1954 that Gypsy truly felt safe to write her memoirs, without having to worry anymore about her mother's repercussions. Her autobiography, "Gypsy", was published in 1957. Detailing her childhood in vaudeville and her relationship with her mother. It was an immediate bestseller. Broadway producers also noticed it and decided it would make a great musical, and so was born what many consider the best Broadway musical of all time: "Gypsy". With book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, it premiered in 1959 and was an immediate smash. However, though Gypsy was an important character, of course, it did not focus on her alone, but rather on the hard-boiled, driven, single-minded, even monstrous stage mother that was Mama Rose.
This time it was Rose who was the star, which, as the musical implies, was perhaps what she always wanted. The musical has been frequently revived and been made into two films. The role of Mama Rose has been played by, among others, Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler and Betty Buckley. Gypsy Rose Lee was able to enjoy the musical's success in her last years. She had appeared in three films in the 1950s, and made three more in the 1960s, including a cameo in, of all films, the family comedy The Trouble with Angels (1966), opposite Hayley Mills and Rosalind Russell, who played Mama Rose in the first screen version of the play, Gypsy (1962). The real Gypsy even hosted two incarnations of her own talk show. She died of cancer in 1970. Even if her film career wasn't spectacular, she was immortalized on the stage of both burlesque and Broadway.