Gypsy Rose Lee: Portrait Of A Burlesque Mom
The general public might not know much about a lady named Gypsy Rose Lee, but ask any modern burlesque performer and they’ll likely give you an earful about the woman who earned her rightful place in history by being much more than a stripper.
Gypsy Rose Lee (born Ellen June Hovick) was a writer, an actress, and eventually, a burlesque dancer who worked with the world’s largest outdoor carnival, The Royal American Shows, in the ’40s. She penned successful mystery novels as well as her own memoir, which inspired one of the most successful musicals ever written: Gypsy: A Musical Fable. Lee managed to become one of the most sought-after performers of the time, pulling in thousands of dollars a week to support her family while living a nomadic life, traveling around the country with her husband and 4-year old son Erik.
“I’m probably the highest paid outdoor entertainer since Cleopatra,” she said. “And I don’t have to stand for some of the stuff she had to.”
Back then, Lee was considered a class-act in a business that was highly frowned upon by a large chunk of the population; for her to have gained such respect says a lot about her character, especially since she was the mother of a young child and lived a nomadic life while traveling with the carnival. She didn’t want it any other way, either, preferring to do things on her own terms.
“I’ve been touring the country playing nightclubs and making twice as much as I made in the movies, and having more fun! I get a lot more fishing done, for one thing, and I can live in my trailer and see the country,” she once said, and that carefree attitude seems to sum up how she saw life, which was much the way a child would look at it; an adventure to be had in between summer fishing sessions and making memories with her little boy.
Burlesque performers are often still criticized and misconstrued for what they do, sadly, especially if they have children. Lee, who died of lung cancer in 1970, is a strong reminder to everyone that women can be free with their sexuality and still be witty, intelligent, wonderful mothers.
Photos courtesy of Life magazine